Category Archives: Commentary

THE PAGE’S THE THING – TAKE IT FROM SHAKESPEARE’S EARLIEST READERS ·

(Emma Smith’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/1.)

With theatres closed, now is the time to find pleasure in Shakespeare’s texts. His first fans used them for chat-up lines – and read the plays without the baggage of Bardolatry

That Shakespeare wrote for the theatre and that his plays should be enjoyed on the stage not the page has become the standard rallying cry of directors, teachers and academics. “I don’t think people should bother to read Shakespeare. They should see him in the theatre,” Sir Ian McKellen advised in 2015. And if actors bring Shakespeare to life, according to Royal Shakespeare Company director Greg Doran, the benefits are mutual: advocating a “Shakespeare gym” earlier this year, Doran suggested that without proper opportunity to perform Shakespeare, the craft of acting itself could “diminish or get lost”.

But this is a modern perspective. Powerful advocates for Shakespeare in the past were less convinced by the medium of theatre. Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century lexicographer and editor of the plays, felt that while comedy was often better experienced in the theatre, tragedy rarely was. Charles Lamb, who with his sister Mary wrote the popular children’s Tales from Shakespeare, suggested that “the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any other dramatist whatever”. When we watch King Lear, he suggested, we see merely the mundanely pitiful “old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick”, but when “we read it, we see not Lear but we are Lear”. Deep engagement with the plays meant private study, not public spectacle.

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HEAR BOB DYLAN’S ABSOLUTELY MIND-BLOWING NEW SONG ‘MURDER MOST FOUL’ ·

(Brian Hiatt’s article appeared in Rolling Stone, 3/27; Photo: Rolling Stone.)

Bob Dylan, who hasn’t released an original song since 2012’s Tempest, unexpectedly dropped a previously unheard, nearly 17-minute-long new track, “Murder Most Foul,” late Thursday night.

Dylan didn’t say exactly when the song was recorded, but his delicate vocal delivery resembles the way he’s been singing in his live shows in the past couple of years. “Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty over the years,” Dylan said in a statement. “This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant, and may God be with you.”

This dizzying, utterly extraordinary song — as allusive as it is elusive — starts off seeming like it might be a straightforward recounting of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but expands into an impressionistic, elegiac, increasingly apocalyptic journey through what feels like the entire Sixties (complete with references to the Who’s Tommy, Woodstock, and Altamont) and then perhaps all of 20th-century America, especially its music.

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WHAT TO STREAM: A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT A FAILED STEPHEN SONDHEIM PRODUCTION   ·

(Richard Brody’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 3/27; Photo Source: Atlas Media via Pam Green.)

March 27, 2020

The coronavirus lockdown adds wild emotional lurches to the movie-viewing equation: What to watch for pleasure, at a time of distress and worry? And what to watch when the regular rhythm of new releases has all but stopped? I’ve noticed, anecdotally, that movie enthusiasts with whom I’m acquainted have pursued a wide range of selections in lockdown times: some have gone for Hollywood classics, familiar or not; others have sought out wide-release movies of recent decades that they’d missed the first time around, or yet others are watching modern masterworks of international cinema. Some viewers head for easygoing movies of warm emotion and handy optimism. I haven’t been able to make up my mind, so I’ve rather been yielding to happenstance and watching movies that adventitious prompts have brought to mind.

Prompted by a tweet from Odie Henderson, a fellow-critic, referring to his review in the Village Voice, from 2016, I recently watched the remarkable documentary “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.” It’s about the greatly anticipated production and immediate failure of the Stephen Sondheim/Hal Prince musical “Merrily We Roll Along” in 1981; it’s directed by Lonny Price, who was one of the lead actors in that original production. (I didn’t review the film at the time, because of a familial and personal connection to Price; we grew up around the corner from each other in Queens.) Price’s film is a fascinating and moving combination of a backstage musical documentary and a first-person story of youthful dreams and long, knocked-around life arcs.

