Book Review: Rent – The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical

July 23, 2008
"Rent - The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical"

"Rent - The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical"

The authorized libretto for Jonathan Larson’s epochal rock musical, Rent, has finally reached print, and not a moment too soon. The celebrated Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning show is due to end its historic Broadway run later this year, making the time ripe for a little retrospection. And the introductory essay in this new edition, written by Larson’s longtime friend Victoria Leacock Hoffman, capitalizes on the potential for nostalgia. Having collaborated with Larson for over a decade and produced his musical, tick, tick…BOOM!, Hoffman’s firsthand look at the creation of Rent is priceless. She chronicles Larson’s journey from struggling New York actor (yes, he originally came here to be an actor) to rising composer on the verge with loving detail, painting a vivid picture of the AIDS-ravaged downtown Manhattan of the 1980s that influenced Larson at every turn. It’s a simultaneously harrowing and inspirational story of death, love, and a classic work of art being born.

In addition, there’s also the libretto itself – a modern updating of Puccini’s seminal opera, La Boheme – which is a prime example of musical theater bookwriting and sharp, moving lyrics. Fifteen color stills from the original production (featuring a cast of then-upstarts including Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Anthony Rapp) rounds out this handsome and well-considered edition. For fans of both the show and musical theater, there’s no day like today to grab a copy of Rent for one’s bookshelf.


nytheatre mike is in the Air Tonight

July 21, 2008

For all you night owls out there, give a listen to WPAT 930 AM on your radio dial tonight. I’m going to be interviewed by my good friend and colleague Paul Newport LIVE, on the air, circa 1:45am. Yes, I know: very late. For me, too. But this is one of those proverbial offers I couldn’t refuse. Paul is the host of WPAT’s weekly theater broadcast, “Acting Up,” which airs Monday nights/Tuesday mornings at 1:30am. Last week Paul’s guests included Robert Lyons, artistic director of the Ohio Theater, and Gabriella Barnstone, director of Heistman, which is playing this year’s Ice Factory Festival. So you know the broadcast is for real, people.

What are we going to talk about, you ask? Well, my new show, As You Like It, for one thing. And to quote Paul: “We will also talk about YOU.  You’re like a quadruple threat.  We’ll talk about, your past shows, your upcoming shows, your grapefruit-size testicles.” (That last part is an inside joke, a reference to a show he and I did together last summer: Kevin Doyle’s FOX(y) Friends at The Brick Theater’s Pretentious Festival.)

Anyway, it sounds as if a good time will be had by all tonight. So, if you happen to be up – can’t sleep, you’re an insomniac, you’re still out drinking, etc. – please do tune in on your radio dial or on the internet and give us a listen. This is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence (that is, until the next time we do it).

Bauman & Ellsworth Pet the Zookeeper

July 21, 2008
Jessica Bauman & Napoleon Ellsworth

Jessica Bauman & Napoleon Ellsworth

Rising Phoenix Repertory, winners of the Caffe Cino Fellowship Award at the 2007 New York Innovative Theatre Awards, continues its commitment to presenting fresh new work with its latest endeavor, the world premiere of Napoleon Ellsworth’s play, Don’t Pet the Zookeeper. The story concerns an unemployed young woman who interviews for a job as a zookeeper and is immediately and deeply drawn to her prospective boss. Their bizarre and inappropriate interview hints at things to come once she accepts the job and discovers that things may not be what they appear to be at the zoo. The play runs for a week at Seventh Street Small Stage beginning on July 23rd, and stars Rising Phoenix regulars Denis Butkus and Julie Kline.

Napoleon and Zookeeper director Jessica Bauman took a break from rehearsals to stop by the ol’ blog and discuss the production. Here’s what they had to say…

Judging from the press release, it sounds like the play could be anything between an absurdist farce and a dark Pinter-esque comedy. Napoleon, please tell us about the play and what kind of tone you’ve chosen for it.

I suppose the situation in which the two main characters find themselves is a bit dark, a bit absurd. But considering the world in which we live, I call it realism. Perhaps, heightened realism. I mean, there are no extraordinary circumstances anymore. The extraordinary has become commonplace. The world is such a bizarre and cruel place. It’s also, ironically, a very comical place. In a play like this tone is everything. I mean, because the play’s head is in the clouds, its feet must be planted firmly on the ground.

Jessica, how are you approaching your work on the play from a thematic and directorial standpoint?

The world of the play and the characters’ situations are very theatrical and extreme. We’re trying to find the truth in those circumstances so that the audience can follow a very recognizable and human story of two people who find a meaningful connection where they least expect it. I want to make sure that people can laugh and enjoy the music, even when things get pretty dark for the characters.

How has it been working on the production so far? What’s your collaborative dynamic like?

Napoleon: It’s been a wonderful experience so far. We’ve been rehearsing at Seventh Street Small Stage at Jimmy’s No. 43 and it seems as though we’re either always locked in or always locked out. I suppose it’s only fitting considering the play. In addition, Julie and Denis [have] been a true inspiration.

