Singing in the Theater

A new class under way at Washington DC’s Theatre J is on what to listen for in the songs of musical theater. It’s being taught by Felicia Curry, who in August will appear in Nina Simone: Four Women for The Berkshire Theatre Group (Stockbridge, Massachusetts). Curry is a Helen Hayes Award winner (and nine-time nominee). Each week she’s guiding my zoommates and me through the deconstruction of a single song—reading the lyrics and hearing the music both without vocals and with.

A number of years ago, I saw the Tony-award winning Yasmina Reza play Art at Papermill Playhouse. Bear in mind that Art ran for 600 performances on Broadway and for eight years in London. So, a significant work, but maybe a stretch for Papermill’s bill, which at that time, anyway, tended toward lighter fare. At intermission, I overheard the woman sitting behind me say, “I like it when they sing.” While my first reaction was a bit of an eye-roll, I thought, “Wait a minute. I like it when they sing too.” We all do.

So how are we to think about the choices that make musical theater such a delight? There are choices about the lyrics, of course, the mood they establish and the literal (and figurative) meaning of the words. Are the songs integrated with the story’s action or just pasted in? You may wonder like I do how a song written for one musical can be lifted out and plopped into another story altogether. Then, the music. Is it in sync with the words—not rhythmically, but in tone? Add to that the choices the singer/actor makes, with the director’s oversight. Is the performer owning the meaning or just getting the tune right?

For our first class, Curry picked a truly meaty song—Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods (lyrics here). You may recall the hit Barbra Streisand had with this. Streisand really belted it out in a couple of places, but to me, the song is so full of actual and potential regret, it suggests a more wistful touch.

A couple of my favorite lines were “Wishes come true not free.” If you get your wish, there’s a cost. And “How can you say to a child who’s in flight, ‘don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?’” As parents, haven’t most of us felt the almost irresistible desire to hold on? It was a brilliant song to put in a play about fairy tales, because reading fairy tales aloud to children is (was?) such a universal of childhood. And they carry some pretty grim (Grimm) messages. The context is ideal.

Oddly, the song stumbled into its placement in the show’s Finale. Initially, it was a section of a long song near the end of Act I, which ultimately was cut, but the “Children Will Listen” portion was salvaged and molded into its familiar form. Theatre J continues to offer interesting and intimate classes for theater lovers. Hope to see you there!

The Truffle Hunters

Some quirky films came out this past year, despite the pandemic, and we’ve enjoyed watching them at home or, finally—nirvana!—in an actual movie house.

The Truffle Hunters offers a little slice of life about people who live totally different lives than you do (guaranteed). In the beautifully scenic Piedmont area of Italy, the documentary-makers, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, found a group of aging men who take their dogs into the woods every day searching for truffles (trailer). Apparently, even though truffles are rare, it’s a living, especially if you know the good spots.

People who spend so much time alone are liable to get a little quirky, and, yes, they are. Their dogs are their children, spouses, best friends. One of the best moments is when the filmmakers attached a camera to a dog’s head, and you get to see the world in caninevision. The bouncing along, the snuffling leaves, the distractions left and right. Best of all is when the dog stops to chase his tail and the trees overhead whip around dizzingly. The whole audience laughed.

Roger Ebert’s review was too snarky by half for such an inoffensive movie. Nevertheless, the film left me a little worried. Most of these men can’t do this for many more years, even though the active outdoor life has helped get them into their 80s and even 90s. So where will future truffles come from? It will be sad if the truffle poachers who are trying to move in (they’ve even poisoned some dogs) inherit this livelihood. And, the middlemen who buy as cheaply as possible and sell for exorbitant profits currently keep it a marginalized business.

If you need a big shot of adrenaline, this is not your film. After all the disruptions of the last year, it’s calming to spend some time in the woods—no ticks!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 97%; audiences 77%–probably because of that adrenaline factor.

Fireworks from Ellery Queen

The July-August 2021 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, “The World’s Leading Mystery Magazine” is once again filled with dazzling stories, 19 of them. Here are just a few of the standouts:

Elvie Simons’s “Not So Fast, Dr. Quick,” shows how a tidbit of arcane knowledge can grow into a full-fledged plot. Engaging characters too.

