Hamilton and other theatrical productions I have seen


On Thursday night, I took my daughter to see Hamilton at the Providence Performing Arts Center (there’s a nice review from The Providence Journal). We’d watched the filmed version of Hamilton on Disney+ and listened to the cast recording countless times but this was the first time we attended a live performance.  It was nice to get the wide view from the First Dress Circle where we could see the intricate choreography of the ensemble cast.  I was also impressed with the lighting design.  And it was interesting to see the different takes the actors had on the characters from the original cast.  Not related to the show, the Providence Performing Arts Center is a lovely theater although a bit short on leg room.

Anyhow, it got be thinking of what other theatrical productions I’d seen in my life.  So I brainstormed a list with the help of some old ticket stubs I’ve collected.

Broadway

  • Annie (early 1980s) at the Alvin Theatre – I remember getting autographs from the young cast members outside the theater although those weren’t saved. Sarah Jessica Parker might’ve been in the cast at the time.
  • Barnum (early 1980s) at the St. James Theatre – A musical about the life of P.T. Barnum long before The Greatest Showman. I remember being impressed by a woman purportedly supposed to be George Washington’s nurse singing a bluesy tune.  Also, jugglers and acrobats performed in the audience before the show.
  • Peter Pan (early 1980s) – A revival of the 1954 musical starring Sandy Duncan.  She flew out over the audience at the end of the show.
  • Lost in Yonkers (December 29, 1992) at Richard Rogers Theatre – A nostalgic comedy-drama by Neil Simon. Didi Conn played the main role replacing Mercedes Ruehl, much to the disgruntlement of my sister.
  • Jelly Roll (January 10, 1995) at 47th Street Theatre – A biographical musical about jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton.  I remember that it was performed by the second cast much to the disgruntlement of the guy behind me.
  • A Funny Thing Happened on Way to the Forum (March 19, 1997) at St. James Theatre – Whoopi Goldberg starred in the lead role that previously had been reserved for a man.
  • Once Upon a Mattress (March 19, 1997) at Broadhurst Theater -Sarah Jessica Parker was definitely in this show.
  • The Lion King (January 22, 2000) at New Amsterdam Theatre – Some friends convinced me to get SRO tickets for this show although I was resistant to Disney musicals at that point in my life.  I ended up liking it.
  • Monty Python’s Spamalot (November 19, 2005) at Shubert Theatre – As a long time fan of Monty Python and Tim Curry, I was eager to so this show and was severely disappointed.  Maybe because the cast felt like they were phoning it in the whole time?

Off-Broadway

  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (early 1980s) at Radio City Music Hall – This production was made long before Disney movies were routinely adapted into Broadway musicals.  My dad took us to this show because he felt we needed to see something at the great Radio City Music Hall.
  • The Fantasticks (January 1995) at Sullivan Street Playhouse – Saw world’s longest-running musical when it was in the 35th year of its 42-year run. It was great.

West End

  • The Mousetrap (February 28, 1998) at St Martin’s Theatre – Since I’d seen the world’s longest-running musical in New York I had to see the world’s longest-running play of any kind in London.  This is a famous Agatha Christie murder mystery.
  • An Inspector Calls (February 28, 1998) at the Royal Theatre  – The second show I saw on the same night that featured people impersonating police officers.  This one was a satire of Edwardian society.

Touring Productions

  • Les Miserables (August 2, 1990) at National Theatre – The summer I went to a high school program at Georgetown University, I learned that big, bold, Broadway musicals are good actually.
  • 42nd Street (February 7, 1993) at Chrysler Hall – Part of a series of shows my Mom and I went to see when I was in college.
  • Last of the Red Hot Lovers (May 9, 1993) at Chrysler Hall – This production starred Don Knotts and Barbara Eden!
  • Camelot (October 24, 1993) at Chrysler Hall – I’ve loved Camelot since watching the filmed version of the 1982 revival so I was eager to see a live performance. Robert Goulet, who played Lancelot in the original production, starred is King Arthur.  This was a bit of a waste of his big voice since Arthur’s part was written for a lesser singer, but it was still fun and inspiring.
  • Rent (August 26, 1997) at National Theatre – The musical that brought a 1990s sensibility to Broadway.  I saw this with some friends in Washington and then listened to the cast recording for the next year.

Repertory, Community, and College Theaters, etc. 