Jessica: We’ve known each other for a long time and worked on a number of projects together (including a workshop of the first half of Zookeeper for RPR last fall). So we have a trust in each others’ work that allows for a very easy, comfortable collaboration in rehearsal. Because we’ve had a tight schedule on this, we often explore and discuss a moment for the first time in front of the actors. Everyone’s belief in each other and the play makes those moments exciting and juicy – we’re all discovering it together – rather than scary and chaotic.

The play has several songs in it, which has allowed each of us to wear hats we don’t often get to – Napoleon as musical director, Denis as musician, Julie as choreographer. I get to sit back and enjoy watching the musical pieces take shape.

Julie Kline in "Don't Pet the Zookeeper"

Julie Kline in "Don't Pet the Zookeeper"

So you two have worked together before?

Napoleon: We’ve worked together twice before, in fact, once when I was at Juilliard and once with Rising Phoenix. Jessica is absolutely wonderful to collaborate with, not only because she’s incredibly smart, but because she listens. She’s like the coach that all the players love to play for. She has this way of bringing out the best in others. I think it’s because she has a genuine respect for both actors and playwrights. I’ve never worked in an environment so relaxed and so free of egos.

Jessica: The first project that Napoleon and I did together was his play, Farewell Undertaker at Juilliard in 2001. Since then, we’ve done a number of readings and workshops of other plays, including a workshop of Hunting for Game with RPR.

How did you two get hooked up with Rising Phoenix Repertory in the first place?

Napoleon: I met Daniel when I was at Juilliard. This was in 2000. He was an acting student and he had already founded Rising Phoenix by then! He was just this incredibly nice guy who just so happened to also be an absolute force of nature.

Jessica: Daniel Talbott was in the group that did Undertaker at Juilliard, although he wasn’t in the cast. (Denis Butkus had the lead in Undertaker.) But Daniel makes it his business to connect with the people he’s excited about, and stay in touch with them. He chased us, OK? In addition to the work I’ve done with Nap at RPR, they also coproduced The Chinese Art of Placement that I directed at 78th Street Theatre Lab several years ago.

Napoleon, where’d you get the idea for this play?

I rarely have an idea for a play before I start writing. In fact, I try my best not to think at all while writing. Honestly. If I just let the characters appear, and stay out of their way, it isn’t long before things begin to get interesting. The characters invariably find themselves in trouble and I invariably get swept along for the ride. Every play, I suppose, breeds it’s own questions. The questions I find myself asking usually pertain more to life in general than to the actual play itself. In this instance, I started to obsessively wonder how a person could possibly maintain his humanity in a situation as dehumanizing, as say, Abu Ghraib. Or, how does love flourish in a place as bleak as, say, the West Bank? I mean, these are the times in which we live. It’s usually somewhere in the second draft when I begin to address such questions.

One last question for both of you: what will the audience learn about zookeepers that they didn’t know before?

Napoleon: That being a zookeeper is risky business. They will also learn, if they’re paying close attention, how to properly whip an animal, regardless of its size.

Jessica: Zookeeping is a surprising activity. You never know what you’ll be called on to do, or where you’ll wind up.

There’s No Clock in the Forest

July 18, 2008
Boomerang Theatre Company's "As You Like It"

Boomerang Theatre Company's "As You Like It"

It’s been a light week for posting here on the ol’ blog. That’s because I’ve been knee-deep in “tech” rehearsals for my latest show, which is performed outdoors in Central Park. And, as Shakespeare so wisely pointed out, “There’s no clock in the forest.” Which is just another way of saying: the week has just zipped right on by.

Speaking of my latest show, you should come see it. It’s FREE, it’s outdoors, and it’s Shakespeare (which means it’s a pretty well established classic). And, as usual, I’m part of a terrific cast. I promise we’ll put a smile on your face while you have a rustic picnic or drink beer out of a paper bag. Here are the details…

Boomerang Theatre Company presents
As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Directed by Matt Johnston

Starring Rebecca Comtois, Michael Criscuolo, Jessi Gotta, John Greenleaf, R. Paul Hamilton, Brian Moore, Eli Schneider, Maria Silverman, Alisha Spielmann, Christian Toth, Matthew Trumbull, and Scott Williams

Performed FREE and outdoors in Central Park (enter at West 69th Street and Central Park West)

Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm, July 19th – August 10th

Rosalind is banished and dressed as a boy. Orlando is on the run but smitten by a girl he saw fleetingly at court. Phebe is in love with Rosalind’s male persona. Touchstone is in love with Audrey the milkmaid. Audrey…well, she’s none too bright. But that’s okay, because Celia is in love with bad boy Oliver. And among all this lovin’, Jaques wants none of it. Shakespeare’s beloved play about the power and verity of amour, presented free and out of doors in lovely Central Park!

