Who Tells Your Story?

Although I love theater, I am almost never at the forefront of seeing something before it becomes popular.  A lot of it is because I do not live near where shows start—although I am given to understand that “Fiddler on the Roof” premiered at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre in 1964, that was literally before my time.  The odds of me finding myself, during my travels, near a Broadway or West End show that is not yet big but will be are pretty slim.  While it has happened more than once that I saw a show that I thought was destined for greatness which later went nowhere[1], the opposite never happens.  Probably the biggest missed opportunity, not counting all the shows I regret missing in Stratford over the years, was during a 2015 visit to New York. 

My actor son was living in Brooklyn and about to leave on tour with “Aladdin”[2].  The family was visiting him, and naturally, decided to see a Broadway musical.  Walking past the Richard Rodgers Theatre, I noticed the not-yet-familiar black silhouettes on gold background. 

“What is this all about?” inquired I. 

“It’s a new rap musical about Alexander Hamilton”, replied son, dismissively.

“Hmm, that sounds really stupid”, opined I, disdainfully.

“It does indeed”[3], agreed son, and we moved on, chuckling to ourselves.  This was too much even for this theater-appreciating family.  Spouse, in his low-key way, was noting that “Something Rotten!” “looks good”.  When this man says that something “looks good”, it means that he is super-excited and jumping up and down inside with the mad desire to see whatever this is.  We bought tickets to “Something Rotten!” and enjoyed it immensely, witnessing a standing ovation in the middle of Act I—which, of course, is an incredibly rare occurrence, and a sure indication of potential long-term success[4]

I did not give “Hamilton” another thought until, on a Christmas flight to London, I saw the soundtrack as one of the offerings of Delta in-flight entertainment.  I tried to listen, and it was nice enough, but the flight is an overnight one.  I sleep on overnight flights.  I fell asleep.

And then I woke up with a jolt, because something terrible happened to the Hamilton family (OK, they also turned the lights on and started serving breakfast)!  I am neither proud nor ashamed to say that my knowledge of American history is limited to two years of high school—and the first year, my English was not good enough to fully grasp the goings on.  Alexander Hamilton was covered that year, and I remembered that he was shot in a duel by Aaron Burr, but who knew that his son was also killed?  It was sad!  It was like “Les Miz”!

I landed in London a “Hamilton” fan, and decided to travel to New York in the foreseeable future and see this musical in person.  I mean, how much could it cost, if we fly with miles and grab a hotel room with points?  Couple of hundred bucks for tickets? 

Not so fast, newly-minted-fans!  This brought back memories of “Phantom” in the ‘90s [https://oldladywriting.com/2020/04/25/team-phantom/]—but, times have surely changed, and in the classical dilemma of time versus money, I had a little bit less of the former and a tiny bit more of the latter.  Tickets were procured, and their extortionate cost was somewhat balanced out by the fact that we flew to New York on Spirit Airlines, and with no more than a handbag per person.

Was it worth it?  Yes, yes it was—although spouse did say, after it was all over, “It was great, but not like the first time I saw “Les Miz”.  I will not dispute that, because “Les Misérables” holds an extra-special place in my heart.  I also will not do a review of “Hamilton”, because I doubt that anything is left unwritten about it.  But this is what it means to me.

In theater productions, I live for that one moment when everything shifts and you remember it forever, either because it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever heard:

            “A handbag?!” in “The Important of Being Earnest”

            “The whole staff was slaughtered” exchange in “Hothouse”

or it breaks your heart:

            “Could you ask as much from any other man?” in “Jesus Christ Superstar” (because you know what happens to him…)

            As soon as the miners appear in “Billy Elliott” and sing “The Stars Look Down” (because you know what happens to them…)

or, in some cases, the entire play is brilliant:  “Art”; “August Osage County”

I will not call it an “aha” moment, because it is not a moment of cerebral discovery, but it is more of an “oh”—or “aww”?—moment, which is purely emotional in nature.  It is the “wait for it” or “catharsis” moment.  It is what live theater does best, that moment of unity of hearts and souls between the characters on stage and the audience.