Richard Helms’s “Sweeps Week” provides strong characterizations, then rewards with some old-fashioned retribution.

Jon L. Breen’s “The Body in the Bee Library,” wryly humorous, provides satisfying comeuppance.

Dave Zeltserman always makes me smile, even before I start reading. His characters Julius Katz and his cyber-assistant Archie delight once again in “Julius Katz and the Two Cousins.”

Barbara Allan’s “What’s Wrong with Harley Quinn?” takes you to San Diego Comic-Con, and you can witness the attendees’ shenanigans without donning your Spiderman costume.

Joyce Carol Oates’s “Bone Marrow Donor” is only three pages long, but to me was the darkest story of the lot. I couldn’t stop thinking about the nonfiction piece she has written about her own husband’s last day in our local hospital and imagining how that colored this story, even subconsciously. As I remember what she wrote, she received an urgent call to come to the hospital, and, of course, she drove there pell-mell, pulled to the curb on one of the nearby residential streets, and rushed inside. The staff had been right. The end was very near. When she’d signed all the paperwork, she walked to her car in a daze and found this awkwardly spelled note on her windshield: “Learn to park, bich.”

Coming Attractions

Detective Montalbano

Here’s an encomium for one of the most entertaining TV crime series ever—Italy’s Detective Montalbano. Read why it’s so popular, how it was made, and watch clips of the earliest episodes, with a preview for the very last one, coming July 6. We’ve watched all the seasons so far at our house, including the bonus interviews with actors, author, and crew.

Luca Zingaretti, who plays the taciturn Salvo Montalbano is especially interesting. He’s played the role so long, it’s fascinating to hear him display his deep understanding of the role and the values the late author, Andrea Camilleri imbued his creation with.

When the director insisted the show be filmed in Sicily (to the RAI backers’ skepticism), they visited the island’s community and regional theaters to find quintessential Sicilians to play the bit parts—the gossipy landlady of the deceased, the creepy boyfriend, the femme fatale sister—and, believe me, these actors make the most of it!

If you do visit the link above, at the bottom of the story, you’ll see reference to the Young Montalbano series. All the main characters in their younger days, with different actors channeling the later portrayals. A delightful way to feed your obsession! Both series have subtitles, but don’t let that put you off. Honestly, the Italian body language is so transparent, you begin to feel you don’t need them!

When we were in Sicily two years ago, there were Montalbano tours all over the southern region, pointing out places where this or that was filmed, primarily in the charming town of Ragusa (above).

The Unforgotten

Season 4 of the award-winning London-based police procedural about a cold case team returns to PBS, Sunday, July 11. Nicola Walker is brilliant as the lead detective with Sanjeev Bhaskar as her second. There’s a strong and believable relationship between them, and an appreciation of the long-lasting impact murder has on those left behind, handled admirably. Good, solid mysteries too (trailer).

Now, In Theaters!

Finally breaking out of our covid-cocoon and our addiction to streaming, in the last week we’ve seen two movies in an actual big-screen movie theater. Neither was too challenging to our dulled senses, whereas the previews of superhero films the theatres blasted at us were overwhelming, not in a good way.

Dream Horse

We’re suckers for horsy movies, and this pleasant film about a working class Welsh woman who gets the notion to raise a thoroughbred racehorse, though based on a true story, hits all the predictable Hollywood beats. Wild ambition, success, setback, and so on. Directed by Euros Lyn, the film stars Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, and Welsh actor Owen Teale (trailer). No new dramatic ground broken, but it eases you back into your theater seat. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 97%.

Enjoyment of the film is marred by awareness of the current state of U.S. thoroughbred racing, including the tanking reputation of super-trainer Bob Baffert and William Finnegan’s article in the 24 May New Yorker, “Blood on the Tracks,” about the dozens of race-horses who have died recently, especially at Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles. Not an easy story to read if you love horses. As Finnegan points out, thoroughbred racing, “once the most popular spectator sport in America, has been in decline” for decades. Not because of high-minded animal rights concerns, but because it lost its near-lock on legal gambling before the pre-casino era.

