Category Archives: Interviews

JUDI DENCH: ‘IN MY MIND’S EYE I’M SIX FOOT AND WILLOWY’ ·

 (Xan Brooks’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/22; Photo: The Guardian; via Pam Green.)

At 86 and in lockdown, the actor finds herself in the rare position of not working. Instead, she talks about theatrical ghosts, her friendship with Harvey Weinstein and definitely not being a national treasure

It’s all go for Judi Dench, stuck at her house in deepest Surrey. What a freewheeling week; she is beside herself with excitement. Yesterday, she explains, she received her Covid vaccine. This required a trip to the village and was the first time she had left home since she can’t remember when. Then today it’s a phone interview, the thing she is doing right now. Her cup runneth over. Her world has turned Technicolor. “I’m not even joking,” she says with a sigh. “It’s nice to actually have something to do.”

Lockdown, I fear, is not the life Dench was born to. She used to practically eat and drink on the stage, but the theatres have closed, who knows for how long. She used to bounce from one film set to the next, but now production is mothballed and the industry has gone to ground. All of which means that she is confined to the house, an 86-year-old actor shoved into what she hopes is a partial and temporary retirement. She gets up each morning determined to keep herself busy. She crawls back to bed with most of the tasks left undone. After a while, she admits, the time starts to drag.

Dench recently learned a new word: synesthesia. “And I thought; ‘Well, that’s me.’ Because I always saw the days of the week in colour. I never gave it a second thought, it’s just how my mind works. And all of a sudden it’s not there any more. The days of the week have no colour at all. There’s no structure, no planning.” She is marooned with her memories and mementoes and various unquiet ghosts.

As luck would have it, her most recent film similarly throws her in among ghosts – although here, again, the experience soon starts to grate. Blithe Spirit is a galumphing reanimation of Noël Coward’s 1940s farce, played with gusto but fatally heavy-footed. Dench co-stars as Madame Arcati, a preposterous old medium who was previously embodied by the likes of Margaret Rutherford and Angela Lansbury. Down the years we have grown accustomed to seeing Dench making herself blissfully at home in any film, big or small, but her role as Arcati feels like so much heavy lifting. She huffs and she puffs. She falls into the orchestra pit. If the film is a notch or two up on 2019’s calamitous Cats (in which she played Old Deuteronomy), it is still a far cry from the heyday of Philomena, or Notes on a Scandal. Blithe Spirit is running on vapour, shouting to be heard. In the end it is a bit of a ghostly presence itself.

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TIM RICE: ‘EVITA WAS A BONKERS IDEA’ ·

(Rob Walker’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/14; Photo: Dynamic duo … Tim Rice, right, and Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1970. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images.)

As the great songwriter prepares to take Jesus Christ Superstar on a 50th birthday tour, he talks about penning hits, his idea for a new musical – and drinking from Lloyd Webber’s Georgian wine glasses

 Tim Rice had a hunch the Oscar was in the bag. After all, he and Elton John had been responsible for three of the five nominations in the best song category. But, as he walked on stage that night in 1995, after Can You Feel the Love Tonight from The Lion King won, the tall, slightly awkward-looking English lyricist had no idea what he was going to say. So he drew a breath then decided, on a whim, to thank his childhood hero, Denis Compton. No one in the Hollywood audience had heard of the England and Middlesex cricketing all-rounder and his words were greeted with a bemused silence.

Rice laughs at the memory and puts on a throaty American drawl to recount the scene back stage when reporters swarmed. “What movies was this guy Compton in?” “Oh, I said, he was in The Final Test.” “But what part did he play?” “Well, he played Denis Compton – and frankly, I thought he captured the character very well.”

He chortles away, still roguish at 76 and ever the raconteur. But then Rice is at his best telling stories. They’re the key to his craft. “A good story always inspires good words,” he says. And, over the past six decades, Rice has written some very good words for the biggest names in music, from Freddie Mercury to Madonna. Mention his name, though, and people are likely to think of him as part of a duo alongside – or even eclipsed by – Andrew Lloyd Webber. Yet as a lyricist, Rice has won three Oscars, two more than Lloyd Webber.