“Hamilton” both starts and ends on that moment.  The opening number is so big, so smart, so creative, so instantly recognizable, and when we heard, “What’s your name, man?”, and there was that little pause, and Lin-Manuel Miranda appeared and said “Alexander Hamilton”—well, the entire audience of 1,300+ lost their collective minds!  Not to take away from “Something Rotten!”’s standing ovation in Act I, but that was a rock star-caliber moment.  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s presence is electric, and his charisma and enthusiasm on stage cannot be overemphasized.  I would say that I knew, once again, that I was in the presence of greatness [https://oldladywriting.com/2020/07/26/all-my-world-is-a-stage/]—except that by the time I got to see “Hamilton”, live and with the still original cast, that would have been a major understatement. 

And then there is that closing number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”.  I love a good ending.  I mean, who doesn’t, but I really, *really* love a good ending.  A good ending is worth the price of admission even more than a good beginning, because it stays with you, even after the curtain falls.  “Hamilton” ends like it begins, with the satisfying big number, but with more poignancy.  It’s the combination of “Anatevka”, “Impossible Dream”, and “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, these other great finales, because it is both tragic and hopeful, tender and confident, wistful in the loss of a promising life cut short, yet satisfying in the summary of its legacy.  It earns my inarticulate but sincere praise of “I cried and cried”. 

Who tells your story?  Little by little, I am trying to tell mine…

[1] My spouse still laments “Martin Guerre” by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the creators of “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon” fame.  You haven’t seen that version of “Martin Guerre”?  No one has.

[2] Small print--not THAT “Aladdin”.

[3] This is why my writing career is still fledgling.  I cannot write dialogue.

[4] This was after “The Musical”, which I still think is one of the most fun and clever numbers of the genre, basically an entire “Forbidden Broadway” in several minutes and on a major stage.  And to be fair, Christian Borle did get a Tony for his part in this, not to mention eight other nominations for the show itself!

It was a magical weekend overall. We also saw “Bright Star”, starring the wonderful Paul Nolan, who deserves an award for every role which he graces with his talent, and stayed at the Algonquin, Harpo Marx’ old stomping ground.  Those are stories for another day!]


All My World Is a Stage

In my pre-plague life, I never had a spare weekend.  I [used to] see a lot of live theater.  Over the past couple of decades, most other hobbies fell by the wayside as this one escalated.

A few people asked me about the origins of this love.  One was Geraint Wyn Davies[1].  He was just being polite and making small talk, but I launched into some inane monologue of sharing a birthplace with the first professional theater in Russia, the Volkov, named after its founder, Fedor Volkov.  This is factually true, but really, in my day the Volkov was a disaster.  It is a gorgeous classical building of pale yellow, with white columns and ornate façade, second in appearance only to the Bolshoi.  Many famous theaters are so nondescript from the outside.  The House that Moliere Built is simply stunning in its unimpressiveness, despite being home to the largest and deepest stage I have ever seen.  But the Volkov is beautiful, and sits in a strategic location, facing the large round Volkov square containing the statue of Fedor Volkov himself (no surprise),

and one of the oldest historic monuments in town, the 17th century Banner (Znamenskaya) Tower.  It is a spectacle—but a spectacle that used to be entirely external. 

Oh, to be sure, it is also magnificent inside—with its marble red-carpeted stairs, frescoed walls, sculpted ceiling, velvet curtains, and a buffet serving delectable pastries.  Unfortunately, what used to happen on stage in the ‘70s was either stale plays by Ostrovsky (in all fairness, I have never seen or read any of them), stock Communist plays (I have certainly never seen those either), Nutcracker (with substandard local or traveling cast), and an occasional Moliere or other permissible Western classic (performed in a standard static declamatory style).  Before the Young Viewer’s Theater was built (after my time), my class would occasionally troop over to the Volkov on a field trip to see a morality play about the Young Pioneers. 

The pastries were always excellent!

Right before we left the Soviet Union forever, my grandmother and I spent a few days in Moscow.  The family friend with whom we stayed knew someone who worked at the Satire Theatre, and managed to get us in to see “Pippi Longstocking”.  If one was to have such luck as to get into the Satire, or really any Moscow theater in those days, one would be hard pressed to find anything less exciting than “Pippi Longstocking”.  Nonetheless, as proverbial beggars cannot be choosers, it was still thrilling.  There were a couple of actors whom I knew from TV, and that was enough.  I still recall one tune from the musical, for that is indeed what it was, and that is no small measure of an impression it made on me almost 40 years ago.  I never heard this tune again except in my head.  Those were the days when memories were made.