In the Heights

A lively portrayal of the Latinx residents of Washington Heights, in sight of Manhattan’s George Washington Bridge. The film, directed by Jon M. Chu, based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway version (trailer), has not one, but two love stories! And expands the definition of family. The stars are engaging, the production numbers huge, and the music toe-tapping.

Anthony Ramos stars as the bodega owner who longs to return to the Dominican Republic where he says he had “the best days of my life.” Fans of Hamilton will find Miranda’s lyrics as entertaining and cleverly rhymed as ever. Sets and costumes are colorful and fun. Loved the food! Apparently the Rotten Tomatoes critics did too, giving it 96%; audiences, 95%.

Preceding the film was a thank-you and welcome back to the movie theater from Miranda, Chu, and one of the film’s writer-producers, Quiara Alegría Hudes.

This film is more directly linked to controversy than Dream Horse. Here’s Lin-Manuel’s Twitter response to criticisms the film lacks sufficient Afro-Latino lead characters.

Page to Stage: Smart Moves and Funny Business

How many times have I rolled my eyes at our local “newspaper” for running the same story twice. Then, yesterday, I did it myself!  I posted “The Deep Dive” story several weeks ago before my brain’s post-covid shutdown. Today, here’s the new content I wanted to share.

In my Zoom class, “Inside the Rehearsal Room,” the actors– Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell—started adding movement to the script for Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers, which they’d been working on in previous sessions. Led by Theatre J artistic director Adam Immerwahr, we saw the now-familiar first scene taking shape. Would the character ideas they’d explored in their deep dive into the script actually work on stage?

Norris and Nickell are married, so their living room became the covid-bubble “set,” with sofa, coffee table, bookcase, and cameo appearances by the couple’s cat. Ground rules established where entrances and exits would be, which furniture could be sat on, what could be moved, and so on, to give the actors the greatest flexibility in engaging with what was, after all, a very simple layout. Even though they were in their own familiar living room, “The first time you’re on your feet is always nerve-wracking,” Nickell said. The actors don’t know yet where to look, or what to do with their hands, which is why, as Immerwahr said, “Actors love to touch furniture!”

In blocking scenes, he encourages actors to “avoid the magnet of the chairs” and has them delay sitting down as long as possible. Once they sit, it’s awkward to find the right moment/motivation to get up again. There can’t be just random movement, or movement for its own sake; rather, the staging should convey the emotional points. Similarly, in fiction, a character’s movements need to have motivation. Not just him lighting a cigarette or her brushing back to her hair to break up the dialog.

Too, there may be embedded stage directions in the script. An example from Red Hot is when Barney (hopeful of having a fling with Elaine) asks her if she wants a drink, and she does. That gives him an excuse to stand up. If he’s only just sat down, then pops up again, the jack-in-the-box action underscores his indecisiveness.

At this early point in play rehearsal, actors are balancing getting their lines and knowing where to stand and when to walk. Ideas have to be tested. Here’s one that worked on several levels. Elaine wanders around, checking out the apartment as they chat. She reaches the bookshelves, takes down a book, looks at it, and tosses it on the sofa. Barney—scrupulously aware of not leaving any evidence he’s been in his mother’s apartment—picks up the book, and as Elaine moves away, nervously returns it to its place on the bookshelf.

Even though the staging process takes a lot of attention and time, Immerwahr said that, in general, a rough cut of the staging can be accomplished in about two rehearsal days. There’s a physical fight between Elaine and Barney near the end of the first act, and, for something like that, they would wait for the fight director to be on hand.

In part because of the placement of the lights, the actors’ movements have to become part of their muscle memory. However spontaneous an action may appear, the staging for a multi-person scene is almost never improvised. It’s set in stone, in the stage manager’s notes.

From Page to Stage: The Deep Dive

Once the preliminaries are over—the table read, the initial preparation–it’s time for actors and director to buckle down to the real work of rehearsing a new production. Just as authors, once they have a sense of their book—on paper, in their heads, or on innumerable post-its—have to buckle down and dig into the specifics.

Leader of my Zoom course on the play rehearsal process, Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington DC’s Theatre J, let us see how the he and the actors dissect every line. As an avid listener to audiobooks, I’m well aware of how a talented narrator wrings so much more juice (and often humor) out of a text than I’d get from scanning words-on-a-page. They have a way of making it sounds like there’s a perfect way to read each line; this experience with actors and their director showed how not true that is!