Why isn’t he more of a national treasure? “I really don’t like people saying everything is wonderful,” Rice says, when I suggest that he may be a bit too, well, self-effacing for someone with three Academy awards. “I don’t want to completely put myself down – because there’s the frightening possibility that people might agree.” Is there anything he will say? “I think I’m quite good at judging my material, partly because it’s only half mine in most cases.”

He’s speaking to me from his six-acre country home near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, a leafy retreat he moved to three years ago. Outside, the afternoon light’s fading and his dog is impatient for a walk. Rice has spent the day organising all the songs he’s ever written – putting his house in order “in case I get hit by a bus next week”. He’s been struck by how many never appeared in films or shows: 145 in all. Most are pretty average, he says, particularly the early ones. “It’s made me realise just how much a show helps a song.”

I like a perfect rhyme. I don’t like time and mine, or girl and world

None more so than the hit musical Evita. A “bonkers” idea, he says, that came to him after hearing a radio programme about Eva Perón, the glamorous wife of Juan Perón, three times president of Argentina. The show made him drop everything and jump on a plane to Buenos Aires to do some research. “The best stuff I’ve written is when I have characters and I know what situation they’re in – and I think, ‘What would I say in that situation?’”

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BLACK LIVES MATTER IN “TITUS ANDRONICUS” (INTERVIEW WITH DAVID STERLING BROWN) ·

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 155 (Folger Shakespeare Library)

In his classes at Binghamton University, David Sterling Brown and his students examine Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of Critical Race Theory. You might have heard about Critical Race Theory lately: put simply, it’s a way of looking at society and culture that focuses on the intersections of race, law, and power. Ever since George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer in Minneapolis outraged much of the nation, Critical Race Theory has taken on a new urgency for millions of Americans examining race, law and power with new eyes. Meanwhile, millions of other Americans, pointing to the realities of their own day-to-day lives, are basically saying: “I told you so.”

What does it mean to read a play like Titus Andronicus with questions of race in mind? Brown, who has written extensively about that play, joins us on the podcast to discuss the ways that such a reading reveals an entire dimension of racial imagery and racial violence. We also talk about what it means for theaters and cultural institutions to engage in anti-racist work. David Sterling Brown is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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MICHAEL FRAYN ON THE STATE OF BRITAIN AND THE FUTURE OF THEATRE ·

(Andrew Dickson’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 9/13; Illustration by Grace J. Kim; source photograph by Roberto Ricciuti / Getty.)

A conversation with the playwright and novelist about quarantine, comedy, and Chekhov.

Michael Frayn was born in the suburbs of London, in 1933. He studied philosophy at Cambridge, in the nineteen-fifties, before becoming a reporter and columnist for the Guardian and then a star columnist for the Observer in the sixties—experiences he put to wry use in “Towards the End of the Morning,” a novel about world-weary Fleet Street hacks, published in 1967. He turned to theatre in the seventies, and he may be best known, at least in Britain, as the creator of the imperishable stage farce “Noises Off,” which was first produced in 1982. A decade and a half later, his drama “Copenhagen,” which pried open the mysterious relationship between the nuclear physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the midst of the Second World War, won the Tony Award for Best Play. Another award-winning drama, “Democracy,” from 2003, delved into the muddied compromises of German politics. Frayn’s most recent play, “Afterlife,” is from 2008, and he has hinted it might be his last; it explored the checkered career of the visionary theatre director Max Reinhardt. (Like many of Frayn’s works, it was directed by Michael Blakemore.) He has written a memoir, numerous screenplays and television scripts, and a well-regarded philosophical study on the concept of uncertainty. He has also translated nearly all the plays of Anton Chekhov, among other works of Russian literature.

Despite his irksomely abundant talents, Frayn has an old-fashioned English distrust of over-egging anything, especially himself: in a Profile for this magazine from 2004, Larissa MacFarquhar described him as “optimistic, cheerful, tidy, hardworking, discreet, modest, logically scrupulous, and parsimonious in matters of sentiment.” Frayn told MacFarquhar, “I have a moderate view of life.”

