Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My Most Memorable Theatre Experiences: #10-#2

In preparation for the completion of this series tomorrow, I thought I would remind you of numbers 10-2.

10) The Lion King

Okay so I was a little behind the eight ball on this show. I didn't see it until 2009, about 10 years after it opened on Broadway. For some reason I never got around to it, but when I lived in Manhattan last summer, I made it my goal to see every musical on Broadway. The Lion King was the last show I saw that summer, the night before I moved to be exact. And I must say it was the perfect end to an amazing summer of theatre. Now I should probably preface this by saying, "I am a cryer". I cry a lot in the theatre, and that is often how I measure how good a show is. Now I was not expecting to cry in The Lion King, a show that I thought was for children. From the moment Rafiki sang the opening syllables, tears streamed out of my eyes. Sure its cheesy, but the harmonies in the opening song, Circle of Life, just moved me deeply. The other number that was particularly touching for me was, He Lives In You, Simba's coming of age moment. This was another song sung by the magnificent character of Rafiki, and when she was joined by an African choir on the reprise, I was again moved to tears. I was somewhat familiar with the use of puppets and masks before seeing the show and I was completely expecting a work of over-the-top Disney-tastic spectacle. But what I actually experienced was a work of theatrical stagecraft that was not at all like something out of a theme park, but rather art. Helmed by the ingenious Julie Taymor, this piece brings our favorite animated characters to life in front of our very eyes. We see the human actors and we also see the animal masks and puppets, which seems like sensory overload, but in actuality, it does not matter if we look at a face or a mask. It isn't about what we see, but what we feel, and that is the spirit of the actor living inside the character.

9) South Pacific (revival)

Like most theatre fans, I grew up watching the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals on video. I started with The Sound of Music and a bit later I fell in love with Carousel, and then South Pacific. I loved the romance of these shows and the glorious, sweeping scores. When I began to study vocal performance, I gravitated toward the R&H songs as they fit wonderfully into my soprano voice. They are still among my favorite repertory pieces today. Unfortunately for me, most contemporary musicals are written for belters so when I knew that Lincoln Center Theatre was reviving South Pacific, I jumped at the chance to see it. I had seen a charming little community theatre production of South Pacific in Walla Walla, WA a few years before and fell in love with the score and staging, but what I saw and experienced at Lincoln Center blew me away. I had listened to the cast recording before I saw the show and fell in love with the voice of Kelli O'Hara. She has a glorious soprano and while she mixes down into her chest voice, she is definitely not a power belter, and she became a singer that I could relate to. Unfortunately when I saw the performance Miss O'Hara was on maternity leave, but Laura Osnes was perfectly lovely in the role of Nellie Forbush and Paulo Szot was, and I do not use this word lightly, a revelation in the role of Emile de Becque.

Now while I have always said I'm an old soul, contrary to popular belief I was not around in 1949 for the original Broadway production of South Pacific. But you could have convinced me otherwise as the opening notes of the overture transported me to the 1940s when full orchestras and romance trumped rock scores and electronic music. When the stage retracted from the thrust to reveal the orchestra as they played excerpts from Bali Hai and Some Enchanted Evening, the water works began and continued throughout the opening sequence (did I mention I love a good cry at the theatre). The opening sequence of Cockeyed Optimist, Twin Soliloquies, and Some Enchanted Evening was enrapturing. Everything about the production was captivating, from the wonderful performances by Danny Burstein as Luther Billis and Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary and picture perfect direction of Bartlett Sher, to the visually stunning scenic and lighting designs. One of the most unique aspects of this experience, for me, was the fact that I was one of the youngest people in the audience of the Vivian Beaumont theatre that night. It felt so wonderful to be in the presence of a more mature generation that may indeed have seen the original production with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, and above all, that truly maintained respect for the theatre as a venerated art form, and not simply as entertainment. I guess what really touched me the most about this production of South Pacific was the realization that classical musical theatre and timeless talents like Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot still have a place on The Great White Way.