  • Fiddler on the Roof (late 1980s) – My childhood parish had a community theater called the St. Catherine Players, although the performers weren’t generally members of the congregation.  Anyhow, I first saw this terrific musical about Jewish people in Russia in the basement of a Roman Catholic church.
  • Broadway Bound (August 1990) at Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse – This is the third in a trilogy of Neil Simon’s plays after Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues (which I only saw as movies).
  • Antigone (August 1990) at Tisbury Amphitheater – This was a modernized take of the Sophocles’ play performed in a lovely wooded setting on Martha’s Vineyard.
  • All the King’s Men (Autumn 1991) at William and Mary Theatre – Robert Penn Warren’s fictionalized story of Huey Long was set to music by Randy Newman.
  • Once Upon a Mattress (October 16, 1992) at William and Mary Theatre – I saw this on a bad date.
  • Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat at Matthew Whaley School – Sometime, I some group perform this at a public school in Williamsburg.  It was good, I recall.
  • Godspell (April 1993) at St. Bede’s Catholic Church Parish Hall – The Catholic/Episcopal Covenant Players performed this at William & Mary.
  • Night Sky (November 19, 1993) at William and Mary Theatre – A play in which the protagonist suffers from aphasia after an accident.  This was part of a much better date to celebrate my birthday.
  • Working (April 1994?) at The Fellowship Hall at the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church – Another Covenant Players production of a musical by Studs Terkel.
  • Into the Woods (January 20, 1994) at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall – The Sinfonicron Light Opera Company performed this Stephen Sondheim musical.  I remember feeling it was mean-spirited and feeling very depressed after watching it.  I’d probably like it better if I was in a better mind.
  • Helene (April 14, 1995) at William and Mary Theatre – I know this has something to do with Greek mythology, but I have no recollection what it was about.
  • Junebug/Jack (September 9, 1995) at The Arts Center Theatre – Another show I don’t clearly remember but it looks like something I would like.
  • Jim Crow Gotta Go (April 13, 1996) at William and Mary Theatre – I think that this was a touring production based on oral history experiences of people in a Southern town during the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Walk Together Children (1996) – This was a production that took its inspiration from Jim Crow Gotta Go to specifically focus on the stories of people in Williamsburg.  My good friend and housemate worked on producing this show.
  • Crazy For You (October 17, 1997) at William and Mary Theatre – A romantic comedy musical with Gershwin brothers songs that I thought was funnier than my date did.  But it was still a good date.
  • Angels in America: Part One (April 18, 1998) at William and Mary Theatre – A production of Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking drama about the AIDS crisis in the gay community was still controversial in Williamsburg 23 years ago
  • Jesus Christ Superstar (May 11, 2000) at Turtle Lane Playhouse – The main thing I remember about this production is that they made Mary Magdalene look like Monica Lewinski.
  • Blue Man Group – “Tubes” (September 8, 2000) at The Charles Playhouse – Got to see this show free-of-charge for participants of the Boston -> New York AIDSRide.  A Blue Man spat a piece of chewed-up Toblerone in my hand.  It was gross.
  • Miss Folk America (May 19, 2001) at Somerville Theatre – A comedy about the Boston area folk scene starring some of our favorite singer/songwriters at the time as fictional versions of themselves.  Extremely niche.
  • Nixon’s Nixon (March 2002) at Huntington Theatre – I volunteered as an usher and got to watch this comic drama of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on the last night of Nixon’s presidency.
  • Blithe Spirit (February 19, 2004) at Walpole Footlighters – A colleague of Susan’s was involved in this production of the Noël Coward comedy.
  • The Birthday Party  (March 2004) at American Repertory Theatre – A very strange and very uncomfortable Harold Pinter play with the set’s furniture slowly being pushed into the center of the stage.
  • The Sweetest Swing in Baseball (2006?) at Cyclorama – A woman artist adopts the persona of Darryl Strawberry and becomes a success painting pictures of chickens.  Surprisingly it works.
  • Pippin (September 21, 2018) at Footlight Club -I’d long loved the music from this show but it wasn’t quite expected.
  • The Haunted Life (March 23, 2019) at Merrimack Repertory Theatre – An adaptation of a autobiographical Jack Kerouac novel about growing up in Lowell.

Shakespeare

  • Macbeth (Summer 1992) at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall – This was part of the Virginia Shakespeare Festival.  The star of the show also taught a theater course I took at William & Mary that summer.
  • Twelfth Night (February 25, 1993) at William and Mary Theatre – I played Sir Toby Belch in a high school production of Twelfth Night, so I love this comedy, but I don’t remember this William & Mary production at all.
  • Richard III (July 22, 1995) at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall – Another Virginia Shakespeare Festival production.
  • Measure for Measure (July 28, 1998) at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall – The main thing I remember about this Virginia Shakespeare Festival production is that they emphasized style over substance and I really hated it.  Also, music by the Gipsy Kings.
  • Twelfth Night (Summer 2001) at Boston Common – The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare on the Common set Twelfth Night in the early-60s JFK/Camelot era.
  • Macbeth (2003) at Boston Common – Another Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production that moved the Scottish tragedy to Juan Perón’s Argentina.  Memorably, the three witches remained on stage for the entire show, pulling strings in the background.
  • Hamlet (2005) at Boston Common – In this production, the Danish prince had a swimming pool, I think?

