Looking Back at Forgotten Plays by Black Playwrights
A New Series in Honor of Black History Month
Almost 70 Years Later, Take a Giant Step Remains a Vital American Play
By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Spencer Scott, the hero of Louis S. Peterson’s 1953 drama Take a Giant Step, ought to be listed alongside Willy Loman, Walter Lee Younger, and Joe Bonaparte as one of the great, socially aware protagonists of American drama. Just like those characters, he fights as hard as he can against the country’s failures, and even though he doesn’t win, he exposes something true.
But as vital as they are, both Spencer and his play are largely forgotten. That’s our mistake. Now is the perfect time to remember them.
To a modern audience, the story of Take a Giant Step will seem acutely familiar: The only Black kid in his tony northern high school, Spencer gets suspended after angrily contradicting a teacher who says the slaves were too lazy to free themselves during the Civil War. When his parents find out, they’re horrified, though not by the teacher. They tell their son that as a Black man, he doesn’t have the privilege of contradicting white people.
How is he supposed to be happy, he wonders, when everyone he knows just wants him to remember his place?
Peterson understood this conflict. He based the play on his own experience growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, and critics hailed him for his uncommon insight and feeling. After the show played five weeks on Broadway — and returned Off Broadway for an impressive eight months in 1956 — he abandoned his earlier career as an actor and became a trailblazer on Broadway and in film and television. He not only wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Take a Giant Step, which made him one of the first Black screenwriters in the Hollywood system, but also got an Emmy nomination for Joey, a 1957 installment of Goodyear Playhouse starring Kim Stanley and Anthony Perkins.
Granted, Peterson’s success didn’t always shield him from the very oppression that Spencer tries to fight. The film of Take a Giant Step, for instance, was forced to be re-edited because it was deemed too frank in its language and sexuality. As the critic Mark A. Reid noted in a Jump Cut magazine article about Peterson’s work, onscreen depictions of Black sexuality in the 1950s and 60s were typically limited to lusty madness (like Dorothy Dandridge’s character in Carmen Jones) or violent crime (like the the courtroom description of interracial rape in To Kill a Mockingbird). In this thick of this era, it was considered taboo for Spencer to have everyday confusion about growing up and meeting women.
Undaunted, Peterson kept writing about social issues. His 1962 play Entertain a Ghost examines interracial relationships, as does his sweeping 1979 drama Crazy Horse. In 1983 he wrote Another Show, about the rise adolescent suicide, specifically for his students at SUNY Stony Brook.
None of these later plays were as successful as Take a Giant Step, but Peterson still had an undeniable impact on the arts in America. Along with laying a foundation for other writers of color, his work also highlighted a generation of Black performers. At the age of 17, for instance, Louis Gossett, Jr. made his Broadway debut playing Spencer, and before he became a superstar pop singer, Johnny Nash played Spencer in the film. Ruby Dee also appeared in the movie, while Beah Richards, Bill Gunn, and Godfrey Cambridge were among the stars of the Broadway and off-Broadway productions. (It’s worth noting that Gossett briefly reprised his role in the Off-Broadway run as well.)
The astonishing cumulative success of these performers just burnishes the legacy of both a play and a playwright that are ripe for rediscovery.
Mark Blankenship is the editor of The Flashpaper and the co-author of the recently published book Madonna: A to Z.
You’re gearing up for the holidays, and your boss starts to wax poetic about how Christmas is more of a nuisance than a celebration. Later in the evening, when some eccentric guests show up at the office party, he complains that they may be products of his indigestion, and says he’d rather be getting a good night’s rest than chit-chatting. Soon, the familiar music comes in. And no, it’s not the brass tuba and mandolin plucking of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme, but rather the joyful sounds of carols – A Christmas Carol, to be exact.
Scholars have speculated that Charles Dickens’ 1843 holiday classic may be the “most adapted” text in the English language. And indeed, A Christmas Carol was the subject of Dickens’ first “public reading,” a practice he would continue annually during the holidays until his death in 1870. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why A Christmas Carol seems to have a very special relationship with theatricality – it’s been adapted hundreds of times in the 20th and 21st centuries: there were the “story theatre” style productions that began in the 70’s; the large-scale Broadway musical performed at Madison Square Garden until 2003; Patrick Stewart’s famous one-man version; traditional productions mounted annually at regional theatres across the country; modern-day spinoffs like A Christmas Carol in Harlem or 3 Ghosts, a steam-punk adaptation – and everything in between. Basically: if you can imagine an iteration of A Christmas Carol, it’s undoubtedly been done somewhere in the world.
Most scholars agree on the importance of the character Scrooge when considering the theatrical and literary legacy of A Christmas Carol. He’s the heart and (blackened) soul of the original text, and one of the major reasons why it’s been adapted within an inch of its life. Not unlike the great white whales of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, characters like Lear and Richard III, Scrooge has been played by some of the all-time greats of theatre and film, including Patrick Stewart (as discussed above), Michael Caine, Jim Carrey, Lionel Barrymore, Kelsey Grammer, Albert Finney, and Jefferson Mays – in a one-man version that opened at the Geffen Playhouse in 2018 and was re-recorded to be streamed for holiday audiences this season.