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GREAT THEATER, DANCE AND CLASSICAL MUSIC TO TUNE INTO WHILE STUCK AT HOME ·

(Published 3/20 in The New York Times; via Marit Shuman.)

If you’re stuck at home and hankering for the fine arts, there’s plenty online. Since the coronavirus pandemic began temporarily shutting down performing arts venues and museums around the world, cultural organizations have been finding ways to share their work digitally. Performances are being live-streamed, archival material is being resurfaced and social media platforms like Instagram, YouTube and Facebook are serving as makeshift stages, concert halls and gallery spaces.

Here’s a list of some of what’s streaming and otherwise available on the Internet. The offerings are increasing by the day, so be sure to check in with your favorite arts institutions to see what they’re providing as things develop. And check back here for updates.

Theater

“The Rosie O’Donnell Show” will return for one night only on Sunday at 7 p.m., in support of the Actors Fund. Patti LuPone, Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, Stephanie J. Block and other Broadway stars will appear or perform. The broadcast will be on Broadway.com and the site’s YouTube channel.

The Sirius XM host Seth Rudetsky and his husband, James Wesley, are also producing a daily online mini-show called “Stars in the House,” with actors performing from home, to raise money for the Actors Fund.

Tickets to watch a video of Ren Dara Santiago’s “The Siblings Play” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater are now available.

At Berkeley Repertory Theater, ticket holders for Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play” and “Culture Clash (Still) in America” will be able to access a production broadcast of the show through BroadwayHD.

American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco is offering the opportunity for ticket holders to watch Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “Gloria” and Lydia R. Diamond’s “Toni Stone” from home on BroadwayHD.

Irish Repertory Theater is releasing videos of its actors performing songs, poems and monologues on its social media channels.

Melissa Errico’s concert performance of her “Sondheim Sublime” album will stream on Sunday at 4 p.m. on the Guild Hall’s YouTube channel.

Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater is offering a free series of live-streamed and archival performances on its YouTube channel.

The 24 Hour Plays, a group that brings actors, writers, directors and composers together to produce new work in a single day, released “Viral Monologues,” videos that paired performers like Hugh Dancy and Bobby Moreno with playwrights including Stephen Adly Guirgis and Jenny Rachel Weiner.

HERE Arts Center is hosting weekly watch parties of full-length past productions, as well as collaborative live-streamed creative activities led by HERE artists and staff members.

Dance

New York Live Arts has posted three full-length performances from its back catalog online.

The Paris Opera Ballet will broadcast “Swan Lake” and its “Tribute to Jerome Robbins.”

All Arts, an arts and culture channel from WNET, offers dance videos on its site.

Members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater banded together to perform “I Been ’Buked,” a section of Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece, “Revelations,” which is now available on Instagram.

Boston Ballet has posted a collection of clips from canceled productions on YouTube.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Samantha van Wissen shared instructional videos to guide dancers at home through the choreographer’s seminal piece “Rosas danst Rosas.”

Mariana Oliveira posted a video on Vimeo of Carolina Ballet performing her piece “Blue Jay Eyes,” whose run was interrupted.

Bayerisches Staatsballett will offer a streamed performance of “Jewels” by George Balanchine from March 21 at 2:30 p.m. to March 22 at 6:59 p.m.

Classical and Opera

The Metropolitan Opera features “Nightly Met Opera Streams,” which are free encore Live in HD presentations. Tune in on Monday for a week of Wagner.

Berliner Philharmoniker is offering free access to all concerts and films in its “Digital Concert Hall.”

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is regularly releasing online playlists of chamber music concerts and events from its archive.

On Site Opera, a company that performs in site-specific settings, is hosting live-streamed “watch parties” of past productions through mid-April.

The 92nd Street Y’s streaming archives have recordings of classical concerts, and there are upcoming live streams from the likes of the Junction Trio (the violinist Stefan Jackiw, the pianist Conrad Tao and the cellist Jay Campbell) and the pianist Jonathan Biss.

