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Cover Story 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.

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Long Form

From Younger Than Springtime to Springtime for Hitler: Broadways Infatuation with Spring

By Katie Birenboim

The sun is shining, cherry blossoms are blooming, and many world economies are opening up (slowly but surely).  It seems like spring 2021 has finally arrived, bringing with it the seasonal sense of joy, promise, and new beginnings that has long been lauded by writers and artists throughout history.  While many people may associate springtime with Shakespeare sonnets, Impressionist paintings, or even madrigals, spring has also been the focus of many Broadway composers and lyricists. 

The most obvious example of springtime making its way into the Broadway canon is the song “Younger Than Springtime” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.  Sung right after Lieutenant Cable and Liat first meet (and make love), “Younger Than Springtime” has all the classic markers of a spring love song.  Cable compares Liat to spring – favorably – saying she is “younger than springtime,” “gayer than laughter,” “sweeter than music,” and “warmer than the winds of June.”  But the song also has a great “turn” – certainly one of the reasons it’s still so well-known today.  While Cable begins the song by saying that Liat is like springtime, halfway through, he implies that she is also transformative: “when your youth/and joy invade my arms/and fill my heart as now they do/then younger than springtime/am I.”  Through Liat’s love, Cable argues that he becomes someone who is “gayer than laughter,” “softer than starlight,” and “younger than springtime,” too.

Another well-known use of spring in the lyrics, title, and imagery of a Broadway song can be found in “It Might As Well Be Spring” from State Fair, another Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration.  The song plays with some of the springtime tropes and patterns used in “Younger Than Springtime.”  The singer, Margy, makes clear that she hasn’t seen any of the typical, physical signs of oncoming spring.  In fact, it’s decidedly not spring: “I haven’t seen a crocus or a rosebud/or a robin on the wing,” Margy sings, “But…it might as well be spring.”  This is a prime example of Oscar Hammerstein’s genius use of conditional thinking.  In the same way Hammerstein implies in Carousel that Julie Jordan is madly in love with Billy Bigelow using the conditional “IF I loved you,” and that Laurie and Curly in Oklahoma! are similarly destined to mate with the conditional “people will SAY we’re in love,” Hammerstein is able to write a spring love song that’s not actually sung during springtime. 

The song grows even more rich and complex in its associations with the season.  While the characteristics of springtime that Cable lists in “Younger Than Springtime” are all positive, for Margy “it might as well be spring” not only because she’s “starry-eyed,” “giddy,” and “gay,” but also because she feels “restless,” “jumpy,” and “vaguely discontented.”  In “It Might As Well Be Spring” you get both sides of the coin: the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, perhaps best summed up by the lyric: “But I feel so gay/in a melancholy way/that it might as well be spring.”  Here, spring is being used as a metaphor for the “nameless” discontent Margy feels with her life at the moment – a vague restlessness which sets up most of the action of the play: while Margy is dating Harry, who wants to marry her, she “keep[s] wishing [she] were somewhere else,/Walking down a strange new street./Hearing words that [she’s]…never heard/ From a man [she’s] yet to meet.”  These lyrics foreshadow her meeting, and falling in love with, Pat at the (titular) state fair.  It’s also hard not to read these lyrics without picking up something of a sexual edge.  When Margy starts the song, she sings of “want[ing] a lot of…things/[she’s] never had before.”  Given the traditional associations of birth, new beginnings, love, and even sexuality, with springtime, “It Might As Well Be Spring” could easily speak to Margy’s desires as a newly minted young woman. 

 Many Broadway songs focus on this deeper side of spring’s transitions.  In Rodgers and Hart’s I Married an Angel, for example, Willy sings “Spring Is Here” when things with his angel-wife (yes, you read that correctly) have gone sour.  “Spring is here/why doesn’t my heart go dancing?/spring is here/why isn’t the waltz entrancing?…Maybe it’s because nobody needs me…Maybe it’s because nobody loves me,” he sings.  It’s another clever inversion of the springtime myth: spring may be here, with its gentle “breezes,” and “lads and girls…drinking May wine,” but because Willy has fallen out of love, he can no longer enjoy it.  It’s a springtime love song that depends on negative space rather than positive space: without “love,” “desire,” or “ambition,” there can be no spring.