He would have spent this summer doing the rounds of British literary festivals to promote his new book, “Magic Mobile,” a volume of short comic pieces, but he and his wife, the writer Claire Tomalin, with whom he has lived since 1981, are taking lockdown seriously, and venturing out as little as possible. “In a way, it’s nice to be released from all that, and just get on with working and reading,” he told me recently, on a Zoom call of intermittent reliability. He was sitting in his office among neat shelves of dictionaries and play scripts. His three children live close by, and “often come over and sit in the garden or go for walks,” he said.

We went on to talk about the possibilities of socially distanced drama, how laughter has become a health risk, the state of Britain in the wake of the coronavirus, and what Chekhov did during pandemics. Later, we spoke again by Zoom; these interviews have been edited and condensed.

Some theatres in Britain have tried reopening at reduced capacity, but there’s a fear that productions might not get going properly again until next year—assuming theatres even make it through Christmas. Has it affected you?

I have, I think, four revivals in the U.K. scheduled for next year, and they’re all just hanging fire. No one knows whether we’re going to be doing any theatre next year or not. It’s an impossible situation.

There’s something to be said for social distancing on the stage—some directors do a lot of it, because they want to use the whole area of the stage. Things like love scenes are much more effective if you get the lovers apart, on opposite sides of the stage, and make them play to each other across the width of it. I really don’t think we lose very much if all the people who are supposed to have sword fights onstage have to stay well out of bash-bash-bash range of each other.

But you do need to pack audiences in together. It’s just simply not financially viable to have audiences that are a quarter of the size of the audience you’re expecting. Also, the theatre works by having this very close, communal response. Particularly comedy—people do set each other off laughing. To get a comedy going, you really need to be very close to a lot of other people. Of course, when it doesn’t work, that’s even worse—when you’re sitting next to a lot of people who are supposed to be laughing, and they don’t laugh.

And laughter in the theatre suddenly seems to be risky behavior, doesn’t it? All those virus-bearing aerosols.

Normally, people say that laughter is good for you—I like to think I’m dispensing medicine to the public. But if I’m also killing them that’s not so good.

If Zoom could make their system more sophisticated so that everyone in the audience could be represented by an avatar in the theatre, and each avatar could hear the other person, it would be as good as having an audience. But you see the difficulties we’re having even maintaining this conversation with two people. The thought of all the people with avatars being visible and audible, coming back into existence, going out of existence again, would be a very dicey prospect. It’s one of the criticisms that people make of actors sometimes, that they’ve phoned in their performance—but, theoretically, the audience could phone in their responses and that could be broadcast around the empty auditorium.

Theatre architects and technicians are working hard at the moment to try and find solutions that would allow for better audience capacity—I saw a scheme recently for surrounding every seat with plexiglass, so you’d be shielded from your neighbor.

If you’re shut away behind that, you might as well be shut away at home, using Zoom. If it would encourage the actors, you could have lots of little screens, five hundred screens in the house.

Your new book, “Magic Mobile,” is an array of comic miniatures and vignettes, and your previous book, “Matchbox Theatre,” was a series of playlets. Is there something appealing about working on a small scale?

No doubt I have more ideas for short pieces because that’s how I began my career, by writing stuff as a reporter for the Guardian. Then I became a columnist. Maybe I’m just in old age, or second childhood, reverting to where I began.

I’ve been thinking about comedy and the pandemic—obviously, so much of it has been so grim, but in Britain, at least, there’s been a lot of humor, too, partly because so many people think the government has been so incompetent.

I don’t know if it’s a particularly British thing. The British like to feel that they’re the only people in the world who’ve got a sense of humor—and particularly feel that the Germans don’t have a sense of humor. But that doesn’t actually survive going to Germany and meeting Germans. I think everyone in difficult situations tries to laugh about them if they possibly can, don’t they?

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READ ‘REAGAN’S COWBOYS’ ALONG WITH MAUREEN DOWD ARTICLE IN NY TIMES, 8/8 ·

MOB RULE:  JOHN B. ROBERTS II ON THE 1984 REELECTION CAMPAIGN’S SECRET OPERATION AGAINST GERALDINE FERRARO, THINKING OUTSIDE THE BALLOT BOX, AND HIS NEW BOOK  ON MORNING IN AMERICA:  “REAGAN’S COWBOYS”

In the run-up to the 2020 election, Reagan Political Strategist John B. Roberts II looks back at 1984—only  to find a highly controversial president, a terrible economy, and mass protests in the streets.  The parallels go on . . .