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony’s “Keeping Score” project is streaming on the Symphony’s YouTube channel. Episodes are being released in weekly batches and make a good alternative for those who planned on attending Thomas’s final Carnegie Hall performances as the Symphony’s music director this month, before they were canceled.

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STARS ON SONDHEIM: DONNA MURPHY REVEALS HER INTENSE PREPARATION FOR A SONDHEIM AUDITION ·

(by Broadway.com Staff,  Mar 22; Photo: The New York Post; via Pam Green.)

March 22 marks Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday. It’s impossible to state the great contribution and influences this titan of the stage has made to musical theater, but we’re taking a stab at it by reaching out to some stars who have appeared in his many shows to share their personal experiences.

Donna Murphy may have received her first Tony Award in 1994 for playing the lovesick Fosca in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Passion, but the two-time Tony winner auditioned for Sondheim three times before that. Her first time was for Into the Woods in 1987. She went in for the Witch and got a callback. “I was too unsettling, too scary, and they were worried about how thin I was,” she recalled with a laugh. That role went to Bernadette Peters. Years later, in 2012, Murphy did play the Witch in Into the Woods at the Public Theater’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park (which also starred Amy Adams, Denis O’HareJessie Mueller and original Broadway cast member Chip Zien). Here, Murphy discusses the profound impact Sondheim had on her life, and the best note he ever sent her.

Describe your first meeting with Sondheim.
My first meeting with Sondheim would be when I auditioned for the original Broadway production for Into the Woods for the Witch. That was ’87. A year later, I was brought in to audition for the Baker’s Wife. I had a great audition reading with Chip Zien. They came back and said, “We’re not gonna go with Donna. We’re gonna go with somebody that Steve and James has worked with.” I never got to speak with Steve. Then, two-and-a-half years later, I auditioned for a production of Merrily We Roll Along at the Arena Stage [in Washington, D.C.]. They originally called me in for Gussie, and I said, “I want to be seen for Mary, too.” I didn’t get either role but the casting director wrote me and said that Steve had gone on and on about my talent saying, “She should be a theater star. I hope the theater doesn’t lose her to television.” I remember what that note meant to me, mostly in terms of him seeing me because I felt like he got what I was doing. My choices, my efforts—that note made it all worth it.  The first time I spoke with Steve was when I auditioned for the workshop of Passion. I remember after I sang, “I Read,” he said, “Well that was very nice.” I had really gone for it. I’d been basically Fosca at home for about three days—not washing my hair, not showering, just trying to immerse myself in what I imagined this woman’s life to be like. I remember my husband saying, “Honey, you do not have the job yet. Do I really have to have breakfast with Fosca?” After that, it became a more personal collaboration with Steve during Passion.

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OBERAMMERGAU PASSION PLAY CANCELED AS CORONAVIRUS LOCKS DOWN GERMANY ·

(The post Oberammergau Passion Play Canceled as Coronavirus Locks Down Germany appeared first in The New York Times; Photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)

Over 400 years ago, villagers swore to stage the play every decade, as long as God spared them from the plague.

In 1633, as the plague swept Europe, the villagers of Oberammergau prayed to God. They promised to perform the story of Jesus’s Passion — his life, death and resurrection — every 10 years, as long as God spared them from the horrors of the disease.

Since then, the people of Oberammergau, in what is now Germany, have largely kept up their end of the bargain.

But, on Thursday, the organizers of the play — which has a cast of some 2,500 and can feature 900 people onstage at once — announced they were canceling this year’s edition of the Passion Play, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The first of the 103 daylong performances had been scheduled for May 16. The production will be delayed until 2022, the organizers said in a statement.

Germany is on lockdown because of the virus, with large gatherings banned. On Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel used a rare televised address to plead with people to obey restrictions and self-isolate.

“This is serious,” Ms. Merkel said. “Take it seriously. Since German reunification — no, since World War II — our country has never faced a challenge where we depended so much on our collective actions and solidarity.”