8) Wicked

Those who know me well know that my love for Wicked runs deep and may be surprised that it is not higher on my list of memorable theatre experiences. I think the reason is that I have seen it so many times, it must be 7 or 8 now, so the impact of my initial experience began to fade with each repeat visit. Because of this, I am a strong proponent of only seeing a show once if it has a strong effect on you the first time you see it. I saw Wicked for the first time in 2004 on Broadway. Most of the original cast had left by that time, including my idol Kristin Chenoweth, but Idina Menzel was still playing the role of Elphaba. I didn't know a lot about Wicked the first time I saw it, in fact I didn't know much about Broadway at all. While I had seen a lot of shows on their national tours as a youngster, Wicked was my first true Broadway show. I have a hard time deciphering what I remember from my first time seeing Wicked and what has been filled in by my repeat visits, but I do remember that the song For Good made a very profound impression on me. This representation of a friendship between two women was something that I had never seen in a musical before and it struck me as somewhat groundbreaking. I had the slightest inkling that this message of friendship would touch other people as it had me and that Wicked just might be the next big smash hit on Broadway. Well I think thousands of theatre-goers would agree with me and Wicked has become Broadway's juggernaut, running for 7 straight years to sold out houses at Broadway's Gershwin Theatre as well as several national touring companies, sit down productions in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and several international productions.

I think Idina Menzel said it best in her accetance speech for the 2004 TONY award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for Elphaba when she exclaimed "I'm so proud to be in a show that celebrates women and our strengths and differences." I guess this aspect of the show is what has drawn me back to Wicked at least once a year since 2004. The universal message of friendship and accepting our differences speaks to the heart of every person. There are times in our lives when we relate more to Glinda and there are times when relate more with Elphaba, but nevertheless, we've all had close friendships that have grown from our differences and this show reminds us of how important those relationships truly are. Sure, we've all had our favorite Elphabas and Glindas and while many are still partial to the original cast, I actually prefer Stephanie J Block in the role of Elphaba and have grown to love Annaleigh Ashford's Glinda. But with every cast change on Broadway and around the world, the names of the actresses playing the lead characters become less important and the show itself has emerged as the true star.

7) A Little Night Music (revival)

I apologize now if I start gushing, but of my list of top 10 theatre experiences, the revival of A Little Night Music was my most recent show so it is incredibly fresh and vivid in my memory. This show was a highlight of my life as a theatre-goer for several reasons. First of all, it was my first experience with a Stephen Sondheim work live on stage, other than Sondheim on Sondheim, and I was certainly not disappointed. From the top of the overture the final waltz, I was enraptured by the intricacies of the music, eloquence of the text, and the actors' polished performances. I found myself humming in 3/4 time several days after seeing the show. I try to see as many theatrical productions as possible, particularly those with historical significance that have made a grand impact on the musical theatre canon, but perhaps the biggest draw for me was Bernadette Peters. I wanted to see A Little Night Music when Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury were playing Desire and Madame Armfeldt, but I simply had to see this production when Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch took over the lead roles.

I have been a big fan of Miss Peters since I started my vocal training. My voice professor in college was frustrated because I learned vocal technique very quickly, but she was having trouble teaching me to "act the song." Finally, she sent me home with a VHS copy of Sunday in the Park with George and said "watch Bernadette Peters and learn from her." At that moment I got it. I realized that in the musical theatre, one must deliver a song as the character rather than themselves and that that often means letting go of vocal technique in order to allow the characters' emotions to seep through. Because Miss Peters has had such a profound impact on my growth as an artist, I was delighted to finally have the chance to see her on stage.

I was literally shaking in my seat as the curtain rose in the Walter Kerr Theatre. The actors entered in darkness but the moment I saw her signature red curls, I knew that I was in the presence of my Bernadette. I expected to fall in love with Bernadette's performance, and I did, but I also fell in love with the entire company and the show as a whole. Elaine Stritch was perfection in her comic timing and Alexander Hanson was a debonair, yet vulnerable Frederick. The younger cast members sparkled as well from Leigh Ann Larkin's Petra with her 11 o'clock showstopper The Miller's Son to Erin Davie's Charlotte and her acerbic sense of humor. But the true highlight of the evening for me was Bernadette Peters' Send in the Clowns. This is arguably Sondheim's most well known song and I've heard it many times over, but never truly understood its meaning. But in the context of the show and this specific scene where Frederick rejects Desire's love despite their history, I began to realize the weight of this song. They realize that they are in two very different places and when Desire is finally ready to love Frederick, he has found another wife, and the only way she can cope with the tragedy of the situation is to fake humor. In this respect, the song is truly heartbreaking and while Bernadette was visibly crying during her performance, I was doing the same from my orchestra seat, for many reasons. Not only was I feeling sympathy for Desire and her grief, but I was thinking of how lucky I was to finally see my idol perform live. (This is the point where I gush) I started thinking of how inspirational Bernadette Peters is as a performer and how giving she is to the audience. She has had such a long, illustrious career and she could easily retire or focus on film and concert work, but she has given us all the gift of returning to the stage where I am certain that a whole new generation of theatre-goers are falling in love with her at every performance. As I watched Bernadette Peters in A Little Night Music, I said to myself, "I will never forget this performance," and I'm certain that I never will.

