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Straphanger’s Lament

Come hell or high water – or, y’know, civil war and plague – the Powers That Be are dead set on Broadway reopening and getting back to normal.  We already saw the opening of a few new shows back in August; this week, prominent musicals such as Hamilton, Wicked, and The Lion King all resumed performances.  These are the shows that bring in the tourist dollars, the ones that serve as a major cornerstone of this city’s economy.  As a result, their reopening has been heavily publicized, the notion that Broadway is Back for Business being a rallying cry to shout to the heavens, as loudly and boisterously as possible.

Even to straphangers just trying to get to work.

After a long stretch of time working remotely (again, there’s that whole plague thing), I finally had occasion last week to make a normal, Monday morning commute.  As part of my work commute, I need to change trains at the busy transit hub of Atlantic Avenue, switching from the D train to the 4/5 line.  As I made my way through the subterranean passages, I heard a piercing scream behind me.  No, not a scream, exactly – more like a chant.  In any event, it was loud and disorienting, and when you ride the subway your instinct is to try and ignore those sorts of sounds and forge ahead as quickly as possible.  Nevertheless, I kept hearing it – this wail, plaintive yet demanding.  I looked around, only to find there was nobody where I thought the sound was coming from.  Nothing but air.  I kept going, from one platform to another, and still I heard this disembodied voice.

Then I stopped and realized what the disembodied voice was saying.  Or rather, singing:

Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba.

I paused, and thought to myself.

Is that…is that The Lion King?  Who’s singing The Lion King at eight thirty in the morning?  There’s nobody around…are they broadcasting that?  Over the P.A. system?  Why would they be playing Disney movies…oh wait, it’s also a Broadway show…it reopens this week…oh, right, Broadway is back.  Yay.

Yes, the Powers That Be are so keen on heralding the return of Broadway that they’re doing it literally – running a promotional campaign thru the MTA, using that familiar opening chant to kick off an announcement that we can all start buying tickets to live theatre again.  And while I understand their motivaton – there’s a lot of money to be made from those particular tickets – I do believe they’re a little misguided in their thinking.

For one thing, taking the subway makes you grumpy in the best of times.  Given the times we’re living in now – you know, that aforementioned civil war and plague – the average straphanger is going to want nothing more than quiet for their commute.  Any disruption puts us on edge, so disembodied voices belting show tunes are particularly hard on our already frazzled nerves.

Furthermore, using The Lion King to announce the return of Broadway speaks to a highly limited view of what Broadway is.  They’re not playing Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Stephen Sondheim, or Lin-Manuel Miranda over those loudspeakers.  (Not that I want them to, but still.) No, it’s the opening of a Disney cartoon, adapted for the stage to appeal to tourists and families for whom those Disney cartoons are their only point of reference.  I mean, it’s a fine Disney movie, and a fine adaptation – but as the bars of music you’re selecting to represent all of Broadway?  It suggests a mindset, and a business model, stuck in those days of the late 90s when – with great fanfare and tremendous cultural cost – Broadway was “Disneyfied,” turned into a playground for the wealthy.  That’s not the moment we’re in at all, and you’re not going to change that reality any time soon – so isn’t it better to try and adapt to that new reality, find artistic ways to respond to it, rather than pretend it’s still twenty-five years ago, and all the many intervening crises never happened?

Of course, it’s entirely possible I’m reading too much into this, and I should just sing a quick chorus of “Hakuna Matata” and go on my way.

September Salon

I’m happy to announce that my short play, FOR THE BENEFIT OF JIMMY MANGIAROLI, is being presented on Sunday, September 19, as part of Vampingo Productions’ inaugural Salon Series. The salon is being generously supported by a grant from New York City to help get theater back up and running during this pandemic, and I’m delighted to be part of the effort. Tickets are free; RSVP and proof of vaccination are reminder. For details, please check out the company website here.

Before

So, then.

This weekend marked the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks; despite the events of that terrible day being permanently seared into my mind, there were innumerable accounts and reminiscences over the past few days to remind me.  (Given the percentage of the population too young to have a memory of that day, I have to reluctantly admit it’s necessary.) Given the milestone of the twentieth anniversary, those reminiscences went beyond a minute-by-minute replay of the attacks and their aftermath.  My various timelines and newsfeeds were filled with scores, maybe hundreds, of people detailing exactly what they were doing twenty years ago when they heard the news.  There have been plenty of think pieces about how our history has progressed from that day to this.  And there were lots of reminiscences about the world we knew just prior to the attacks – that long-ago lost world of the late 90s, before Everything Changed.