Michael Arden, director of Mays’ one-man version of Christmas Carol, agreed that Scrooge is the ultimate, and one of the first, anti-heroes, in the tradition of Lucifer or Faust. Though he’s undoubtedly evil, bitter, and miserly, Arden described him as the “heart” and “center” of the piece. For these very reasons, it’s one of the most difficult roles to interpret. Actors find themselves asking: how “mean” does Scrooge have to be in order to give the show, and his transformation, appropriate stakes?
There are easy pitfalls. Ben Brantley wrote of Walter Charles’ portrayal, for example, “…you can forget for long patches that A Christmas Carol is about [Scrooge’s] conversion to goodness. Perhaps so as not to frighten younger spectators, he’s largely a benign scoundrel.” And Alexis Soloski wrote that Anthony Vaughn Merchant’s recent Scrooge “didn’t seem that mean” – rather that he just went “for laughs.”
“Humor” and “wit” were two of the first qualities Arden named in describing Scrooge. I, too, in re-reading various adaptations of the play, was struck by how funny Scrooge can be. Between his complaints about the unrealistic expectations of Christmas, loud carolers, over-indulgent writing and speech, indigestion, lack of sleep, teenagers generally, love generally, and work generally, it can feel more like reading an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”than the first act of A Christmas Carol. Any actor playing Scrooge must walk that knife’s edge between frightening darkness and a sense of humor to rival Larry David.
And the Scrooge-Larry David parallels don’t stop there: Scrooge is a man of a certain age, who lives alone and seems generally mystified by current social mores. You could easily see an episode of Curb focusing on Larry’s annoyance with Christmas carolers who are too loud, or Larry being flummoxed by the tradition of giving gifts to your employees in addition to what you already pay them.In many adaptations, when Scrooge is first warned of the appearance of three ghosts he asks, “I think I’d rather not…couldn’t I take them all at once and be over with it?” You could easily see Larry David wagering with a fearsome ghost in the same way. And the famous expletives Larry uses when confronted with teens who are “too old to dress up for Halloween,” coffee he believes isn’t hot enough, and a crush who voted for George W. Bush – to name just a few – can be seen as direct descendants of Scrooge’s “Bah Humbug.”
But given how funny Scrooge can be at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, it’s not hard to see how the good, earnest, transformed version we encounter at the end of the play could end up feeling like a wet blanket. Arden disagreed. He reminded me that Scrooge is still funny at the end of the play – it’s just a different kind of humor. “At the beginning of [A Christmas Carol],” Arden explained, “Scrooge uses [humor] as a defense. In the end when he’s playing the practical joke on Bob Cratchitt – it’s humor with a different motivation. He wants to have fun. He wants to make up for lost time and use humor to do that.”
While “Scrooge” (and “being a Scrooge”) has become synonymous over the years with malice, bitterness, and greed, the comedy in the character should not be underestimated. “It’s what makes [Scrooge] likeable even though he’s horrible,” Arden explained. “You [as an audience member] get that there’s hope there, and it’s identifiable.” Ben Brantley underscored this point in his rave review of Campbell Scott’s most recent interpretation: “…he’s probably a lot like many New Yorkers you know. And those who have already had your fill of premature Christmas music may find yourself rooting for Scrooge as he dismisses the carolers who gather outside his house.”
Larry David and the success of shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm has made it clear that characters today can be mean-spirited AND funny. Written and portrayed in a certain way, a cynical and jaundiced view of the world can fuel laughs. Moreover, as Arden argued, we root for characters who are funny, because, even if they appear cynical and closed on the outside, a great sense of humor indicates the humanity within. And Arden said, too, what’s ultimately important is that an audience identifies with Scrooge – he is our surrogate and our window into the play, the reason it’s been adapted again and again, and the character in which we see ourselves, for better or for worse – or more to the point, for better AND worse. “Dickens was trying to put the reader in Scrooge’s shoes,” Arden explained. “In some senses [he’s] a bit ridiculous and cartoonish, but the more you get into him, the more we start to see ourselves in Scrooge, even in small ways. That’s why he travels through so many different past experiences…we have to understand him as ourselves…” Put another way, Scrooge’s story “has always been – and remains – our own,” as Brantley has said.
Larry David owes a great deal to Dickens’ leading man. Ebenezer Scrooge was the first to prove that a miserly, cranky and even seemingly nasty middle-aged man can be the emotional center of a show with the capacity to change – one that is “prett-ay, prett-ay, prett-ay good,” even to this day.
Katie Birenboim is a NYC-based actor, director, and writer. She developed and hosted a weekly live interview show entitled “Theatre Book Club” for Berkshire Theatre Group, and she’s performed and directed at Classic Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, Barrington Stage, City Center Encores!, The Davenport Theatre, and Ancram Opera House, to name a few. She is a proud graduate of Princeton University and member of Actors’ Equity.
Although it wasn’t identified then as such, Broadway got its first Christmas song on Oct. 13, 1903. In the 117 years since, the sweeping swirl of Victor Herbert’s “Toyland” from Babes in Toyland has come to epitomize the joyful spirit of the season. It was a show always sprinkled over the year-end holidays.
