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Long Form

Redesigning Broadway: Spotlighting the Work of Merch.’s Brandon Gloster & Brooklyn McLain

by Ben Togut

Brandon Gloster and Brooklyn McLain had both been working in theater for over a decade when the opportunity to start their own merch company presented itself.  In 2020, when the producers of Thoughts of A Colored Man reached out to Gloster looking for a Black-owned agency to design merchandise for their production, no such company existed yet. With experience in merchandise management and a desire to expand conversations about diversity in theater, Gloster jumped at the chance. After getting McLain on board, Merch. was born.

“We sat down and said, ‘Okay, this is what the business needs and the licenses and LLCs and stuff like that,” Gloster told Broadway’s Best Shows. “‘This is what Thoughts of A Colored Man needs in terms of merchandise, shirts and logos,’ coming at it from selling merchandise and then spinning that into creating. It was a bit of a learning process that we all thought we knew enough to get us through, but it was definitely a crash course.”

Brandon Gloster & Brooklyn McLain at the merchandise booth for Thoughts of a Colored Man.

What started as a side hustle soon became a full time endeavor as word spread about the company.

“Before we knew it there was another opportunity and another opportunity and another opportunity and we hit the ground running,” McLain explained. “We learned the business very quickly and we went from one show to five before we knew it.”

Following their success with Thoughts of A Colored Man, Merch. has designed merch for shows such as Purlie Victorious, Ohio State Murders, and How to Dance in Ohio. As owners of the only Black-owned merch company on Broadway, Gloster and McLain hope to convey their distinct perspective in the merchandise they design.

“We like pushing creative boundaries and trying to come up with really unique things,” said Gloster. “Not just as consumers of theater and consumers of theater merchandise, but also just as people of color, with a different point of view or with a different voice in this space.”

While brainstorming for a show, McLain approaches merch from an aesthetic standpoint, pulling colors from the show’s artwork and going through the script to find quotes to include in product design. When deciding what items to make for a show, he thinks not only about what he calls The Big 5—t-shirts, hoodies, tote bags, magnets, and window cards—but also about unique items he would’ve wanted as a theatergoer.

“We try to look for that unique item, those special moments in the show,” McLain said. “And that comes from reading the script, seeing archival footage, talking to the producers, talking to the creatives to see what their vision is and if that can relate to merchandise.”

Merchandise sales at the 2022 Broadway revival of for colored girls…

For the duo, working together is a process of yin and yang. While McLain’s primary focus is the visual, Gloster is mainly focused on the strategic, finding ways to execute his and McLain’s vision in the time before a production opens.

“We’re kind of macro and micro,” Gloster explained. “I say, ‘okay, this is in six months’ time. If the show is running at 50, 60, 70% capacity, this is how much we need of this. Our creative process is very design heavy, and then I’m [focused on] how all of that then translates to what the audience sees.”

Gloster and McLain are currently working to overhaul their internal practices as Merch. transitions from a startup to a small business. Part of this transformation includes the launch of “Theatre Club,” their in-house brand that celebrates the theater kid in us all. They hope to use their growing influence in the industry to celebrate underappreciated Broadway professionals and drive conversations about accessibility in theater. 

“There are other people that we want to celebrate in this industry and we’re trying to bring a little bit more attention [to them] in a fun, styleable, fashionable way,” Gloster told Broadway’s Best Shows. “We want to continue just digging our feet into this community and being able to continue giving jobs to people, to continue expanding as a business so we can continue innovating and continue bringing our ideas and our vision and our hopes and dreams for what this industry can look like five to 10 years down the road.”

Gloster and McLain also want to use their growing foothold in the Broadway community to foster the next generation of theater lovers. One of their dreams is to start a foundation that provides resources and guidance to kids who hope to work behind the scenes in theater—areas like props, costumes, and lighting. They hope to share the wisdom they’ve gained by working in theater to transform the industry for the better.

“We’ve both worked in this industry for so many years now and we now have the ability to take this entity that we’ve built and grown to bring more people into this industry to do the exact same thing that we’re trying to do,” Gloster said. “Competition is good. Diversity in these conversations, it’s good, it’s helpful. It helps drive art and passion within people and I think that if we can do that, starting with the things that we put on our backs, that’s great.”

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Long Form

When Push Comes to Shove: Spotlighting the Work of Fight Director Thomas Schall

by Ben Togut

In our new series, Unsung Roles of the Theater, Broadway’s Best Shows takes a peek behind the curtain to showcase the work of underappreciated Broadway professionals and their contributions to the theatrical ecosystem. 

This week, we will be highlighting the work of Thomas Schall, a veteran fight director with over 100 Broadway credits to his name, including Waitress, Angels in America, and the 2023 revival of Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch. He has won two Drama Desk Awards: one as an actor for Outstanding Ensemble Performance (Stuff Happens, 2005), and another for Outstanding Fight Choreography (A Soldier’s Play, 2020).

Thomas Schall in rehearsal for the Public Theater’s Othello, 2018.

As a fight director, Schall is intimately concerned with violence as a device of narrative storytelling. When building a scene, Schall considers three main narrative elements: the emotional arc of the characters in the show, the physical story of the violence, and the communication between actors during a fight scene. With these elements in mind, Schall must choreograph fight scenes that serve the narrative of the show at large, ensuring that the violence is readable to the audience and safe for the actors to perform every night. 

Schall’s passion for fight directing emerged while training to be an actor in college. After enjoying stage combat classes in school, Schall followed his passion, working as both an actor and an in-house fight captain for productions at the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington D.C. There, he studied with several choreographers who whetted his interest in the art form and trained with the Society of American Fight Directors. Schall soon began choreographing fights of his own while continuing to work as an actor.

Thomas Schall (right) in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Hamlet, 1992, in which he played Marcellus and served as Fight Captain. Photo by Martha Swope

When Schall moved to New York City in the mid-1980s, he feared his work as a fight director would limit his acting opportunities. 

“I was a little bit afraid of being pigeonholed as an actor who was a ‘fight guy,’” Schall said. “And [hearing] ‘there is no role for a fight guy in this show’ and having my resume set aside. So I stopped doing it completely, and was just an actor and did pretty well in New York over the years.”

After putting aside fight work for a few years, Schall put acting on the back burner and began pursuing fight work full-time as gigs became more regular in the late ‘90s.

In the current revival of Purlie Victorious, Schall choreographed a scene where Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee is about to whip protagonist Purlie, considering each character’s emotional arc throughout the show and the history of their relationship to make the scene work onstage. For Schall, bringing this scene to life onstage was challenging as it required finding the comedy in a moment of real violence.

“It’s the game that the entire play plays,” Schall said. “It’s talking about very serious themes, and very serious pieces of history in the country, but at the same time, it’s also a comedy, it’s a farce, and it’s a romp. And playing those two notes against each other is a very tricky, subtle game.”

Schall worked closely with director Kenny Leon and star/producer Leslie Odom Jr. in order to strike the right balance between seriousness and humor. By examining the overstory, or emotional arc of the scene, the trio found that the crack of Ol’ Cap’n’s bullwhip, a charged piece of imagery for the audience and the cast alike, was the perfect catalyst for the scene’s tonal transformation.

The bullwhip is both a prop and symbol in Purlie Victorious, representing the physical and psychological violence inflicted on African Americans during a time of segregation and oppression. Photo by Marc J. Franklin

“That whip crack became like a button, a sort of a switch for when things went from serious to comedic,” Schall said. “And so we shifted a line so that everything happens, sort of all the threatening things happened up to the whip crack. And then we were free to have fun.”