Both Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell, the actors helping with the course, were quite comfortable with this iterative process. Immerwahr pointed out that the scant stage directions Shakespeare provides force director and players alike to figure everything out. It’s fantastic training for interpretation.

Immerwahr, Norris, and Nickell began with the set-up for our “test-case” play, Neil Simon’s comedy, Last of the Red Hot Lovers. As the play opens, middle-aged restaurateur Barney peeks into the door of his mother’s apartment. He believes she’s away for a few hours, and he’s arranged an assignation for the afternoon—a first for him. He calls out, “Hello? . . . Mom? . . . .”

We don’t get any farther before Immerwahr asks, what would Barney have done if his mother had answered him? Nickell’s reflection on that possibility suggests a number of ways to approach those two-words. Is Barney hesitant? Apprehensive? Confident?

In posing such questions, Immerwahr is trying to nudge the actors in a particular direction, toward a common understanding of what’s really going on. Text and subtext. It’s painstakingly slow, and even actors who are not in the scene benefit, Nickell said, because “they have to get on that train.” In writing, we don’t have the benefit of the actor’s intonation, raised eyebrows, chair-flop. We have to clarify what we’re trying to convey as precisely as possible, especially in key scenes.

Neil Simon’s long stage direction describes how Barney fusses around the apartment, checking his watch, trying not to leave evidence he’s been there, shutting the blinds. These simple actions show the audience how nervous and indecisive he is. He makes a chatty, unnecessary phone call to his restaurant and in the middle buries his real questions: “Did my wife call? . . . And you told her I’m at Bloomingdale’s?” Ah, his alibi is intact, and we see he’s a clumsy liar. You can see this kind of action and phone call easily adapting to a story.

Bringing out a multitude of revelations from such seemingly commonplace actions and dialog demonstrates how much art is involved. As an audience-member, you get the “right” impression of Barney seemingly effortlessly. But, as Immerwahr emphasized in a class last fall on how to watch a play, “In theater, everything’s a choice.” In novels too.

This is just one of many entertaining Theatre J classes expressly designed for people who love (and miss) live theater. Check it out!

The Rehearsal Process: Preparation

Actors and directors prepare for the initial stages of play rehearsal in many ways. A Zoom class I’m taking, led by Theatre J artistic director Adam Immerwahr, showcased some of those approaches. He said he starts by focusing on the ideas of the play (this is not the plot). A lengthy close read, noting every time the audience receives a new piece of information, helps him because “the job of the director is to represent the audience.” From then on, he’ll make sure that fresh information comes across clearly.

Experienced actors Cody Nickell and Kate Eastwood Norris described how they prepare for rehearsals. Norris said she tries to suss out why she was cast! If she knows why the director envisioned her in a particular role, she can emphasize that element—physical, vocal, emotional—and have a leg up on fulfilling the director’s vision.

She reads the play several times and pays special attention to what other characters say about her character—their impressions have to ring true to the audience. Among the marks she makes in her script are indications of all the places where “things change.” If she has a monologue, she starts memorizing the words but not, she said, the emotions.

Nickell approaches the early rehearsals of each play differently, depending on how many lines he has, whether there’s a monologue, how he fits into the story, whether dialect is needed, and so on. He likes to ask a lot of questions, to make sure he’s on the same page with the director and his scene partners.

In this class, Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers is being used to demonstrate how the rehearsal process works. The actors had several “aha! moments” in an earlier table read of Act I. Norris talked about how her character (Elaine) uses humor as a shield. It seems defensive and habitual. For Nickell, whose character Barney has a long monologue at the end of the act, a lot depends on the lead-up to that moment. How much of what he says then has he told himself many, many times over? As Immerwahr said, such an explosion of words must have been building in his head during the whole act.

One idea the three are exploring is that Elaine is ill, and when she says “I myself passed away about six months ago,” she’s referring obliquely to an actual fatal diagnosis. This interpretation, says Norris, helps explain Elaine’s aggressive, almost bitter humor and her desperation to connect with Barney.

An impression I’m clearly coming away with is how collaborative the process is. Of course, each participant depends on the others to know their lines and stand in the right place clutching their martini. As important, in fact maybe more so, they each rely on the others to create a shared and coherent version of the emotional truth of their words and actions.