“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf’s 1955 tune which was then incorporated into the 1959 musical The Nervous Set, similarly focuses on the “have-nots” of spring rather than the “haves.”  A send-up of the first lines of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (“April is the cruelest month…”), “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” implies that spring can actually be the worst time of the year – if you’re single, that is.  “Spring this year has got me feeling like a horse that never left the post;/I lie in my room staring up at the ceiling/Spring can really hang you up the most!” the lyrics read.  The song reverses traditional springtime psychology and implies that the singer was happy and in love in the winter, and now, during the joyful spring season of rebirth, is experiencing loneliness. “Love seemed sure around the New Year,” she sings, “Now it’s April, love is just a ghost;/ Spring arrived on time, only what became of you, dear?”  It should be noted that this song, as well as “It Might As Well Be Spring,” became jazz standards, covered by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.  The season’s failure to deliver on its promise is clearly a recurring theme on Broadway and beyond.

But no discussion of spring on Broadway would be complete without “Springtime for Hitler” from Mel Brooks’ The Producers.  The major song in the musical’s show-within-a-show, a favorable retelling of WWII from the perspective of a disgruntled Nazi, “Springtime for Hitler” shows Brooks’ thoughtful understanding – and appreciation – of spring’s metaphorical function in Golden Age musicals.  As the tap-dancing, sausage-wearing Nazis sing lines like “And now it’s springtime for Hitler and Germany/Deutschland is happy and gay,” Brooks is sending up the positive traits associated with springtime in musicals like South Pacific and State Fair.  And to the Nazis represented in the show, “springtime for Hitler” is indeed positive: it encapsulates their military campaign to take over the world.  Brooks makes clear, however, that this seasonal rebirth is actually extremely dark.  Peppered in with the image of a “happy and gay” Germany are lyrics about “U-boats…sailing once more.”  In the song, springtime equals gaiety, but it also happens to equal “bombs falling from the skies again.”  Combined with the schmaltzy musical style, movie-musical tap-dancing, over-the-top costumes, and of course the late, great Gary Beach’s acting, springtime in “Springtime for Hitler,” repeated over 20 times in the eight-minute song, becomes an absurd (and incredibly funny) dramatic irony.

Brooks’ hilarious treatment of springtime is similar to the season’s representation in a lesser known E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy song, “Springtime Cometh” from the 1951 flop Flahooley.  Like “Springtime for Hitler,” “Springtime Cometh” relies on and leans into the audience’s positive associations with spring and its traditional representation in Golden Age musicals.  Sandy/Penny and her genie (truly – don’t ask) sing about “lilacs growing on the clothesline,” “roses growing in the ashcan,” “hummingbird[s],” “merry maidens,” and repeat the word “springtime” six times in the short song.  Harburg went one step further and even wrote the lyrics in a sort of faux Olde English: “Springtime cometh,” the characters sing. “Hummingbird hummeth,/little brook rusheth,/merry maiden blusheth…springtime cometh for love of thee.”  Harburg pushes this construction even further for comedic effect with “Sugarplum plummeth,/Heart, it humpty-dummeth,/And to summeth up,/The Springtime cometh for the love of thee.”  The faux Olde English language reaches its zenith with Harburg’s tongue-and-cheek reference’s to spring’s inherent sexuality: “Lad and lass/In tall green grass/Gaily skippeth,/Nylon rippeth,/Zipper zippeth…which is to say/Spring cometh.”  Harburg’s ironic send-up of springtime is sexual, funny, self-aware, and, most importantly, irreverent.

Broadway clearly has a long-time fascination – and infatuation – with all things spring.  From the huge number of songs with “spring” in their title (and chorus) – to ones that rely on springtime imagery like the lilac trees in My Fair Lady’s “On the Street Where You Live” –  lyricists have used the season to convey and inspire romance, joy, lust, restlessness, loneliness, humor, and personal transformation in equal parts.  So in this close-to-post-pandemic moment: crank up the Broadway show tunes, smell the flowers, and look forward to a new (and hopefully, better) day. As they say: “springtime cometh!” 