For Schall, it is these moments of collaboration that he values most. In his work as a fight director, Schall seeks to build a room of trust, asking his collaborators to trust him with their safety and have faith that they won’t feel embarrassed or stupid performing fight sequences onstage. While building trust is often challenging, it is also the most rewarding part of Schall’s job, as it allows him to form close relationships with his collaborators. After decades of working as a Broadway fight director, Schall has had several repeat collaborators, many of whom he calls friends.

“Every show and rehearsal on some level is a celebration of community,” Schall said. “And I love being part of a community of people. There comes a point in your career, hopefully, where you come into one of these rehearsal rooms, and you see people you’ve worked with before and they’re friends, and that, for me, is the most gratifying part.”

Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch runs at the Music Box Theatre through February 4, 2024.

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Long Form

Persisting Pauses: The Status of Intermissions on Broadway

By Ben Togut

For many Broadway lovers, the intermission is a welcome interlude in the theater-going experience, providing audience members with the opportunity to get out of their seats, use the restroom, or head to the concession stand. However, it appears the well-worn tradition of the intermission is at a critical juncture. According to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, of the 80 new plays that opened in the U.S. 2019-2020 theater season, 62% had no intermission. This development begs a vital question: are intermissions a thing of the past?

The intermission has a storied history. Before electricity, they allowed theater staff the opportunity to trim and relight the wicks of candles illuminating the stage. Intermissions served a similar purpose in movies, giving projectionists the time to change film reels. Over time, the intermission gained commercial as well as practical value. In the 1950s and 60s, advertisers enticed moviegoers to make trips to the concession stand with commercials like Let’s All Go to the Lobby, featuring dancing candy, popcorn, and soft drinks. Likewise, Broadway theaters encourage audience members to open their wallets during intermission with flashy merch tables and cocktails with names relevant to the show, allowing the audience to continue engaging with the production between acts. 

In recent years, more and more Broadway shows have been presented without an intermission, including musicals such as Come From Away and the most recent revival of West Side Story (which was pared down to a single act), and plays like Leopoldstadt, The Minutes, The Shark is Broken, Ohio State Murders, Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, and The Sound Inside alike. Why has there been a trend away from intermission in recent years? Given shorter attention spans and an increased focus on accessibility in the theater, it seems that the absence of an intermission would be counterintuitive.

Come From Away
The 2017 musical Come From Away had a runtime of approximately 90 minutes with no intermission at the Schoenfeld Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy

However, having an intermission doesn’t always make sense for a production. In an interview with the L.A. Times, playwright and director Robert O’Hara argues that a “seismic shift” must occur between acts for an intermission to be justified. From this angle, productions shouldn’t have intermissions just because they are expected. Instead, an intermission should only occur if it serves the narrative of the show and how the audience experiences the story. 

More and more, having an intermission in theater seems arbitrary, especially when audiences are willing to sit through long movies without a break. Recently, Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Avatar: The Way of Water have been hits at the box office while all running three hours or longer. If audience members can watch the latest Scorsese saga straight through, a two-hour Broadway show should be a walk in the park.

The 2023 Broadway revival of Purlie Victorious is performed without an intermission at the Music Box Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Franklin

What’s more, not having an intermission often has strategic value to theatermakers, allowing them to heighten the emotional and narrative arc of their plays. The current revival of Purlie Victorious is a timely example. While the original 1961 production had an intermission, standard for straight plays of the era, the 2023 revival runs without one. Without an interruption, Purlie Victorious builds tension and maintains its comedic momentum, taking audience members on an uproarious journey as they root for Purlie to win back his family’s inheritance. Foregoing an intermission, Purlie Victorious sustains its dramatic thrust, providing no shortage of laughs and surprises over its two hours.

While plenty of shows continue to have intermissions, playwrights and directors are reconsidering the efficacy of this tradition, not having a break in their shows’ runtime unless it makes sense as a narrative tool. Although not having an intermission can have strategic value, it raises concerns about accessibility, especially for the elderly and people with disabilities, for whom sitting for extended periods of time can be physically challenging. Going forward, Broadway may consider taking further measures to ensure that everyone has a more comfortable and enjoyable time at the theater.

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Long Form

From Jazz Age to the Modern Stage: A History of Tap Dance on Broadway

Broadway has witnessed the evolution of various dance forms, but none have left as indelible a mark as tap dance. The rhythmic, percussive art of tap dance has not only entertained audiences but has also played a crucial role in shaping the very essence of musical theatre. Today, tap dance takes a starring role in Casey Nicholaw’s Tony Award-winning choreography for Some Like It Hot, and Rodgers & Hart’s classic Pal Joey gets a Savion Glover-powered jazzy choreographic makeover in New York City Center’s revival. In celebration, Broadway’s Best Shows is taking you on a journey through time to explore the rich history of tap dance on Broadway, highlighting shows and artists who have left an impact on the form.

The Birth of Tap Dance

There was no one individual ‘inventor’ of tap dance. Instead its roots can be traced back to the fusion of African, Irish, and British folk dances in the United States. This dance form evolved from the rhythmic body and foot movements of enslaved people from Africa and the “jigs” brought by Irish immigrants. The elements coalesced in Lower Manhattan in the mid-19th century after the abolition of slavery in New York State in 1827. The poorest New Yorkers – the formerly enslaved, and the Irish – were forced to live together in slums, combining their cultural traditions and creating a unique American art form that would eventually find its way to Broadway.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson: A Pioneering Force

One of the earliest and most influential figures in the history of tap dance on Broadway was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Robinson’s legendary career began in vaudeville but quickly transitioned to Broadway, where he starred in the famous “Blackbirds of 1928.” Robinson’s grace, precision, and charisma paved the way for other African-American dancers, challenging racial barriers during a time of segregation. 

“Shuffle Along:” A Groundbreaking Musical

“Shuffle Along,” on Broadway in 1921, was a turning point in the history of tap dance. This show, with Broadway’s first all-Black cast and creative team, introduced syncopated tap routines that would become iconic. The choreography by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, along with the performances of Paul Robeson, and later on the national tour, Josephine Baker, showcased the energy and innovation of tap dance. It ran for 484 performances 1921-1922, an incredibly long run for the era.

The story of the show’s creation was later chronicled in the 2016 Broadway musical “Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” which starred a who’s who of Black Broadway stars including Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Joshua Henry, Brandon Victor Dixon, Adrienne Warren, and more. It was directed George C. Wolfe and choreographed by the legendary Savion Glover (who we’ll discuss more further down).

Eleanor Powell: The Queen of Tap

Eleanor Powell was another tap sensation who made waves on Broadway during the 1930s and 1940s. Her performances in shows like “At Home Abroad,” among others, and films including “Born to Dance” demonstrated her remarkable technical skills and her ability to tell a story through dance. 

The Golden Age of Musicals

The 1930s and 1940s also marked the beginning of the Golden Age of Musicals on Broadway, and tap dance played a pivotal role. Musicals like “On Your Toes” (1936) incorporated show-stopping tap numbers that showcased the athleticism and charisma of their dancers. The choreography of the great George Balanchine, in “On Your Toes,” combined ballet (“Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”) and tap, pushing the boundaries of the art form.