Interview with Bob Shuman, Stage Voices

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is an issue from the 1984 Reagan campaign that is also important to a millennial–and why?

The economy. Until 1983, America had a terrible economy for a decade. It began with an oil embargo and gas shortages. We waited in long lines to try to fill our cars, at prices that spiked more than 150 percent.  I was a college graduate in 1973.  Jobs were impossible to find, and when you did find them, wages couldn’t keep up with double-digit inflation.  I vividly remember how hard it was to land a job and how it seemed impossible to ever buy a home.  It was really dismal, a lot like it has been for millennials.

Reagan was a highly controversial president, it should be recalled.  There were mass protests in the streets, a difficult economy, Russian interference in elections; the parallels go and on.  For those who do not remember that time, this look backward may reveal that no matter how bad things seem, they can turn around for the better.

Why hasn’t the story of the 1984 reelection campaign’s secret operation against Geraldine Ferraro been told before–and do you think reasons had to do with protecting participants?

By design, only a handful of us knew the full extent of the operation, even when it was happening.  We had lots of people working on the investigations, but they didn’t know everyone who was involved or what people outside of their cluster were doing.  It was a compartmented operation and only I, my colleague Art Teele, and the Reagans’ closest advisor, Stu Spencer, knew the complete story.  In late 1984, an editor at Knopf told me he was interested in publishing a book about the press coverage of the campaigns, which would have included the Ferraro operation.  Stu Spencer asked me not to write it because he thought it might embarrass the Reagans, especially Nancy. So we kept silent for decades.

 

Besides yourself, name the first Reagan Cowboy to come to mind–and who was he or she?

Mac Baldrige.  He was Reagan’s Commerce Secretary and although he was an Ivy Leaguer and successful businessman, he grew up on a ranch and had been a professional roper, a real rodeo cowboy.  In 1988 he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame.  He and Reagan shared a love of horses and often went riding together.  Baldrige died from injuries in a freak riding accident.  Of course, the second name that comes to mind is Colonel Oliver North, who was a principal in the Iran-Contra affair. He was one of Reagan’s cowboys, whether they went horseback riding or not.   

 

Why was it worth staying with the campaign as you found yourself involved with organized crime?

That’s a really good question.  My mortgage was definitely a factor. But the main thing that kept me on the job was that Reagan declared war on organized crime in 1983.  Attorney General William French Smith ordered U.S. attorneys and the FBI to make the Mafia and other crime groups a top priority.  At the same time Reagan created a high-profile presidential commission to publicly spotlight the dangers.  One question Art Teele and I could never answer was this: was it just a coincidence that a relatively unknown politician with extensive connections to organized crime was picked to run for vice president? Or was the Mafia trying to put someone they could coerce into doing their bidding into the White House?  Because we couldn’t discount that possibility, we stuck with our investigations until the Mondale-Ferraro ticket was defeated.      

 

What do you see as major differences in opposition research then and now?

The dossier of derogatory information British former spy Christopher Steele developed on Trump in 2016 embodies the differences.  Even though the FBI and CIA could not verify the chief allegations in Steele’s dossier, it was used to justify secret surveillance.  The report became part of a counter-intelligence investigation of the Trump campaign and was shared with the press, senior officials in the intelligence community, and in the Justice Department. Each and every one of those actions would never have happened in 1984, at least not on my watch or on Art Teele’s watch.  They violate every important principle of a democratic election, from abuse of executive authority to potentially introducing Russian propaganda into a presidential campaign.    

We verified the information we uncovered about Geraldine Ferraro before we disclosed it to anyone.  We then required the main news organizations we worked with to independently verify our leads, as a condition of our sharing the information.  We refused to involve Executive Branch agencies in our investigative work, and the one time we found out someone, on our side, had tried to do so, we shut him down.  Without subpoena powers, without court warrants, without FISA court approved eavesdropping, we nonetheless uncovered politically damaging information.  Some of that information led to a congressional investigation, unanimously approved by every Republican and Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, into Geraldine Ferraro’s compliance with the law.  Unlike in recent years, where the Steele dossier’s allegations remain unproven and investigations into Russian collusion have come up empty-handed, the 1984 investigation into Ferraro found numerous violations of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978

The second part of the Stage Voices interview with John B. Roberts II will appear next Tuesday.

