Tag Archives: Les Miserables

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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Mes Réflexions Sur ‘Les Miserables’

31 Dec

As you may have heard, the movie version of ‘Les Miserables’ opened. And people have opinions! So many opinions. But you know who else has opinions? Why that’s right! Yours truly. And so I thought I’d share some of them. But you might want to buckle up, because I’ve been listening to and watching Les Mis for years, and as a natural-born overanalyzer, I’ve thought a lot about how the show works. So some of my movie thoughts are going to be a little more musical theater wonk. But don’t worry, I’ll also talk about fun stuff like OH MY GOD HOW MUCH POOP ARE THEY COVERED WITH WHEN THEY GET OUT OF THE SEWERS. So, in no particular order, mes reflexions:

-On the whole, I loved it. It’s a beautiful movie that captures the soul of the show, which captures the soul of the book. And I love that it is unabashedly a musical – I’m so glad they stuck with it being through-sung and recorded live.

-Russell Crowe. Oh, Russell Crowe. You see, I adore Russell Crowe, ever since I saw him as Bud White in ‘L.A. Confidential’, which is an incredible performance and if you haven’t seen that truly excellent movie you should stop reading this right now and go rent it. There is no one I can think of who captures better the combination of true dangerous violence with a vulnerable pain visible right at its heart. I was super psyched when I heard he would be Javert, because I thought that this combination would be great for Javert, a character who must shed his righteous, protected facade to reveal the panic at having his entire worldview shattered. But it just didn’t work, did it? I realized that Russell Crowe, as good as he is, just doesn’t read well as a law-keeper; he is best as a law-breaker, as in ‘L.A. Confidential’ and ‘Gladiator’. And of all the characters, Javert is the one whose voice should be most in control: he is a man who is literally all about being rigidly in line, within boundaries, maintaining the law. Russell Crowe’s rocky sliding all over the place weakened Javert in a way that made the character never quite make sense. Hold on to your butts for a moment, because I’m about to get all dramaturgical up in here: Javert and Jean Valjean are doppelganger characters. Both are men who believe 100% in doing the right thing, but their versions of this are completely opposed; Valjean believes in doing good for others, no matter how that is best achieved (breaking parole), Javert believes in following and maintaining the law. Thus, when they have their final confrontation and Javert realizes that Valjean might be a good man AND a criminal, two things that are mutually exclusive in his head, he has to choose whether to change his entire worldview (as Valjean did after being given the candlesticks, singing THE SAME MUSICAL PHRASE OH MY GOD THIS SHOW IS SO SMART), or end the life that has now proven false. He cannot change, so he dies. But without a rigid Javert to contrast with fluid Valjean, and without confrontations that make you realize their similarities, you lose a big part of the piece. And I hated Javert walking on the edge; he’s the opposite of a daredevil, he follows rules obsessively.

-Yay Colm Wilkinson! I loved that he came back at the end for Valjean, too – it’s always struck me as strange that a character who has such a huge effect on Valjean is never seen again. And I’m so glad they didn’t have Eponine come back with Fantine for Valjean – as previously discussed on this here blog, I always thought that was weird.

-I did sort of miss the candlestick moment that the show has, in which Valjean takes the candlesticks out at the end and you realize for the first time that he’s kept them all along. The movie does a nice job of tracking the candlesticks, though, and I guess it’s harder to reveal stuff like that in a movie, when he has to be somewhere that makes sense in the last scene and not just in ‘undefined theater space’. But why was the Bishop in black? That seemed sort of morbid.

-Since I’m on a Bishop kick, I thought it was super interesting that they changed the Bishop’s lyric “I have bought your soul for God” to “I have saved your soul for God”. I would love to know why – did ‘bought’ seem a little mercenary? I always liked the idea that he’s talking to this rough convict in his own language – not, you are now saved, but, now you owe me. But saved works too.

