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Your passport to life behind the curtain!

How Do You Feel About Actors Playing Their Own Instruments?

Once on Broadway

Once on Broadway

Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get super enthusiastic about things.

This week, Stages editor Mark Blankenship geeks out (via Gchat) with Jason Schlafstein, producing artistic director of Flying V Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Today’s Topic: What do you think of musicals where the actors play the instruments?

Jason Schlafstein: So something I have been getting more into lately is the idea of the actor/musician show, where the wall between the actors and musicians is broken down and they became one and the same. As a fan of cross-medium work, it’s something I find really rad, especially when the piece is conceived for it. And I know a number of productions of more established musicals have been using it as a concept for revivals and remounts. So I was wondering how you felt about the idea?

Mark Blankenship: I am of many minds. Sometimes, I wonder if this approach is just a cost-saving maneuver that reduces the number of people on the payroll, especially when there doesn’t seem to be a dramaturgically relevant reason to have the lead actress play the piccolo. Other times, though, it can be a spectacular approach that really elevates my connection to and understanding of the material. It also harkens back nicely to that ideal of the “total actor” who can sing, fight, tumble, and recite.

Jason: Yeah, I love that idea of the “consummate performer.”

Mark: When an actor really nails both the playing AND the speechifying, it’s just so impressive! I’m thinking of the cast of Once, for instance. That strikes me as a show that really does gain something by having its performers also be its band.

Jason: I am listening to that right now, actually.

Mark: NO!

Jason: Yup!

Mark: Are you serious? The cast recording or the film soundtrack?

Jason: London cast.

Mark: Nice!

Jason: My friend Steve Przybylski will start to bust out songs from it during breaks, and that is how I first heard of it.

Mark: Have you seen it on stage?

Jason: I haven’t, unfortunately. Steve just started playing songs from it while we were working on a show this summer, and it got caught in my head. So I sought it out, and here I am listening to it as we chat about actor/musician shows. It seemed appropriate.

Mark: Eerily appropriate. Well, I can tell you that since the story is about how music creates connections between people, it feels emotionally RIGHT for all the actors to be playing instruments. You can’t really exist in the world of this show without being a musician, because music is the language everyone uses, no matter which country they’re from. So even Girl’s mother, who’s not literally in a band, will pull out an accordion, and it lets you know she belongs.

Jason: I think you hit the nail on the head earlier when you said that the choice had to be dramaturgically relevant to really work.

Mark: Yes.

Jason: It’s funny, and not in a ha-ha way, but I was doing some reading before we started talking.

Mark: NERD.

Jason: Absolutely. But it was the first time I had ever heard anyone bring up the criticism of reducing costs. Because I had never, as a producer even, thought about that. [Read more →]

October 24, 2014   No Comments

He’s Singing About His Home

Jimmy Nail (standing, center) and the cast of The Last Ship

Jimmy Nail (standing, center) and the cast of The Last Ship

Jimmy Nail draws on personal experience for Broadway’s The Last Ship

The first voice heard in the new Broadway musical The Last Ship is Jimmy Nail’s. “I’m very proud that I get to open the show,” he says. “It always fills me with great pride that I begin the show and I can sing about Newcastle upon Tyne.”

Nail is from the Benton neighborhood of that northern British city, and this show has given him a chance to connect once again with the place he left long ago.

The Last Ship, which is at the Neil Simon Theatre, specifically takes place in Wallsend, a shipyard town near Newcastle upon Tyne. It’s the birthplace of Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, who wrote the score and whose life partially inspired the story about a man named Gideon Fletcher, who comes back home after 15 years away.

He returns to find that the shipyard he left town to escape has been shut down. At the urging of a priest, the shipyard workers break in to build one last ship—a ship for themselves. Nail plays Jackie White, the engineering foreman. Describing the character, he says, “He’s a man of few words, but his words are usually coherent and meaningful. He’s not one for lightweight banter. He’s a man who understands his role within the working community. He cares about them like a shepherd would care for his flock.” [Read more →]

October 23, 2014   No Comments

The Twyla Tharp Ballet We Nearly Lost

Sterling Baca in Bach Partita

Sterling Baca in Bach Partita

How American Ballet Theatre rescued Bach Partita

A new ballet requires weeks of intensive rehearsal in order to reach the stage, and if it’s not properly taken care of, it can become extremely difficult to revive. In fact, if it isn’t performed for a substantial period of time, and if the dancers on whom it was made start to lose their muscle memory of the choreography, then the piece can slip away altogether.

Last fall, American Ballet Theatre rescued an important piece from that oblivion. Twyla Tharp’s rigorously beautiful Bach Partita had been made for the company in 1983, performed no more than ten times through 1985, and then vanished.

Thanks to the dedication of Susan Jones, a longtime and indispensable ballet mistress with the company—who was in the studio as Tharp’s assistant as the ballet was created 30 years earlier—Bach Partita came back to the stage. It was danced with astonishing commitment and panache by a new generation of dancers.

New Yorkers now have another chance to see this nearly-lost sensation. After playing Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater last year, it will return to the space for three performances next week, as part of ABT’s fall season in New York.