A Christmas Carol can be counted on to make recurring comebacks. The one last year, imported from England with Campbell Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, employed traditional holiday songs for its soundtrack.
This year is mostly unmusical: Jefferson Mays is making a one-man show of himself in a filmed version of the play, streaming from now to Jan. 3. A rival Scrooge, Raul Esparza, enters the streaming scene Dec. 16 and will hold forth with a helpful supporting cast of seven until Dec. 20 in a virtual reading benefiting Primary Stages.
A Broadway-caliber version was transplanted at Madison Square Garden for a decade of Christmases (1994-2004). Each production had its own guest-star Ebenezer. Broadway tunesmiths Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens came up with a lively 19-song score, the most insidiously catchy of which was timed to the clanging shuffle of Scrooge’s late business partner, Jacob Marley, and titled “Link by Link.”
Gregory Hines was a modern-day Scrooge, slum-lording over Harlem, for 45 performances at the Winter Garden in Comin’ Uptown, in a short-lived musical from Garry Sherman and Peter Udell. Their big hit was “Christmas Is Comin’ Uptown,” which became the show’s title when it was reworked for the regionals.
As soon as musicals moved into contemporary Christmases, Santa Claus tended to take over the focus from Ebenezer Scrooge. In 1961’s Subways Are for Sleeping, our hero (Sidney Chaplin) is an amiable hobo who functions as a one-man employment office for the homeless and drifters. Outfitted as a Community Chest Santa Claus, he implores his fellow charity Santas to “Be a Santa.” That commandment (composed by Jule Styne with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) sends the red-suited brigade into a Cossack-kicking, Michael Kidd-choreographed frenzy that stops the show, or at least the first act.
Kidd’s choreography gets Here’s Love going in a big way with no less than a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade for Scene 1. This is the defiitive department-store Santa story, first filmed in 1947 as Miracle on 34th Street and here musicalized in 1963 by Meredith Willson. Some could say Willson got a head-start on this one. Midway through “Pine Cones and Holly Berries,” a seasonal offering sung by the Kris Kringle-in-residence (Laurence Naismith), Janis Paige saunters in and starts singing in counterpoint “It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas,” a little ditty that Willson had dashed off a dozen years before.
Store clerks run ragged by Christmas shoppers can be found in She Loves Me, all of them tending Maraczek’s Parfumerie in a bustling European town of the ‘30s. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick gave them a number to count down to, “Twelve Days to Christmas,” and that was turned into a chaotic meshing of carolers, customers and clerks by director Harold Prince and choreographer Carol Haney.
The office Christmas party where the worker drones frolic and make drunken fools of themselves is represented in Promises, Promises, the Broadway musical version of The Apartment. Burt Bacharach and Hal David, taking their one shot at Broadway, provided a lively number, “Turkey Lurkey Time,” for Baayork Lee, Donna McKechnie and Margo Sappington to dance in a Michael Bennett showstopper.
Mame Dennis (Angela Lansbury) is one of those workers who makes it home from one of those department-store rampages. To pull herself and her household on to a happier plane, she decides “We Need a Little Christmas,” and one of Jerry Herman’s most buoyant numbers takes it from there.
Harnick has had other brushes with this holiday. He provided lyrics to Richard Rodgers’ next-to-the-last musical, Rex—notably, “Christmas at Hampton Court,” sung by Henry VIII’s three offspring: Elizabeth (Penny Fuller), Edward (Michael John) and Mary (Glenn Close). He also supplied words for Joe Raposo’s music to A Wonderful Life, a 1986 stage version of the famous Frank Capra-James Stewart Christmas flick of 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life. It never got closer to Broadway than the Paper Mill Playhouse because of the complicated stage rights to the original story, The Greatest Gift. Apparently, all that has been resolved: It’s a Wonderful Life will get a London staging next year, with songs by Sir Paul McCartney.
“Hard Candy Christmas” has nothing to do with Christmas per se but does refer to a time when dirt-poor families of the Depression could only afford to give their children penny candy at Christmas time. Carol Hall’s heartbreaking ballad comes at the close—or, more precisely, the closing—of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, euphemistically called The Chicken Ranch, when all the chicks in residence are rudely uprooted, set free and trying to put a happy, hopeful face on their uncertain fates and futures.
The joyful noise of the holidays, evident in everything from “Jingle Bells” and “Silver Bells” to “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” is conspicuously absent in the most widely-known Christmas song of them all, the almost melancholy “White Christmas.” Featured twice on screen and on Broadway in musicals titled Holiday Inn and White Christmas, it was written a long way from home during a sweltering California summer by a man who had lost his only son—25-day-old Irving Berlin Jr.—on Christmas Day of 1928.
“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.
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 havewon 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.