Katie Birenboim is a NYC-based actor, director, and writer. 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, member of Actors’ Equity, and hosts a weekly interview show on YouTube with theatre’s best and brightest entitled “Call Time with Katie Birenboim.”

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Long Form

Keepers of the Dream

By Karu F. Daniels

These great Black actors did King’s important legacy a great service.

Since his April 4, 1968 assassination, the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has lived on in pop culture through a multitude of projects spanning film, television, music and theater.

On Broadway, the iconic Civil Rights Movement leader’s likeness, message and “dream” has been brought to life in various forms throughout the decades.

In September 1976, Billy Dee Williams appeared as King in the original play “I Have a Dream,” which was presented as an evening of music based on the life and words from the slain activist’s most famous speech of the same name. 

Conceived by Robert Greenwald (who directed “Me and Bessie”) with a book adapted by Josh Greenfield, the production played 88 performances with eight previews at the Ambassador Theatre. 

Presented with special arrangement with Mrs. Coretta Scott King and Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change, the play told the story of King’s life from 1955, when he helped to lead the bus boycott Montgomery, Ala., until 1968, when he was murdered Memphis.

Featuring 12 gospel and civil rights songs used to separate the scenes, “I Have A Dream” also starred Judyann Elder, Leata Galloway, Ramona Brooks, Clinton Derricks-Carroll, Sheila Ellis and Millie Foster.

Billy Dee Williams

For Williams – a big Hollywood attraction at that point thanks to the success of his starring roles in the Diana Ross-led feature films “Lady Sings The Blues” and “Mahogany” – “I Have A Dream” marked is return to The Great White Way after an absence of 10 years.

Billy Lee Williams & Harrison Ford in Star Wars

The New York City native, who went on to gain international notoriety as Lando Calrissian in the “Star Wars” franchise, was last seen on the Broadway stage in 1967’s “Hallelujah Baby” with Leslie Uggams, which won five 1968 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

After his legacy would become the subject if numerous television films throughout the succeeding decades – starring Paul Winfield, James Earl Jones, Robert Guillaume, Clifton Powell, Courtney B. Vance,  and Jeffrey Wright, among others – his powerful presence was revived on the great stage when Samuel L. Jackson made his Broadway debut in Katori Hall’s anticipated play “The Mountaintop” in October 2011.

Directed by Kenny Leon (with Kamilah Forbes serving as Assistant Director), the two-hander play, also starring Angela Bassett, was set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and reimagined what the leader’s final moments were before his assassination after delivering his legendary “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a massive church congregation. 

“The Mountaintop” originated overseas and after transferring to the West End’s Trafalgar Studio 1 in 2010. The production featured powerful performances by David Harewood as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Lorraine Burroughs as the mysterious maid Camae, under the direction of James Dacre.

Samuel L. Jackson

The acclaimed show garnered two Evening Standard Awards Nominations, including Most Promising Playwright for Hall, and was awarded the coveted 2010 Olivier Award for Best Play.

That same year, the playwright received the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn prize.

Hall, a native Memphian who caused a roar on Broadway – pre-pandemic – with the Tina Turner bio-musical, “Tina,” and the creative force behind the buzz-worthy Starz drama series “P Valley,” counts August Wilson as an inspiration.  The infamous location where King was murdered is in the same neighborhood the Harvard and Julliard alum was raised.

“I grew up with this history only a stone’s throw away,” she said. “It is my bloody heritage. The Mountaintop follows Dr. Martin Luther King on the night after he gives this great, prophetic speech.”

In more recent years, King’s voice was prominently featured in Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award-winning 2014 play “All the Way” starring “Breaking Bad” baddie Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The play presented a bird’s eye view of what happened behind the doors of the Oval Office and inside the first years his presidency and his fierce and ferocious fight to pass a landmark civil rights bill.

Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King Jr.

OBIE and Theatre World Award winner Brandon J. Dirden – in his first lead Broadway role – portrayed King in a light like never before.