Reagan’s Cowboys by John B. Roberts II, available now from McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers 

View on Amazon

Visit the Web site of John B. Roberts II

Read Part 2 of this interview

Photos: North, Guardian; Steele, Business Insider

Interview (c) 2020 by John B. Roberts II and Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

MAUREEN DOWD NY TIMES ARTICLE, 8/8

No Wrist Corsages, Please

Has America grown since 1984, or will the knives still be out for Biden’s running mate?

Has America grown since 1984, or will the knives still be out for Biden’s running mate?

By Maureen Dowd

Opinion Columnist

Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — On the cusp of Joe Biden teaming up with a woman, I am casting back to my time covering the first woman who was a serious contender for veep.

The feminist fairy tale — which began with women crying and popping champagne on the convention floor in San Francisco in 1984 — had a sad ending. Cinderella with ashes in her mouth.

It’s hard to fathom, but it took another 36 years for a man to choose to put a woman on the Democratic ticket with him. To use Geraldine Ferraro’s favorite expression, “Gimme a break!”

After Walter Mondale picked Ferraro, a Queens congresswoman, the first man and woman to share a ticket had to consider all sorts of things: Could he kiss her on the cheek? (No.) Could he call her “dear” or “honey”? (No.) Could they hug? (No.) Could they tell jokes, as Johnny Carson did, about how angry Joan Mondale would be when her husband kept coming home late and saying he had been in private sessions with the vice president? (No.)

They wanted to be seen as peers, more TV anchor team than suburban couple. Mondale could not seem paternal or patronizing or use phrases like “a ticket with broad appeal.” Ferraro, who walked faster, had to stop bounding ahead of her running mate.

They knew that the way they conducted themselves would forever recast the perception of men and women in politics. So they were wary in the beginning.

As one Democratic consultant put it at the time, “He looked like a teenager on the first date with that ‘How in the world do you pin the corsage on her?’ problem.’’

Before a fund-raiser in New York once, a Democratic official presented Ferraro with a wrist corsage. She refused to put it on. “That I will not do,’’ she told the man politely.

Sometimes, the introductory music for the petite blonde was the 1925 ditty, “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.” One magazine hailed her as “America’s Bride.”

When the ticket headed South, Jim Buck Ross, Mississippi’s 70-year-old commissioner of agriculture, called the 48-year-old Ferraro “young lady” and asked if she could bake blueberry muffins.

Ferraro’s historic campaign was full of images never before seen on the presidential trail. As she went onstage, Gerry, as she was universally known, would hand off her pocketbook to an aide. Her charming press spokesman, Francis O’Brien, sometimes ironed her dresses — as her main foreign affairs adviser, Madeleine Albright, looked on.

It was fascinating to see age-old customs through the eyes of a woman candidate.

“People hand me their babies,’’ Ferraro marveled. “As a mother, my instinctive reaction is how do you give your baby to someone who’s a total stranger to kiss, especially with so many colds going around? And especially when the woman is wearing lipstick?”

It was the first time a candidate running for the White House had talked about abortion using the phrase, “If I were pregnant,” and about foreign policy with the phrase, “As the mother of a draft-age son.” The “smartass white boys” around Mondale, as many feminists called them privately, got nervous when she talked about being a mother. How could she be tough and a mother, they wondered, not seeing the obvious: Mothers are tougher than anyone. Fearing white male backlash, they tried to control her bouncy Queens persona.

Ferraro walked the same tightrope that tripped up Hillary Clinton when she wondered if she should wheel around in that debate and tell the creeping Donald Trump to scram.

If she got angry, would she seem shrill, that dread word, and turn off voters? The Mondale inner circle wanted Ferraro to play the traditional running-mate role of hatchet man. But Gloria Steinem warned, “Nothing makes men more anxious than for a woman to be masculine.”

George H.W. Bush excitedly proclaimed after his debate with Ferraro that he had tried to “kick a little ass”; his press aide called Ferraro “bitchy”; and Barbara Bush said Ferraro was a word that “rhymes with rich.”

What started as a goose bump blind date with history curdled, as Ferraro got dragged into a financial mess involving her husband’s real estate business.

