Posted in Theatre

Her cat, a bed, and a chair…

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The day had finally arrived: my paternal grandmother, Lucie- who I don’t see very often- was giving me my Christmas gift. Two tickets to the Marquis Theatre’s production of the Follies revival. It was to be only the second Sondheim show I’d see live onstage (the first was the revival of A Little Night Music).

The lights went down and I was immediately swept away. All these veteran Broadway actresses- from Jayne Houdyshell to Mary Beth Peil and even Elaine Paige- strutting their stuff in one of the greatest musicals of all time. My favorite number overall was Terri White’s showstopping “Who’s That Woman?”

And, of course, there were the two female leads: the legendary Bernadette Peters as Sally Durant Plummer and elegant, charismatic Jan Maxwell as Phyllis Rogers Stone. Jan Maxwell died this week at the age of 61. Now there seems to be some speculation as to whether the lights on Broadway will be dimmed for her. (For those who don’t know, the theatre community has long had a tradition of briefly dimming the marquees at all the Broadway houses to honor the death of an esteemed colleague.)

I’m writing this to pay tribute to Jan Maxwell, but also to assert my firm hope that they will dim the lights for her. I mean…I have a selfish reason for wanting this done…but I think few would argue with me if I said that Maxwell represents what being a thespian is all about.

Not only was she a great talent, but she made her entire career out of performing onstage. She did dabble in screen work, yet the theatre was always her home. She’s a model for what every artist aspires to become.

Powers-that-be, please consider honoring this true lady of the stage in the best possible way. If you can justify doing it for Joan Rivers, surely you’ll easily make a case for Jan Maxwell. Rest in peace, Beautiful Girl.

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Posted in Film and Television

Take Me to Heaven: My Lifelong Ministry of SISTER ACT

I’m not dead! In fact, dear readers, I am feeling great. On Sunday, I gave my own presentation at the 2018 BroadwayCon: being an Aspie in the theatre world. (It was like a restructuring of my 54 Below show.) To my surprise, the panel was a great success- my audience was engaged in the topic and had a really good time. It felt amazing to use my passion and my craft to help people smile and learn. The dream is back!

But, I digress. Today’s post is an ode to a movie that, as a Catholic schoolgirl, has threaded itself in and out of my life. And no matter how many times I watch it, it never fails to be funny and uplifting. I’m talking about Sister Act, folks.

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This 1992 musical comedy, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Maggie Smith, Harvey Keitel, Kathy Najimy, and Mary Wickes, follows Reno lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier (Goldberg). After witnessing a murder by her gangster boyfriend (Keitel), she is put into Witness Protection and takes refuge in a convent. Deloris butts heads with the Mother Superior (Smith) when she takes over the nuns’ choir and teaches them rockin’ new arrangements of praise to the Lord.

The film has seemed to pop up at the most random moments in my life. In high school, my glee club’s “signature performance” was a medley from Sister Act, complete with stylized hand movements. The nuns at our on-campus convent loved it. In college, I went on a class trip to see the Broadway musical adaptation; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the giant Virgin Mary in the finale, sparkling and spinning like a disco ball.

As a Catholic- or, a member of an organization that gets a lot of grief- I particularly appreciate the movie as a beacon of what my faith is really about. It isn’t about fire and brimstone…but joyful noise and being good to others, no matter who they are.

I read a fascinating (and somewhat sad) article that the original screenwriter of Sister Act envisioned the lead role for Bette Midler, and he went through so much development hell with the studio that he eventually withdrew from the project. To this day, he doesn’t consider the finished piece to be his work and has not watched it.

Posted in Music

Opera in the Age of #45

This post is inspired by a series cooked up by my boyfriend…with a Puccini’s Chronicles twist. Thanks, honey!

It goes without saying that the current U.S. Presidential administration has sparked a revolution in more ways than one.  It seems that, now more than ever, people are getting in touch with the neo-women’s rights movement. And judging by the #MeToo overtones of last night’s Golden Globes ceremony…it’s clear that the entertainment industry is right in the thick of it.