Back in 1981, the versatile and ever-surprising Tharp was on quite a roll with her own company. The Catherine Wheel, set to an original David Byrne score, played Broadway that year, and in 1982 she had a huge success with the sensuously elegant Nine Sinatra Songs. For her return to ABT (where she’d created the exuberant and witty Push Comes to Shove, a huge hit in 1976), Tharp chose a 30-minute Bach score and choreographed fiercely complex, purely classical choreography for a cast of 36.

New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff’s delivered an enthusiastic review: “Miss Tharp thinks amazingly big here in every sense of the word,” she wrote. “For the first time, she has attempted a true neoclassical ballet whose movement is rooted in ballet’s academic code rather than her own modern- dance idiom with incorporation of ballet steps.” She later described the piece as “a treasure house of dance invention for those fascinated by formal intricacy and experiments with movement.”

Recalling Bach Partita, Jones says, “I think it was really Bach that drove her. She has her point of view about the music and how it should be played, how it’s meant to be. She was really challenging the dancers. I think that the hardest thing for them—aside from absorbing Twyla’s style and getting it into their bodies—was the speed she required. It was choreographed to a Heifetz recording that is just faster than the speed of light!” [The ballet is always performed with a live violinist.]

The original cast included three principal couples, seven soloist couples, and an ensemble of 16 women. “Twyla was developing her relationship with ABT and was discovering more things about the classical vocabulary,” recalls Robert La Fosse, who was the youngest of the six principals. “She was pushing the balletic partnering to new limits and challenging us with movements that changed directions constantly.”

Jones, who rehearses many Tharp dances, often staging them for various companies, is passionate about this one. “I feel it’s one of her best pieces. The fact that it’s Bach, and that it’s all of these dancers dancing their hearts out to this one violinist who’s making this incredible sound—I think it’s exhilarating. I didn’t think this ballet would ever go away.” [Read more →]

October 22, 2014   No Comments

His Rage Is My Rage Too

Gretchen Mol & Hari Dhillon

Gretchen Mol & Hari Dhillon

How Hari Dhillon channels the anger and revelations in Broadway’s Disgraced

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

It’s clearly been a very bad day. Amir (Hari Dhillon) doesn’t so much enter his dusk-lit apartment as storm it, quickly loosening his tight corporate-lawyer tie and pouring himself a stiff drink. His wife Emily (Gretchen Mol) isn’t home, and somehow, that only intensifies his anxious, angry pacing. He stomps out onto the terrace, sips his drink… then hurls his cocktail glass against the wall, shattering it to pieces. He comes back and pours himself another round.

Soon enough, Emily, a visual artist, arrives with some last-minute groceries, reminding Amir that a couple of friends are on their way over for a significant soiree. The guests are Amir’s co-workers and her curator husband, who may have big news about Emily’s inclusion in a new Whitney exhibit. And thus the table is set for a familiar theatrical battle scene: The Dinner Party From Hell. No more glasses will be smashed, but the lives of all the diners will be significantly dented.

Though all four share some blame for the collision, Amir’s rage is the engine that drives the long, volatile third scene of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced, now at the Lyceum Theatre. So one obvious question for Dhillon would be: What does he do as an actor to psych himself up before coming onstage?

“The writing is so tight, there’s never a point where I have to stand off to the side and rev up my own personal motives,” says Dhillon, who, though American-born-and-raised, is better known in England as heartthrob doctor Michael Spence on the BBC series Holby City. “The train ride feels kind of inexorable. I never feel like, ‘On Line X, I have to do this.’ ”

In any case, much of the fuel for the evening’s conflict is buried, Dhillon explains. [Read more →]

October 21, 2014   No Comments

What Exactly Is Queens-Style Dance?

A piece by Neville Dance Theatre

A piece by Neville Dance Theatre

The Queensboro Dance Festival celebrates dance companies from across the borough

In dance reputation terms, Manhattan has made its mark with stalwart institutions like American Ballet Theatre and Lincoln Center, as well as 1960s-bred, avant-garde downtown companies. Brooklyn’s dancescape is known for Mark Morris, BAM, and even more experimental flavors. But do audiences ever think of—or even recognize—what could be called “Queens-style” dance?

Karesia Batan thought not, and she decided this was a problem she needed to address. That’s why she’s developed the Queensboro Dance Festival, where from October 20 to 26, audiences from all boroughs can enjoy 18 diverse, Queens-based dance troupes in a rotating bill at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City.

“My inspiration for creating [Queensboro Dance Festival] was the absence of a physical dance community in our borough,” says the Flushing-born and current Long Island City resident. “I knew from programs I’ve seen around Queens, and also from a ton of dancers I’ve worked with, that a lot of us live in Queens. But oddly, we don’t have a cohesive identity like Manhattan or Brooklyn.”

She continues, “In Queens, we don’t have anything that really connects us all. Queens is so, so diverse, from the culture to the food, and because it’s so large it tends to be disjointed and people stay in their own pockets. But a lot of artists live here, and it’s really an artistic hive. So this is my attempt to bring the Queens dance community together and discover: Who else is out there? What does dance from Queens look like? How can we create a platform for Queens dance?” [Read more →]

October 20, 2014   No Comments