Right after the Reagan landslide, Democrats began muttering about returning to white Anglo-Saxon men on the ticket and not having any more “feminized” tickets that didn’t appeal to them.

I called women across the country for a magazine autopsy I was writing and was shocked to hear how ambivalent women still were about a woman running the country.

A 36-year-old mother of three from Bristol, Tenn., told me: “I put myself in her shoes. Could I sit down and logically make decisions for everybody without cracking up? I think women in general are weak. I know that sounds awful. But we women know we have our faults.’’

The next year, Ferraro put out a memoir talking about how depressed and paranoid she got, and how much she cried, admitting that she was not “prepared for the depth of the fury, the bigotry, and the sexism my candidacy would unleash.”

She said that Mondale’s male aides were so condescending that she instructed them to “pretend every time they talk to me or even look at me that I’m a gray-haired Southern gentleman, a senator from Texas.” (In her memoir, Sarah Palin aimed her sharpest barbs at John McCain’s aides.)

We don’t know whom Biden will choose but we do know the sort of hell she will endure at the hands of Team Trump. Even after the #MeToo revolution, even with women deciding this election, have the undercurrents of sexism in America changed so much? Hollywood, after all, only just began forking over major budgets to women directors, after years of absurdly stereotyping them.

Kimberly Guilfoyle, Kellyanne Conway, Kayleigh McEnany, Lara Trump and Jeanine Pirro — the Fox Force Five of retrograde Trumpworld — will have the knives out. Conservatives will undermine the veep candidate with stereotypes. She’s bitchy. She’s a nag. She’s aggressive. She’s ambitious. Who’s wearing the pants here, anyhow?

I asked Francis O’Brien if he thought, three and a half decades after he watched the sandstorm of sexism around Ferraro, whether her successor would have an easier time.

“I think it’s the same, in many ways,” he said. “This is a white Anglo-Saxon country founded by white Anglo-Saxon men for white Anglo-Saxon men. Sexism is like race. It’ll pop out. It’s in our DNA. We’re one of the few Western countries where women have never made it to the top.”

But on the bright side, when Chuck Schumer wanted to call Nancy Pelosi a lioness on Friday, referring to her negotiations with Republicans on the relief bill, he checked with her first to see if she would prefer lion.

The Speaker chose lioness.

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Credit…Diana Walker/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

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AUDRA MCDONALD INTERVIEW: “THEATRE CAN’T MISS THIS MOMENT” ·

(Michael Schulman’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 7/26; Illustration by Nhung Lê.)

Audra McDonald came out of Juilliard in 1993, a twenty-two-year-old with a lyric soprano as pristine as sterling silver, and quickly forged one of the most celebrated careers in Broadway history. A year out of school, she was cast as Carrie Pipperidge in a Lincoln Center revival of “Carousel,” in what was hailed as a breakthrough in “color-blind casting,” and won her first Tony Award for the role. More Tonys followed, for “Master Class,” “Ragtime,” and “A Raisin in the Sun.” And then more, for “Porgy and Bess” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” in which she played a broken Billie Holiday. She remains the only performer ever to win six Tonys and the only one to win in all four available categories.

McDonald’s plan for this summer was to play Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but, like all live theatre, the production was derailed by the pandemic. Instead, she’s been quarantined at her home in Westchester, with her husband, Will Swenson (her co-star in a 2007 production of “110 in the Shade”), their four children (three from previous marriages and a toddler, Sally), plus their eleven-year-old dog and “about five hundred frogs on the outside,” McDonald said recently. Nevertheless, she has not been idle. In April, she appeared, along with Meryl Streep and Christine Baranski, in a memorable rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” as part of an online concert for Stephen Sondheim’s ninetieth birthday. This month, she performed a virtual concert from a space off her garage which she calls the “Chill Room.”

