by David Dower
Last night (mark it down: Friday, March 28, 2009) there were four standing ovations at four different theaters, all for performances that have been part of my life here at Arena Stage, and each with a different aesthetic approach to the role of music in theater. It's got me set on grin today just thinking about it.
If you're following along, you'll have noticed that with the start of what I refer to as our "diaspora years"-- the period called Arena Restaged in which we are out of building and readying the whole institution for the way back to 6th and Maine-- throughout this period we've also been talking about our mission differently. We are committed to illuminating, for our audiences, the "broad canvas of American work". The American theater is a geographically, aestheically, and culturally diverse experience and if you come on the journey with us, from wherever you are, you'll get to taste all of it over time.
It is a rather abstract concept, this diversity thing, and not something you can generally touch in a single visit. But right now, if you could see what I'm seeing, you'd have a glimmer of what we mean. The four shows that are now performing offer wildly different approaches to music theater, the most distinctively American form in world theater. Last night was the first preview for Crowns, A Long and Winding Road, and Next to Normal. They joined 33 Variations, which is already in progress at the O'Neill.
When the four curtains went up, I was at The Lincoln Theater, in DC's historic U Street neighborhood, where an all African American cast was blowing the roof off the joint with Crowns, Regina Taylor's mix of monologue and classic gospel music. Among the showstoppers were E. Faye Butler's rendition of "Pharoa's Army", Marva Hicks' "Sparrow", Philip Boykin's preacher, and the big, big finale "I Gotta Crown". And, of course, the hats. The response of the Lincoln audience defined the 'roar of the crowd'-- it was literally a roar.
As the crowd was filing out (or dashing into the two hat shops set up inside the Lincoln to snap up their own Easter crowns), I got a text from our Production Manager Carey Lawless, who had been over at the Crystal City theater in Virginia for the first preview of Maureen McGovern's song cycle, A Long and Winding Road. "Standing O for Maureen!" Director Philip Himberg called to let me know that, as had been happening at our Boston workshop, the show was greeted with quiet weeping, the audience rising immediately to their feet, and a chorus of "Brava". Maureen's interpretations of the popular music of the 60's and 70's (Carole King, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and the Beatles all get stage time) are crystal clear and deeply moving-- as though you never understood the meanings though the lyrics and melodies are in your DNA (if you are of a certain age, which I am...) It's hard to single out any one of the songs in this cabaret cum solo show evening, but you won't forget her medley of MacArthur Park/Moon's a Harsh Mistress as arranged by her musical director and accompanist, Jeff Harris.
When I got back to my house after the notes session, I had an e-mail from a colleague who had been in the audience for 33 Variations. "Loved it! Full on standing ovation at the end." Again, one of the stand-out moments in the play is created by music. In this case it is the thrilling scene where Beethoven 'creates' the famously impossible to play Fugue that is one of his 33 Variations on Diabelli's waltz. He stands downstage in a sharply focused shaft of light, in a fit of creative frenzy, choking out instructions for the Fugue as pianist Diane Walsh attacks the keyboard trying to keep up with his ideas. "Double it! Double it again! Now invert it!" he cries in a mix of ecstasy and panic, and Diane does. If there were an emoticon for "hair standing on end", I'd put that here because that's what happens as you watch. This is music taking center stage in an essentially straight play. We're in two time periods simultaneously-- Beethoven's day as he composes the masterpiece, and Katherine Brandt's (Jane Fonda) as she tries to unravel the creative process that resulted in that extraordinary composition.
And then I starting nervously checking the chat boards to see how the first preview of Next to Normal had been received. The show was substantially revised by composer Tom Kitt, writer Brian Yorkey, and director Michael Greif for their run here and I was hoping it would continue to inspire its legion of NY fans, who had come to love the show in its run at NY's Second Stage. Here's a snippet of what I found on line:
This has got to be one of the most exciting, fresh new shows I have ever seen. I was blown away by the entire thing tonight.
Each cast member is fantastic in their own way, and all have phenomenal voices. The voices are all so powerful, and the chemistry between the cast is great. Their work as a cohesive unit is sensational.
I guess the barometer of how much I liked this is that I am going back two more times already.
Again, the report is one of the audience leaping to their feet. This time for a nearly sung-through rock musical.
So that's four distinct approaches to music in theater. Four distinct types of music at the center of each. The journey's couldn't be more different. And that's the way it's going to be if you invest your time with us. "We're a little bit gospel, we're a little be rock 'n roll." Ain't that America.
At the same time, it's not all music theater, this 'broad canvas of American theater'. Over at the NEA New Play Development Program's blog, which is a program hosted by Arena Stage as part of our commitment to this broad canvas, you can follow the creative process for an equally diverse set of straight plays-- from Christina Anderson's Inked Baby to Kirk Lynn's Wrestling Patient. And if you were at the "Downstairs" reading of Tracey Scott Wilson's The Good Negro here you were inside a moment of the process that led to The Public Theatre's current hit production of the play. And it's not all new work or new voices, this trip around the American theater we're taking you on. We're still buzzing about Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance and even Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge.
But, back to music theater. Like many people, my first taste of 'a life in the theater' came through performing in a musical. My virgin voyage? South Pacific at Maple Grove High School in Bemus Point, NY. (Does it get more American than that? Perhaps if it was Grovers' Corners, NH...) Thank god there wasn't YouTube back then. I don't have to worry that anyone will ever see me as a 16-year-old Emile DeBeque! I'm so happy to have music theater back in my daily life and am high as the flag on the fourth of July knowing that, for the next couple of weeks, thousands of people each night, in three different cities, will be transported by works that have so recently been part of my daily world, and still more introduced by our blogs to artists at work all over the map. And proud to be part of the developing journey of Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater. It's a big name for a big building with a purpose as big as the country itself. Whether you are following us on line or sitting in the audience, if you stick with us you can start to see the full picture coming into view. I may be a cockeyed optimist, but I'm sure it's going to be a hundred and one pounds of fun to play along with us.