It’s those reminiscences I’d like to talk about today, since they’re very familiar things to those of us who do theater in New York.  The theatrical scene of the late 90s gets looked back on as a lost Golden Age.  It didn’t feel that way at the time, of course – the Golden Age is always in the past, the productions of years ago a standard that can’t be matched.  But compared to today, there were far more spaces available for independent productions, and they were far cheaper to mount.  Mayor Giuliani had either successfully cleaned up the city or flamboyantly conned people into believing he’d done so (take your pick), so audiences were more willing to trek in to the city and see shows beyond Broadway’s Main Stem.  And since the internet hadn’t become all-pervasive, print publications like Time Out New York and The Village Voice were still dominant, still hungry for ad revenue, and just about any production, even a scrappy non-union affair running a few weekends, could get a listing in their pages.  Compared to today’s landscape, just about anybody could get a production together, put it up before a New York audience, and have their say.

But what the heck were they actually saying?

The shows I did at that time, just starting out in the city?  A bunch of kiddie theater.  Some perfunctory productions of classics in hole-in-the-wall venues, done by people who wanted to say they’d mounted a Shakespeare production without any special insight into the text.  And a whole host of new plays involving young professionals, temps and other cogs in the professional machine, wondering if they had to have the strength to break free – not because of any particular ethical fears they might have, but because their bosses were annoying and they didn’t want to have to wear a tie.  Evidently, this was the extent of our worries in the late 90s.  And this tracks with the reminiscences we all heard this past weekend, casting the period as a time of lost innocence.

But how is that possible?

There’s a clear line from the first Gulf War, in 1991, to the al-Qaeda attacks a decade later.  A whole decade of dangerous activity outside our borders.  A decade of bad calls here at home, our leaders’ judgment obscured by greed and arrogance.  And all of that stemmed from a daisy chain of mistakes throughout the decades prior, since before I was born.  Our domestic divisions have never really gotten past the fault lines of the Sixties; our foreign policy is still stuck on a course set by Eisenhower in the Fifties.  (I like Ike as much as anybody, but installing the Shah of Iran is a decision that’s still liable to get us all killed.). And most of the events along this dark path happened in full public view.  We could have – were supposed to have  – voiced our misgivings, sounded the alarm, well before hand.

It shouldn’t have taken the attacks of September 11, 2001 for us to have lost our innocence.  Just as it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic and a civil insurrection – happning simultaneously – to realize how bad things are now.

Tomorrow, the cold reading series I co-host will start up again (remotely, alas) for the fall, and I’ll once again exhort our writers to respond to the world around them in their writing.  And the ambivalent twinge I always feel will be a little stronger, so close to this anniversary.  Because the time to respond to these kinds of tragedies isn’t after they’ve happened, if you want to have any impact as an artist.  It is, instead, well before.

A Dark and Stormy Night

First things first, Constant Reader – I’m happy to report I’m safe.  I’m sure you’ve seen the images on the news; the pummeling of my city by the remnants of Hurricane Ida (which struck us with horrific fury and record-rainfall.  (It managed to do this even though it travelled several hundred miles overland from the west to reach us and god damn it that’s not how weather is supposed to work we’re freaking doomed you guys, but let’s not think about that right now.) Fortunately, my part of Brooklyn didn’t experience the worst of the flooding; the subway is on elevated tracks right here, and our drainage system leads directly out into Gravesend Bay.  I’m still primarily working from home, so I was spared the nightmare commute many of my neighbors endured.  No, not to minimize the tragedy that many New Yorkers have just suffered, but for me the event amounted to a strong, hours-long thunderstorm outside my window.

And thankfully, I wound up working through the whole thing.

Right as the storm was starting, I had a zoom rehearsal for a play of mine that’s being presented in two weeks.  It’s entitled For the Benefit of Jimmy Mangiaroli, and it’s being presented as part of an ongoing salon of new works.  (Funded by a grant program designed to help theater artists as this city rebuilds from the other ongoing disaster – thanks, pandemic!)  The event will be live, but we’re holding zoom rehearsals beforehand, so the first hour of the deluge was spent with me and the two actors making a few passes through the script, with me giving notes.  When you’re a writer directing your own work, there’s always a feeling of inadequacy – if I’d made the script clearer, I wouldn’t need to give these notes now, would I? – but we’re all friends, and the time flew by.