The opera community is no exception. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)

In a world where sopranos die for their men and mezzos often play male roles…classic operatic works are being looked at through a new lens. Decades ago, Cio-Cio San (the protagonist of Madama Butterfly) might have been seen as a victim, committing suicide in the wake of her lover’s abandonment. However, closer analysis of the libretto reveals that Cio-Cio had the most power of all. Her death was the only act that could ensure her son would live a better life than she could provide.

Another case study: the Metropolitan Opera is putting up a brand new production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte this year, starring Broadway favorite Kelli O’Hara as Despina. Described as a “comedy of the sexes,” this presentation of the piece has been reset to Coney Island in the 1950s. The very title is translated as “Women are like that.” Despite Cosi fan tutte being written over 200 years ago, its themes of female human nature and gender dynamics are as relevant as ever.

But perhaps the most explicit example of opera’s “sign o’ the times” can be found at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Italy. Their new presentation of Bizet’s Carmen actually changes the ending; in the original libretto, Carmen declares that she is a free woman before being murdered by the jealous, jilted Don Jose. The director at Teatro, Leo Muscato- seeking to make a statement about violence against women- is having his Carmen find a pistol with which she saves herself from Don Jose.

In conclusion: Even if the plot of a classic opera isn’t changed, the way a modern audience interprets it certainly will. So long as social problems pervade, they will continue to affect the eye with which people view their favorite art forms.

Posted in Fine Arts

An Art of Their Own

Happy New Year. You know, I’ve had several folks in my life wonder why I advocate so passionately for video games. “They’re a waste of time! They don’t contribute anything to society! They’ll melt your brain!”

And all three of those statements, if I may say so, are wrong.

The way I see it, video games (especially RPGs) can be their own kind of art. They fuse technology, music, and visuals with a story- just like a film- and make them even more interactive. There’s a reason it’s so easy to lose yourself in a virtual world; you feel like you’re a part of it, as your actions affect what happens in that world. I think a little bit of escapism is necessary to survive reality’s curveballs.

Even if that doesn’t interest you, the best games can be a great source of listening and viewing material. You don’t actually have to play to appreciate the lush orchestral numbers on a game soundtrack…or practice your sketching skills with an intricate character design.

I singled out role-playing games because those tend to be the “deepest” in their scope. Since they are designed to take the player on an epic journey, their creators have to literally build a world from the ground up. Do you know how much creativity is required to put the pieces together? Honestly, I’ve been more moved by some video game stories than by many movies. Writing the characters’ dialogue is also an art unto itself, as each must have a unique personality to match their look.

As for physical health concerns, that holds a bit of merit; you should rest your eyes from the screen periodically. As with anything else in life, you must keep it in moderation. However, playing video games is a great way to improve hand-eye coordination as well as social skills (via multiplayer).

The moral of the story: don’t be so quick to disregard video games as a meaningful form of media. They employ artists, bring people joy, and are ingrained in cultures around the world. Who could ask for anything more?!

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Posted in Film and Television

Happy 30th Anniversary, MOONSTRUCK!

As far as I’m concerned, Moonstruck is one of the finest comed- no, roman- no, FILMS, period…ever made.

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It really has it all: a wintry NYC setting, a moving story, plenty of smart humor, Italian-inspired music, and a phenomenal cast giving knockout performances. Here’s my one problem, ironically…the movie is so perfect that I find it difficult to watch. Why? Well, because it makes me feel a lot of things.

You guys must know by now that I’m a sucker for a good Puccini aria. Combine that with thoughtful, hard-hitting love commentary and I’m a dead woman. Honestly, it’s hard for me to adequately put into words how good Moonstruck is. Maybe it’s because its screenplay was written by John Patrick Shanley- a bona fide Broadway baby- and its direction done by the great Norman Jewison.

Maybe it’s because of Cher and Olympia Dukakis’s Oscar-winning performances, in which they nail their characters with perfect line delivery and emotional introspection. (Also, this might be Nicolas Cage’s only film that you can’t poke fun at.)