The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold Nicholas, were two teenagers from Philadelphia, aged 18 and 11, when they were plucked from performing at the Cotton Club in New York City to dancing on the big screen in 1930s MGM musicals. Their influence was far and wide – everyone from Michael Jackson to Mikhail Baryshnikov were fans of their acrobatic, athletic partnered dancing. 

Gene Kelly, another important performer of the era, took tap dance to new heights with his athleticism and innovative choreography. His work in “Pal Joey” and “Anchors Aweigh” displayed the versatility and expressiveness of tap dance, bridging the gap between Broadway and Hollywood.

The Nicholas brothers’ most famous routine, from the 1943 movie Stormy Weather: 

“42nd Street:” A Tap Extravaganza

The 1980 Broadway production of “42nd Street” took tap dance to a whole new level. This musical, choreographed by Gower Champion, featured extravagant tap numbers that became legendary in their own right. The opening sequence alone, with a chorus line of over 60 dancers, is still celebrated as one of the most iconic tap dance moments in Broadway history. The long-running revival of the musical that opened in 2001 further cemented its place in dance history. 

Savion Glover: Revolutionizing Tap Dance

In the modern era, Savion Glover emerged as a revolutionary force in tap dance. Known for his lightning-fast footwork and innovative choreography, Glover has been a driving influence on the art form. He gained recognition for his work in several Broadway productions, including “Black and Blue” (1989) and “The Tap Dance Kid” (1983). Opening on Broadway in 1983, “The Tap Dance Kid” is a musical about a 10-year-old New Yorker who longs to be a dancer like his uncle and grandfather and his attorney father who forbids him from dancing. Choreographer Danny Daniels won the Tony Award and Astaire Award for his work. A year into the show’s run, a 10-year-old dancer Savion Glover took over the role of Willie. In 2022, Glover directed the Encores! Presentation of the show.

Glover’s exceptional talent and contributions to the Broadway stage were further highlighted when he won a Tony Award for his choreography in “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk” (1996), a groundbreaking production that fused traditional and modern tap. His performance in the show also earned him a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical.

Savion Glover’s continued dedication to preserving and advancing tap dance has solidified his status as a legend of the art form. His unique style and storytelling through rhythm have influenced countless tap dancers and choreographers. Recently, his work on the revisal of “Pal Joey” fused tap, ballet, and traditional Broadway.

The history of tap dance on Broadway is a testament to the power of creativity, diversity, and innovation within the world of musical theatre. It continues to captivate audiences and inspire new generations of performers and choreographers, ensuring that the rhythm of Broadway will always be one filled with the joy and energy of tap dance.

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Long Form

“Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch” Is A Great Ossie Davis Legacy—Fresh, New and Relevant On Broadway!

By Linda Armstrong

“Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch” has withstood the test of time and stands as evidence of the genius of the late great Ossie Davis, but it is also so much more than that. When I heard that this play was returning to Broadway after 62 years I was absolutely thrilled! It began performances on Thursday, September 7, 2023, and officially opened on Wednesday, September 27, 2023, at the Music Box Theatre. The production was later extended through February 4, 2024! Talk about a legacy and a play with a timeless message. 

Leslie Odom, Jr. stars as Purlie Victorious Judson. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

Ossie Davis is regarded as an incredible person who left a great legacy as an actor, playwright, and activist. His play contains a timeless message about Black love, pride, identity and the Black person’s indomitable spirit that allows them to fight for their rights. “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch” shares the story of Purlie Victorious Judson, a Black Preacher fighting segregation and trying to save his church. When Davis first debuted this play at the Cort Theatre—now the James Earl Jones Theatre—on September 28, 1961, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Blacks had few opportunities to be on stage, let alone Broadway stages and Black roles on stage were not something that promoted Black pride. With this play Davis offered an incredible solution to so many issues of the time. He used this play to not only tell an African American story that fought against segregation, but to encourage Black people to love themselves—take pride in their physical appearance—and he created this play to give Black actors much needed jobs and establish their names in the industry. 

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee in “Purlie Victorious.” Photo by Friedman-Abeles.

He starred in the play as Purlie Victorious Judson and he created the role of Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins for his wife Ruby Dee. Other prominent actors were Godfrey Cambridge–who received  a nomination for the 1962 Tony Award for best performance by an actor in a featured role in a play for the role of Gitlow Judson, and a young Alan Alda appeared as Charley Cotchipee before becoming known for his role in the long-running television series M*A*S*H. The company also included Sorrell Booke who played Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, Helen Martin who played Missy Judson, Beah Richards who played Idella Landy, Ci Herzog as The Sheriff and Roger C. Carmel as The Deputy. The original work was directed by Howard Da Silva. Sadly, the racism that existed when this play first ran continues to be a part of our society’s fabric. Black people are still fighting racist hatred, being treated poorly and having a hard time feeling proud of who they are. And consequently, this play is as relevant today as it was 62 years ago.

Leslie Odom, Jr. and Kara Young as Purlie Victorious Judson and Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, respectively. Photo by Marc J. Franklin

When “Purlie Victorious…” debuted in 1961 it played 261 performances and critics happily acknowledged Davis’ writing talent, his acting talent and that of his wife, Ruby Dee. The Daily News wrote, “As a playwright, Davis is well equipped with crackling jokes and jabs…As a comic actor he is very skillful, with a remarkable voice, a most amiable presence…Miss Dee reveals herself as a deft and charming comedienne…”Variety raved, “Purlie Victorious reveals a new playwright of promise, particularly in the race field of broad comedy…Davis and his wife, Ruby Dee, are costarred in this conglomerate mixture of comedy, melodrama, farce, fantasy and tolerance sermon, with a basically serious, if not intense, theme…A novel aspect of the play is its uninhibited use of racial stereotypes (both Negro and white) for comedy. Beneath all the laughs, of course, the author is purposeful, and his points are effectively made.” The New York Times remarked, “Ossie Davis, actor and author, has passed this miracle of uninhibited and jovial speaking out in his new play, Purlie Victorious …While Purlie Victorious keeps you chuckling and guffawing, it unrelentingly forces you to feel how it is to inhabit a dark skin in a hostile or, at best, grudgingly benevolent world.”

Original Broadway production of “Purlie Victorious.” Photo by Friedman-Abeles

While the original production in 1961 launched careers, the 2023 production is being embraced by established, award-winning stage artists. Tony Award winner and Oscar nominee Leslie Odom, Jr. (HamiltonOne Night in Miami) plays the lead role of Purlie Victorious Judson, twice Tony-nominated actress Kara Young (Clyde’sCost of Living) plays Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins; they are be joined by Billy Eugene Jones (Fat Ham), Vanessa Bell Calloway; Heather Alicia Simms, veteran theater actor Jay O. Sanders,; Noah Robbins, Noah Pyzik and Bill Timoney. The play is directed by Tony Award winner Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the SunFences).

Recently, the three children of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Nora Davis Day, Guy Davis, and Hasna Muhammad, talked about what Purlie Victorious meant to their family, and what this play meant back then and means today. Nora recalled that her father worked on this play for 5 years. “He told me what he was doing from beginning to end,” she said, sharing why this work has a special place in her heart. “I remember being a little girl and knowing when it got late at night Dad would be downstairs with a legal pad–that’s how he wrote and he wrote in pencil and he would tape his pinky finger because when he was writing if he wasn’t careful he would get a callus or a blister on his pinky. He used scotch tape which was always interesting. So, when we had the opportunity to bring the play back there was no question that we would respond to Jeffrey [Richards-one of the producers] and others for this opportunity to get Dad’s poetic play back on Broadway.”