“I think what Robert Schenkkan has done is captured a side of him that nobody’s ever seen before — as a politician,” Dirden, who originated the role at the  American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts the year before, said in an interview.  “That’s not the first adjective that comes to people’s minds when they think of Dr. King. Orator? Sure. Preacher? Yes. Civil Rights Activist? Yes. But nobody ever put politician on that list. In this play, we see how he had to straddle both sides — not republican and democrat, but politics and everyday folk.”

In 2016, the play was adapted into an Emmy Award-nominated HBO film helmed by “Austin Powers” director Jay Roach with Anthony Mackie starring as King.

Anthony Mackie & Bryan Cranston

Three years later, Schenkkan had more of a story to tell about LBJ’s struggle to fight a “war on poverty” with “The Great Society,”which played Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater to rave reviews.

For this acclaimed production, newcomer Grantham Coleman made his Broadway debut as King, playing opposite to powerhouse Brian Cox as Johnson.  The Juilliard grad, who first gained notices with the original 2013 Off-Broadway production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s  “Choir Boy,” knew he had big shoes to fulfill but was up for the challenge with a fair share of trepidation.

Grantham Coleman

“Research for the part was research I was doing my whole life, but I was worried I wouldn’t portray him accurately,” Colman confided. “The director and writer approached me about it, and they understood my fears. They were more interested in conveying the spirit of Dr. King and the person [he was] and his struggles, instead of casting someone who looks like him. A lot of his personal beliefs are mine as well, so it wasn’t a huge struggle to get to where his mind was.”

These great Black actors did King’s important legacy a great service.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Here’s to hoping there’s much more from whence they came to keep the dream alive on The Great White Way.

Karu F. Daniels has written for the Associated Press, The New York Times, New York Daily News, CNN, ABC News, Billboard, NBC News, The Daily Beast, Ebony, Essence, and Playbill among other outlets.

Categories
Long Form

The Cool World

It’s all but forgotten now, but The Cool World still points like an arrow at how the country was changing at the beginning of the 1960s.

 By: Mark Blankenship

It’s all but forgotten now, but The Cool World still points like an arrow at how the country was changing at the beginning of the 1960s. 

As Warren Miller was writing his 1959 novel about youth gangs in Harlem, JFK was promising voters he would deliver social change, the Civil Rights Movement was building toward its zenith, and the Vietnam War was beginning its years-long escalation. When he adapted the tale for Broadway in 1960, the American theatre was absorbing the impact of socially and politically conscious plays like Gore Vidal’s The Best Man and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Even a crowd-pleasing musical like Bye Bye Birdie was making audiences contend with the hero’s racist mother. 

Or to put it another way, The Cool World arrived when millions of people were actively trying to understand the cracks in the social contract. Perfectly attuned to its moment, it told a story that was lifted from the the very streets the country was learning to see. 

Miller wrote his novel while he lived in Harlem himself, watching young Black men participate in gang activity. His story follows Duke, a teenager determined to rise through the ranks of his crew, and it is brutally unsentimental about how violence, racism, and classism warp the boy’s life. When the book was published, Miller’s unvarnished style earned immediate praise from artists like James Baldwin, who called it “one of the finest novels about Harlem that had ever come my way.” 

Robert Rossen, Academy Award winning Director

Robert Rossen was another fan. Well-known at the time for writing and directing the Oscar-winning film All the King’s Men, he worked with Miller to co-write the stage adaptation of The Cool World and then directed its Broadway premiere. 

Granted, the production only ran for two performances, but it nevertheless gave major roles to future stalwarts like Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Brown, and a 22 year-old Billy Dee Williams, who played Duke. 

Production Still from “The Cool World” film

And they were hardly the last major artists to be involved with this story. In 1963, legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman produced a film version, which was directed by Shirley Clarke, who had been Oscar nominated for a documentary of her own.  

That sensibility made her film stand out: Though she worked from a script that she adapted from the novel and the play, Clarke let the movie feel like nonfiction. She cast several non-actors who lived in Harlem, and she included long, improvisatory scenes that aimed to capture the actual rhythm of the neighborhood. 