Opera, Light Opera, Ballet, etc.

  • Romeo and Juliet (October 20, 1991) at Chrysler Hall – This was the first ballet I ever saw performed by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.  However, the main thing I remember about this performance is that my sister mistook a Navy officer in his dress uniform for an usher.  Welcome to Norfolk!
  • Patience (January 19, 1995) at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall – Another Sinfonicron Light Opera Company performance.  This made me realize that I really don’t like Gilbert & Sullivan
  • La Boheme (January 21, 1997) at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall – Having seen Rent, I saw the original with my Mom. Mimi has a strong voice for someone with consumption.
  • The Magic Flute (1997?) at Harrison Opera House – My first opera, also in Norfolk.
  • The Nutcracker (December 30, 2005) at The Opera House – Amazingly, I’ve only seen this ballet once, performed by Boston Ballet.  Maybe next Christmas?
  • Semele (September 28, 2006) at New York State Theatre – This was an adaptation of an oratorio by Handel that made the main character in Marilyn Monroe.
  • Urban Nutcracker (December 16, 2006) at John Hancock Hall – Another Christmas classic I need to see again.
  • Madama Butterfly (April 22, 2007) at New York State Theatre – A treat from my mother that I saw with Susan in the last months before we became parents.
  • Così fan tutte (March 24, 2018) at Metropolitan Opera House – My first show at the Met set the Mozart opera in a Coney Island-style beach resort. Broadway star Kelli O’Hara made a nice transition to opera.

I’ll add more if I remember them.

Classic Movie Review: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)


Title: Yankee Doodle Dandy
Release Date: May 29, 1942
Director: Michael Curtiz
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

George M. Cohan was an entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and theatrical producer credited with creating the Broadway musical.  When I was a kid, I really liked his song “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and in my second grade class the students got to pick the patriotic song we’d sing each morning and it almost always was “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”  My family even learned that we could sing “S-U-double L-I-V-A-N” to the tune of “Harrigan.” So Cohan’s work has made a mark on my life.  Yankee Doodle Dandy is purportedly the biography of Cohan’s life albeit historical accuracy is overlooked in order to make something that makes audiences feel patriotic during a time of crisis.  Which is fine, I don’t expect to learn my history from a musical, and after all can’t the same thing be said about Hamilton?

The movie is framed by an elderly George M. Cohan (James Cagney) being called to the White House to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Hank Simms).  This was the first time a sitting president was depicted in a movie and Simms performance is awful.  These scenes are also the cheesiest and most over-the-top of the movie and might have been left out had they been thinking of posterity but again they probably appealed to audiences of the time. Cohan tells his version of his life story to FDR in a series of extended flashbacks.

Young Georgie (Henry Blair) gets his start in a vaudeville act with his family called The Four Cohans.  He seems pretty obnoxious and arrogant about his early success, and despite a lesson in humility from his father Jerry (Walter Huston, who is great in this movie), never really seems to change.  Nevertheless, once Cagney takes over the role his winsome charm is able to overpower any feeling that Cohan is kind of a heel.  The plot basically ties together a series of magnificent song and dance numbers including “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “Over There.”  It’s schmaltzy but thoroughly enjoyable.

Yankee Doodle Dandy has some unfortunate “of its time” aspects.  In once short scene The Four Cohans perform in blackface, because of course they do. The only actual Black characters in the movie are the servants at the White House which says something in a movie that’s supposed to represent the American dream.  Finally, Cohan essentially sabotages the career of Mary (Joan Leslie) repeatedly but it’s supposed to be okay because Mary seems to want nothing more than to be his dutiful wife.  That Cagney charm is strong because I almost didn’t even catch that Cohan’s marriage proposal was essentially to cover up giving Mary’s role to another actress.  Leslie, by the way, was only 17 when this movie was filmed and does a great job of “aging-up” to be the older Mary Cohan at the end of the movie.