Jay O. Sanders, Billy Eugene Jones, Kara Young & Leslie Odom, Jr. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

Considering the importance of the character of Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, Guy realized that his father was an innovator for women. “It was something that was ahead of its time in terms of women getting important roles. But, I think that Dad’s motive was more love than politics…It was a chance for the family to work together.”

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee taught their children the value of having Black stories and putting Black actors to work. Hasna shared, “Mom and Dad always talked with us about the significance of having African American writers, producers and directors and people behind the scenes, people owning the studios. And the fact that they were in a play where they were working actors was always something to be celebrated and they were glad for it and we felt happy for them, but they never lost sight that there were so many other Black actors who weren’t working. Some of them weren’t working just because they were Black and because there were no roles for Black folk. I think that the fact that Dad was able to write something that both he and Mom were able to perform in, but not only perform in, but perform on Broadway, this was incredible.”

Speaking on the legacy of this beloved play Hasna reflected, “It’s legacy, an African American playwright has had a play on Broadway and a play that is considered a classic… For the character of Purlie Victorious the legacy speaks about manhood, about finding oneself acceptable and beautiful without needing the white gaze and being able to use wit and the constitution to fight segregation, to use humor to fight segregation. It’s another tool in our toolbox for the liberation of our people. There’s all types of art that bring different perspectives on what resistance looks and feels like and what Dad does is he adds to those tools the value of laughter and humor and our ability to resist.”

The foremost First Lady of her time, or perhaps ever, Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “If you have not seen ‘Purlie Victorious’ I think it is well for you as an American citizen to see it and to ponder our racial problem, not as a question affecting our lives here in the United States but as a question affecting our standing and our real sincerity among the peoples of the world.”

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee left a great legacy for their children and the world. They raised their children in theater, but also in civil rights and made them a part of any protest they participated in, instilling in them the importance of supporting the Black community. Today they are artists, teachers, photographers and they continue, through their work, the legacy that Davis and Dee started. See a piece of their and our history at the Music Box Theatre.

Categories
Long Form

Gut Renovations: Broadway Shows That Physically Transformed Their Theaters

By Katie Devin Orenstein

Some Broadway shows can’t be contained in just a proscenium stage. The Main Stem has one permanent theater-in-the-round, the Circle in the Square, but there’s also a long history of visionary set designers and directors completely renovating one of the other 40 Broadway theaters to serve the needs of a show. The Broadway Theatre, on 53rd Street, has had its orchestra seats ripped out to make room for an immersive staging not once but thrice. A transformed theater, while costly, can fully immerse an audience into the world of the piece, creating unforgettable experiences. Below are some of the most fascinating immersive set designs in Broadway history. 

Here Lies Love (2023)

The first theatrical transformation on our list is Broadway’s latest, with this season’s Here Lies Love, which begins performances June 17. It’s the first of the three shows on our list to call the Broadway Theatre home. Something about its massive scale and vaulted ceilings, originally designed in the 1920s for showing movies, makes it a prime choice for mega-musicals like Miss Saigon and experimental immersive productions alike.

Here Lies Loves is directed by Alex Timbers, and the set design by David Korins surrounds audiences in a 1980s American disco like the ones frequented by the show’s subject, former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos. Premiering at the Public Theater back in 2013, the idea of the show is to envelop viewers in a seductively cheerful world, to demonstrate how Marcos denied her and her husband’s regime’s cruelty, and how fascism packages itself to be attractive, as well as the lingering effects of American colonialism. The disco-electro-pop score by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, originally written as a concept album, is so danceable that audiences can buy tickets for the standing section closest to the runway stage, where they will be part of the show and guided to join in choreographer Annie-B Parsons’ dance moves. (This is the first time in Broadway history that standing room tickets are the most expensive instead of the least!) 

The gut renovation for Here Lies Love, taking all the orchestra seats out of the Broadway:

Dude (1972)

The ill-fated Dude: The Highway Life may have only played 16 performances on Broadway in 1972, but this counterculture ‘happening’ from Gerome Ragni and Galt McDermot of Hair fame upended the rules for how a Broadway theater could be used. Bringing downtown uptown, the Broadway Theatre was rearranged by designer Eugene Lee into a theater-in-the-round, with the actors where the orchestra section had been, and some audience members sitting on the stage. 

It even featured trapezes and trap doors, with actors, in character as “Mother Earth,” “Suzy Moon,” or the titular “Dude,” frequently interacting with the audience. Its “morality play” plot baffled critics, and Dude closed at a loss of $1 million, very high for 1972. 

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (2017)

Photo by Thomas Loof

Great Comet, perhaps the most exhaustive and striking theater transformation on this list besides Here Lies Love,  originated at Ars Nova, a flexible off-off-Broadway venue. As the show transferred to a tent in Hell’s Kitchen (dubbed “Kazino”), and then to the American Repertory Theater in Boston for its pre-Broadway tryout, director Rachel Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien worked to retain the intimacy, playfulness, and Napoleonic and Russian flair of the show. Composer-lyricist Dave Malloy based the show on a sliver of War & Peace, and created a score pulling equally from klezmer, EDM, and Sondheim. The entire Imperial Theatre auditorium was wrapped in red velvet, and a series of cascading staircases connected the original stage, the orchestra, and even the balcony section into one cohesive playing space. The titular comet was represented by a gargantuan chandelier, inspired by the one at the Metropolitan Opera and made of thousands of Swarovski crystals. Lien and her team even redesigned the lobby, adding elements of a Cold War-era bunker. Comet was nominated for 12 Tonys, and won two, for Set and Lighting Design. 

Mimi Lien’s initial sketches for Comet:

Cabaret (1998/2014 Revival)

For director Sam Mendes’ vision of the Kander and Ebb classic Cabaret, a former Broadway theater that had since been used as an adult movie theater and disco was reshaped into a grungy and sensual Kit Kat Club. Designer Robert Brill transformed the space on 43rd St, then known as Henry Miller’s Theater, for the show’s opening night. (10 years after Cabaret, Henry Miller’s was rebuilt as the Stephen Sondheim theater.) When it became clear Cabaret was a runaway hit, Brill and the producers searched for a more permanent home for an extended run, and decided to overhaul another former Broadway playhouse-turned-disco, the legendary Studio 54 nightclub space, which was in desperate need of renovation after decades of Andy Warhol’s parties. In both spaces, the stage was tightened into a small thrust, like the setup at many nightclubs both in New York and Berlin, and the premium orchestra seats were replaced with small tables and chairs. Brill, the Cabaret team, and the Roundabout Theater Company led by the late Todd Haimes did so much work on Studio 54 that they had reverted it back to its original purpose as a state-of-the-art Broadway theater, and when Cabaret closed in 2004 after a six year run, Studio 54 became home to everything from Waiting for Godot starring Nathan Lane in 2009 to Lifespan of a Fact starring Daniel Radcliffe in 2018, and the return of the very same Sam Mendes production of Cabaret, in 2014. 