Just like the play, the movie’s cast featured future stars, including Clarence Williams III and Gloria Foster. No less than Dizzy Gillespie wrote the music, and his soundtrack album is still regarded as a classic among jazz fans. 

It should be noted, of course, that The Cool World is a story about Black boys that was not created by Black people. Miller, Rossen, and Clarke were all White, and a modern audience might be understandably skeptical of their take on Harlem. Still, the novel, the play, and the film remain excellent reminders of how American culture shifted in the early 1960s and how the arts documented the change as it happened.

Mark Blankenship is the editor of The Flashpaper and the co-author of the recently published book Madonna: A to Z.

Categories
Long Form Looking Back at Forgotten Plays by Black Playwrights

TAKE A GIANT STEP

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.

Categories
Creative Long Form

Bah Humbug!: Finding the Comedy in A Christmas Carol

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.  

Patrick Stewart in A Christmas Carol

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.  

A Christmas Carol in Harlem

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?  

Estella Scrooge The Musical

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.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol

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.”

Michael Cain in A Christmas Carol

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.  

Campbell Scott in A Christmas Carol

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.

Categories
Long Form

SCROOGES, SANTAS AND SONGS: Broadway Christmas Musicals

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.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL – Campbell Scott

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. 

COMIN’ UPTOWN – Gregory Hines

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.

SUBWAYS ARE FOR SLEEPING

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 BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS

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.

Categories
Long Form

Drink Pairings for a Classic Broadway Listening Party

If it’s been a while since you dusted off your collection of classic Broadway albums, there’s nothing like a nostalgia-packed listening session to transport you to a simpler time. Hearing golden-piped leading ladies warble full-throated anthems while you attempt Jerome Robbins choreography in the privacy of your living room is a guaranteed fun evening!

And to make it even more festive, we’ve paired wines and cocktails with some of our favorite classic Broadway scores.

West Side Story

Based on Romeo and Juliet, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story is undoubtedly one of the most thrilling scores in Broadway history. The star crossed love story is set against the teenage gang wars of New York City. The music covers multiple genres, from the Latin rhythms “America” and “The Dance At The Gym” to the beatnik jazz touches of “Jet Song” and “Cool” to the swooning romantic ballads “One Hand, One Heart” and “Somewhere,” which have become standards. Our hero, Tony, is the son of Polish-American immigrants, and his love, Maria, is Puerto Rican. So, we suggest you make yourself two cocktails (it’s a long show after all)… 

For Tony, pick up a bottle of Polish vodka. Belvedere, created from Polish Dankowskie Rye and quadruple-distilled, is an excellent choice when combined with ginger beer and elderflower in a Polish Mule. More adventurous palates should try Zubrowka, a traditional Polish bison grass flavored vodka that dates back to the 16th century and is delicious in a Grapefruit Thyme cocktail.

For Maria, choose a Puerto Rican rum. Don Q is the top-selling rum in Puerto Rico, and many locals claim it’s the best. Keep it classic with a Daiquiri or Pina Colada, or use an aged rum to make an unexpected take on an old-fashioned.

The Music Man

The tale of a charismatic con man selling fake hopes and empty promises to naive citizens of small-town America might hit a little too close to home at the moment… but if you have fond memories of glory days in your high school marching band, Meredith Wilson’s sunny, melodic score is an instant mood-lifter.

Full of rousing marches (“76 Trombones”), upbeat ditties (“The Wells Fargo Wagon”), and romantic ballads (“Til There Was You”), this appealing musical comedy is a nostalgic treasure featuring classic Americana touches such as an Independence Day celebration and even a barbershop quartet. The climactic scene where our leading man is unmasked as a fraud occurs at River’s City’s annual ice cream social. In that spirit, our listening party pairing for The Music Man is a grown-up, boozy ice cream float! Try a Boozy Cherry Vanilla Float spiked with vanilla vodka, a Whiskey Root Beer Float, a Blackberry Gin Fizz Float, or a Chocolate Stout Brownie Sundae Float.

