While Ben Brantley is in London on an extended stay and filing daily blog reports from there that are essential reading for theatre people on both sides of the Atlantic, at least to give an early heads-up for what might be worth producers taking across the pond, I’ve been having a whirlwind weekend catch up of my own in New York.
I’ll be there next weekend, too, bookending trips inbetween to Washington DC, where I arrived yesterday for an overnight stay, before going on to Provincetown on Cape Cod today where I’ll be spending the rest of this week.
So I’m actually on holiday, and being on holiday means doing things you enjoy - so I’ve mainly gone for repeat viewings on my Broadway and DC itinerary, catching up with things I’ve previously seen and already enjoyed, and/or seeing friends, including friends in shows.
Yesterday, for instance, I saw Mary Poppins yet again at the magnificent Opera House in the Kennedy Center in DC because the title role is currently being played by Caroline Sheen. Not only have I been following her career for years as one of Britain’s brightest musical theatre ingénues - she’s our very own version of Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara, and not just because she played the role of Clara, originated by O’Hara on Broadway, in the UK premiere of The Light in the Piazza at Leicester’s Curve last year - but also, to offer full disclosure, I wrote the liner notes for the release of her remarkable debut solo CD earlier this year.
And, to quote myself, I said, “Musical theatre has reached a crossroads: we have a rich back catalogue of classic musicals to draw on, of course, both from the heyday of Broadway and the West End, but where’s the next generation coming from? Nowadays the biggest hits seem to be made out of the recycling of old pop songs, as in Mamma Mia! or We Will Rock You, and/or illustrating the stage version of something already known as a popular film, such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Dirty Dancing (both using old songs) or Sister Act and Hairspray (with scores that are well-crafted pastiches of previous forms). Genuine original work looks in short supply. And so do genuine original musical theatre stars. Now that the shows are the stars, the performers can start to seem interchangeable in them, unless they’ve been anointed by the reality TV voting public first. Yet there are still plenty of original writers producing great work - they’re just not getting seen (let alone heard) enough. And there are still a handful of performers who deserve to stand out from the crowd on their own account. Now comes a terrific debut solo album from Caroline Sheen that fills both gaps at once: it has the selfless purpose of showcasing some of the composers who aren’t being heard as widely as they deserve to be; and yet also provides an astonishing calling card for a quirky and original interpreter of their work that gives them each their best possible outing.”
In other words, I’m a fan; but through the liner notes we’ve become friends, too. So, having missed her doing the tour of Mary Poppins in the UK, because it was before I knew her, I have taken the opportunity of this Stateside visit to pop down to the nation’s capital to see her in the US tour instead. And it’s clear that she’s a natural asset to it - whereas Ashley Brown, the original Broadway Mary, whom I saw on her New York opening night, had a poised prettiness, both physical and vocal, Sheen brings added grit and wit to the role. She plays the layers, not just the surface, and makes the show take flight as a result, and not just in the final literal one that Mary Poppins does over the stalls to the upper reaches of the theatre (and is even done on the tour).
Gavin Lee, who originated the role of Bert both in the West End and on Broadway, is back with the show, too, lending the tour an extra connection to the original, though after the DC stand he’ll be joining Laura Michelle Kelly - the original Mary - in the current Broadway run. Clearly this show - first premiered at the Prince Edward nearly six years ago - is going to be part of their lives for a long time. As it is, too, for me: I am also hoping to see it next year in Australia, where it opened officially in Melbourne just over a week ago, since another friend Philip Quast is currently back on his own home territory playing Mr Banks.
Meanwhile, back in New York, I spent the weekend catching up on some old friends in the personal sense and new shows that have become like old friends, too, and in one case, an old friend in a new show. The stage musical version of The Addams Family which opened to great critical resistance back in April, seems to be defying the critics, at least for now, both at the box office (where it is regularly taking over $1m a week, though I should report acres of empty seats in the rear stalls on Saturday afternoon) and in the warmth of the audience response, which is called upon from the moment the curtain goes up to the refrain of the TV theme tune that elicits an immediate “call and response” reaction in which the crowd does the double clap on cue.