Upon logging out of that meeting and checking my emails, I discovered that there was an emergency situation with the venue of another ongoing project I’m working on.  I’ll spare you the full details – largely because it’s an ongoing situation that I don’t want to screw up – but it’s the sort of thing that requires emails to various artistic directors and board members, the crafting of contingency plans and the making of manifestos.  Which was another hour or so of lightning and thunder – both outdoors and at my beleaguered keyboard.

I spent another several hours battering my keyboard even further, to make the deadline for a submission opportunity for one of my plays.  As always seems to be the case, the organization had all manner of specific criteria for formatting the pdf manuscript – rules for how to name the files, rules for how to list the cast breakdown, rules for how to structure the title page, you name it.  And these criteria inevitably change from opportunity to opportunity, so every time I submit something I have to create a brand new, completely revamped pdf.  It certainly occupied the time – and given that the play in question is about life in the fascist ethnostates that I fear will spring up in the aftermath of climate catastrophe, it seemed like an appropriate way to spend a climatically castatrophic kind of night.

And that was, indeed, the end of the night – I hit send as the storm began to subside, and promptly went to bed.  I feel a bit guilty that I got off comparatively easy.  And I’m a little dismayed that all of this activity is, essentially, housekeeping – it’s not working towards the creation of any new work on my end, just the shopping and finessing of things that already exist.  It’s frustrating having to devote time to that sort of thing, as opposed to creating something new – heaven knows there’s enough for me to be writing about at the moment.

But in any event, I didn’t have to go out in the storm.  At least that night.  So that’s something.

I’m Not Ready For This

Some things just can’t be stopped.  There’s just too much money, too much corporate power to thwart the carefully laid plans; regardless of war or plague or pestilence, some things are inevitable.  And so, coronavirus be damned – we’re getting a new Spiderman movie.  The filming’s been completed, despite the ongoing end of civilization, and the preview trailer was finally released last week, to the predictable oohs and ahhs of the internet.

Well, not entirely predictable.  At least not to me.

You see, the upcoming Spiderman movie (Spiderman: No Way Home, if you want to get technical) is the movie where they’ll be employing some multiverse shenanigans to join all of the previous Sony Spiderman movies, covering three separate continuities, into a single movie.  (I have Some Thoughts about how much we’re coming to rely on notions of a “multiverse” as a go-to form of pop escapism, but we’ll save those for another post for now.) We’ve known this for a while now, as contracts have been negotiated and tidbits have been leaked.  The trailer teased this with a few fleeting glimpses of what might have been villains from previous movies (you have to read a lot into shots of electrical bolts and swirling sand, but internet nerds have significant practice with that).  It gave us a pumpkin bomb from Sam Raimi’s original 2002 Spiderman, along with a familiar cackle from Willem Dafoe.  And then, the big finale – the reveal of Alfred Molina, returning as arguably the best realized of comic-book villains, Doctor Octopus.  Internet audience goes wild, title card comes up, everybody’s excited to see the film.  As you’d expect.

What I didn’t expect – what’s taken the wind out of me all this past week – is the number of people who are excited because those Raimi Spiderman movies are beloved cultural artifacts from their childhood.  The sight of Alfred Molina sporting those tentacles is something that terrified and mesmerized them when they were children.  In 2004.  The online conversation about this upcoming film is being driven by people who were in grade school seventeen years ago.

By contrast, I was in my 30s and thought it was a fun popcorn flick.  The children who might have been in the theater with me at the time, seeing it with their moms and dads, are now the adult moviegoers driving the online discussion of today’s cinema.

So yeah, that’s a little disconcerting.  Especially since the math checks out – nineteen years have passed since that first Sam Raimi movie.  Almost exactly two decades.  That’s a whole generation right there.  Of course those children have grown up.  And of course I’m that many years older.  That’s how math works.

But even so, there’s something else going on here.  In my own lifetime, the closest equivalent would have been the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 1999.  I was a child when the original Star Wars came out (sorry, but I’m old and cranky and refuse to call it A New Hope); I was just entering puberty when Leia wore that chainmail bikini in Return of the Jedi.  Sixteen years had passed since that film; it was indeed remarkable that we were, after so many years of rumors, getting a new Star Wars movie (ah, those halcyon days before we’d actually seen the prequels).  But it didn’t feel like my childhood was being restored to me.  Star Wars had been there the whole time.  It was cool, it defined my generation in a lot of ways, but it wasn’t some lost Proustian madeleine.