6) Next To Normal

I apologize for neglecting this blog series over the past few weeks. I've been trying to cover the start of the figure skating season but now that that is underway, I'm back to theatre! I lived in Manhattan in the summer of 2009 and made it my personal goal to see every musical on Broadway. After the TONY awards, I became interested in Next to Normal and decided to wait in line for rush tickets. I thought I'd be fine arriving at 9am for a 10am box office opening, but little did I know, that was much too late. I didn't get tickets and saw Rock of Ages that night instead. On the way home from that show, I passed the Booth Theatre and happened to bump into Alice Ripley. She asked if I'd seen the show that night and I was so starstruck I could barely speak, but eventually found the words to tell her I'd waited in line but didn't get tickets. I proudly announced that I planned to get in line at 5am the next week to ensure that I'd get tickets. Then, to my surprise, Alice hugged me and told me how much she loves her fans and that she is so proud to be in a show that people love enough to wait in line for hours for rush tickets. She even told me to friend her on facebook and tell her when I was coming to the show, which I may or may not have done.

The next Friday, I arrived at the Booth Theatre at 5am and was first in line. When the box office opened at 10am I was able to purchase front row orchestra seats for $20 and could not believe my luck. I treated myself to the full theatre experience that night including a nice dinner before curtain. I hadn't listened to the music prior to seeing the show as I wanted to experience it all that night and from the beginning notes of the prelude, I was completely enraptured. I normally fall in love with shows because the music speaks to my soul, and this show was a perfect example of that. I found the blend of soft, traditional musical theatre, with rock and folk music to be genius in getting to the essence of the Goodman family. In some productions, good music can mask a weak story or poorly written book, but this show was one of those rare occasions where all elements worked perfectly in harmony. I use this phrase often, but this show is truly a play with music, because even if the score were taken away, the characters are developed enough to tell a complete story. How this show lost the TONY for Best Musical to Billy Elliott still astounds and infuriates me. Alice Ripley, who did win a TONY for Best Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Diana Goodman, a wife and mother suffering from bipolar disorder and depression was a complete tour de force. Patti LuPone once said that the most exciting performers to watch are those that are on the verge of spinning out of control. This describes Alice's performance perfectly. One minute she was in control of her voice and body and the next moment she wasn't and not only did that make her performance exciting, it made her portrayal of a mentally ill woman believable. While the other performers, J Robert Spencer as Dan, Kyle Dean Massey as Gabe, Jennifer Damiano as Natalie, Louis Hobson as the Doctors, and Adam Chanler-Berat as Henry were all fantastic, in my opinion they only served to support the character of Diana. While I think this show is stellar regardless of the casting, I think that Alice Ripley has become so iconic in this role that without her, it may not have much staying power on Broadway. In fact, now that Marin Mazzie has taken over the role, the show has all but posted its closing notice. But regardless of how much longer it lasts on Broadway, this show shed light on a topic previously untouched by musical theatre, developed a cult following, and truly touched a new generation of theatre-goers. And did I mention that it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama?

5) Everyday Rapture

I must admit that there were two reasons that I bought tickets to see Everyday Raputre. 1) My good friend is a huge fan of Sherie Rene Scott and wanted somebody to see the show with her. 2) I am a Roundabout Theatre Club Hiptix member so I got really cheap tickets. I had heard about this Sherie Rene Scott person before and while I thought her voice was good, I assumed she was just your generic Broadway belter. Also, I though it was highly narcissistic to co-write and star in your own show and actually have it come to Broadway. Nevertheless, I went to the show, expecting to hear a lot of vocal tricks and riffing and see a lot of camp.

Now we reach the point where I eat my words. My expectations were shattered within the first five minutes and I was completely enraptured, no pun intended, by this tour de force of a performer. I've written several posts about this show already, including a formal review, so I'll post links to them.