Or perhaps it’s due to the fact that it follows a stereotype-free Italian family in the Big Apple…something I only rarely get to connect with.

Whatever the source of its magic, it’s impossible to deny that Moonstruck is a very special movie. And I couldn’t be happier that 30 years after its debut, it is still being celebrated by cinephiles, Italians, and hopeless romantics alike. Want to know a secret wish of mine? That the story will come to Broadway someday, with Shanley writing the libretto…and myself penning the song lyrics. Mr. Shanley, if you’re reading this, don’t forget about me!

(Check out this fun fantasy list of potential leads for a musical adaptation. Also, if you’ll be in the Astoria area tomorrow, attend this very cool screening…I wish I could!)

Posted in Personals

How to Be Saved

Howdy! Sorry this post is so delayed…it may be “the most wonderful time of the year,” but it’s gotten off to a bit of a rocky start. I’ve been stressed out for a while and finding it difficult to buckle down on what I want/need to do.

There’s a certain line in Hugh Wheeler’s book for A Little Night Music

“I should never have gone to flirt with rescue when one has no intention of being saved.”

These words are spoken by Fredrik Egerman right before his soulmate, Desiree Armfeldt, sings “Send in the Clowns.” Fredrik and Desiree regret that their paths didn’t cross at the right times; they are now both changed people, and frustrated that their present circumstances will likely keep them apart.

Of course, for those two, the musical comedy world mandates that they overcome this obstacle and get together in the end. In the real world, it’s more complicated.

I often think about myself, and how I’ve always felt a need to “save” people. But I also think about how I occasionally think that I, too, need to be “saved.” What does it all mean? Why do I feel this compulsion to make people happy, to lighten their burdens? It doesn’t fall on me to do it for them, especially if they don’t want to be “rescued” from whatever they’re going through.

But Lord, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be the one who makes it better from them. As for me- to name an example- I look at this one relationship of mine. How one of the things I really like about it is that it enables me to “escape.” But at the same time, I don’t think I am doing all I can to save myself…for reasons both internal and external. And tethering the “escape” to an interpersonal relationship creates unnecessary pressure for the other party, and dependence within myself.

I suppose the point of this whole thing is the following: do I keep trying to rescue others, or know when to stop? And at the end of the day, can I gain a new life for myself?

Posted in Music

Let’s Break It Down: Christmas’s Weirdest Musical Pairing

There are some things that just don’t go together. Two like magnetic poles…Felix Unger and Oscar Madison…or (as some argue) pineapple on pizza. By all accounts, these “odd couples” are so called because they inherently clash. They stand in opposition to one another, whether ideologically or physically. Forcibly bringing them together often leads to disaster.

By all accounts, that’s what should happen during a collaboration between a flamboyant British rockstar and a wholesome American crooner. But by God, David Bowie and Bing Crosby defied those odds. Was it a Christmas miracle?

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“Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” was recorded in 1977, just five weeks before the death of Bing Crosby. It was to be aired on a Crosby Christmas special, prefaced by dialogue between the two about their holiday traditions. Bowie’s “Peace on Earth” lyrics, sung in counterpoint to Crosby’s “Little Drummer Boy,” were written specifically for this collaboration. And, in true virtuoso fashion, the recording was sealed after less than an hour of rehearsing.

Of course, you can’t capture lightning in a bottle without getting zapped a few times. For one, Bing Crosby wasn’t actually fond of the “Little Drummer Boy” song. Producers were also worried that he wouldn’t know who David Bowie was; that concern was later found to be a non-issue.

In the years following this encounter, the record became one of Bowie’s highest-charting singles. Which brings us to the following question: is it really fair to assume the worst about a musical pairing before it actually comes together?

I think the moral of the story is that great art can be found in the unlikeliest of places. There really was no good reason to have Bing Crosby sing with David Bowie, but some innovator out there thought it was worth a shot- and we wound up getting a new holiday classic.