Yankee Doodle Dandy joins several other movie musicals considered to be all-time greats as being a story about entertainers. Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Cabaret (not to mention The Muppet Movie and La La Land) all fall into this category. On the one hand it makes sense to make a musical about people who sing and dance for a living, but it also jibes against the stereotype of musicals being where ordinary people break out into song and dance.  Personally, I can always use some more song and dance in my life.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Band Wagon (1953)


Title: The Band Wagon
Release Date: August 7, 1953
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is a movie star of song & dance films who was big “about 12-15 years ago” but whose career is fading.  In other words, pretty much Fred Astaire at the time this movie was made.  He returns to New York where his friends Lily (Nanette Fabray) and Lester (Oscar Levant) have written a Broadway musical they want Tony to star in. They’ve enlisted a very serious producer/director/actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) to direct the musical despite Tony’s misgivings.  Cordova re-envisions the musical as a modern-day retelling of the story of Faust and the devil. He also recruits ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to star in the show with Tony.

The main tension of the film is the big differences and age of Tony and Gabrielle that need to be resolved if they are going to be able to work together.  Cordova also keeps changing the show to be more over-the-top with elaborate sets and effects and making the show more of a serious metaphorical drama than the light comedy envisioned by Lily and Lester.  Chaos ensues.

Once all the conflicts are resolved the film finishes up with several numbers for the actual show.  I guess this was supposed to a victory lap for the performers but the movie fizzles out for me a this point, especially since none of these numbers would makes sense in a show together.  “Triplets” is nightmare fodder and the big set piece, “Girls Hunt Ballet,” is weird but entertaining. It actually reminds a lot of  “Broadway Melody” from MGM’s big musical of the previous year Singin’ in the Rain.  In fact, the two movies have a lot in common, which makes The Band Wagon feel a little formulaic, but if you like one you’ll like the other.

It’s a good formula though, and I really like the part of the movie where they do song and dance about making a show better than the song and dance from the show.  Standout numbers include “Shine Your Shoes,” “That’s Entertainment,” and “Dancing in the Dark.”  If you like movie musicals you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: West Side Story (1961)


Title: West Side Story
Release Date: October 18, 1961
Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Production Company: The Mirisch Company | Seven Arts Productions
Summary/Review:

This iconic movie musical based on a Broadway musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet remains a cultural touchstone. I see the songs and the story referenced regularly. Even the New York City subway hums the first three notes of “Somewhere.”  The creators of West Side Story include the powerhouse trio of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins.  Co-director Robert Wise may not be as famous as the other three, but also has a jaw-dropping list of accomplishments.

I first saw West Side Story in 7th grade after we’d read the script in class (we’d also read Romeo and Juliet and watched the Franco Zeffirelli film adaptation).  None of us kids could take a street gang seriously when they spent so much time finger-snapping and dancing ballet.  But even then I did like some of the songs and the story.

Later in life I learned that the neighborhood where West Side Story is set was demolished by Robert Moses to build Lincoln Center.  I’ve even heard, but can’t confirm, that already condemned blocks were used as sets for filming the movie.  As much as I like Lincoln Center, it makes me sad that a poor, mostly non-white community was displaced to build it.

Watching the movie as an adult, I realize that it was pretty edgy for a movie made under the Production Code. For example, the mentions of drugs and mental illness in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” or the absolutely horrifying scene where the Jets attempt to rape Anita (Rita Moreno).  While the movie does feel dated, a lot the issues it addresses feel relevant.  The racial prejudice the Jets have against the “immigrants” from Puerto Rico sounds all to similar, and police Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) is a surprisingly realistic racist/corrupt cop for a film from 1961.

The big flaws with the movie come down to casting as almost every one of the Latin American characters is played by a white person of European heritage, including major rolls like Maria (Natalie Wood) and Bernardo (George Chakiris).  The fact that Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno is an absolute scene stealer who puts in the best performance in the movie makes it clear that it was possible to find talented Latin American actors, singes, and dancers.  Apart from Natalie Wood, I believe the cast were unknowns at the time as well, so it’s not like the white actors portraying Puerto Ricans gave the film extra star power.

Despite these flaws, this movie is a deserved classic.  The choreography, costuming, cinematography, and editing are beautifully done and the care taken in making this film reward multiple viewings.  Of course, the song and dance numbers are great.  I particularly like “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “Tonight Quintet,” and “Somewhere.”  And the final scene actually improves on Shakespeare by having one of the star-crossed lovers survive. Maria’s line “Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate!!! How many can I kill Chino? How many — and still have one bullet left for me?” is absolutely chilling.  And anyone who isn’t weeping at “Te adoro Anton”  is made of stronger stuff than me.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Hamilton (2020)


Title: Hamilton
Release Date: July 3, 2020
Director: Thomas Kail
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | 5000 Broadway Productions | Nevis Productions | Old 320 Sycamore Pictures | RadicalMedia
Summary/Review:

Five years after first hearing the Broadway cast recording of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history musical inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, I finally get to see what the performance actually looks like.  And I didn’t even have to pay $500 for a ticket!  This movie is made up of stage performances filmed over three shows in 2016 much like one of my all-time favorite Broadway-shows-become-movies, Camelot (1982). The high-quality film and steady-cam work enhances an already great stage production.