Candide (1974)

A production image from Candide; notice the barstools in the background, which were audience seating

Harold Prince revived Candide, the 1950s Bernstein operetta based on the work of Voltaire, off-Broadway in 1973. It featured a revised and clarified book by Hugh Wheeler, and a stripped-down design ethos that emphasized Candide’s hapless, everyman journey. Audiences surrounded a series of platforms and gangways, with some audience members even inside the rectangle of playing space. Hal Prince, never a risk-averse producer and director, was willing to reduce the number of tickets available in order to fit this conceptual set into the space. To transfer the production from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, set designers Eugene and Franne Lee ripped out most of the Broadway Theatre’s orchestra seating, just as they had done for Dude. Candide fared far better than Dude, running for 740 performances and winning 5 Tonys, including for the Lees’ design, and for Hal Prince’s direction. Eugene Lee passed away earlier in 2023 after designing 27 Broadway shows, and his work can still be seen in Wicked. 

The gut renovation for Candide:

Categories
Long Form

Broadway’s Biggest Tony Awards Upsets

By Katie Devin Orenstein

This year’s 76th Annual Tony Awards will be broadcast live from the United Palace in Washington Heights on Sunday, June 11th. As this year’s nominated shows head into the final stretch of their awards campaigns, Broadway’s Best Shows is here to remind you that no one is guaranteed a Tony, not even Aaron Tveit. Here is a list of our top 10 surprise upset wins, across 76 years of Tony history. 

10. Christopher Ashley wins for directing Come From Away – 2017

Conventional wisdom had the category as a showdown between Michael Greif for Dear Evan Hansen and Rachel Chavkin for Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, parallel to the competition happening over in the Best Musical category. Perhaps because Greif and Chavkin split the vote, Christopher Ashley was genuinely flabbergasted when he won his first Tony. Ashley was previously nominated in the same category for Memphis and The Rocky Horror Show. 

The cast of Come From Away performs in the 2017 Tonys: 

9. 1978 Best Play

The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Gin Game was the anticipated winner for best play – that, or Chapter Two, a comedy about grief from Broadway heavyweight Neil Simon. However, the Tony voters chose the lesser-known Irish playwright Hugh Leonard, for Da, a memory play about a man traveling back to the suburbs of Dublin to cope with the death of his adopted father. 

Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones in the 2015 revival of The Gin Game

8. Follies and the 2012 Revivals category

For whatever reason, Follies has particularly bad Tonys luck, as we also discuss below. Its revival in 2011, starring Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, and Elaine Paige, was not a major commercial success, but it was expected to win the Best Revival category against Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Porgy & Bess. Instead, the Diane Paulus-directed Porgy won the statue.

Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald, and the company of Porgy & Bess perform at the 2012 Tonys:

The always delightful Danny Burstein performs a song from Follies at the 2012 Tonys broadcast:

7. Children of a Lesser God wins Best Play – 1980

Best known for its 1986 film adaptation starring Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God was a watershed moment for portrayals of Deaf people in theater, exploring the complex issue of Deaf schools insisting students learn to speak, instead of using ASL. Its original star Phyllis Frelich was the first Deaf person ever to win a Tony Award. It beat out Talley’s Folly, a romance by Lanford Wilson that won the Pulitzer and was expected to win, and Bent, a gut wrenching drama about queer people in Nazi concentration camps by Martin Sherman.

Children of a Lesser God was also revived on Broadway in 2018, with direction by Kenny Leon:

6. Marissa Jaret Winokur wins Best Actress

While Hairspray was expected to win Best Musical in 2003, Bernadette Peters was the favorite to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance as Mama Rose in Gypsy. Peters had previously won for Song and Dance and Annie Get Your Gun. But it was Marissa Janet Winokur, in her Broadway principal debut as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray, who ended up winning. 

Marissa’s acceptance speech:

5. Kinky Boots wins Best Musical

Prevailing wisdom said that Matilda, like the many British mega-musicals before it, was going to sweep the 2013 Tony awards. In a battle between the lovably sassy British drag queens and the lovably sassy British schoolchildren (only in New York!), it was the American-produced Kinky Boots that won out. Why? Perhaps its surprise win at the Drama League Awards earlier that month moved the needle, or perhaps the almost entirely American Tony voter pool wanted to support one of its own. While both shows were uplifting, Kinky Boots’ pro-LGBTQ+ rights message may have resonated extra hard. (Matilda ended up just fine though – it ran for four years on Broadway, and is still open in the West End.)

4. 2007 Best Actor in a Musical

Theater fans are still arguing over whether Raúl Esparza should have won for Company over David Hyde Pierce for Curtains. Esparza gave a heart wrenching performance as Bobby in John Doyle’s stripped down reimagining of the Sondheim classic. While the rest of the cast played their own instruments throughout the show, Esparza-as-Bobby only sits down in front of a piano to accompany himself in the finale, “Being Alive.” Sondheim is notoriously tricky for pianists, and to also act and sing it at the same time is a rare feat:

But it was beloved Frasier star David Hyde Pierce who won out, for his portrayal of a sensitive and theater-obsessed police detective in Curtains. Pierce, who had put himself into musical theater bootcamp to prepare for his debut in Spamalot a few years prior, may have been helped by his reputation as the nicest person in showbusiness, and the goodwill he had amassed by choosing to come back to Broadway after winning four Emmys for Frasier. Below, DHP and the company of Curtains perform at the Tonys:

3. 1972 – Follies loses best musical

A piece of Tonys trivia that always surprises theater lovers: Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece Follies did not win the 1972 Tony Award for Best Musical. That award went to Two Gentlemen of Verona, a groovy Shakspeare adaptation by Galt McDermot, the composer behind Hair, in collaboration with playwright John Guare. It also beat out heavyweights like Grease and Ain’t Supposed to Die A Natural Death, and Jesus Christ Superstar wasn’t even nominated in the category. There are a few theories for why this happened: first, 2 Gents is a much frothier, more optimistic show than Follies. It was a diverting entertainment that left audiences joyful, while Follies matched the dark reality of the national mood amidst the Vietnam war, Watergate, and Greatest Generation discontent. 2 Gents takes a firm antiwar stance, but it didn’t confront middle-aged Tony voters with their unhappy marriages they way Follies did. At the same time, voters may have picked 2 Gents to save face after Hair was a massive cultural moment back in 1968 but didn’t win any Tonys, making the awards seem out of touch. 

2 Gents was revived off-Broadway in 2005 at the Delacorte with Norm Lewis, Oscar Isaac, Rosario Dawson, John Cariani, and Renee Elise Goldsberry. Here’s Goldsberry and Lewis performing “Night Letter” from that production: 