Some of that goodwill may drain over the course of a sometimes laboured afternoon, but though it offers a distressingly formulaic relationship to its well-loved characters by pushing them into the same plot framework as La Cage Aux Folles about a clash of family values between two opposing sets of potential in-laws, the well-loved actors playing them regularly rescue it from the mundane surroundings.
One of them, of course, is the reigning king of Broadway musical comedy Nathan Lane, who was shamefully overlooked for a Tony nomination yet gives his mighty all as Gomez Addams to make it far funnier than it is. Another is Kevin Chamberlin, playing his brother Uncle Fester (who, to offer full disclosure, has also become another friend of mine since we first met socially a few years ago through a mutual friend but whom I have also done professional service with, interviewing him for A Bear’s Life magazine, a gay lifestyle magazine, a couple of years ago). Nathan and Kevin are two real Broadway babies; they both came of age (and ripened and enriched their talent) through appearing onstage. And it’s the kind of experience that shows: they command the stage, and can even make silk purses out of sow’s ears.
Kevin, taking me onto the bare stage after the show, pointed at a seat in the third row and said, “That’s where I saw my first Broadway show from - Sandy Duncan as Peter Pan.” And that’s how people like Kevin and Caroline Sheen and I bond: over a shared love of the theatre, above all. But long before I got to know either, I’ve followed their stage careers every step of the way. Looking at Kevin’s Broadway CV, I’ve seen him in all but one of his original roles there (I didn’t see Abe Lincoln in Illinois; and I also didn’t see his take-over Amos Hart in Chicago).
Just as friends share a history - and I have shared some of his before I even knew him, which gives me a head-start - so going to the theatre for me is about creating a personal history, too. It’s why, when I love something, I often go back - sometimes more than once - to build my relationship a show. I’ve only just begun a relationship with American Idiot, the dazzling stage version of the iconic Green Day rock album that was unjustly snubbed by the Tony’s, but I know I’ll be going back again and again.
I have to confess that when I first saw the show back in April when it first opened, I was sceptical; I’d never heard a single song from it, nor even heard of Green Day, to be honest. But Michael Mayer’s stunning production offers a jolting, electrifying 3D version of the album that isn’t just a brilliant way to get younger rock audiences to Broadway, but is bringing new audiences like me to Green Day. I even bought the CD afterwards! Seeing it for the second time on Thursday, I am even more taken by its incredible young cast and their loud passion.
Two other older friends are more in my comfort zone. Come Fly Away — which is soon, alas, to fly away for real, closing on September 5 - is the Twyla Tharp dansical that delivers the Sinatra back catalogue, sung by the man himself to a live big band accompaniment, as a thrilling dance spectacle, and I saw for the third time on Friday. It may not be quite in the narrative league of Tharp’s Billy Joel show, Movin’ Out, but it beats every other show in town for choreographic brilliance. (Frantic Assembly’s Steven Hoggett does wonderful things, too, for American Idiot, though this year’s Tony was actually won by Bill T Jones for the National Theatre-bound production of Fela!)
Finally, I also caught up again with Promises, Promises, the first Broadway revival of the 1968 Bacharach/David musical (their only original show), that may lose something of its intimacy marooned in the big barn that is the Broadway Theatre and may have a seriously miscast leading lady (Kristin Chenoweth is sassy, not vulnerable, as Fran Kubelik - a role that Caroline Sheen is surely born to play one day!). We also missed the Tony winning, scene-stealing performance of Katie Finneran on Saturday night, who is currently out of the show (I’m told she’s pregnant). But even with these deficits, there’s still plenty to enjoy in Rob Ashford’s wry and witty period production, and seeing it this time from the front mezzanine instead of the stalls, I was better able to appreciate just how gracefully and stylishly it is choreographed. And Sean Hayes is also an irresistibly charming leading man.