Roundabout’s ‘Assassins’ Concert, As Covered By Two Chapins

3 Jun

The most recent issue of the Sondheim Review has something pretty exciting for the family Chapin – a big old piece written by none other than yours truly and my father, Ted Chapin. Now you’re probably saying, “well of COURSE, Anika, we already know this because we subscribe/buy the Sondheim Review regularly, because why would we not want to fill our lives with even more Sondheimian joy?” to which I say, good for you, as well you should. But I’ve included it here for those of you who haven’t yet bought your copy (it’s the one with the stars of CSC’s Passion on the cover, because APPARENTLY Ryan Silverman and Melissa Errico locked in a passionate embrace is more likely to sell magazines than two squinty-eyed Chapins. WHATEVER.)

The piece is an account of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s December reunion concert of their 2004 production of Assassins. As you will read, the show is beloved by both Dad and myself, and it was great fun both diving into one of my favorite productions and getting to share it with my dad. Although it’s probably clear which voice is which if you’re a regular reader of my blog, I’ve put Dad’s stuff in italics, for clarity and so that everything he says automatically sounds more dramatic.

 

Anika Chapin: For about six months, I have had an entry in my calendar for December 3 saying simply “best night ever.” That might sound a bit overwrought (I tend to get a little effusive in the company of my own calendar), but as soon as I heard that a reunion concert of Assassins was happening, I knew I had to be there.

Ted Chapin: My story with ASSASSINS begins when I ran the Musical Theater Lab in the late 1970’s. Stuart Ostrow created a program with the Dramatists Guild, working closely with his small board of directors that included Bob Fosse and Stephen Sondheim. The idea was for new musicals to be submitted, and then they would be examined and processed through a series of work sessions with established musical theater artists.  It never happened, for reasons I don’t remember, but one of the submissions was ASSASSINS by Charles Gilbert.  Sondheim expressed interest in the title, and so I sent the material over to his Turtle Bay house.

Anika: To put it simply, Assassins is important to me. I have been a musical theater fan almost all of my life, brought to my first musical by my father, a lifer himself, when I was six months old (I am told I was mesmerized by the lights going down, but had some book problems with act two.) I was the kind of kid who listened to Les Miserables on the way to school and Into the Woods on the way home, and who still remembers some of the facts of American history by mentally reviewing the numbers in 1776. But when I first heard Assassins, I was stunned.

Ted: I was invited to a reading at Playwrights Horizons – there were two done in one day, and I went to the second.  I was knocked out by what I heard – audacious, bold, dark, yet tuneful.  And quite stunning.  When the final scene took place literally in the Texas School Book Depository building with Lee Harvey Oswald being visited by the assassins and would-be assassins from the past, my jaw dropped.  Being old enough to have remembered that day in Dallas, I couldn’t believe they were actually creating a scene in which Oswald would be egged on to kill Kennedy in order for him, a nobody, to be remembered.   Wow, I thought. This is pretty amazing.   Although I got a quick sense of just how controversial the show would end up being when I checked in with my father Schuyler Chapin who had been at the earlier reading.  As one of the very few fans of the presidency of Warren G. Harding, he had a hard time with the subject matter, although he was and remained a huge Sondheim fan.  When he ran the Metropolitan Opera, he tried to convince Sondheim to write an opera.

Anika: This was something different from anything I had encountered before: theater that broke the rules I knew to ask questions that reached into the dark underbelly of my country and culture. I loved that the songs each reflected the era of their respective subjects and I adored that the show wasn’t afraid to humanize the assassins, to make them characters instead of simple monsters. And the last scene in the John Weidman book accomplished something I had never experienced in theater before, and have only rarely experienced since. Over the course of a single scene I was made to understand that which I thought I could never understand: exactly why Lee Harvey Oswald might commit his atrocious act. It was powerful, and it was terrifying, and it is not an exaggeration to say that Assassins taught me what theater, and specifically musical theater, could do. It’s very possible that the roots of my current life as a Dramaturg began in the many long hours I spent listening and re-listening to the cast album, noticing new musical quotations or lines in the final scene that I hadn’t before, or writing essays in my head about the relationship between the audience and the narrator figure in Sondheim’s musicals (doesn’t everyone write mental essays about Sondheim shows on long subway commutes?)