2. Nine beats Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls was an instant, massive smash when it opened to rave reviews in December of 1981. Loosely based on the story of Diana Ross and The Supremes, and with an energetic Motown-inspired score, the production starred Jennifer Holliday and Sheryl Lee Ralph. Nine, a baroque exploration of an Italian film director’s psychosexual whirlwind based on Federico Fellini’s film 8½, had its first *workshop* performance in February of 1982, and opened on Broadway the day of the Tonys cutoff in May. Dreamgirls, directed by Michael Bennett of A Chorus Line fame, was at the Shubert-owned Imperial, and Nine played at the Nederlander-owned Rodgers right next door, and was directed by Tommy Tune. Even juicier, Bennett and Tune had once been dear friends, with Bennett having taken Tune under his wing (if you can take someone who’s 6’6” under your wing.) When Nine was quickly announced to open in the 1981-1982 season, on the final day of Tonys eligibility no less, Bennett called Tune and begged/threatened him to take the show out of town and bring it to New York next year instead. Tune refused. So the story goes, during the Tonys campaigning period in May 1982, the Dreamgirls team refused to step into restaurants the Nine people went to, and vice-versa. The American Theatre Wing, the producer of the Tony Awards, amped up the drama by seating the teams on opposite sides of the Imperial Theatre for the ceremony in June. The producers of Nine pushed their narrative as the scrappy show that could, and that Dreamgirls, backed by the mighty Shubert Organization, didn’t need – or deserve – a vote. Many in the industry were grateful for how fierce the competition got, since Broadway hadn’t had a huge hit since 1975’s A Chorus Line, and the brewing feud got lots of press. While Dreamgirls won many awards at the ceremony, including Best Actress for Jennifer Holliday, Nine shocked the world and won Best Musical. It ran for two years on Broadway, and was also revived in 2003 – when it won again, for Best Revival. Dreamgirls ran for four years, and was only briefly revived in 1987, although its historical impact as a Broadway show with three-dimensional roles for Black women and the way it tackles fatphobia, racism, and colorism in the music industry makes Nine’s womanizer-genius focus look a bit hollow in retrospect. 

Jennifer Holliday brings down the house with “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”:

The cast of Nine performs at the Tonys:

  1. Avenue Q bests Wicked

Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked was the enormous smash of the 2003-2004 Broadway season, its creative team and producers all established industry veterans. Avenue Q, a weirder but better-reviewed show by then-unknowns Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty, wasn’t expected to do well at the Tonys, or last longer than a few months on Broadway. In spring 2004, the country was also gearing up for the 2004 presidential election, and the Avenue Q producers crafted a campaign that both parodied politics and spoke to voters directly: “Vote Your Heart,” pleaded the red, white, and blue posters and buttons, and the puppets even participated in a mock debate. The producers were using a strategy first used by Nine in 1982, the last time a Best Musical race was this excruciating (see below). They appealed to the Tony voters, all 700 or so of them, to support the underdog, the subtext being that Wicked would do well regardless of whether it won, while a Best Musical win could make or break Avenue Q’s future. The campaign worked, and the little puppet show written by newcomers won not just Best Musical, but Best Book and Score of a Musical as well. Avenue Q ran on Broadway for 6 years, and Off-Broadway for another 10. Wicked seems to be doing okay too. 

Note the shock on the producer’s faces when they announce that Avenue Q won:

Categories
Long Form

Broadway in the Age of Streaming

What Broadway Can Learn from TV and Streaming

By Nicholas Pessarra

The theatre has always been a place of inspiration and invention. From the stories that we tell to the increasingly innovative ways we tell them, the theatre has continued to flourish and evolve throughout the centuries.

However, with the advent of digital streaming and the unforeseen impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the theatre – and Broadway in particular – are facing a rocky road ahead.

The good news is that there is still time to do what the theatre has always done: adapt. 

Frozen on Broadway musical canceled because of COVID-19 outbreak at St. James Theatre. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Global Shutdown

When the world shut down in the spring of 2020, the creators, casts, and crews of Broadway were forced to reimagine the theatergoing experience. Concerts, plays, musicals, and more took to the digital sphere with virtual performances; helping audiences stuck at-home experience the bright lights of Broadway.

In fact, during this period, people everywhere discovered that they could access a wide variety of experiences from the comfort of home: online shopping, video streaming, gaming, socializing, and so much more. 

This was already a trend prior to 2020, but the pandemic accelerated digital development and led to a massive influx of services designed to make the desire to stay home more sustainable. 

Needless to say, there will always be a demand for in-person experiences and interactions, but there is also a lot to be said for the convenience of having the outside world come directly to your doorstep.

Embrace the Change

Prior to the pandemic, digital streaming was becoming increasingly popular with seemingly every media company creating their own exclusive platform and content. This caused a major disruption in the movie theater industry that was only exacerbated by the global shutdown. 

Even as COVID-19 restrictions and stay-at-home orders became more lax and were eventually lifted, movie theaters failed to see the return of audiences that they would have liked.

In fact, several movie studios including Universal Pictures and Walt Disney Pictures have continued to release top-priority films either exclusively on their respective streaming platforms or simultaneously with the wider theatrical release. 

This has given audiences the option of going to the theater or streaming the most anticipated films remotely. 

Falsettos on BroadwayHD

Critics of this film release strategy consider it a cannibalization of the film’s potential box office take. However, while the direct profit from ticket sales may have taken a hit, streaming services themselves are seeing an increase in subscribers, viewing hours, and overall engagement.

This strategy also has meant that more audiences have had exposure to films, television series, and other content that they normally would not.

Newsies on Broadway

Broadway’s Broader Audience

Broadway has always had a difficult time obtaining mass appeal primarily due to its geographical limitations. Even if potential theatergoers had general interest and consideration for attending any specific show, there is always a barrier to overcome.

Travel costs, schedules, and more become prohibitive for many consumers as they opt instead for the convenience of in-home viewing. However, instead of writing these audiences off, there is an opportunity to meet them where they are. 

The idea of broadcasting musicals into movie theaters and televisions is far from revolutionary. The movie musical and live television special have enjoyed their own successes in the past, but as audiences continue to “cut the cord” and shift from traditional appointment viewing to mobile and digital streaming, it has become essential that Broadway do the same. 

Media companies like BroadwayHD have already started this process. However, their business model prevents the casual viewer from experiencing their productions as a result of its focused appeal in the oversaturated market of streaming platforms. 

By partnering with major media companies like NBCUniversal, ViacomCBS, and Warner Bros. Discovery, Broadway has an opportunity to tap into existing audiences and subscribers. 

This would provide shows with an opportunity to reach entirely new audiences and to raise awareness of up-and-coming Broadway talent giving them immediate exposure to a much wider fan base.

Ultimately, nothing will ever compare to the thrill of live, in-person theater – the connection with an audience, the energy, the spectacle – but there is a huge opportunity for Broadway to seize; not simply out of a necessity for continued growth but to expand and promote a love of theater like never before.

Categories
Long Form

Austin Pendleton: 60 Years Of Theater And Loving It!

Imagine having a true life “in the theater”, what would that mean? Austin Pendleton, now celebrating his 60th year in the theater can tell you. Pendleton, the prolific actor-director-playwright, currently appearing prominently in Tracy Letts’ The Minutes at Studio 54 has just been honored this Spring with the New York Drama Critics Circle Special Citation for his 60 years of work in the theatre, The Actors Equity Foundation Richard Seff Award for veteran actors and was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play. 

Pendleton, now 82 years young, developed his love for theater when he was as a child, as theater rehearsals were happening in his living room. You see, he grew up in Warren, Ohio. After WWII–it was an industrial hub–but the people wanted to begin a community theater. They came to his mother, actress Frances Manchester for help. “She told them to raise money and she helped them and they pulled her into directing and acting. Their early productions were rehearsed in our living room and I got so into it,” recalled the actor, director and playwright. “I grew up with theatre literally in my own home. There are all kinds of wonderful advantages to theatre, where you get to do the play every night. Once theatre is a bug in your system it stays there, you just keep wanting to do it.”

It’s not surprising that when he went to school he got involved in school plays. But, it wasn’t just being bitten by the bug that inspired him to be involved in theater. “What attracted me to acting was when I was a kid, I stuttered very badly and I found that when I would act in school plays that went away. That was before there was a sophisticated approach to treating stuttering. I escaped into acting,” Pendleton shared.