Then again, those sixteen years, while eventful, hadn’t been a neverending parade of war, fear, disease, and misery.  Today’s twenty-somethings, the ones squealing over a line reading of “hello Peter,” unfortunately can’t say the same.

That’s bound to change you experience things, I suppose.

In any event, the world of the early aughts – my most productive period as an actor, and in many ways the world I think we’re still living in – is now a historical period.  (Seriously, ever seen Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird?  It’s set in 2002-2003, explicitly treats it as a period piece, and it works, to my chagrin.)  So be it.  I’ll still be sure to see the new Spiderman movie.  Hell, I’ll probably even talk about it on chat rooms and mention it on Friendster.

August in Review

Regardless of whether it should or not (cuz, y’know, ongoing pandemic and everything), Broadway is dead set on reopening, which means that Broadway’s whole vast promotional apparatus is lurching back into operation, getting us excited enough about the coming season to be willing to risk sitting next to strangers in an auditorium again.  As the month of August began, the mechanics of this apparatus began making a massive amount of noise, building incessant hype for some tremendous development that was just days away from being announced.  A weary theater community waited anxiously, hoping for some rescue, some resuscitation of our artform, some magic wand to wipe away all our misfortunes, in the form of this miraculous piece of news.

Turns out there’s a revival of Funny Girl next spring.  Beanie Feldstein’s starring in it – she’s the one playing Monica Lewinsky in that new FX miniseries.  She’ll be fine.

Of course, this was only “news” in the Broadway community for about an hour or so.  Shortly thereafter, Broadway leading lady Laura Osnes was fired from a one-night benefit at Guild Hall in East Hampton (hey, I’ve worked there!) when it was learned that she had chosen not to be vaccinated against COVID-19, despite the theater’s explicit policies and her own previous assurances to the contrary.  Shortly thereafter, she was dismissed from an upcoming “Disney Princess” tour – or withdrew, there’s disputed accounts – for the same reason.  It’s an ongoing epic, which you can read about here

And shortly after all of that, a number of women began coming forward to detail their history with another Broadway leading lady, Alice Ripley (Tony-winner for Next to Normal), leveling accusations of her grooming them and maintaining inappropriate contact with them.  You can read about this outcry here: it’s a complicated story, so I don’t want to say much other than that the story exists, and has resulted in upcoming performances of Ms. Ripley’s being cancelled amid the whole furor.

So that’s been August so far.  And since I don’t have any first-hand information about any of these stories I don’t really want to spread rumor or gossip – though I would mention that maintaining healthy boundaries and getting vaccinated against Covid are both good things, which I would have thought would have gone without saying, and yet here we are.

But I do keep thinking about Funny Girl.

Not that I’m looking forward to Funny Girl.  I’m not not looking forward to it, either – it’s simply not a show on my radar, and that seems to be true of most of my colleagues and friends, who greeted that particular piece of news with a collective shrug.  And that shrug, really, is the point.

Because Broadway’s hype machine, its Powers That Be, were convinced we’d be delighted by it.  That there’d be a great chorus of hosannas.  That this would be the sign that at long last, Broadway – the traditional Broadway model of splashy star-driven musicals with name recognition for tourists – was back, baby.

And the clear response of the past few weeks – the response that the Powers That Be keep refusing to hear, to their professional peril – is that we don’t want it to be.

It’s elitist and expensive.  It’s provided a safe haven to too many scoundrels for too long.  And as we start the long and painful process of rebuilding after everything’s that’s happened over the past year and a half, we can’t help but notice that Broadway’s Powers That Be are going out of their way not to notice.  To pretend that everything’s back the way it was, and the way it was is just fine for everybody.

It’s clearly not – advance sales for those long-running, tourist-friendly shows which have announced their re-openings, and on which that version of Broadway relies, are significantly down.  (You can actually get Hamilton tickets.  ‘Nuff said.)  The fury which Osnes and Ripley have received indicate an audience which no longer has any patience for or loyalty to that old model, and is more than happy to burn it down.  So if we actually care about theater – not Broadway, necessarily, but the art and history of theater – than we need to find a better model of it going forward.

I’m sure that model can accommodate Funny Girl somewhere.