In the US, we were astonished to learn, theater tickets were distributed on a sort of first come, first served basis to those who had the means to pay, rather than on a complicated favoritism scale as a part of a behind the scenes black market economy.  That was an incredible concept, although I did not know the actors and did not want to see them.  Whenever my mother and I found ourselves in New York at the same time, she dragged me to Times Square to stand in line for half price tickets.  The first Broadway play I saw was “Foxfire”, with Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn[2], and Keith Carradine.  We must have already been living in the US for a bit, because I knew who Keith Carradine was[3].  I understood almost nothing, as my English was so poor and certainly not theater-ready at the time, but I did understand that I was in the presence of greatness.  I held on to the memory and still cherish.  I wish I had kept the program…

We saw a few great shows over the years when I was in high school: several G&S productions https://oldladywriting.com/2020/03/29/it-is-a-glorious-thing/, and an amazing production of “As You Like It” in Jackson before Michigan Shakespeare Festival settled there. https://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com/   It is still the gold standard for that play for me.  Each act was done in a different setting.  The city was all shades of gray and furs and muffs, the forest was all pastels, and the rest I do not remember.  Nonetheless, for what was my first encounter with Shakespeare in the language I was still learning, it certainly left a lasting impression.  But the real theater life started in Fort Worth.

When I was in college and my parents (I use the term loosely when it includes my late stepfather) lived in Fort Worth, they discovered a small regional theater called Stage West. https://stagewest.org/  In a tiny space of about 100 seats, they used to put on a fantastic variety of plays—and still do.  My first exposure was to a dysfunctional comedy at Christmas called “Seasons Greetings”—we still laugh about “Pig number one, pig number two”, although I have never seen it performed since.  From then on, every time I visited my parents, we would go to Stage West.  It was always a delight, with an underlying feeling of uncomfortable incredulity about how a troop of local actors in some shed on a rough dockyard-like street would do a better artistic job than the permanent staff of the oldest professional theater in all of Russia, working in a gorgeous building with delicious pastries.

As an aside, I had the great fortune of revisiting Stage West a few years ago during a work conference in Dallas.  My mother joined me, and we saw Stoppard’s “The Real Thing”.  As a purportedly more sophisticated theater goer after the passage of almost three decades, I was still astonished.  It was a world-class production.  And one of those moments when I said to myself, I am the luckiest girl in the world.  Gosh, I just live for those moments!

And then there came Stratford.  https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/  This is a story that has been told often, and at almost every Stratford social event.  It is just a conversation starter—how long have you been coming, what was your first experience?  In my young married life, theater was not a factor, as we had neither time nor money, and never both at the same time.  One fine day in 1996, my college friend suggested a girlfriends’ day to see a play.  So the three of us drove three hours, arrived on a rain-soaked Saturday in August, ate some weird concoction prepared by one of us (not me!) for lunch in the car, and entered the Festival Theatre to behold the great William Hutt as King Lear.  It was unquestionably one of the defining moments of my life. I wish I had kept the program…

Initially it was an annual trip.  Initially it was just Shakespeare.  Then we added other shows that sounded interesting, and once a season became not enough.  Then some years later my friend lost interest and was replaced by my spouse.  Then my kids started coming, and several other friends came along, and I even went by myself once when I could not sell anyone on “Fuenteovejuna”[4].

Along the way, I started to go to the theater everywhere I have traveled for work or leisure, and then planning trips with seeing plays as the goal.  It became my identity— “I go to the theater”.  It is what I do and who I am.  For the time being, I do not and I am not.  It feels like an intermission of my life.  With theaters closed for the foreseeable future, I no longer know who I am and what to do with my after-work life.  As I see it, I have two options:  (1) reinvent and find some new interests, or (2) hunker down with my memories and wait it out.  Or maybe both?  Stay tuned…

The new Tom Patterson theater–as of this writing, it has not yet opened…

[1] I am just name dropping here. J

[2] Is it a coincidence that Hume Cronyn is Canadian?  I think not.

[3] I saw Keith Carradine on a BroadwayCon panel a few years ago, and he actually mentioned “Foxfire” with fondness.  What a full circle!

[4] Anyone who has not seen this Stratford production should be living with regrets.  I am just saying.