Pendleton began his professional New York acting career in the 1962 Arthur Kopit sensation, Oh Dad, Poor Dad Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. Now six decades later he is on Broadway in The Minutes. 

The Minutes, about a City Council meeting that goes awry, beginning as, The New York Times declared, an “expert comedy” then morphs into “jaw-dropping horror”. Pendleton plays the character of Mr. Oldfield, a stick in the mud. He’s been on the City Council year after year and he has views that are not with the times. “I want them to find that amusing, but I also want them to feel like what it would be like to be that person. That’s what you want with any character, you want the audience to know what it would feel like to be that character,” Pendleton added.

Looking at his journey with The Minutes and the pandemic, Pendleton reflected, “We got within three days of the official opening night two years ago. We got it together, we were working on the day of the night the press was coming, then came the lockdown.”

Austin Pendleton’s 1964 breakout role on Broadway as the tailor Motel Kamzoil in the original cast of Fiddler on the Roof.

Pendleton has had the privilege of working with some of the crème de la crème of theater. And one opportunity has led to another. He began his career in Oh Dad, Poor Dad…, which was directed by Jerome Robbins. His performance led Robbins to cast him as Motel in the Original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. Later Pendleton played the role of Leo Hubbard, in Mike Nichols’ famed production of The Little Foxes. Pendleton is quick to admit that while playing the role, he feared getting fired and was saved by simple advice from his co-star Anne Bancroft. “There was something not working about my performance. Anne Bancroft gave me the key–she said you walk the wrong way for the character. Lillian Hellman was so impressed with the way my performance suddenly turned, that 14 years later she thought of me to direct a revival of Foxes, which also served as the Broadway debut of Elizabeth Taylor.”

Pendleton developed his acting craft while training at HB Studios with Uta Hagen. He was also in the Lincoln Center Training Program and worked with theater legend Robert Lewis. Pendleton has found over his six decades that while acting was fulfilling, he also had the propensity for directing and playwriting. He found himself writing musicals, while an undergraduate at Yale. He wrote the script for Tom Jones and Booth Is Back In Town!  in his Junior year. He later made Booth Is Back In Town! into a straight play called Booth, which is still performed today. He wrote a dark play called Uncle Bob, which is his most produced work. Reflecting on how he came to New York, he recalled coming to pursue being a writer due to the two musicals he had done at Yale. “I got ambushed into doing Oh Dad…,” he mused.

Directorial opportunities came about due to Robert Lewis, who also taught at the Yale Drama School and saw something else in Pendleton, something that he shared with Nikos Psachopoulos, who ran the Williamstown Theatre Festival. “There was something that I did in a scene as an actor and Robert said that is an idea a director would have. Lewis told Nikos that I had talent as a director. I knew about directing because I would watch rehearsals of the community theatre at home, and there were three directors, including my mother. I would watch how they worked. Nikos invited me to Williamstown and the first two shows I directed there were huge hits. I was able to direct three shows on Broadway that got Tony nominations. When I worked with Jerome Robbins, I watched the clarity of his storytelling. He was unmatched at that.”. 

Pondering the role that the audience serves to inspire him when he’s on stage, Pendleton said, “The key word in putting on any theatrical piece is suspense, which is much more important than the laughs. If you feel the audience literally and figuratively leaning forward wanting to know what’s going to happen next that’s what you look for. If they are not leaning forward, then you know that’s something you have to fix.”

In his six decades Pendleton shared that he’s had ups and downs, but he’s stayed the course. “There were a couple of times my acting was pronounced officially over. I had a late lunch with Lynn Redgrave, I had career killing reviews and she said you just have to keep acting, it will take seven years. In those years you can’t stop acting. Act in showcase productions, theaters outside of town and that was a professional life changing conversation. So that’s what I did. When they were able to come back around to me I was ready. So that led to this longevity. If you stop for too long, you’re going to be afraid to do it again and no one will want you to. You will fade from the memory. If you keep doing it, it’s just one long continuum.”

Whenever Pendleton takes on a role he brings such an authenticity to it. Talking about his process he shared, “It’s kind of different with every role. You keep reading the play or the script and look at how your role contributes to the storyline. Sometimes you feel an immediate identification and sometimes you don’t. You find a small thing you identify with and you build on that. Like with The Little Foxes, I started with the walk. Anne said angle your body differently when you walk and she was totally right. I had no way of identifying with the character, nothing in my life identified with his. When I changed my walk things began to happen.”

Madeline Kahn and Austin Pendleton in What’s Up, Doc?

For 60 years Pendleton has not only acted, directed, written plays, but he also has taught directing at The New School and teaches acting at HB Studios. He has been a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble since 1979 and served as Artistic Director of Circle Repertory Company. He simply lives an all-encompassing “life in the theater”. When asked why, he said, “It just fascinates me. There are vast numbers of things that I don’t know. I can’t understand how they operate. I stick with this because it’s the only thing I have any skill at.”

Over the years Pendleton has received accolades for his work. In 1970 he won both an Obie Award for Performance and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance in The Last Sweet Days of Isaac. In 1981, he received a Tony nomination for Best Direction of a Play for The Little Foxes. Other Tony nominations for Direction included Shelter and Spoils of War. In 2011 he won the Obie Award for Directing for The Three Sisters. In 2015 he was nominated for both The Lortels Outstanding Director Award and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Play for Between Riverside and Crazy. He was also honored as a Legend of off-Broadway in the same year.

Accolades are still coming as Pendleton is the subject of “Starring Austin Pendleton,” a documentary film about his life and legacy, in which many of his famous challenges reflect on their friend including Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Olympia Dukakis, and Ethan Hawke. Pendleton, while epitomizing a life in the theater, he has also appeared in 100 films and television shows.


Linda Armstrong is a theatre critic with the New York Amsterdam News, Theatre Editor for Neworldreview.net, A&E Editor for Harlem News Group and has written for Playbill Online, had a Theatre column “On The Aisle” for Our Time Press, Network Journal Magazine, Show Business Weekly Newspaper, Headline Magazine, Theatre Week Magazine, Black Masks Magazine, and the New York Daily News. Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library interviewed her for their “Critical Perspectives” series, and she was cited on the Jeanne Parnell Radio Show in March 2021 as a Woman Making History.

Categories
Long Form

PHOTOGRAPHERS

By Joey Sims

Broadway photographers have a big task: capture the magic, beauty and wonder of a brand new show every night, each one posing new and unexpected challenges. It is essential work not only for the show’s marketing team, but for the historical record. Their work may well shape how, or if, a show is remembered. 

We spoke to seasoned veterans Joan Marcus, Matthew Murphy, Jeremy Daniel and Peter Cunningham about memorable shows, challenging shoots, and why they do what they do.

In this last abbreviated season, is there a show that stands out in your memory as having been particularly challenging to shoot?

JOAN MARCUS

Six was hard. The lighting, which is totally spectacular andfabulous, was challenging because it moves so fast. Fortunately on that one I got to do set-ups [a photoshoot designed to replicate scenes or moments in a show]. So you could slow it down a bit, and make some images that you wanted to make but couldn’t quite do – because the show moves so fast!

Photo: Joan Marcus

MATTHEW MURPHY

The Inheritance was so stunning, but the design of the show was really sparse. It’s a lot of people on stage most of the time, on opposite ends of this really wide platform – which as an audience member is so striking, but as a photographer you’re like, “How do I establish the relationships between the characters in a single frame that doesn’t feel too sparse, or too overly spread out?” 