Ted: On the evening I was schedule to see the full Playwrights Horizons production in 1991, I was invited to a cocktail party in an apartment across from River House, as far East as you can get on 52nd Street.  Attending the party was Jacqueline Onassis.I asked someone to introduce me to her.  She was ever gracious, as we spoke about children and schools in New York, and how my boss Dorothy Rodgers had worked with Caroline’s husband Edwin Schlossberg.  It was only as I left the party that I realized how peculiar it was that I would leave that gathering and venture across town to see ASSASSINS.  The audience I saw that production with didn’t seem to love the show – I am not sure why, but somehow they weren’t willing to embrace it.  

Anika: So as you might imagine, when the Roundabout production happened in 2004, I was ecstatic – finally I would get a chance to see the show I had loved and imagined for so long, brought to life by a group of actors that was almost an embarrassment of riches. Unfortunately, I was also in New Zealand on a study abroad semester that was scheduled to end after the run of the show. So, in the words of Dot, I did what I had to do… I cut my study abroad short and flew back to catch the show (sorry, Vassar!)

Ted: Part of what made the 2004 Roundabout production so remarkable, was that this time, thirteen years later,  audiences accepted the show with all its dark underbelly and comic insanities.  Somehow the production the Roundabout gave the show fit in a way that the original production hadn’t.  (I didn’t much like the Sam Mendes production at the Donmar Warehouse in London which was  the first show of his tenure there.) 

Anika: It was worth it. Although I had loved the show I imagined in my head through myriad listenings, seeing the production on stage was far better; the cast made the characters alive and heartbreaking, and the show was funnier, and a little more surreal, then I had thought. Some elements, when staged, surprised me: the Balladeer and the Proprietor felt much more like counterparts, one advocating for hope and the other urging vengeance for the failure of the American dream. Although I knew the last scene so well I could probably have recited it along with the actors, I was freshly swayed by the terrifying reality that to be hated and remembered is still being remembered, and freshly devastated when it reached its conclusion. Since Joe Mantello’s production made the Balladeer become Lee Harvey Oswald, the argument stung even more; the voice of hope and reason had finally been convinced. And ‘Something Just Broke’, which I had never heard before, left me weeping. Experiencing the pain of a country mourning together was a reminder of what horrors these characters, whom I had come to know and love over the course of the evening, had committed.

Ted: Which brings us to December 3, 2012.  It had been eight years since the original Roundabout production.  Usually at the one-night-only reunion concert events – which have now become almost a genre – it’s interesting to see actors who have soft-pedaled their careers in the interim, or dropped out entirely, or those whose physicality has changed. Sometimes the evening becomes a kind of spiritual homecoming.  This time it was extraordinary that everyone, with the exception of Eamon Foley who was 8 in 2004, looked, sounded, and acted like 2004 was yesterday.  How great it was to see Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Cerveris, Becky Ann Baker, James Barbour, Mario Cantone, Alexander Gemignani, Marc Kudisch, Jeffrey Kuhn, Dennis O’Hare – and Anne Nathan, Merwin Foard, etc.  The audience cheered as the cast came on, all except Harris, whose later entrance was not only greeted with another round of applause, but was entirely artistically appropriate for the character of the Balladeer.

Anika: I discovered all those things anew in the reunion concert. Once again the show I thought I knew so well surprised me, including with how well it takes to a minimalist concert staging. The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s music hall set, borrowed for the evening, was surprisingly effective; the side balconies gave the sense that we might be seeing the whole show at Ford’s theater, a happy (if slightly morbid) bit of kismet. Marc Kudisch, back as the Proprietor, and Neil Patrick Harris, as the Balladeer, sat at opposite ends of the stage, further underlining their status as opposing forces. And the cast, reunited almost in full (Annaleigh Ashford took over from Mary Catherine Garrison as Squeaky Fromme, effortlessly and hilariously) looked even more like a group lined up in their contemporary black outfits, each with a hint of their character; they were individuals from different times and places who nonetheless belong together, linked forever by their frightening, terrible, desperate, fascinating acts. But mostly, I was reminded just how powerful and important Assassins is. I can think of no other work that examines with such bold curiosity the question of what happens when the great promise of the American Dream sours. Sondheim’s work often explores the idea of what happens after dreams do or do not come true (Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods are the primary examples, but each with a very different form of dream), but Assassins asks a question that feels most urgent for us to answer: if our culture has become one in which fleeting fame or the pain of many feels like equal payment for an individual’s failed dreams, what can we expect but more of the same?