Lauren Gunderson says the form crackles with energy, and she should know. Her two-handers like I and You and The Half-Life of Marie Curie have helped her become America’s most produced living playwright. (That’s according to the record-keepers at TCG, who note that despite not having a Broadway credit, she has had an incredible number of regional productions in the last few years.) Speaking of two-handers, she says, “When you only have two people, then you know that something is going to happen between them. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
Imagine an American playwright directing a Russian play for a German-speaking audience…and if that wasn’t enough, setting it in Czechoslovakia! This is where I found myself just a few years ago at Theater Konstanz, the oldest working theater in Germany (nestled in the South near Switzerland on beautiful Lake Konstanz).
I had worked several times with the artistic director there, a wonderful man named Christoph Nix, along with his fantastic in-house repertory troupe of actors, and I was returning to direct a play on the main stage for the first time. Without hesitation I chose UNCLE VANYA.
It was an immersive dream to create with a company of actors in that way, men and women who work together year round and season after season–it was like coming to live with a family during the holidays with all the ups and downs that you can imagine could come with such an experience. Every actor had been in multiple productions with each other and knew all the tricks and tics of their contemporaries; I was the one play- ing catchup but luckily we were given a generous six weeks in which to discover the heart of the play.
We worked each day in harmony (mostly), pouring over my own adaptation of the play, along with a German translation and a copy of the text in the original Russian (thanks to having an interpreter available to the production throughout). Even after working on my own version for several months, many new and wonderful questions about the play cropped up from the eager actors and myself as we slowly worked our way from one end of the play to the other.
Our production was placed in a very specific time period–the ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia, 1968, just before Soviet tanks rolled through the streets–and it was a great pleasure to watch the colorful design take shape under the guidance of the hugely talented Regina Fraas. Period furnishings, details and costumes augmented a soundtrack of vintage Beatles music.
All in all, I spent a wonderful two months in the beautiful lake-side town (a marvel of Medieval architecture) and had an intensive, engrossing and fulfilling experience with a group of actors and technicians who didn’t share a common language but shared something far deeper, a profound and endless love for the history and craft of the theater.
Our VANYA ended like no other production I’ve ever heard of or seen but I believe we really did seize upon the spirit of Chekhov’s play and ran with it…I’ve never had a greater or more satisfying stage experience in my entire career.
Neil LaBute is one of our most illustrious playwrights, whose body of work includes Reason to Be Pretty (Tony nomination for Play), Bash: Latter-Day Plays, The Mercy Seat, The Distance From Here, Autobahn (a collection of five of his one- act plays), Fat Pig and Some Girls. His motion picture output is equally impressive, as writer and director, including: In the Company of Men (New York Critics’ Circle Award for Best First Feature and the Filmmakers’ Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival), Your Friends and Neighbors, Possession, and The Wicker Man.
Please tune in beginning Thursday, November 19th at 8pm through Monday, November 23rd to see Neil LaBute’s World Premiere adaptation of Anton Chekov’s UNCLE VANYA. Tony Award winner Alan Cumming takes on the titular role joined by Constance Wu, Emmy Award winner Samira Wiley, K. Todd Freeman, Anson Mount, Mia Katigbak, Manik Choksi and Academy Award Winner Ellen Burstyn. Gabriel Ebert narrates the proceedings in an evening directed by Danya Taymor (Heroes of the Fourth Turning). Tickets from $5 and are available only on TodayTix. Proceeds go to benefit The Actor’s Fund.
In one way or another, being the American president means having a relationship with the American theatre. That might mean being a regular attendee (like Bill Clinton) or a one-time Broadway producer (like Donald Trump). It might mean meeting the future First Lady while starring with her in a community theatre production (like Richard Nixon), or it might mean, of course, losing your life at Ford’s Theatre.
But more than anything, being the president means having the symbolic power of your office — and very often the specifics of your own administration — embodied on stage. As we approach another election, it’s a good time to survey how dramatists have imagined the Commander-in-Chief, because no matter who wins in November, he’ll likely find himself in a play soon enough.
Broadway has been delivering shows about presidents for almost as long as it has existed. Take Benjamin Chapin’s drama Lincoln, which premiered in 1906 and was revived in 1909. it launched a decades-long trend of serious-minded plays that depict real-life presidents as heroes. This includes Maxwell Anderson’s 1934 drama Valley Forge, which lionizes George Washington; Charles Nirdlinger’s 1911 play First Lady in the Land, which celebrates both James and Dolly Madison; and In Time To Come, a tribute to Wilson’s creation of the League of Nations that was written in late 1941 by Howard Koch and the legendary filmmaker John Huston as a direct response to World War II.
Chapin, meanwhile, was just the first of many playwrights to respectfully depict Honest Abe. John Drinkwater had a smash hit in 1919 when his play Abraham Lincoln ran on Broadway for almost six months, and The Rivalry, Norman Corwin’s 1959 dramatization of the Lincoln-Douglas debates had a starry L.A. revival as recently as 2008, with David Strathairn as Lincoln and Paul Giamatti as Douglas. And Robert Sherwood nearly outshone them all with Abe Lincoln In Illinois, which focuses on the future president’s rise to political prominence. It opened to raves in 1938, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and ran for over 470 performances.