I'll try not to repeat what I wrote in earlier posts, and now that its been a good four months since I saw the show, I would like to talk about my fond memories. This was a big theatre season for me as I got the chance to see my three Broadway idols, Bernadette Peters, Barbara Cook, and Kristin Chenoweth, onstage in the same summer. But as much as I adored seeing these ladies onstage, none of them gripped me quite the way that Sherie did. Patti LuPone once said that performers are most exciting when they toe the line between in control and out of control, which is the perfect way to describe Sherie in this show. She speaks directly to the audience at the top of the show, telling us she is playing a character also named Sherie Rene Scott who is 50% real and 50% imaginary. This is one of the few musicals I've seen where the book rises to match the music and two elements work seamlessly together to make a cohesive show. Being a one-act, the show moves forward and the momentum is never broken, allowing it reach a climax and eventually a point of catharsis for the audience. The supporting cast is used sparingly, making it the closest thing to a one-woman show since Liza worked the Palace two years ago. Being a singer myself, I have a great deal of respect for good belting and Sherie is a perfect example. It just happens so naturally from good breath control and projection, as opposed to those other belters (I'm not naming names) who sound like their faces are going to fall off when they go for a high F.

I could go on and on about her vocal technique and her acting skills, but what really struck me about Sherie Rene Scott, and the thing I remember most from Everyday Rapture, is how warm and giving she was. I've been to many performances where the actors phone it in, but Sherie's passion and love for the show just radiated throughout the theatre as she put every drop of herself into the performance. I went on such a journey with this character that I felt like I'd experienced a lifetime of her emotions all in an hour and a half. This show actually changed how I feel about theatre and elevated my standards of what makes a perfect musical. I made a big bold statement that Everyday Rapture was the only perfect new musical since Sunday in the Park with George.
Oh yeah, and did I cry? There was no eleven o'clock emotional ballad that instructed me to cry, but nevertheless the waterworks happened anyway, and it was during the final number, Up The Ladder To The Roof, an uptempo to be exact. And did I mention that song is also my ring tone? And every time my phone rings, its an Everyday memory of the Rapture.

4) Hair (Revival)

For five weeks straight in the summer of 2009 I played the ticket lottery for the Broadway revival of Hair almost everyday. It seemed that I would never win the ticket lottery, oddly enough I rarely lose Broadway ticket lotteries, so I heard about the standing room tickets and decided to go that route. Now I would never recommend standing for a Broadway show because I feel that it takes you out of the performance but for this show, it does the exact opposite. Because the cast members, or the tribe, frequently enter the audience and perform in the aisles, I felt like I was truly part of the performance. As I stood behind the last row of the orchestra, Alison Case (Crissy) gave me a flower and an invitation to a "be-in," Will Swenson (Berger) dove over me to get to the last row of the orchestra, and Darius Nichols (Hud) picked me up and carried me around when he made his Act II entrance.

I really didn't know what to expect when I saw the show for the first time, even though I had heard nothing but positive reactions and I really enjoyed the TONY awards performance. Because Hair is more of a concept musical than a traditional plot-driven show, I must admit that I had a bit of trouble following the story the first time I saw the show and it did not strike me the way I expected it would as I could not find a way to relate to the 1960s characters. Nevertheless I had a great time and loved the energy of the performance, especially when I got to go onstage during the finale dance party.

In the days following the performance, I could not get Hair out of my head and could not stop listening to the soundtrack. Then it hit me that Hair was not just about the 1960s, but rather it was about the power that young people can have when they are united as one. I have never really considered myself an activist but the message of this show, "Letting the Sun Shine In" seemed to relate so closely to many of the issues facing our nation today and I felt so compelled to do something with the passion I felt for this show.

The second time I saw the show on Broadway I was completely invested in everything the cast was doing and the composers were trying to say and I really "got it". When Gavin Creel, Hair's original Claude, began to promote the national march for equality in Washington DC within the Broadway community, I knew I had to be there. Going to the march on the national mall on October 11th, 2009 with all of my theatre friends was one of the most elating experiences of my entire life and it was on that day that I learned what it really meant to "Let the Sun Shine In".

During this time I was also working on my own creative project as a tribute to the youth movement portrayed so artfully in Hair. I was inspired to choreograph Levitating The Pentagon based on my research of the youth culture of the 1960s. While my piece was not meant to be a direct representation of what I saw and felt from Hair, I wanted to capture the show's community and self-empowerment themes in a different medium: postmodern dance.