That’s all the news that’s fit to print for today. Off to do some last-minute show stuff before tonight’s final dress. Wish me luck and have a Happy Friday, everybody!


July 9, 2008

Recently, a friend and colleague of mine asked me if I would be interested in getting in on the ground floor of a new theater company he’s thinking about starting. When asked what he meant by “getting in on the ground floor,” he said perhaps in a co-artistic capacity helping him run it.

Which got me thinking: whatever happened to the good ol’ actor-manager? You know: well-known actors who headed up big theater companies or were independent producing impresarios. There used to be a lot more of them around than there are today. Pre-20th century there was a bounty of them: Richard Burbage, David Garrick, Moliere, Sarah Bernhardt, Henry Irving, Edwin BoothStanislavsky – the list goes on and on. 

With the advent of the 20th century (and the increasing dominance of director-centric thinking) actor-managers dropped precipitously off the map. A few of them still popped up. The most notable example of the modern era is, of course, Laurence Olivier, who ran both The Old Vic and The National Theatre of Great Britain (which he helped create) to great acclaim.

Here in the U.S., Eva Le Galliene did her part to carry on the actor-manager tradition by starting the Civic Repertory Theatre back in the 1920s. In the late 1950s, Ellis Rabb formed the Association of Producing Artists, which later merged with the Phoenix Theatre to become the APA-Phoenix. And, in the 1970s, three upstart actors from the suburbs of Chicago – Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry, and Terry Kinney – started Steppenwolf Theatre Company in a church basement – and the rest, as they say, is history.

In all of those instances, the actor-managers who led the charge were highly esteemed, well-respected, and thought highly capable of being both bosses and artists.

Nowadays, you don’t see actors running big theater companies anymore. All those jobs go to directors now. A.R.T., The Public, The Guthrie, The Goodman, Arena Stage, Yale Rep, Long Wharf, the Intiman, Seattle Rep – all run by directors. Two notable exceptions are Steppenwolf (which is run by actor Martha Lavey) and The Old Vic in Britain (which is run by Kevin Spacey). Otherwise, it’s as if the world-at-large suddenly came to regard directors as more viable candidates for artistic director jobs when, truth be told, it’s the old-fashioned actor-manager who paved the way for their creation in the first place.

So, why is it that actors no longer get opportunities like this? What’s your take on this? Why can’t actors be bosses anymore? Is there some unspoken prejudice against them in the eyes of those who dole out such positions? Are directors better at lobbying and schmoozing their way into these jobs? Is there a fundamental difference in today’s theater training that gears directors more towards institutional positions than actors? Or do actors just not want these jobs anymore? I’d love to hear the blogosphere’s thoughts on this. Because, frankly, I don’t see why we can’t see the actor-manager once again rise to prominence.

Nudists in Love – The Fundraiser

July 8, 2008

For those of you who find yourself without after-work plans this Thursday night, might I suggest the perfect gathering? I’m talking of course about the fundraiser for Nudists in Love, a new musical bound for this year’s New York International Fringe Festival. See, doesn’t it just sound like fun already?

Nudists in Love.

Repeat to yourself five time slowly.

See how good that sounds?

Damn right, Loretta.

Those of you who read this blog regularly know I am not in the habit of plugging fundraisers. But this one’s a little different. First of all, I did a private reading of this show last month and know firsthand how cute and fun it is.

Secondly, none other than The Companion herself is working very closely on this show. So I would be somewhat remiss in my boyfriendly duties if I didn’t give her some play here on the ol’ blog.

So, having said all of that, here are the details…!

Nudists in Love – The Fundraiser
Thursday, July 10th, 6pm to 9pm
At Deacon Brodie’s
370 West 46th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues)

Just remember to tip your barmaid very, very well: The Companion herself and her Nudists in Love cohorts will be pouring swill and hooch for you between 6pm and 9pm. Plus, all tips during that time go towards the costs of mounting the show. So, show some indie theater love and empty your pockets.

(I realize, of course, that the NIL fundraiser is in direct opposition with the first performance of the Q & A: The Perception of Dawn extension. Doesn’t the universe have a great sense of humor? So, do me a favor: go to the fundraiser on Thursday and buy a drink on my behalf. Thanks.)

Introducing the Arts & Entertainment Emporium

July 8, 2008


Some of you may have already noticed a new text box over on the right hand sidebar. The box itself is titled “Art Meets Commerce,” and inside it is one single link, to nytheatre mike’s Arts & Entertainment Emporium.

What the hell is that, you ask?

Well, it’s the brand new online store I’ve started to help support this blog.

That’s right, folks: you’ll be able to shop online for books, music, and DVDs at the A & E Emporium, and a portion of the proceeds from your purchase will go directly towards supporting this blog.

So step inside, take a look around, and tell me what you think. The store is in its nascent stages, so I’ll be fiddling around with the content, the layout, and the merchandise. If you’ve got a suggestion, leave me a comment. If you want to request that a certain item be added to the store, feel free. You’ll find me very receptive to feedback.