Ted: The evening was a success on many levels, starting with the $850,000 that the theater raised for its musical theater program in the one night only event.  (The chairman of the board announced that astonishing news before the show began).  That meant our $500 tickets provided us with seats in the last row of the orchestra, and a chit for a sippy cup of white wine before the festivities began.  How great that Sondheim’s work has become so well supported, both by fans and by his stalwart financial supporters, who were well represented: Mary Jo and Ted Shen were the chairs, and Perry and Marty Granoff were listed as well.

Anika: The concert on December 3 might have been a reunion, but it was also a reminder that this material is as fresh today as it was eight, or even 23, years ago. Sitting in the audience listening to this stellar cast bring Assassins to life again, I realized that I have been listening to the show for almost twenty years now, which is two thirds of my life so far. I plan on continuing to listen to it. I suspect I will be discovering new details of the book and the score 20 years from now, and 20 years from then. And if future generations of Chapins happen to love the show as much as my father and I do, I would be thrilled. There might be some dark family sing-alongs in the future.

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Haiku Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

28 May

Attractive people
Trading quips and blows in space
What could be better?

Dreamy Benedict
Why do I find you hotter
The colder you are?

It’s worth the money
Just to see Quinto and Pine
Bitch, bicker, and bond.

A space-age future
All kinds of improvements, yet
We still wear mustard?

Lingering Questions about ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, with Haiku Review

16 May

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while, because I was almost ready to roll with it when ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ posted its notice. No matter what I think of a show, that’s always a sad occasion, and my heart goes out to the talented bunch in the show, who all deserve to be in longer-running, better shows.

That being said, am I going to let the show off the hook? Absolutely not! I have been secretly looking forward to seeing it for months, ever since they released their vinyl-scented-Hot-Topic-Haunted-House-sex-orgy promo video. I do love a mix of camp and power belting, if I do say so myself, and the promise of the corsets AND pop stars AND Victorian murder shimmered with the promise of that most ethereal and elusive of guilty pleasures, the ‘fun bad’. I girded my consciousness with two Joe Allen martinis and sat down in my seat, thinking this, maybe, was the moment after all. The moment when I could relive the combination of stunned disbelief and inner joy that I felt when I saw the original production, and knew that I would be re-enacting Jekyll and Hyde’s hair-flipping solo duet (Soet? Dulo?) for years to come. As I have.

So did the new production deliver? Meh. Perhaps it is the Dramaturg in me, but I found myself more often pondering the many questions the show prompts than delighting in a gothic fun-fest. So I thought I would share a few of my thoughts about the show with you all, followed by the haikus that I wrote in my head during the epic stretches of show when… you know, I can’t even remember. Some stuff happens, I guess. But certainly not character development or anything (how about those female characters? Like the one who sings in a soprano and is loyal and pretty, or the other one who belts and is sexy. Not since Mama Rose has there been such complex characterization).

Anyhoo, here are my lingering questions on the show:

1. Really, they have no better way to store their insane people? The show begins with Jekyll bemoaning the state of his father, who is confined to an insane asylum. But when I say confined, I mean strapped to a tiled wall a few feet into the air like a giant moth. Now this is sort of an interesting visual in a ‘Tom Waits in Dracula‘ way, but you just stare at him and think, isn’t there a better place to store this guy? Like, say, the ground?

2. Okay, seriously, nobody recognizes Hyde? Because he is literally JUST Jekyll with his hair down. And a coat. And yet nobody seems to have any idea who this mystery man is – not the hospital board members who have been following his career, not the lawyer who has known him for years, not the prostitute who is in love with Jekyll but has regular sex with Hyde (and who sings of looking deeply into Jekyll’s eyes, so presumably she knows what his face looks like). Seriously, though, guys. It’s not like he’s wearing a Scream mask or dressed as his dead mother – it’s JUST the hair. This begs the question of how Jekyll has been living before then – has he tried to change his look occasionally and discovered that nobody recognizes him? Did he cut his hair once and have his family call the police on him when they thought he was an intruder? Inquiring minds want to know.