Guys and Dolls

A musical adaptation of Damon Runyan’s short stories about Manhattan’s underworld in the mid-20th century, Guys and Dolls is chock full of colorful, whimsical tunes by Frank Loesser where gangsters, gamblers, nightclub performers, and other quirky characters all converge. When Gangster Nathan Detroit bets gambler Sky Masterson $1000 that he can’t get prim, proper, teetotaling Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Save-a-Soul Mission to join him for a night in Havana, hi-jinks ensue. Standout hits from the cast album include “Luck Be a Lady”, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”, and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”.

The booziest moment in the show comes during the Havana escapade when the pious Sarah attempts to order a milkshake– and Sky asks the waiter to bring a Bacardi rum cocktail called ‘Dulce de Leche.’ This prompts one of the funniest lines in the show as Sarah becomes more intoxicated and exclaims: “You know, this would be a wonderful way to get children to drink milk!” Efforts to find a Dulce de Leche recipe in cocktail books from the 1950s came up dry– so it’s likely that the playwright was referring to a creamy Cuban rum drink, the Batido. However, in 2009 Bacardi created a new Dulce de Leche cocktail recipe in honor of the Broadway production that year; get the recipe here and shake one up!

And of course– if you’re suffering from a bad, bad cold after being engaged for 14 years, you could always forego the rum milkshake and go straight to one of these cold remedy cocktails instead.

Hello, Dolly!

The tale of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a professional busybody/matchmaker, has been a hit since Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play. It became a musical with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman in 1963, with a legendary leading performance from Carol Channing– and gained further immortality for the film version starring Barbra Streisand. And the most iconic scene is Dolly’s big return to the Harmonia Gardens restaurant in the title number when we see waiters rushing around the opulent dining room with Champagne buckets, floral arrangements, and crisp linens before Dolly’s entrance down that grand staircase. 

For a beverage pairing as decadent as the scene, pop a bottle of Champagne! True Champagne is only made in the Champagne region of France, and it’s made with the utmost attention to care and craft… so it can command a premium price tag, but some things are #expensivebutworthit, and Champagne is absolutely one of those things! For an elegant brut style, try Besserat de Bellefon Bleu Brut, perfectly balanced between citrus, apricot, and praline tones. For something clean, lean, sleek, and mineral, grab a bottle of Ruinart Brut Blanc de Blancs. And rosé fans, Laurent-Perrier Cuvee Rose won’t disappoint with tangy and bright layers of fresh red cherry and raspberry flavors.

Chicago

Set in the jazz age of the roaring ’20s, Chicago is a dark and stylish peek into the lives of Vaudeville chorus girls and ‘merry murderesses’ with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. The plot is based on actual events of a series of high-profile cases in Chicago when attractive young women killed their husbands or lovers and got acquitted. The show is just as legendary for its concept and choreography by Bob Fosse as it is for memorable songs like “All That Jazz”, “Cell Block Tango”, and “Razzle Dazzle.”

The cast album (the original and the 1997 revival are both excellent) immediately transports listeners to a sexy spot where the gin is cold… so elevate your listening experience by mixing up a Prohibition-era cocktail! There are much better gin options nowadays than Matron Mama Morton was likely brewing in her bathtub… so grab a bottle and mix up a Gin Rickey, a Bees Knees, or a Last Word. We’re partial to the Southside— a mix of gin, mint, lemon and simple syrup– which allegedly got its name from some 1920’s gangsters on the South Side of Chicago who created this cocktail to make their homemade gin more drinkable! A perfect pairing for a sultry night in.


Sarah Tracey is a certified sommelier, entertaining expert, and wine educator based in New York City. Whether teaching classes, creating custom beverage programming for corporate and media events, or exploring wine regions world-wide, she’s driven by her love for producers who make fabulous wines and are also mindful of our environment. With years of experience, knowledge, and a certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, above all, Sarah is a fierce believer that wine should always be approachable, festive, and fun.

Follow Sarah Tracey on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and on her website for more wine and cocktail tips and tricks!

Categories
Long Form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lauren Gunderson 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.

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

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

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

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

Brett Ryback and Jeff Blumenkrantz in Murder For Two

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

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

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


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

Categories
Long Form

THOUGHTS ON UNCLE VANYA

Written by Neil LaBute

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.