And then there’s the racial reckoning that has spilled over from the Black Lives Matter protests into the theatre world. In June, McDonald co-founded Black Theatre United, along with performers such as Phylicia Rashad, Wendell Pierce, and Billy Porter. At its inaugural town hall, McDonald moderated a conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill, of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund. When I reached McDonald by Zoom, she was in her teen stepson’s bedroom; the “Chill Room” was undergoing an emergency chimney repair, and Sally could be heard singing in the hallway. “As much as we try to stay energetic for her, we just can’t replicate a three-year-old’s energy,” McDonald said. “Although we did just find some caterpillars in our garden, and we’re going to watch them turn into butterflies.” Our conversation—about her own metamorphoses, from a demoralized student at Juilliard, where she survived a suicide attempt, to a Broadway eminence to a community advocate—has been edited and condensed.

The theatre, like many industries, has been thrust into a big, belated moment of racial reckoning. As one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent, Black theatre artists in America, how have you been thinking about what your role should be?

You need to do what you can to make more space. Every time that we are able to get into the room, I think it’s your job to create more space. I can’t tell you how many young African-American women, students or whatnot, come up to me and say, “I watched you as a kid, and I remember thinking, If she’s doing Broadway, then I can do it. And I can do it as a soprano. I don’t have to do it in the way that society would mainly see me—a sassy beltress.”

Did you have people like that growing up?

For me, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll, of course. Ella Fitzgerald. Obviously, she never did Broadway, but that was Ella’s voice. That was no one else’s voice except Ella’s. And, then, Lillias White I just adored. I had the album of “The Wiz,” which I listened to over and over again. I never thought that I would have the career that I ended up having, but I could at least be there. There was at least space to be taken up by Black women.

I’ve always used my voice to call attention to issues that I thought were important. I’ve been on the board of Covenant House for four or five years now, doing work with homeless youth, trying to give them shelter and education and food and dignity. With Black Theatre United, it’s about all of us saying, “We can’t sit on the sidelines. We can lament everything going on, but how can we as a group effect change in some grander way than just on our own?” As Sherrilyn Ifill said in that town hall, “Everybody has to use the tools in your hand.”

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A FIRST LOOK AT STEVEN SPIELBERG’S WEST SIDE STORY ·

(Anthony Breznican’s article appeared in Vanity Fair, 3/16; photo: Vanity Fair; via the Drudge Report.)

The director talks about reimagining the musical that riveted him as a child.H 16, 2020

Steven Spielberg has been making West Side Story in his head for a very long time. As a boy in Phoenix in the late 1950s, he had only the soundtrack, and he tried to picture the action and dancing that might accompany it. “My mom was a classical pianist,” says the filmmaker. “Our entire home was festooned with classical musical albums, and I grew up surrounded by classical music. West Side Story was actually the first piece of popular music our family ever allowed into the home. I absconded with it—this was the cast album from the 1957 Broadway musical—and just fell completely in love with it as a kid. West Side Story has been that one haunting temptation that I have finally given in to.”

The film, out December 18, is both a romance and a crime story. It’s about dreams crashing into reality, young people singing about the promise of their lives ahead—then cutting each other down in bursts of violence. It’s about hope and desperation, pride and actual prejudice, and a star-crossed couple who find love amid it all on the streets of New York.

West Side Story became a global sensation when it hit Broadway in 1957, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim that made generations swoon, snap, and gasp. The show was both dazzling and gritty, layering a Romeo and Juliet romance between Tony and Maria over a contemporary story of street gangs, racism, and violence in the shadows of rising skyscrapers. When director Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins adapted it into a film in 1961, West Side Story broke the box office record for musicals and dominated the Oscars, winning 10 awards, including best picture. Six decades later, the stage show has toured the world and been revived repeatedly. (A new production, directed by Ivo van Hove, opened on Broadway in February.) Of course, it’s also so commonly performed at high schools and community theaters that if you haven’t seen it, it’s probably because you were in it.

Threaded throughout the story is the question of who has the right to call a place home and why people who are struggling look for reasons to turn on each other. “This story is not only a product of its time, but that time has returned, and it’s returned with a kind of social fury,” Spielberg says. “I really wanted to tell that Puerto Rican, Nuyorican experience of basically the migration to this country and the struggle to make a living, and to have children, and to battle against the obstacles of xenophobia and racial prejudice.”

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DRUID, CHEKHOV AND THE POLITICS OF POWER ·

(Gemma Tipton’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 2/15.)