Who is that mystery man?!!? Oh wait, is his hair HALF back?! Does that mean he’s mid-transformation?

 

3. What exactly is that contraption in Jekyll’s lab? Because it looks like the world’s largest beer hat, if it were designed for the gay club Splash. And how exactly does this whole formula work? Jekyll requires a lot of chemicals, and then seems to have a little soda bottle of the formula, which he then droppers into a series of large beakers of a clear (or red, given the disco lighting) liquid, which then turn green. There are eight of those things, which attach to tubes that attach to a neck collar and a sort of android-looking wrist thing, which Jekyll wears the first time. Why do you need eight tubes of the same formula? Wouldn’t one suffice? And if later he drinks the formula, why doesn’t he just do that the first time? Wouldn’t that be easier?

CHUG IT! CHUG IT!!

Wait, is that a water bottle he’s holding?! You’re not even TRYING, show.

4. Does anyone in this show make good decisions? I mean, really, you can’t get a series of victims more responsible for their own fates. The hospital board members are being slowly picked off, and yet only one of them is like, “hey, clearly there’s a pattern here, I should probably leave.” But that’s nothing compared to Lucy, the tragic prostitute, who receives a letter saying she is in grave danger and should leave immediately, with a wad of cash so she can do that. But does she pack her few things (which seem to be primarily white cottony underthings, even though we really only ever see her in red and black leather) and book it out of there? Nope, she decides to sing a power ballad about her hopes for a new life. Now, I am no fan of blaming the victim, but I do think that if you receive a letter explicitly saying to leave immediately because a murderer is after you, then you decided to do some power belting about it instead of just scooting, your impending murder is a little bit on you.

 

And now for the poetry:

 

Just calling it now –
My new nickname for the show
Is ‘Dreckyll and Hyde’.

 

Where is this show set?
According to the accents,
Deep South Aussie France.

 

An epic battle
Between a man and his two
Competing hairstyles.

 

 

What Look Was Madonna Going For at the Met Gala?

7 May

Last night was the Met Gala, which is both the Oscars of Fashion and the fanciest theme party of the year (the gala celebrates the opening of the Met Museum’s big yearly fashion exhibit). This year the theme was ‘Punk’, and some really interesting things happened. There were some people who simply ignored this and went for old-school glamour:

Amanda Seyfried in Givenchy. I want this dress SO HARD.

some that went halfway and took a lovely gown and then added just a touch of punk in the form of insane eye makeup or extreme hair:

I think the look on Julianne Moore’s face really captures that moment when you’re on the red carpet and then remember that your hair looks like it should have a little tiny surfer right on the top of it.

Remember the first time you ever put eye makeup on but didn’t really understand how it worked so just filled in everything up to the eyebrows? So does Ginnifer Goodwin.

And then there was Madonna.

I have to give it to her, because she was really the only one who captured the “fuck it all” attitude of Punk (isn’t it a little ironic that this whole party was the fashion establishment doing a look that was entirely based on being anti-establishment?). But at the same time, I do wonder exactly what look she was going for. So I’ve come up with some options:

Madge.

1. Anjelica Huston’s character on SMASH, Eileen Rand, if ‘Bombshell’ fails and she has to become a dominatrix.

2. Comedian Emo Philips starring as Sally Bowles in a concept production of ‘Cabaret’ in a regional theater somewhere.

3. Prince Valiant as a ‘business formal’ Frank-N-Furter.

Haiku Review: Macbeth

21 Apr

A genius actor
And a cool adaptation
So why am I bored?