The Merry Wives of Stratford

Some years ago, I decided that I needed to complete the Shakespeare canon.  For a spectator like me, that means only seeing the shows, not acting in them or directing them (I laugh because this is true).  As I see several Shakespeare stagings every year, I am ever surprised by the universality as well as timelessness of his works.  I mean, after a few centuries, they are not dated (unless the director allows them to be, which is decidedly NOT the goal).  I am also occasionally surprised by how my relation to the various plays has changed over the years—the ones I thought I loved I occasionally outgrew, the ones I either did not know or did not much like I grew to appreciate more, and so forth.  As of this writing, I have five plays left to see, which seems like a shockingly large number considering how long I have been at it—so, if anyone hears of Henry VI being done anywhere, please let me know.  I do mean anywhere, I will travel for this!

I have deliberately been avoiding The Merry Wives of Windsor for years.  I glimpsed it once on TV, must have been on Masterpiece Theater, and I hated it.  It seemed like a lot of commotion of people running around in bonnets and pumpkin pants, laughing at jokes that made no sense, and the language itself was unintelligible to me.  It also had Falstaff, a character many like, but I kind of hate.  I just do not find him funny or endearing or charismatic in any way.  I just find him annoying. 

But, with so few plays left to complete the canon, and with Stratford Festival—the greatest theater in North America, if not the world—staging Merry Wives this season, I decided to bite the proverbial bullet.  Spoiler alert:  I am glad I did, but I am still not crazy about this play. 

Antoni Cimolino, the Artistic Director of the Festival who directed the play, set it in 1953.  It was the year the festival was founded by Tom Patterson.  Is it weird that I immediately thought that it was the year that Stalin died?  Seems like it was a much more carefree year in Canada than in the USSR, but maybe not so much when it came to women’s rights.  Frankly, though, I did not find the story to be too offensive in the #MeToo era.  Falstaff is lecherous and pushy, but easily confounded and disarmed.  Mr. Ford is jealous not like Othello, but like Moliere’s clueless and pompous husband characters.  The women outsmart and outplay the men with ease, plus great humor and spirit.  So, I am inclined to just view this story as a harmless farce rather than a statement on gender relations.

And what a farce it is—but I am not against farces.  I am an easy laugh, but what of it?  A peculiar mix of Monty Python and I Love Lucy is not the worst to which a comedy can aspire—and achieve.  In this particular production, the stars of Stratford are out in full force.  Brigit Wilson as Mrs. Page is just the most luminous wide-eyed Lucille Ball impersonation ever, and I mean that in the best way possible.  The incomparable Geraint Wyn Davies is possibly the only Falstaff I can stomach, and he actually made me feel sorry for the fat buffoon at the end.  Aww, Geraint with that sparkle in his eyes, his Falstaff exuding the benign mirth that reduces the creep factor almost to zero!  And Lucy Peacock as Miss Quickly is channeling the comic relief housekeepers straight out of the Soviet comedies of the death-of-Stalin era, whose kerchief, ankle boots like my grandmother would wear, and intermittent snacking made me feel all warm and fuzzy and nostalgic.  Ben Carlson, as the Welsh parson, is the funniest I have ever seen him be–and Ben is usually witty funny, not ha-ha funny, so this was a joy to behold.  When he agrees with Mr. Ford that Falstaff in drag as the old woman of Brentford must be a witch because she has whiskers and a beard, I died laughing!  (I use this phrase to excess; I guarantee you will see it again.)  Graham Abbey as Mr. Ford, while very funny as well, is basically Tartuffe’s Orgon, whom he played on the same stage two years ago. It is not his fault that this part is so similar—after all, I have seen Geraint Wyn Davies play Falstaff before, which is literally the same character.  I am just saying it was not a surprise, that’s all.

The Monty Python theme plows through the play in the character of Dr. Caius.  Gordon Miller plays him essentially as the French Taunter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, complete with pronouncing every letter in “knight”.  When you hear it, you just can’t unhear it.  He even throws in John Cleese’s silly walk.  It’s all very funny, but a bit much, including the exaggerated French accent that is at times utterly unintelligible, although every second word is “bugger”. 

So, I walked out of the theater not feeling that I saw a Shakespearean play.  Is that necessarily a bad thing?  I do not think so.  I laughed a lot, I had a good time, and that is a value in itself.  The fact that a comedy written 400 years ago still retains the humor of a much more modern piece is astonishing.  When Antoni Cimolino mentioned that Merry Wives has funnier jokes than Neil Simon he was not kidding (see what I did there?).  If there was a deeper message, I might not have gotten it.  But, in the words of John Cleese’s Pope in the Penultimate Supper sketch, “I may not know much about art, but I know what I like!”  

P.S.  E.B. Smith needs to have a bigger part in this play, and really in every play.