This season, I hope all of us find the courage to break boundaries and make important connections with other people…no matter who they are.

Posted in Film and Television

Spotlight: A Talk with Michael Anderson of Purple Cloud Entertainment

Here on the blog, we’ve made it our mission to bring the very best in theatre/film/art to the forefront. That, my dear friends, is why this post exists!

Michael Robert Anderson and I first met during a production of The Heiress on Staten Island. He was Morris Townsend and I was the maid, Mariah. He’s a real Renaissance man: actor, writer, director, filmmaker, singer. And he is also the head honcho of his own company, Purple Cloud Productions.

Their latest project is a short film- Major Key– which is set to premiere at Staten Island’s Atrium Cinema on December 5th. Mike was kind enough to sit down with me over the weekend to talk about his movie and give a little behind-the-scenes info!

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Amanda: So Mike, I know you’ve been into filmmaking for quite some time now, but is Major Key your first feature? If not, what was?

Mike: Major Key is in fact a short film- clocking in at 25 minutes. However, it is NOT my first. My first film was titled The Colors of Perception– which was a 45 minute short about a young man who dealt with disabilities/perceptions of life/love/family/etc.

Amanda: As we know, the “war love story” genre has been done a lot over the years. What makes Major Key different and what inspired you to tell this story?

Mike: I’d like to think this genre hasn’t really been as tackled as many people believe. But regardless, I think Major Key differs from the rest because of the main focus being based around music. Major Key is a story that’s surrounded by love, tension, action, and humility. At its heart, the short is an uplifting story about the power of connection through music during tumultuous times. The film centers on an American band of brothers in the height of WWII who are hosted by a German family. Our lead soldier, John Key connects with the German host’s daughter Ilse Brauhn over their mutual love of jazz music. The rest, as they say, is history.

Amanda: What was it like to both write the screenplay and star in the finished product? Was it a difficult task?

Mike: It was my worst nightmare on top of my biggest dream! I had a blast and wouldn’t trade it for the world… but then again, I could’ve used a lot more coffee and downtime to prepare myself on the acting aspect of things. As you can imagine it’s tough to wear all of the hats at once- especially when you have to switch them instantaneously. But again, I’ll treasure that feeling forever.

Amanda: I’m assuming the film was not shot in a studio lot. Where did you go on-location, and did that factor into the actors you wound up casting?

Mike: The location was actually found by our incredible production manager, Jessica Davies, who recommended the odd idea of AirBNB. But lo and behold, she found us a beautiful early 19th century home in the middle of the woods in Millville, New Jersey- where we shot for a full week with no interruptions, beautiful weather and an incredible cast and crew! In regards to the casting side of it, I cast the best of what I saw. I cast the people who I KNEW could bring it all to the table. Location wasn’t a factor in who I got. In fact, the home was the LAST thing we found in the pre-production days, even after casting it.

Amanda: One more thing! What’s next for Purple Cloud Productions? Are you taking this project further, starting something new, or both?

Mike: Purple Cloud Entertainment is always making work. We just love to create. It’s a passion that drives us fay in and day out. Without this craft, without art, I would be no one! So to answer your question- there’s ALWAYS something going on. We’ve got our webseries out now, “Pipsqueak & Stretch”, which can be found on YouTube. And another project that we shot for a dear friend is in post-production, AND I may or may not have something very special in the works moving into 2018! But you’ll have to keep up with us to see!

Hungry for more? Check out Major Key‘s official webpage.
Posted in Theatre

Follow the Money

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What is going on with this most recent Broadway season?

Last year, we got OsloIndecentDear Evan Hansen, and even Come from Away. This time around, it seems we’re getting sub-par play revivals, Margaritaville, and the equivalent of REALITY SHOW: The Musical. More on that later.

Don’t get me wrong…there are a lot of potentially great things on the horizon, namely the revivals arriving in the spring. (Angels in AmericaThe Boys in the BandMy Fair LadyCarousel!)