This terrific class is just one of many Theatre J classes launching this spring, expressly designed for people who love (and miss) live theater!

Tips for Screenwriters: Police Procedurals 101

ICYMI this “Shouts and Murmurs” satire by Paul Rudnick in the March 22 (I’m catching up) issue of The New Yorker had me laughing out loud.

Here are a couple of Rudnick’s surefire script ideas.” The main character should be a “troubled male detective whose marriage has crumbled because he works too hard and cares too much”; his ex-wife should be “glimpsed only through a screen door”; if the detective is female, she should have a ponytail (that way she can have long, sexy hair at dinner but keep it from blowing over her partner’s eyes and blinding him as they case the bad guys).

Oh, and be sure to write in a fresh-faced (and fresh-mouthed) tech person who can instantly find any details whatsoever on anyone. For example, Rudnick says, he can instantly tell the detective: “Your suspect dropped out of business school three weeks ago, he’s had contact with three known militia members, and he’s headed east on 168th Street in a stolen van.” Plate number?

Read the whole piece, you’ll get a good laugh. Here on Facebook, the author community airs frequent laments.“Enough with the ‘Girls’ book titles.” Or “Not another flawed police detective hunched over her whiskey!” Or “How many serial killers are there, really. Outside of books and movies, I mean..” We all have our favorite pet peeves in television scripts and topics, the too-tired tropes and cliched plot devices. What sets your teeth on edge?

Tennessee Williams: The Actor’s Challenge

So many of the insights of this five-session course on Tennessee Williams I’ve been Zooming from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey are directly applicable to fiction writing. The course is led by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte.

(The next Book Club, scheduled for spring, will focus on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, both parts, and Henry V, with its powerful “we happy few, we band of brothers” sentiments.)

Actor Laila Robins, who played Blanche DuBois in STNJ’s 2008 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, talked about the similar power of Williams’s language. “The language acts you,” she said. She deliberately didn’t play the heartbreak of Blanche’s situation, aiming instead to encourage the audience to keep hoping beyond hope, as Blanche does, that somehow everything will work out. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen the play before and remember how it ends. You keep hoping.

I do too. Every time I’ve seen West Side Story, I’m silently praying Chino won’t show up with that gun . . . even though I know better. Reading Hillary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, I read slower and slower in the last fifty pages, knowing how it would end and hoping for a miracle.

Robins and Monte pointed to the “practical core” of many of Williams’s characters that lets them be survivors despite their evident frailties and failures. Even at the end of The Glass Menagerie, Laura (pictured)—who is as fragile as one of her glass animals—seems capable of resilience. Monte believes a good Tennessee Williams actress must possess a great deal of courage because the roles demand so much vulnerability. Think of Alma in Summer and Smoke or Jane in Vieux Carre.

Just as he did with Summer and Smoke and its later incarnation, Eccentricities of a Nightingale (with critics still debating which is the better version), Williams returned to Laura’s story repeatedly, including in his short story, “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which ends with Laura picking up one of her precious LPs, blowing on its surface a little as if it were dusty, then setting it softly back down. Then she says something enigmatic about her encounter with Jim, the family’s dinner guest who, unexpectedly, is soon to be married and therefore no boyfriend candidate: “People in love,” she says, “take everything for granted.” Where did that come from?  It’s so much more worldly-wise than we might expect from Laura and more generous toward the situation than her angry mother is capable of.

This gets to another aspect of Williams’s plays that Monte has emphasized throughout this course, which is kindness. Yes, his characters may be in bizarre and uncomfortable, even brutal situations, but they display unexpected flashes of kindness toward each other. She views Alvaro Mangiacavallo in The Rose Tattoo as a kinder version of Stanley Kowalski from Streetcar. What she terms “extraordinary gestures of kindness” are demonstrated by many characters in Night of the Iguana too. “Williams finds the life-saving power of compassion in some very dark places.”

The ability to be both rough and kind, whether embodied in one character or distributed among them, not only requires great actors, but also a director who establishes the right balance between these poles. It’s something all good writers strive for.

Previous posts in this series:
The Deep Dive
How To See