-Okay, let’s talk about that poop. My sister, who saw the movie before me, said there was a lot of poop post-sewers. But then in the movie, OH MY GOD I HAD NO IDEA, THERE WAS SO MUCH POOP!!! My sister leaned over to me and whispered “it’s like he’s in poop blackface!!” which pretty much made me miss the rest of the scene in a fit of snorting giggles. But she was right – all you can see is the whites of Valjean’s eyes! Wouldn’t Valjean just wipe his face off? Nobody is so virtuous not to be like, hold on a second, I just have to get this HUMAN FECES OFF MY FACE. I mean, even Javert I’m sure would have been like, dude, I’ll just wait here for a minute, you do you, that is gross. And did they have crew members with buckets off camera? Was it a hose? Realistically, how would Marius ever have survived getting THE WASTE OF MULTIPLE PEOPLE in an open wound? That’s sepsis for sure.

-Wow, that was some sound that Javert made when he hit the water. I got a little distracted wondering what the foley editors used – corncob broken in half by hitting it with a steak? Stomp on skin bag full of cornflakes? Hammer onto a full chicken? It was like a real meaty crunch.

-In ancient Greece, when they performed tragic plays, they would put shorter funny plays in between to balance out all the sad, and probably to make everyone not want to kill themselves immediately (because oh my god, can you imagine a day of all Greek tragedies?!) Anyhoo, this proves the vital concept that tragedy is best when balanced by comedy. That’s what ‘Master of the House’ is really there for – a fantastic number of some comic relief in an otherwise glum show. But oh man, one thing the movie ‘Master of the House’ definitely isn’t is fun. Yikes! I was actually hoping we could go back to watching some poor people starve for a while. And without a little levity break, it’s a long glum story indeed. And how could they not have a big fun number on that cool set? That was a bummer.

-How incredibly adorable was it that Marius got truly flustered on “I’m doing everything all wrong?” I ‘awwed’ audibly.

-All the prizes for Grantaire!! How great was that guy? For the first time Grantaire felt like a major part of the story, and they even cut his big song! George Blagden, you are a star.

-Also all the prizes for the army guy who sings “you at the barricade listen to this” etc. You could see and hear his hope that they would surrender and not make him have to kill anyone, and that was a beautiful and unexpected addition. I think that was Hadley Fraser, who apparently has played many roles in Les Mis over the years, so he was probably like “bitches please, I could do this whole movie as a one man show.” And I would watch that show.

-Also all the prizes for Gavroche, who was awesome and could also probably do the entire movie as a one man show. It did bother me a lot, though, that they changed one detail in his getting the ammo from the other side of the barricade; in the show, Gavroche is increasingly scared in this moment, which is heartbreaking (in the movie he’s more brave the whole time), but, more importantly, he throws the ammo over the barricade before getting shot – he’s actually doing a vitally important thing for the uprising. In the movie, he doesn’t get the ammo to them, and then someone comes out and gets him, which made the whole thing seem less important; I feel like it’s really important that Gavroche dies helping the cause in a way only he could, not by failing at his attempted task.

-I loved Javert giving the medal to Gavroche, though. A lovely touch: Javert doesn’t like lawbreakers but he’s not a monster.

-The other change that I missed was having Eponine deliver the letter to Valjean, then get shot rejoining Marius on the barricade. I guess it tightens it up the movie way (although my sister pointed out that there’s a little weirdness in that it looks like she gives Marius the letter after ‘On My Own’, which makes him run to the house, but then gives it to him again on the barricade), but I miss having her try to complete her task for him then be unable to stand. Also, I always want people to do that scene like Lea Salonga does in the anniversary concert – she gasps with pain at one point, which causes Marius to truly have to comfort her with “hush now, dear Eponine”, and over the course of the rest of the song gradually weakens, until by the end she can’t finish the phrase and dies. It’s incredibly moving, and you are always aware of her fading, but I feel like the movie kept Eponine pretty robust until she died. It’s just not as great that way, methinks.

-Okay, another little nitpicky thing, courtesy of my sister, who apparently is even more plot-detail-tracking than I am. What are these empty chairs and empty tables that Marius is singing about? Because I’m pretty sure we saw all the furniture around being thrown onto the barricade. Did they just put some stuff back after they picked off the dead bodies?

-Fantine doesn’t get her hair back in the afterlife? Come on now, heaven, that was some great hair. I hope at least she gets her tooth.

-You know what would really suck? To die in a failed uprising and then have the afterlife be A GIANT PERPETUAL BARRICADE. Don’t you think that all those guys would be like, oh great! You know that thing that we did that totally didn’t work and then we all died? We get to relive this forever, yippee. This’ll be super fun.