However, it’s hard to imagine a show like Abe Lincoln in Illinois being embraced today. As historian Bruce Altschuler says in his book Acting Presidents, “Which presidents are portrayed and in what ways [tells] us quite a bit about how Americans have perceived their leaders,” and since the late 1960s, the theatre has reflected the nation’s political strife, disillusionment, and ambivalence. While the occasional play like Give ’em Hell Harry (about Truman) or musical like 1776 still depicts the nation’s leaders as the undeniable good guys, the president is now more likely to represent conflict, confusion, or downright villainy.
Just look at what happened to Lincoln: He appears in the musical Hair, which is synonymous with the counterculture rebellion, after a character’s acid trip leads to historical hallucinations. In both 1993’s The America Play and 2001’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks probes the country’s fraught racial history by depicting a Black character who performs as a Lincoln impersonator.
These more subversive productions are part of a lineage that arguably starts with MacBird!, a 1967 satire that reimagines MacBeth as the story of Lyndon Johnson’s rise to power, complete with the murder of a king who resembles JFK. At the time, this was considered so scandalous that Walter Kerr called the play “tasteless and irresponsible”, and according to Altschuler’s research, there were cries of treason at a backer’s audition. While there had certainly been shows that mocked the foolishness of American politics (including the Gershwin’s musicals Of Thee I Sing! and Let ‘Em Eat Cake), MacBird! marked the first time a major production took specific, vitriolic aim at a sitting president.
Audiences didn’t mind. The show ran for 386 performances Off Broadway and earned Stacey Keach an Obie for his lead performance. Soon enough, both sitting presidents and living ex-presidents were considered fair game.
Gore Vidal is another key figure in this evolution. His 1960 play The Best Man is arguably one of the best American dramas ever written about politics, and though it draws inspiration from real-life figures like Truman and Kennedy, it uses fictional characters to probe the American political system.
Meanwhile, in 1972 Vidal wrote An Evening With Richard Nixon and…, using the then-current president’s own words in a play that sees him judged by the ghosts of presidents past. Similarly, George W. Bush was still in office when David Hare dissected his administration in the play Stuff Happens, and shortly after he left the White House in 2009, he was lampooned by Will Ferrell in the Tony Award-nominated solo show You’re Welcome America. More recently, Lucas Hnath’s play Hillary and Clinton, which came to Broadway in 2019, imagined the fateful night in 2008 when Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama.
With its poetic look at the Clintons’ inner lives, Hnath’s play belongs to a 21st-century tradition of presidential plays and musicals that seek to challenge our conventional understanding of a political narrative. In Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which premiered on Broadway in 2010, the controversial president is reimagined as an emo rock star whose volatile emotions help him gain the public’s ardor. Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon shows us Richard Nixon after his resignation, when he’s lost his influence and is desperately trying to rehabilitate his reputation. And Hamilton, of course,is famous for casting the Founding Fathers with actors of color, which among other things underscores that every American deserves to take ownership of the ideals pursued by presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
And not unlike MacBird!, Robert Schenkkan’s plays All the Way and The Great Society give LBJ’s presidency a Shakespearean tinge. Instead of satire, however, Schenkkan opts for the sweep of a history play and the emotional punch of a tragedy. All The Way, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2014, charts one of Johnson’s greatest victories — the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — but this climax becomes painfully bittersweet when it’s considered alongside The Great Society, whichdepicts the Johnson administration’s disastrous descent into the Vietnam War.
Often, the most enduring shows about presidents — either real or fictional — stay with us because they seem to understand our current moment. For instance, David Mamet’s play November, about a fictional (and morally dubious) chief executive named Charles “Chucky” Smith, premiered on Broadway in 2008. One of Smith’s final lines (“I always felt I’d do something memorable — I just assumed it’d be getting impeached”) was funny at the time, but it feels shockingly prescient in the Trump era. Likewise, unless politicians suddenly change, the mudslinging campaign tactics in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man are guaranteed to be freshly relevant every four years.
And with this year’s presidential election feeling especially fraught, there’s no doubt it will inspire another crop of plays to keep the president on stage for years to come.
Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.
You might not think you can draw a line from Andrew Jackson to the sensual allure of the musical Moulin Rouge!, or that Herbert Hoover has anything to do with the anarchic fun of Broadway’s Beetlejuice. Alex Timbers, however, has proven the connection. Long before he directed those productions, he injected a similar, raucous spirit into three different musicals about American presidents.
In Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, the 2010 Broadway show he created with Michael Friedman, he turned the Commander-in-Chief into a swaggering emo rock star. In 2015’s Here’s Hoover!, he let Hoover take the stage and argue, via rock songs, that he deserved a better reputation. And back in 2003, he directed Kyle Jarrow’s insouciant show President Harding is a Rock Star, which put a wild new slant on Teapot Dome and other scandals.
These projects not only helped Timbers develop the aesthetic style he’s carried over to his current Broadway hits, but also let him explore his particular fascination with the American presidency. The office has enticed countless theatre artists, since it offers so many angles for investigating America’s identity, history, and possible future.
Timbers is especially interested in subverting our common notion of the role. “There is something fun about taking presidents, whom one thinks of as very staid and buttoned-up, and ripping open that shirt collar,” he says. “Without being wildly rigorous with the depiction of these people, you can still capture their spirits and the way they catalyzed moments in history.”