Since it seemed that most everyone I know was already watching this movie yesterday, I’m sure no one is waiting for my review.  Still, I do recommend watching it even if you’re skeptical about all the fuss. The story is somewhat loose with historical facts, but it needs to be recognized that this is a story for our times as much as it is history. The cast is predominately people of color who claim American history – all too often considered white history – as their own. Hamilton and Lafayette probably never considered themselves immigrants, for example, but in Hamilton they identify as such because the show is tying them into a longer story of the American experience.

Anyhow, there’s probably nothing more I can say about Hamilton that hasn’t already been said.  I like it, I love the music, I love the deeply human performances from the cast.

Rating: *****

Podcasts of the Week Ending May 30


Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Anthropocene Reviewed :: You’ll Never Walk Alone and Jerzy Dudek

John Green analyzes a show tune that has become a beloved soccer anthem, and the performance of a Polish goalkeeper in 2005.

Code Switch :: A Decade Of Watching Black People Die

The murders, the videos, the outrage, the hashtags – the pattern of Black people murdered by cops and vigilantes is unsettlingly familiar.  When will it move beyond a grim voyeurism towards actual justice?

The Last Archive :: The Invisible Lady

The story of a sideshow attraction in 1804 New York expands into a wider analysis of the invisibility of women in public life.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Makin’ Whoopee

The history of novelty toys, specifically the Whoopee Cushion, and why we find the sounds of farts funny.


Movie Review: Camelot (1982)


Title: Camelot
Release Date: September 26, 1982
Director: Marty Callner
Production Company: Home Box Office (HBO)
Summary/Review:

The revival of the Broadway musical Camelot played at the Winter Garden Theatre (just before it was infested by Cats) in 1981-1982 and this film for HBO is a taping of a live performance.  When I was a child, this was my introduction to the musical and Arthurian legend in general.  I later saw the 1967 film adaptation of Camelot which was a bit meh, and I attended a touring company performance in the 1990s.  I enjoyed that performance although it starred Robert Goulet as King Arthur which seemed a misuse of his vocal talents.

For me this 1982 version of Camelot remains the gold standard.  It stars Richard Harris as Arthur, and I’ve forever been a fan of Richard Harris since first watching this. I’m glad I was able to find it again on the library resource Hoopla. Harris brings humanity, gravitas, and humor to his role as Arthur.  Camelot reduces it’s source material (T.H. White’s The Once and Future King) down to the essential love triangle among Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot.  Meg Bussert and Richard Muenz perform and sing terrifically as Guenevere, and Lancelot.  I’m also delighted by Barrie Ingham’s hilarious performance as Pellinore.

If you like Camelot, or you’ve never seen Camelot, you owe it to yourself to watch this version.

Rating: *****

Podcasts of the Week Ending July 13


Hit Parade :: The History of Show Tunes and the Pop Charts

A broad history of Broadway tunes and cast albums making it to the top of the charts, whether as original cast recordings, covers, or even samples.  I learned a lot, such as the fact that Natalie Wood did not sing her own songs in West Side Story, and that Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita were concept albums before they were staged as shows.

StoryCorps :: A Danger to My Country

Stories of the “Lavender Scare” in the 1950s federal government, and the gay man who had to enforce it.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Podcasts of the Week Ending March 10


BackStory :: Too Good to Be True

The American History guys discuss several of the myths of American history, looking for the kernels of truth among the flat-out fabrications.  Particularly interesting is the segment on the widely believed legends of Robert E. Lee that rarely stand up to historical scrutiny.

This American Life :: Five Women

A story that delves into the experiences of sexual misconduct from five women employed by the same man, which includes an exploration of their personal histories and how that affected their interactions.

Hub History :: Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, with Ryan Walsh

An interview with Ryan Walsh, author of a new history book about Boston in 1968 through the lens of Van Morrison’s classic album Astral Weeks, inspired by Morrison’s time in Boston.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Hamilton

An exploration of sound design for a Broadway musical through the hit show Hamilton.

WBUR News :: ‘Get Our Voices Out’: Why 3 Students Will Walk Out To Protest Gun Violence

An interview with three Boston-area high school activists planning protests to reduce gun violence.