How I approach production photography is, it really is about finding an image that feels like the show feels to an audience member. We finally did get to do a set-up call early in February and figure out a way to shape it for a camera so that it had the maximum emotional impact on first glance. 

Especially now, with how quickly we all ingest imagery on a constant basis, you have to figure out a way to make it “thumb-stopping.” If you’re scrolling through Instagram, you need something that immediately is going to be dynamic enough that it’s going to stop you at least for that 0.5 seconds to tap the “Heart” button. That’s how it’s changed.

Photo: Matthew Murphy

JEREMY DANIEL

“The Sound Inside,” Adam Rapp’s brilliant Tony-nominated play starring Mary-Louise Parker, was especially tough. Normally when shooting a show, my gut instinct is to accentuate the light and minimize the darkness. Within the composition of a photo, empty stage space is one thing — but total, complete darkness is another. For “The Sound Inside,” I had to put those gut instincts aside. I had to do a complete 180, and consciously pay attention to the darkness. I had to allow space for it. I had to include it, because it had a role to play in the remarkable story being told. It was a brilliant lesson.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Reflecting back on your career during this time, what memories of past shoots have especially stuck with you?

PETER CUNNINGHAM

The very first show I did. I ran into [then press representative, now producer] Jeffrey Richards on the street. He said he had this new guy Harvey Fierstein, who was doing a show called International Stud, and he needed a photographer. So my first initiation to the theater business was Harvey, who is absolutely wonderful and outrageous. That was a great training for me. I have never had a chance to thank Harvey for that, actually. To just be immersed, for a short while, in his perception of the world was the best thing that could happen to a young photographer in the late 1970s.

Photo: Peter Cunningham

Then in 1982 I photographed Nine. They wanted to decorate the outside of the theater differently than had ever been done before. So I had the whole cast, 22 women and Raul Julia, come down to the studio one day to be photographed. And it was that day that the toilet decided to break. So that was a challenge – and a pleasure, obviously. The photos made quite a stir, and are still talked about as having changed the way theater displays are done. 

Photo: Peter Cunningham

JOAN MARCUS

Right now the set of the play K2 is all I can think about, because it was designed by Ming Cho Lee, who just passed away.  It was unbelievable. I shot it at Arena Stage in Washington [in 1982] when I was first starting out. The play was about two mountain climbers who are in an avalanche and get stuck on a ledge on K2, and only one of them can survive. 

So the whole play takes place on the side of the mountain. And it was the most amazing set you’ve ever seen. Just floor-to-ceiling mountain, into the pit, up into the flys, and edge-to-edge – just ice. But it was really styrofoam, unbelievably lit by Allen Lee Hughes. It was just regal and magnificent.

Photo: Joan Marcus

MATTHEW MURPHY

The first thing that really pops into my mind is Howell Binkley’s face [Tony Award-winning lighting designer of Hamilton, who died of lung cancer on August 14]. Losing Howell over this time has been so heartbreaking for the community. From the minute I started working with him, he just had the most warm, generous energy. He had an incredible way of shaping a space as a designer, and an incredible way of shaping a space as a human. 

You watch Hamilton and you’re just like, holy crap – how is he telling this much of a story with just lighting? It’s crazy the way he could shape a space. I’ll miss walking in and hearing his laugh at the tech table.

Photo: Matthew Murphy

JEREMY DANIEL

Normally each November I’d be getting ready to hit the road for my annual photo shoot with the “White Christmas” Broadway national tour.  That show always techs out-of-town during the first week of November, and it has held a special place in my heart for years (mostly because I’m a total sucker for an old-fashioned musical comedy). How I wish audiences around the country could experience the joys of that show this year.  Boy, do we need it.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Four years ago, on the day after the election, that evening was the final dress for “The Babylon Line,” a new play at Lincoln Center.  When I arrived at the theatre that evening, everyone was in a state of quiet disbelief, stunned and shocked by the events of the day.  The mood was unlike anything we’d ever experienced.  But then the final dress began.  And God bless Julie Halston.  Julie Halston made us laugh. It was just the right thing, at just the right time. That night was a glorious lesson in how incredibly healing and uplifting theater can be. For that reason, whenever I see photos of “The Babylon Line,” I’ll always be grateful.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

How Are You Reflecting on Life as a Broadway Photographer? 

PETER CUNNINGHAM

I loved the human experience. What I remember most from photographing Jeffrey Richards’ 2000 revival of The Best Man is actually being there for the readthrough. The production photographer has so many different interfaces with a play. In that case, I was part of that first day where the actors meet each other, and the director – and me. That’s a great feeling, to be there at the beginning of a project, and to be part of the team.

That may have been the most unique read-through I attended.  Charles Durning, who was to star in the production as the ex-President, had been hospitalized for an operation (successful) to remove polyps and the cast was informed right before the read-thru that he would be joining the company in two weeks.  Gore Vidal agreed to read the role of Art Hockstader…he was mesmerizing, sharp and funny and even folksy (well patrician folksy) when his dialogue called for it.   When there were scene breaks, Gore would regale the company– Chris Noth, Michael Learned, Liz Ashley, Christine Ebersole, Spalding Gray–with anecdotes about the original production and anecdotes about the politics of the era.   Gore loved doing the role and the company loved his doing it…

Photo: Peter Cunningham

JOAN MARCUS

I know photography is recording somebody else’s work, and being a little bit of a cipher. But it’s kind of the whole package – every day is different, every show is different, every show poses a different challenge. And that’s scary, but the fact that you have to problem solve with every show you do keeps it really interesting. 

The greatest thing is being in that room. Like seeing Hamilton for the first time and thinking: “It’s even more wonderful than they say!” It’s that element of surprise when you’re one of the first people to see something. Being with all of these people who are so talented, and seeing something wonderful – or even seeing something disappointing! I just miss it.

Photo: Joan Marcus

JEREMY DANIEL

As a photographer, my heart will always be on Broadway.  One evening last in May (which feels like a lifetime ago!), just as the industry was starting to accept the long-term realities of what lay ahead, I took a walk alone, around the theater district. The sun was setting and the sky was absolutely gorgeous.  As I looked up at the Broadway marquees, still shining brightly against that sunset, I thought “Oh, right now would be the places call.”  Yes, the streets were empty and the doors were shut, but there was something magical & hopeful about it.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

It gave me an idea for a photo series…but then the vibe in our city shifted again with the George Floyd protests, the curfews, etc. That’s when most of the Broadway lights were turned off as a safety precaution.  So while the photo series couldn’t materialize the way I’d hoped, I think the social uprising that ensued was a worthwhile exchange.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

MATTHEW MURPHY

In September, I shot the cast of Moulin Rouge! as they returned to the empty Al Hirschfeld theater, marking six months since the shutdown. I never took being in a theater for granted. But it was even more obvious how special of a place it is, and how fortunate I am to do what I do. Reflecting back on that day in the last month or so, I’ve felt a lot of sorrow about it, and a lot of joy about having that moment with those people. A moment to really look at them, and be present with them – and to value the space, the sacredness of a theater.

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, and Extended Play. He was also Social Media Editor at Exeunt for two years. He has written short plays and sketches at The Tank and The PIT. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. Prior to the theater shutdown, he was an Operations Manager at TodayTix.