Take the antihero of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson: “We depict him as a frustrated teenager in the suburbs who feels overlooked by his parents, and even if that’s not literally true, it does get at something real about who Jackson was,” Timbers says. “He felt disenfranchised, and he felt that the frontiersman wasn’t being represented by the government.”
Timbers is also intrigued by the brevity of the president’s power, which only lasts a maximum of two terms. “I’ve always been interested in legacy,” Timbers says. “With kings, you die without knowing your legacy, but with presidents, you can live half your life after you’re out of office. You can see your legacy taking shape in front of you.”
It makes sense that he would compare a president and a king. According to cultural critic Isaac Butler, “If you’re doing a drama about the president, it allows you to engage in the same things that are so pleasurable about Greek tragedies or about Shakespeare’s history plays. You can tell the story of big social transformations and the nature of politics itself through the actions of one complicated individual.”
That epic sense of narrative certainly informed Robert Schenkkan, who wrote a two-play history cycle about Lyndon B. Johnson: In All the Way, which won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Play, we see Johnson on the ascendant, pushing to pass the Civil Rights Act and learning how to wield his office on behalf of his ideals. In The Great Society, which premiered on Broadway last fall, we see his plan for the titular social reform get swallowed by the quagmire of the Vietnam War.
“I was very much thinking about Shakespeare when I wrote, and the sense of the wheel of fortune rising and falling,” Schenkkan says. “There’s a rise and fall of kings, and LBJ was the king. All plays are, to varying degrees, about the acquisition, distribution, and use of power, and nothing is more clear in that regard than the narrative of how one becomes president and then how one governs as president.”
Americans deeply understand that story. No matter how long one has lived in the country, the president’s power — and that power’s ability to impact our lives — is impossible to overlook.
In fact, long before he wrote about him, Robert Schenkkan had a first-hand encounter with LBJ’s influence. The future writer was only three or four years old at the time, visiting the then-senator’s Texas ranch after his father (a major player in public broadcasting) got an invitation. And while Schenkkan doesn’t remember much about the trip, he has asked his older brother for details.
“My brother told me, ‘I don’t remember LBJ specifically, but what I remember is how incredibly respectful our father became around this strange man,'” Schenkkan says. “And what’s interesting about that to me is the child’s perception of his father’s response to the presence of power. That’s what stuck with him. I think that’s a really illuminating anecdote.”
That’s the kind of story, in fact, that could become the basis of a play.
Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.”
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.
Nostalgia has always been a powerful force in the theater – and right now, it’s stronger than ever.
With shows on Broadway and around the country unlikely to resume until the current pandemic’s final phases of reopening, fans and professionals alike find themselves missing almost everything about going to the theater. The sound of a live orchestra tuning up for an overture. The feeling of an audience-wide belly laugh. The hush that falls over a crowd at a dramatic moment. Pretty soon fans might start to miss the bathroom lines at intermission.
Nostalgia is evident, too, in the ad hoc streaming offerings that theater people have produced during the current lockdown. Original casts have reconvened online for readings of shows like “Significant Other,” while Seth Rudetsky’s ongoing variety show “Stars in the House” regularly hosts reunions of TV and film actors. Even playwright Richard Nelson’s just-written “What Do We Need to Talk About?” was performed over Zoom in conversation with the past, bringing together a familiar cast of actors reprising characters they’d portrayed in the four previous shows that comprise Nelson’s Apple Family Play.
“We’re all streaming content that is based in reminding us what it was like to go to the theater,” says Elizabeth Wollman, the Baruch College theater professor whose books include “The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, From ‘Hair’ to ‘Hedwig.’” “One of the reasons that I thought the new Apple Family play worked so beautifully is because it did exactly what those plays do in the theater.”
All of this is just the latest evolution of the way in which nostalgia has always had a presence theater. It’s baked into the form itself. “Theater is defined by legend, because each performance is once in a lifetime,” says Laurence Maslon, the New York University Tisch School of the Arts professor and the author of “Broadway: The American Musical.” Either you were in the house at “Gypsy” the night that Patti LuPone snatched a cell phone out of an audience member’s hand, or you weren’t.
The memory of a night at theater is more than just the show itself. It’s where you were, who you were with, what you did before and after the performance, and all the sense memories associated with those things. “It’s coming out of the subway and smelling the salty pretzels and getting a drink at Joe Allen,” Maslon says of the Broadway experience.
It’s no accident, then, that theater has always celebrated its history — its groundbreaking productions and talents — more than TV or film: The impulse rises from the effort to preserve what we can of an impermanent form, and it’s part of why we return so often to classic plays and musicals.
“People want musical art to be timeless, and it isn’t,” notes Raymond Knapp, the UCLA musicology professor whose books include “The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity.” “The impulse to revive is very, very strong. It’s partly based on nostalgia, and it’s also based on the notion that music transcends time.”