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FILM ACADEMY MIGHT CHANGE OSCAR RULES DUE TO CORONAVIRUS ·

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 04: Oscar statue at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater on February 04, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

(Brandon Katz’s article appeared in the Observer, 3/20;  via Pam Green.)

We’re such Oscar fanatics that mere days after this year’s ceremony we began predicting the nominees and winners of the upcoming 93rd Academy Awards. But with major theater chains closing its doors for weeks on end due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s unclear how the 2021 Oscars will proceed. Films both major and independent are cancelling or delaying their debuts left and right. To compete in the prestigious ceremony, a movie actually needs to be, you know, released.

In response to the Hollywood downturn, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is considering rule changes for qualification. Typically, a film must have a minimum seven-day theatrical run in a Los Angeles theater to qualify for the Oscars. But with hordes of films being re-routed to video-on-demand and other at-home platforms, that may need to change temporarily.

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LIFE SKETCHES (SHORT SCENES AND MONOLOGUES) 3 ·

By Bob Shuman

SCENE: A wet dog park in the Bronx.  

(MARY JANE, early 70’s, sits on a bench in the dog run. Using a launcher, SHE plays fetch with her spaniel, HUDSON—although CHRISTIE (male), late 50’s, is throwing most of the balls today (to HUDSON and one of CHRISTIE’S two Jack Russell terriers, JASPER. The other, JUNO, sits on the ground near MARY JANE. ) 

CHRISTIE: Come on, Hudson, come back.  Don’t go down so far.

MARY JANE: Hudson, come back.

CHRISTIE: Jasper got it.

MARY JANE: He knows not to go very far when I’m throwing the ball!

CHRISTIE: (To Hudson.)  I’m trying to get it to you.

MARY JANE: I used to think he was smart.

CHRISTIE: I can’t throw it that far.

MARY JANE: Hudson, Christie’s wearing two pairs of gloves and has the ball in a plastic bag!

CHRISTIE: He missed it.

(Silence.)

CHRISTIE: Hudson, come back this way.

MARY JANE: A hospital ship is being sent to the East Coast.

CHRISTIE: (Explaining to Hudson.) Jasper will intercept it if you go too far downfield.

MARY JANE: Another one is going to the West Coast.

CHRISTIE:  I don’t have the arm for that.

MARY JANE: The problem is they only have 5,000 ventilators in New York.

CHRISTIE: How many do they need?

MARY JANE: 30,000.

(Pause.)

MARY JANE: Do they give one to the 40-year-old—or do I get it, with underlying conditions?

(Silence.)

CHRISTIE: (To Hudson.) Stay up here.

MARY JANE:  It used to be a disease would wipe out segments of the population—but we’re not used to that.  We got too smart in eradicating disease.

CHRISTIE: (To Hudson.) Forget it, Hudson—I’m not a professional quarterback!

MARY JANE: They were looking at the people who died in Italy.  The largest group had cases in the elderly population with three or four underlying conditions.  The second group had two–

CHRISTIE:  It’s like fires out West.

MARY JANE: Exactly. 

(The dogs suddenly begin to bark at children outside the fence.)

CHRISTIE: (To the dogs.) That’s enough, that’s enough. (About the dogs, to the children.

MARY JANE:  Hudson, stop barking.   

CHRISTIE: (To the children and nanny .) They’re just saying good morning.

MARY JANE: All the children are off from school.

CHRISTIE: (To the children, about the dogs.) They’re just saying hello.  You don’t have to be scared of them.  They’re just big talkers.

(The nanny and children move on and the dogs stop barking. Silence.)

MARY JANE: How is your son?

CHRISTIE: Still in Edinburgh. Going on lockdown.  He doesn’t want to come home. Says it’s as bad over here as it is there.

(Silence.)

MARY JANE: You know in Venice, without all the tourists there, the canals are like glass.  Crystal clear. Blue. You can see all the way to the bottom.

CHRISTIE: Hudson, you got the ball!

(End)

(C) Copyright 2020 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.