Garry Hynes directs The Cherry Orchard, a play she says that’s still of the moment

Power comes in many forms. There is physical power, inherited power, seized power. There is the extraordinary and frequently unexpected power of strong feelings, and the insidious power of unhealthy ways of being that drag us into decline. Add to that the power of tradition, and its counterbalance, the power of violent change, and you have quite a cocktail.

Speaking with Garry Hynes and Derbhle Crotty, in a chilly room painted in various shades of brown and purple, I’m also almost hyper-aware of the power embodied by these two very different women. At first, Crotty draws your attention. She has taken a break from rehearsals for Druid’s forthcoming production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and I have just been watching her pace the stage, not yet in costume, but clad instead in baggy cream pants and a cosy, sloppy green jumper. She wears them like a queen.

I get a look from Hynes that could freeze boiling water, or wither a strong plant in an instant

Tall, or more exactly, statuesque, she’s one of those rare people who makes, and maintains unabashed eye contact; and she smiles and laughs frequently as we talk. I find myself wanting to see things as she does, to believe what she projects, which is, of course, one of the enchantments of a really good actor. Beside her, Hynes is smaller, quieter, more measured, and yet when she speaks, which she does quietly, you feel the world around you pausing to pay attention.

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IVO VAN HOVE ON ROUGHING UP WEST SIDE STORY:  “THE VIOLENCE SHOULD BE TANGIBLE” ·

(Alexis Soloski’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/27; via the Drudge Report.)

Ivo van Hove likes it in America. Broadway rarely warms to avant-garde Belgian directors, but it has embraced this one, first for his blood-drenched A View from the Bridge, then for his unorthodox Crucible, which starred a large dog, and then for his adaptation of Network, complete with a working onstage restaurant that audiences could eat at. Now he and Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker are refashioning West Side Story, that quintessentially American dance musical – a rare story of juvenile delinquency and fatal love that you can hum along to. It will be, says Van Hove, “a West Side Story for the 21st century”.

The show is not one that either had seen on stage, though each had watched the 1961 movie version in the 70s or 80s. “I liked it,” De Keersmaeker says, seated in the mezzanine of the Broadway theatre before a preview performance of their new production, which opens later this week. “The dancing. The clarity and efficiency. The long lines.” She gets up from her chair to demonstrate.

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Above: Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel as Tony and Maria. Photograph: Julieta Cervantes

TOM STOPPARD INTERVIEW: ‘I ASPIRE TO WRITE FOR POSTERITY’ ·

(Douglas Murray’s article appreared in The Spectator, 1/27.)

Tom Stoppard talks about inspiration, growing older and his new play, Leopoldstadt

Sir Tom Stoppard is Britain’s — perhaps the world’s — leading playwright. He was born Tomas Straussler in 1937 in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, which his family left as the German army moved in. The Strausslers were Jewish. In adulthood he learned that all four of his grandparents had been killed by the Nazis. His father was killed by the Japanese on a boat out of Singapore as he tried to rejoin his wife and two sons in Australia. In India his mother married again, to an English army officer who gave his stepchildren his last name.

Stoppard has lifted the lid on his early life only once before, in a 1999 piece for Talk magazine. He said there that in the 1990s, following his mother’s death, his stepfather asked him to stop using his name after feeling some imagined ingratitude in his famous stepson. ‘Don’t you realize I made you British?’ seemed to be his resentful message.

Today, at the age of 82, Stoppard lives in an old rectory in the south of England with his third wife, Sabrina Guinness, whom he married in 2014. After lunch together in the kitchen and a walk around the rectory gardens, the famously private author agrees to talk about his life and work, including his new play, Leopoldstadt, which opened in London at the end of January.

We talk in the drawing room with a log fire roaring beside us. In his still unmistakable Mitteleuropean drawl he explains that the right subject for a play ‘is not that easy to find’. Perhaps it is only now, towards the end, that Stoppard feels ready to go back to the world which produced him?

‘This one actually was hiding in plain sight. I’d been circling it for quite a long time without quite admitting that I was writing a play about it. It’s a Jewish family — 1900 to 1955 — and the main reason that they’re Viennese is that the latter part of the play impinges on my own experience, this mental experience, and I didn’t want it to be about me because it wasn’t supposed to be about me. But it was about… yes, it was about part of myself.’

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Photo: The Spectator