Revivals and even new works can draw on nostalgia on both a national level and a personal one. “The idea of doing a revival of ‘The King and I’ or ‘My Fair Lady,’ those tap into a national, theatrical, Broadway-musical sense of nostalgia,” notes Stacy Wolf, the Princeton University professor and author of the book “Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical.” “Broadway can be nostalgic in wanting to revive classics like those that have this aura of Americana, or sometimes, like ‘Jersey Boys,’ a show can speak to individual theatergoers or generations of fans and to their personal feelings of nostalgia for the music they grew up with.”
For some critics and scholars, nostalgia raises red flags. Commercial producers and nonprofit theaters alike sometimes ignore new work to return again and again to established sellers like “The Sound of Music” and “Death of a Salesman,” and many new musicals draw on popular song catalogs – The Four Seasons (“Jersey Boys”), ABBA (“Mamma Mia!”), Tina Turner (“Tina”) – rather than original scores. “I get nervous about the word nostalgia, because executives often lean too heavily on it, or it’s their own personal nostalgia that clouds their decision making,” says Ashley Lee, the theater reporter at the Los Angeles Times.
But don’t dismiss nostalgia entirely, warns Chris Jones, the longtime theater critic at the Chicago Tribune. “Nostalgia is a powerful force in why people go to the theater, and some of my most glorious moments in the theater have been really driven by nostalgia either for me or the people around me,” he explains. “I remember being at the opening night of ‘Mamma Mia!’ in London, and the audience on this wave of joy remembering their youths. Or when I was at a press performance of ‘Jersey Boys’ on Broadway where I would say, of all the tens of thousands of shows I’ve seen in my life, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience so excited.”
Right now, looking to the past can also provide clues to what Broadway and the theater business will look like in the coming months, when they finally reopen. Many point to the post-9/11 popularity of good-time shows like “Mamma Mia!” and “The Producers” as an indicator that in the wake of the coronavirus, audiences and producers will similarly gravitate to escapist fare.
But looking further back suggests that the future might not be all frivolity. Maslon notes that during the Depression, Broadway was a place not just for crowd-pleasing baubles like “Anything Goes” but also for socially consciousness works like “The Cradle Will Rock.” “There was this bifurcation where Broadway was either escapist or very engaged,” he says. “It actually forced theatermakers to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and to be very much in vogue and at the forefront.”
Gordon Cox is a theater journalist and the host of Variety’s Stagecraft podcast.
Since 1929, there has been a student-written musical performed at Northwestern University under the title of The Waa-Mu Show. Its consecutive run has only ever been interrupted by World War Two. And this year was no different—until students were sent home because of the worldwide spread of the coronavirus. And while the fate of a university musical in the face of a global pandemic might not be of the most urgent concern, what happened on the evening of Friday, May 1, 2020, was a glimmering light in dark times.
The Waa-Mu Show is a musical written, performed, arranged, orchestrated, and produced by students at Northwestern University every May (full disclosure: I am an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern and serve as a songwriting mentor for The Waa-Mu Show).
This herculean task of building and producing an entirely original book musical in under a year begins the previous June. It goes something like this.
At the end of the academic year, a group of student co-chairs are selected to lead the process of creating The Waa-Mu Show. Before the students break for the summer, they hear pitches from students on what the next year’s musical could be. An idea is selected and writing coordinators are chosen to lead the writing process—which will ultimately include up to fifty writers. In the fall, the student leaders begin to outline the story and slowly accumulate other participants. By winter, the outline is loosely nailed down, the set designs are approved, and casting begins—often without the existence of a single note of a song or a word of dialogue. Throughout the top of the year and into the spring, the show is concurrently written, built, rehearsed, arranged, orchestrated, promoted, choreographed, directed, and ultimately put on—culminating in a fully-produced original musical with over 160 student participants. If it sounds crazy, that’s because it is—it’s a small miracle from the gods of theatre when the show debuts every May.
And this year, things began in a very similar fashion with every indication that the show would continue its venerated tradition. A story was pitched by student Matthew Threadgill, telling the tale of the futuristic city of Dalesworth—a metropolis vying to become a future capital while grappling with the issues of its past. Outlines were created. Characters were invented. Songs were written. However, just as the team was gearing up for its last developmental reading presentation in mid-March, the news of a spreading pandemic began to roll in. Of course, the students had concerns other than their show. “The gravity of the moment didn’t immediately draw my attention to Waa-Mu,” said writing coordinator Ruchir Khazanchi. But eventually, his thoughts turned towards the production. “Hundreds of students had been working non-stop for almost a year to make this happen. And for it to be swept into uncertainty so quickly was jarring for a lot of folks.” Writing coordinator Emmet Smith agreed, “I think the hardest part was how drawn out the process of our spring cancellation was—every day we came up with contingency plans for the best and worse case scenarios given what we knew. And every day our best-case scenario of an on-campus production grew grimmer. It would’ve been easier on our hearts if the Band-Aid was ripped right off.”