But it also seems like a truckload of variety acts are landing on stages that were once reserved for theatrical ideas/innovation. As we already know, showbiz is…well…a business, and producers put their money into projects they believe will be successful. Which begs the question- what criteria are they using?

With the deluge of live shows that open during the Christmas season- including the Radio City Christmas SpectacularElf at MSG, and A Christmas Carol on MacDougal Street- who made the decision that a revue starring reality show winners should be playing a coveted Broadway house? (It’s the August Wilson Theatre, to be exact, and they had to take down its Mean Girls marquee.)

I hate to say this, but I almost feel like productions that pander to the non-theatergoing crowd need to struggle at the box office. Perhaps then producers will recognize that they can’t just throw money at anything and have a Broadway smash. Perhaps then they’ll be more inclined to take a chance on fresh, quality material.

I don’t wish bad on Home for the Holidays. I am sure some folks will enjoy it. But to artists who pour their heart into original work and struggle to have it seen, it can feel like a slap in the face. I implore you, producers of the world: try to avoid giving prestigious Broadway credits to Bachelorette contestants and invest more in those who want to use art to change the world.

Posted in Theatre

For Your Consideration: I Don’t Know What to Make of Falsettos

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As most arts-minded people know, the seminal Lapine/Finn musical Falsettos had its lauded Broadway revival broadcast on PBS last week. It was part of the station’s Live from Lincoln Center programming…although the production didn’t actually play at the Vivian Beaumont. It was indeed produced by Lincoln Center Theater, but found its home at the Walter Kerr…pre-Amelie.

I DVR’d the broadcast and watched it yesterday during a rainstorm…and, well, I just had a lot of thoughts about it. So many random thoughts, in fact, that I feel it best to present them to you in a bullet-point form. Here goes!

  • Okay, so first off: I actually had no clue that the show was sung-through. And here I call myself a theatre aficionado!
  • Falsettos is usually classified as a “gay story,” or even a “family drama,” but I believe there is another component: the characters’ Jewish identity. This show would read very differently if that element were absent.
  • I enjoyed the 2nd act more than the 1st. Compared to the complications and themes of Act 2, Act 1 felt a bit like extended exposition. The 1st act is also more “theatrical” in its use of fantasy sequence and nonlinear events to tell the story.
  • Speaking of which, it’s too bad that Tracie Thoms and Betsy Wolfe don’t show up until Act 2. I wanted to know more about them.
  • I didn’t know too much about Stephanie J. Block, other than that she was one of Wicked‘s Elphabas, but this show made me a fan. She looked beautiful and has a really versatile voice. Her big solo, “I’m Breaking Down,” was clearly an audience favorite.
  • Anthony Rosenthal, portraying her preteen son, is a star in the making. He was so easy to love, and considering the demands of this show, I’d already call him a consummate actor.
  • “March of the Falsettos” was probably one of the creepiest production numbers I’ve seen in a while. I know it’s not really intended to come off that way.
  • Brandon Uranowitz, as psychologist Mendel, completely stole the show. He was hilarious in his gestures and vocal inflections…and as a bonus, his chemistry with the kid was great. As a result, “Jason’s Therapy” and “Everyone Hates His Parents” were particularly entertaining moments.
  • On the flip side, Marvin’s final song- “What Would I Do?”- was absolutely gut-wrenching, mainly due to Christian Borle’s facial expressiveness. That’s one of the great things about filmed theatre, you know? Closeups enable you to see things you might miss from a high-up venue seat.
  • Weird opinion: I wasn’t in love with Whizzer’s character, though Andrew Rannells was an ideal choice for the part. However, his fate in the show still moved me to tears because of his loved ones’ reactions/how much he meant to them.

Falsettos takes place over two years…1979-1981. I think it is important to note this, as the piece manages to provide a “slice of the past” while still demonstrating how much and how little its issues have changed. That, in my opinion, is crucial for touching people with this art form.

However, the unusual structure and breakneck pace of the musical make me worry that some folks will miss the significance of those issues. And that, dear readers, is why I don’t know how to rate Falsettos.

Do you?