I saw the Broadway production of Hair for a third time in May of this year with a new cast that was so much different than the original tribe while still maintaining the youthful energy and feeling of community. I was so happy to be back in the Al Hirschfeld theatre where I had been so inspired six months earlier, not only to create my own art, but to join a social movement. Seeing Hair with two friends who were new to the show was a particularly special experience as I again realized how magical this piece of art really is.

The Broadway production played its final performance on Sunday June 27th, 2010. While I, along with thousands of others, was so sad to see it go, I know that as this production embarks on its national tour it will continue to inspire new generations of starshines to become the change they want to see in their own world, whether that is in regard to politics, the environment, equality, or any other issue that they feel passion for. It began in Washington, DC on October 26th, 2011 and continues to spread love to all who are willing to receive it.

When the original production of Hair premiered on Broadway in April of 1968, it was revolutionary and when this revival opened in March of 2009, it compelled an entirely new generation of hippies to stand up for their beliefs the same way that their grandparents did in the 1960s. So I would like to thank James Rado, Gerome Ragni, and Galt MacDermot for having the courage to write a musical that challenged the status quo and Joe Papp and the Public Theatre for believing that theatre could inspire social change. You have taught us all that our differences make us beautiful and that we all possess, within ourselves, the power to change the world around us.


I am not here to call myself a RENT-head as I was not a part of the cult following that originated with the show circa 1996 (I was about 8 years old then) but the Jonathan Larson's masterpiece touched me just the same. I am quite embarrassed to say that I saw the movie before I saw the Broadway production, but nonetheless, the movie was my gateway to the show. It was March of 2006 and my senior year of high school when I took a trip to New York with my mom. I was obsessed with RENT's score and we tried to get tickets to the show, but because of the movie's popularity, tickets were hard to come by. We waited in freezing weather at TKTS but the only thing available was partial view. We had recently heard about the show's ticket lottery and decided we would try our hand at that. Our hotel concierge urged us to purchase tickets because the lottery was "nearly impossible" to win, but we thought we'd try our luck anyway.

I remember this like it was yesterday. My mom and I both wrote our names on sheets of paper and anxiously awaited the drawing. I could tell that most of the other people there that night were huge fans of the show and their love for RENT was infectious. Now I am not what I would consider a lucky person, but on that day something just felt right and sure enough, the first name drawn was mine! I couldn't keep from shaking as I handed the box office attendant the $40 to purchase my two front row tickets.

Now I don't know what I can say about RENT that hasn't already been said, but never in my life had I felt so much love and energy in one room. I have now seen the show several times, always from the front row as a lottery winner and I would never want to see it from anywhere else. There is really nothing like it, you feel like you are on stage with the actors and their energy is kinetic. This is one of those shows that has meant different things to me at different points in my life and what spoke to me then was the message "no day but today". It was a difficult time for me as I was preparing to choose a college and transition into a new phase in my life and the show's message really gave me the strength to seize these new opportunities. My first time seeing RENT is an experience that I will never forget and of all the theatre lotteries I've won over the years, this was truly the luckiest I've ever felt.

2) The Phantom of the Opera

When I was 4 years old I was visited by the angel of music and I was never the same. My aunt took me to the Kennedy Center's Opera House to see the national tour of The Phantom of the Opera and according to her stories, I was the most well behaved four-year-old that anyone in the audience had ever seen. I was completely mesmorized and though I've seen the show several times since then, I'll always remember my first. Come to think of it, wasn't "remember your first time" an ad slogan used to promote the show a few years ago? Anyway, it's becoming increasingly difficult for me to decipher my first memories of the show from more recent ones, but I certainly remember the specatacle, from the the Phantom's lair to the masquarade, and of course the falling chandelier. But above all else, I remember the music and that has lived with me for the past 18 years. I loved to listen to the original cast recording, I believe it was on cassette tape then, and I specifically remember running around my house singing the cadenza to "Think of Me" and the notes above the staff at the end of the title track, because I wanted to be Christine Daae. I was probably the only four year old in my neighborhood who know what a high C was.

While I have come to love many other musicals in my theatre-going career, The Phantom of the Opera will always be my first. And as a singer, I still love singing this score more than anything other piece of music I've ever learned. Though there are surely other musical theatre composers that I admire more, I will always credit Andrew Lloyd Webber with inspiring my love of the musical theatre, which has become for me, a love that never dies.

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