Students were sent home and the future of this year’s Waa-Mu show was thrown into question. Khazanchi feared for the worst. “Nobody knew what the next steps were, or if there were going to be next steps.” The Waa-Mu team gathered on the video conferencing tool Zoom to discuss what would happen next. Co-chair Emma Griffone knew that they had to continue. “Waa-Mu has always been a process-oriented organization, so we were primarily concerned with working through our draft.” But as discussions began, it became clear that perhaps there was something more that could be done. Music supervisor and faculty member Ryan Nelson remembers that first call fondly. “That first meeting with the co-chairs, writers, music team, and our director was really thrilling. There was so much energy and so many ideas. At the end of the call, we decided we were doing Waa-Mu. No matter what.”
But what that actually meant was still completely up in the air. And now, in the usual crush of writing and producing a new musical came the question: What does producing this musical even mean?
As rehearsals went on over Zoom, co-chair Leo Jared Scheck was impressed with how it all started to come together. “It wasn’t until rehearsals had been going for a few weeks that we started to realize, hey, this is actually turning out really well. So we decided to do a reading on May 1st, our original opening date.” Co-chair Jon Toussaint added, “And even then, it was only the week of the show where we began to open the online reading to people who weren’t on the team.”
So there it was. This completely original musical would be produced on Zoom. But how? Co-chair Olivia Worley remembers the initial challenges. “Obviously, there are a lot of aspects of a live performance that are really hard to translate to a virtual platform, so a big part of our process was figuring out how to create collaborative relationships when we can’t all be in the same room together.” Paramount to that is, how do you sing together over Zoom? Latency issues make it impossible for more than one person to sing together at once. Enter Team Music.
“Our Team Music community is a cult of freaks of nature, and they have always thought outside of the box. So I never had a doubt in my mind that they’d be able to make it work,” said Smith. As songs neared completion, the music team—made up of music directors, arrangers, orchestrators, and copyists—would lay down a track in a program called Logic. They would then send that track to the various performers so that they could learn the song. Rehearsals would take place over Zoom alongside rehearsals with director/choreographer Amanda Tanguay. Once everything was learned, students would record their sung vocals—often on their phone—and then send them back to Team Music so that they could mix them into a final track. Now that the show was tracked, there was the question of how to come close to recreating the theatrical devices of theatre—and how to make it all as live as possible.
On the evening of Friday, May 1, around 400 people across the world gathered on a Zoom webinar to watch the live debut of The 89th Annual Waa-Mu Show, State of the Art. By reconfiguring the default settings of the software, the entire cast and crew made it so that when they turned on their video they would appear on screen, effectively making an entrance. By muting their video, their box would disappear and they would make an exit (instead of leaving a box with their name or a picture on it). Scenes with two people could grow to have three, four, or more with just the click of a button, and Zoom would reconfigure the boxes automatically. Backgrounds were used to suggest settings, and character names appeared below every performer.
When the time came for musical solos, the performers would activate a track in their own space and sing along live. And when group numbers arrived, a stage manager would play the pre-recorded group audio while the cast muted their own audio and sang along to the track. Over the next two hours, a fluid, entertaining, and moving live experience featuring actors all around the country was performed for an audience as far-flung as the Netherlands.
Songs were born. Characters sprung to life. And a new story made its theatrical debut. What began last year as a dream had without warning become a seeming impossibility—but was now emerging as a full-fledged reality. And as students’ faces took to this new stage, one after the other, it was hard not to be moved by their ingenuity, artistry, and optimism. An ensemble number made up of a grid of thirty undergrads singing their hearts out to a track written by one team and assembled by another has its own theatrical power—and is touching by the very fact of its own existence. These students were handed a uniquely challenging situation and found a way to create something truly of themselves all the same.
Writing coordinator Michael-Ellen Walden recounted the experience of watching it all come together. “An unexpected delight during the final performance was realizing that, although I couldn’t hear or see the audience, I could view the names of each of the 400-plus viewers. Scrolling through the names of Waa-Mu alumni and classmates, the parents of those who had worked on the show, and professors reminded me of not only how many people have been touched by State of the Art, but The Waa-Mu Show in years past. I hope we made everyone who has been a part of Waa-Mu proud of us continuing the tradition against the odds.”
And although director Amanda Tanguay was thrilled with the final performance, she celebrates something bigger. “We banded together, supported the creation of new art, but also supported each other during a difficult period of time. Ultimately, it is very clear to me that the final performance is not the only thing that makes Waa-Mu special. It is the people involved.”
All musical theatre fans are right to hope that the future of their beloved art form is not relegated to the confines of Zoom webinars. It’s an imperfect simulacrum of the real thing. However, it is hard to not be inspired by a group of students who refused to let their show be interrupted by a worldwide pandemic and instead joined together to create new ways of storytelling. And if that’s not the future of musical theatre, I don’t know what is. I can’t wait to see where they lead us.
Ryan Cunningham is a Jonathan Larson Award winner and a Drama Desk and Mac Award-nominated lyricist, bookwriter, and playwright. His Off-Broadway musical written with Joshua Salzman, I Love You Because, has played both nationally and internationally in five different languages. Also with Salzman, he has written the musicals Next Thing You Know, The Legend of New York, and Michael Collins. He is a Creative Director at the Broadway advertising agency AKA and teaches at Northwestern University. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons.