Monthly Archives: July 2018


By Bob Shuman

In August, Madonna will be sixty, a mean trick of time to any girl or boy who reeled at the thought of being “material” in 1984, barely out of the commune.  The Staff of Spin  notes she then went on to define and shock as “Coke-can-curled,  lipsticker movie star; barrier-crossing creator of the original Sexy Book of Sexy Sex; a ‘90s raver; a dancehall queen; an all-American girl; a Yoga mat toting goth child; and more.” Fans and feminists praise, defend, and sometimes revile her, the best-selling female rock artist of the twentieth century.  Two years ago, however, Camille Paglia, her intellectual advocate, wrote that the star had become a “prisoner of her own wealth and fame.”  At the Billboard Woman of the Year Awards at the time, Madonna said she stood before her audience as a “doormat”–she stated that David Bowie “made me think there were no rules.  But I was wrong.  There are no rules—if you’re a boy.  There are if you’re a girl.” Paglia, betrayed, called the performance “maudlin self-pity.” Madonna, the cultural barometer, the mistress of reinvention, “the real feminist,” had pinpointed the difference between the ‘80s and 20016 (and maybe now).  Imagine then the change in concerns, not of forty years, but of one hundred—or even fifty years beyond that.  Would anyone much care about Madonna then?  Or would the debate be rekindled?

Peter Rader’s dual biography of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, Playing to the Gods (Simon & Schuster), is a popular tribute to icons of their own day, on the cusp of the twentieth century.  The theatrical period is largely unknown, in America, because serious productions of new plays are not normally said to have arrived until the twenties or even thirties.  Bernhardt (1844-1923) and Duse (1858-1924) are two of the handful of ghostly names we dimly recall from earlier, floating before us based on stage lore, sepia posed photographs, and sometimes ravishing Art Deco posters  They are considered to be the finest actresses of their time (French and Italian, respectively), influencing Stanislavski and Proust, Gielgud and Brando. However, the impermanency of theatre has left us with little in the way of primary source material regarding their artistry (which has let others snitch from stories told in the dark)—there are archaic, silent films of Bernhardt, and recordings were made of her; Duse leaves us one silent film.  Chekhov said of her, “I do not know Italian, but she acted so well that I felt I was understanding every word.  What a marvelous actress!  Never before have I seen anything like it.”  Method acting is her legacy passed through her to Stanislavki (who saw her and wrote books about her technique–more was learned as Americans ventured to Moscow),  and the knowledge was transmitted to Strasberg, AdlerMeisner and other teachers of the craft.  Duse, who looked up to Bernhardt, fourteen years her senior, wanted to be possessed by her roles, an idea about theatre which may remind of  philosopher Simon Critchley today—she also did not recognize the audience, constructing a fourth wall, which had not been used previously.  Her need for privacy may remind of Garbo, and her preference to stay still in a scene can recall Liv Ullmann, who would also, as Hugo von Hofmannsthal recorded, play “the gaiety that is not happiness, and with a light laugh . . .  play[s] all the arid darkness behind the laugh.”

Madonna seems closer to Bernhardt (because of her love of imitation, so does Meryl Streep), for both know that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Having acted in terrible movies (Who’s That Girl?, Body of Evidence, Swept Away) and given atrocious performances (nine Gold Raspberry Awards; sixteen nominations), Madonna’s is probably the most memorable character in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, however, because in it, she was the East Village of the 1980s. Bernhardt received her share of negative press, too, but she rarely listened to a critic, including George Bernard Shaw and his notable drubbing: “[the] childishly egotistical character of her acting . . . is not the art of making you think more highly or feel more deeply, but the art of making you admire her, pity her, champion her, weep with her, laugh at her jokes, follow her fortunes breathlessly, and applaud her.  The woman is always the same.  She does not enter into the leading character.  She substitutes herself for it.”  She didn’t have to listen to a man either: her great ambition was fueled by an ability to manipulate men and break rules (ethnically Jewish, she was the daughter of a courtesan and became one herself, as well as a novice in the Catholic church).  She formed her own companies, rented her own theatres, and toured the world (as did Duse). Bernhardt even played men, with much ado–watch her swordfight on YouTube as Hamlet

 She thought she could play a man better than a male: “There is one reason why I think a woman is better suited to play parts like L’Aiglon and Hamlet than a man.  These roles portray youths of twenty or twenty-one with the minds of men of forty.  A boy of twenty cannot understand the philosophy of Hamlet nor the poetic enthusiasm of L’Aiglon . . . . An older man . . . does not look the boy, nor has he the ready adaptability of the woman who can combine the light carriage of youth with the mature thoughts of the man.”  At the time Bernhardt was in her mid-fifties.

Playing to the Gods, however, misses another of Bernhardt’s arguments, by piggybacking on the success of the television series Feud: Bette and Joan. The amount of impressive research in the volume should actually not be in service of a tawdry answer to a reconsideration of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Although there are gothic moments in the lives of Bernhardt (her sleeping in a coffin, studying the faces of the dead, and horrifying leg operation) and Duse (her call to mysticism and the transcendence of materialism)—and although they were real competitors, at least battlers in upstaging, hoping to be considered the superior artist, they were also warring over a dominant aesthetic style.  Their determinations are still being deliberated today in the world of entertainment, but they might be seen as closer to characters in Les Liaisons Dangereuses rather than to those in B-movie Hollywood, as implied in the following: “But Bernhardt had her talons in [his] flesh with no intention of releasing him.” Because Bernhardt and Duse spent enormous amounts of their own money on productions, they kept the quality of  material high. For example, Bernhardt would not portray the realism of Ibsen, because she “felt it made theatre pedestrian.” Duse felt differently, and is lauded by feminists for making Nora known internationally. These actors are exemplars of high art, not trash—and this contradiction may be part of the reason why their personalities have difficulty coming through in the text.  Yet, the women did change with trends, regarding the subjects of their plays and the sets and costumes of their productions.  Playing to the Gods needs more nuance, ordering, and tightening, a sharper, less melodramatic construction—and a less colloquial editing: there is repetition and there are missing points.  Whatever the pronouncement of critics, however, some might hope that this was more of an academic volume, but the answer is actually in the title: “playing to the gods” means playing to those in the high-up, inexpensive seats.  Readers will see Peter Rader’s studio background in the work, but he’s still swimming in the material.  Hollywood, of course, as well as Schiller, would ask the women to confront each other face to face, a sad omission of history.


As a personal reaction, it was not Bernhardt, Duse, or even Madonna who made thinking about Playing to the Gods most interesting.  Rather, it was the lover, whom Bernhardt and Duse shared: Gabriele d’Annunzio (the women also shared roles, most memorably Camille, venues—they even  once acted in the same play in the same city, during the same week–and hired the same theatre practitioners).  D’Annunzio was a writer admired by Joyce, Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, and Ernest Hemingway, among others.  In a scandalous novel called The Flame, he discusses Duse and her art—an influence unforgotten, if not specifically understood. Bernhardt created herself as an icon, the first female megastar, through tireless work, expert publicity, the love of symbolism, and trouping—in Kansas City, for example, she played one performance to 6,500 people: a beacon for rock stars in huge arenas. Perhaps, Playing to the Gods should be seen as an accessible introduction to the period and its great artistic innovators–and maybe it will enable a further opening of this market and a continuing examination of the area. 

Dying in Paris, Bernhardt had a younger actress take over her leading role in L’Aiglon.  Like O’Neill, who cursed that he was born in a hotel and would die in one, Duse, born on the road, died on it, too, in Pittsburgh.  Madonna, swearing that she’ll never make another movie, may have let her fans down on feminism, an issue both Bernhardt and Duse championed. Paglia can not forgive her for it.  Will time? 

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

View ‘Playing to the Gods‘ on Amazon



(Alexis Soloski’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/12; via Pam Green.)

The two-night revival of “Gone Missing” at New York City Center is both a very good show and a very bad, very cosmic joke. Because this documentary song cycle is about loss: of minds, rings, a dog, the hour badly spent. And the irretrievable loss, the one you can hear in pretty much every plink and strum from the onstage band, is the loss of the show’s composer, Michael Friedman, who died a year ago from AIDS-related complications. Which makes “Gone Missing” an accidental and indispensable elegy.

The show, which has a book by Steven Cosson, was originally created and performed by The Civilians theater company in 2003. It was built on more-or-less verbatim interviews that company members conducted with both people who have lost things and people whose job it is to find them. Mr. Cosson arranged the interviews into a series of monologues, and Peter Morris dreamed up some public radio-style segments, while Friedman composed songs that expanded, sweetly and tartly, on the themes that emerged.

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Photo: AM NY



Live at BBC Proms: BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, National Youth Choir and Proms Youth Ensemble conducted by Sakari Oramo in music by Holst, Vaughan Williams and Anna Meredith.

From the Royal Albert Hall, London
Presented by Georgia Mann and Petroc Trelawny

Oliver Knussen: Flourish with Fireworks, Op 22
Vaughan Williams: Toward the Unknown Region
Holst: The Planets

  1. 9.20 pm
    Live Interval: On the opening night of the 2018 BBC Proms, Georgia Mann and Petroc Trelawny look forward to two months of world-class music-making in the company of guests, and go backstage to chat to some of the performers in tonight’s Prom.

c.9.50 pm
Anna Meredith: Five Telegrams
BBC co-commission with 14-18 NOW and Edinburgh International Festival

National Youth Choir of Great Britain
BBC Proms Youth Ensemble
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo (conductor)

An all-British season launch, featuring two major figures who composed responses to the First World War. Holst’s much-loved The Planets (premiered in 1918) and Vaughan Williams’s choral masterpiece Toward the Unknown Region contrast with a new work by Anna Meredith, featuring the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble. Five Telegrams draws on communications sent by young soldiers in 1918, taken from a British Field Service Postcard.



(Ivan Hewett’s article appeared in the Telegraph 7/14.)

The First Night has two important jobs to perform: to make a big splash, and to set the tone and signal the big themes of the coming season. The second half of this year’s first nightpromised to do both, spectacularly.

It was a brand-new piece named Five Telegrams, commissioned in commemoration of the end of the First World War, a major theme of the season.

It was a big bold statement, involving two choirs as well as a BBC Symphony Orchestra heavily reinforced with extra trumpets of the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, and moving imagery projected onto the curved walls and hanging mushrooms of the Albert Hall by the co-creators of the piece, 59 Productions.

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(Andrew Clements’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/13.)

The visuals were mostly abstract, but here and there one caught a hint of something more concrete, a suggestion of maps and gun placements in one movement, a tangle of lines suggesting messages running down telephone wires to the front.

Meredith’s  musical idiom is a pop-flavoured minimalism with hints of Steve Reich, which doesn’t lend itself to lyrical effusion – an advantage in this piece, where feelings tend to be obliterated by the machinery of war.

Even so, one sometimes felt her usually buoyant inventiveness was hampered by the need to serve a symbolic purpose.

As for the  visuals, they were so beautifully decorative that one sometimes forgot their sinister implication. Nonetheless this was a spectacular and brilliantly conceived start to the season.

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(Photos–top to bottom–Classical Iconoclast, Telegraph, BBC)





‘The Glass Menagerie’

By Tennessee Williams

The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee Williams’ first big success when it opened on Broadway in 1945, and has remained the most touching, tender and painful of his works. Closely based on the playwright’s own life and family in St Louis in the 1930s, Williams breaks away from naturalism to create a dream-like atmosphere. The narrator Tom conjures up recollections of the cramped and claustrophobic tenement home he shares with his often over-bearing mother Amanda, and his painfully shy sister, Laura.

The play simmers with frustration as each character is trapped in their own unhappy situation. Tom (also Williams’ birth name) works in a warehouse but dreams of being a poet and escaping his mundane life supporting his mother and sister. Laura hides at home lacking the confidence to engage meaningfully with the outside world, preferring instead to get lose herself in her collection of fragile glass animals. Amanda sells magazine subscriptions over the phone and commits herself to finding a match for her daughter. One day, Tom succumbs to his mother’s pressure and brings home a gentleman caller to visit his sister, and their quiet existence is shattered.

The programme is introduced by John Lahr, author of the acclaimed biography Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.

Amanda . . . . . Anastasia Hille
Tom . . . . . George MacKay
Laura . . . . . Patsy Ferran
Jim . . . . . Sope Dirisu

Music for violin arranged and performed by Bogdan Vacarescu.

Director: Sasha Yevtushenko.

Photo: BBC



(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/3; via Pam Green.)

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — It’s pretty easy to stun an audience into the kind of silence about which people say, “You could hear a pin drop.” Just a well-timed slap will do it.

But there’s a deeper kind of attention in the theater: the kind that comes from withholding the blow. When an audience is focused on what might be coming instead of what already came, you can hear a pin not drop.

That’s the silence — a beautiful hush of dread and wonder — that envelops “The Sound Inside,” Adam Rapp’s astonishing new play now receiving its world premiere, under the masterly direction of David Cromer, at the Williamstown Theater Festival. For its entire 90 minutes you are dying to know what will happen even while hoping to forestall the knowledge.

So is Bella Baird, the 53-year-old fiction writer and Yale professor who narrates much of the play. As the action starts she has received a terrible cancer diagnosis with little chance of survival.

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Photo: The New York Times


(Bridget Minamore’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/6.)

Zamile Gantana takes a crate, sits in the middle of the stage, and gives a straightforward but lyrical explanation of what happened to the SS Mendi. In 1917, a total of 823 South African men boarded the ship to aid the British war effort; a month later, more than 600 of them drowned after a collision. “This is our lament for the souls of the dead, to bring them peace,” Gantana says. From this opening scene, the South African theatre company Isango Ensemble transfigure the idea of lament, turning grief into something poignantly beautiful, darkly funny and, at times, sharply angry.

The script follows a dozen or so men on the ship including an outspoken priest, a teenager told his presence brings bad luck, a mixed-race recruit and a white officer. Adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan alongside the 14-strong ensemble, the play shows the racist indignities the men faced on board before their tragic deaths.

Mark Dornford-May’s direction, combined with Lungelo Ngamlana’s choreography and Mandisi Dyantyis’ musical direction, is extraordinary. Using few instruments and scant props, the world around the Mendi, from train journeys to bird sounds, is realised using movement, music and voice work.

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Photo: The Times of London


(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/27 via Pam Green.)  

By the time the woman in the cafe starts to sing that the music has taken over her body — her bones, her stomach, her heart — you’re in no position to question the diagnosis. You’ve been feeling that same, gut-deep response almost since the first notes were sounded in “Carmen Jones,” which opened on Wednesday at Classic Stage Company.

This may also be the moment at which you accept for good that John Doyle’s transformative revival of this once-shunned, sui generis work from 1943 — a strange hybrid of opera (the score is that of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen”) and musical theater (the lyrics are by Oscar Hammerstein II) — isn’t going to be embarrassing. It is, on the contrary, sublime.

There’s no point trying to resist such sheer, distilled beauty. Your chances would be about as good as those of our helpless hero in escaping the erotic pull of the show’s title character, thrillingly embodied here by Anika Noni Rose.

And it all could have gone so wrong.

 (Read more)



(Natalie Walker’s article appeared in Vulture, 7/3; via Pam Green.)

For a certain group of musical theater fans, Christmas comes in June.

This Christmas has everything yours does. It has beloved songs. It has lights. It has pageantry. It bestows gifts. It involves pilgrimages across great distances. It is the Jimmy Awards, and it is the most wonderful time of the year.

“What are the Jimmy Awards?” you ask, like an innocent child.

Short answer? They are the high-school Tonys.

Long answer? Founded in 2009, the National High School Musical Theatre Awardsspotlight and celebrate the best of the best in high-school musical theater. There are now 40 participating regions across the nation; each of these chapters hosts its own awards ceremony, selecting one actor and one actress to represent the region on the national stage in New York City at the Jimmy Awards. (The Jimmy Awards are so called not because of the ubiquity of Thoroughly Modern Millie in high schools circa 2009, but because of legendary theatre owner-producer James M. Nederlander, a passionate advocate for arts education and funding until his death in 2016). Participating students are flown to New York for a week; they stay in the dorms at New York University, and rehearse every day in the Tisch building. The show itself takes place at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre, where the nominees perform in group numbers throughout the first act — half of them in featured medleys, half of them in a larger production number. During the intermission, a judging panel of respected theater artists select eight finalists to present solos. From these solo performances two winners — one male-identifying actor and one female-identifying actor — are determined.

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(Peter Crawley’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 6/18.)

This gruelling adaptation of Louise O’Neill’s novel is alarming for good reason

Asking for It ★★★★
Everyman Theatre, Cork  

Emma O’Donovan, a fifth-year schoolgirl with brittle self-esteem, has become accustomed to seeing herself through a cascade of images. She is a model of beauty picked over by a neurotic mother; the “queen bee” of her Cork school, admired by an audience of lusty boys and resentful girlfriends; a social media darling who is even a billboard model, a dream to be possessed.

At a pivotal moment in Louise O’Neill’s sensational 2015 novel, Asking For It, however, Emma looks at a stream of degrading, dehumanising images, widely shared online, and does not recognise herself. “She is an It,” Emma says of the figure, the victim of a gang rape. “She is a thing.”

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(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 6/28; via Pam Green.)

Bizarre subjects are no deal breaker for musicals; think human meat pies and philosophical felines. But few shows have as bewildering a topic as “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” the 1965 jaw-dropper about ESP, telekinesis and past-life regression that’s a weird mix of laughably earnest woo-woo and chipper Broadway savvy.

For the savvy, we have the score to thank: a treasure trunk of standards with music by Burton Lane and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Songs like “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here,” “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” and “Come Back to Me” are so catchy and well constructed that, stripped of context, you’d have no idea they were originally attached to such strange ideas. (In the musical, “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” is sung to a flowerpot.)

For the strange ideas, Lerner has to take the blame. It was he who, obsessed with the New Age fads flitting around the era, devised a story — about a love triangle among a psychiatrist, his patient and her former incarnation — that became, over the years, Broadway’s pity project: the Golden Age book most in need of rescuing.

My conclusion, based on the 1970 Barbra Streisand movie, the 2000 Encores concert starring Kristin Chenoweth, the complete rewriting of the show as a Harry Connick, Jr. vehicle in 2011 and the cute revisal that opened at the Irish Repertory Theater on Thursday, is: It can’t be fixed. The pleasures of “On a Clear Day” are so intertwined with its absurdities that no theatrical version can separate them. You have to enjoy it for what it is, or not.

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