Why You Should All Go See ‘The Poor of New York’

21 Apr

Hello all!
Are you excited? Is there a slight frisson in your demeanor? Are you restless as a willow in a windstorm, as jumpy as a puppet on a string? Did you think it was maybe just spring fever? Well you’re wrong. It’s because this weekend ‘The Poor of New York’ is happening at the Connelly theater, and that’s pretty exciting. And if you’re thinking to yourself, “why is that so exciting, Anika?” Well cool your jets, people, because I will tell you. So, without further ado, why you should be excited about ‘The Poor of New York’:

1. It’s a melodrama, straight from 1856.

Oh sure, you’re thinking, a melodrama. Why is that special? We all know what a melodrama is. But do we really? This was the most popular form of theater of its time, and some of it is still in the DNA of today’s theater. And yet melodrama is almost never performed today, unless it’s mocked or just namechecked as a trait of bad theater. But there’s a disconnect there – how can a form that audiences loved so much in the 1800s, a form that is an illustrious ancestor of theater today, be so entirely dismissed? Have you ever actually seen a melodrama as an audience would then, taken seriously as a story told in front of you? Don’t you want to? Well now’s your chance. ‘The Poor of New York’ is one of the greats of the form, written in 1856 by Dion Boucicault, so popular that it spawned productions in other cities and countries. And it’s being done as truly as possible, without a wink.

2. It’s being done at the Connelly Theater

Melodramas were actually staged there when it was newly built! It’s blocks away from Five Points, where the play is set! You can see a melodrama from the 1850s in a miniature opera house from the same century! I’m not saying this is your chance to live your dream and wear a bustle dress to the theater, but this is your chance to live your dream and where a bustle dress to the theater.

3. It’s bizarrely topical.

The play is about the unscrupulous business dealings of a rich banker during the New York Financial Crisis of 1857, which lead to the world’s first global financial crisis. This is a quote from the 1931 program:

“Panics come and panics go, but the theatre
goes on forever. We doubt that the present
depression will last forever, either in the
theatre or out of it. When we hear the char-
acters of the play talk of “over-speculating”
“the fall of the stock market,” and so forth
in the Currier and Ives atmosphere of 1857,
a dim echo of recent conversations comes
down to us from the forgotten past. Thus
history repeats itself even to the failure of
the United States Bank in the time of Van
Buren. We should add that we have not
“doctored” the script in any Way, as might
be supposed from the almost startlingly
modern references, such as that to the United
States Bank failure.”

       A little eerie, right? Melodrama gets a bad rap about only being about silly soap opera dramas, with cartoonish villains and delicate ingenues and dramatic twists. And while it no doubt is partially those things, it clearly also felt the same desire to make people look closely at their own cultural and societal realities that we feel in the arts today. In the never-ending conversations about theater’s role in human life, and politics and theater, and theater history, melodrama must be given a seat at the table. The form might be relegated to the musty halls of history, but the questions that it asked were as vital and topical as any asked by theater today.

4. You can say you knew them back when.

      You know when you see something by a famous genius person, and you think, gee, I wish I had seen what they did when they were starting out, because then I would feel all cool and in-the-know and could brag about it forever. Tyne Rafaeli, who’s directing this, is one of those people. To meet her is to think, “this girl is the coolest,” to talk to her is to think, “this girl is the smartest” and then to hear her talk about theater is to think, “dang I’m glad I’m meeting this person now, because someday when she’s a famous genius person I will feel all cool and in-the-know and can brag about it forever.” The Producer, Michael Csar, is also one of those people, and I’m pretty sure will be running all European theater/opera someday.

5. Look how cute the poster is!

6. I don’t usually write about shows in this way.

     If you’re a regular blog reader, you might be noticing that there is something unusual about this post – I don’t usually try to convince people to go see something. But I also feel it is my duty to bring your attention to something that you might otherwise miss. Plus, I am legitimately very excited about this, both because of the people involved and because, as someone interested in theater and its history, seeing a melodrama fully staged feels like an important piece of my theater-going career. So go here and buy tickets, and you can thank me later.

Haiku Review: Kinky Boots

11 Apr

Why bother writing?
Just hide your show’s problems in
Drop splits and glitter.

The show’s true title:
‘The Full Billy Elliot,
Queen of the Desert’?*

Some really fun things
But oh my god those accents
Are not one of them.

Odd dude, Charlie Price:
In act 1 he’s a great guy
Act 2, a bigot.

I’d totally wear
The finale’s ‘riding’ look
I am not kidding.

It could be great, but
Cheap muggy pandering
Drowns out potential.

*Partially stolen from my genius sister.