Impressions of THE OLDEST BOY

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On one of my always-magical trips to the Drama Book Shop, I picked up a play that I had always been curious about: Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy. This curiosity stemmed from two things- one, the original Lincoln Center production artwork (which I thought was gorgeous). Two, the premise of the piece, which explores an American mother and Tibetan father faced with a Hobson choice about their three-year-old son.

As an aside, I really hoped that the cover of the published play would have the original Lincoln Center artwork. It did not. Nevertheless, I plunked down my cash and planned to tackle it after reading the libretto of Heathers the Musical. Got some serious diversity going on, don’t I?!

Having completed The Oldest Boy in one bus ride home, I’m going to share some thoughts about it with you guys. For starters, the parents’ big choice arises when they are visited by a pair of Buddhist monks. The monks are immediately drawn to Mother and Father’s little son…as it turns out, he is a reincarnated Lama, or high-ranking Buddhist teacher. Interestingly, Sarah Ruhl dispels that mystery early on; she has said that the play is not about “if,” but “now what.”

The Mother (portrayed by Celia Keenan-Bolger in the original production) is the central character, facing her own spiritual tugs-of-war while deciding whether or not her child should live in an Asian monastery to fulfill his destiny. It’s a meaty, heart-wrenching role, and one I would love to do someday.

The play’s dialogue was surprisingly breezy and easy-to-read…it could have been very lecture-like but was not. And I still learned quite a bit about the doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism (I’ve long had an interest in world religions). Despite the heavy subject matter, Ruhl managed to infuse some humorous moments, too.

The staging requirements for the show were very odd to see on paper. Apparently, there is an optional chorus of Tibetan dancers that appears symbolically at pivotal moments in the story. Furthermore, the role of Tenzin (the son) is actually done by an adult speaking his lines while manipulating a child puppet. It’s a curious dramatic device, and one you don’t see very often. I imagine that when this play is performed by smaller companies, these elements get heavily modified.

I don’t have the resources to properly investigate that, but I can tell you that the original Lincoln Center presentation received mixed reviews. Much of the positivity in these reviews was indeed aimed at the unusual staging and direction by Rebecca Taichman (this year’s Tony winner for Indecent). Knowing such facts, I cannot help but wonder if The Oldest Boy will lose a chunk of its power when done on a smaller scale.

Even while reading it, I pondered how the play could translate as a narrative as opposed to a live piece. Could it be that this work fares better as a novella? I don’t know.

I also did not fully understand the final scene, but that might just be my naïveté. The Mother’s struggles were very moving, and I teared up more than once. These themes- loss, parental attachment, and love- are ones that affect us all. In that regard, which is the purpose of all theatre…I find The Oldest Boy to be a success.

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Goodbye, Miss Kathleen: Reflection on a Teacher

“Goodbye Miss Kathleen,

From the young girl in the 22nd row

Who sees you as something more than what we know,

More than just our sophomore hero.”

Knowing the subject of this post in high school taught me some important lessons…and not just the ones I got from her classroom.

Kathleen Nolan taught a few religious studies courses at St. Joseph Hill Academy high school. She was a soft-spoken woman, probably in her sixties, with short mouse-brown hair and spectacles. She was rarely seen not wearing a sweater-and-long-skirt ensemble. This God-fearing educator was also fighting for social justice…as well as a long battle with cancer.

It was she who first told me to “keep things in perspective.” She was also one of the select people who found amusement (rather than annoyance) in my histrionics. At the innocent age of 15, I admired Ms. Nolan’s strength and tact, and yet her existence also confused me greatly. I couldn’t wrap my head around why such a gentle person had to suffer in such a manner. I remember crying over her more than once. Her cancer ultimately went into remission, but she still retired the following year.

Through my fleeting experience here, I learned that bad things would happen to good people. But I also figured out that if we spread charity and decency…and maintain optimism…happiness is still a very tangible goal.

I’ve sadly come to accept that I will never see Ms. Nolan again, at least not in this lifetime. I guess it’s often impossible for teachers to know whether or not they made a difference in their students’ lives. I think everyone fails to recognize just how many people drift in and out of his or her life; that doesn’t diminish their significance, though.

So…do as Ms. Nolan did…and be good to others.

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Songs You Probably Didn’t Realize Are About Dark Things

Mind=blown.

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The clock at Grand Central Terminal waits for nobody.

“Blown Away,” Carrie Underwood. What it’s about: In this song from Underwood’s album of the same name, the story centers around a girl with a dead mother and an abusive, alcoholic father. When a tornado hits their Oklahoma home, the girl leaves her passed-out father as she locks herself in the storm shelter. We can assume that he is destroyed when the twister rips through the house. Ouch!

“Unworthy of Your Love,” Stephen Sondheim. What it’s about: At first glance, this number from the Broadway show Assassins sounds like a standard, beautiful love ballad. But it takes on an entirely different tone when you realize it’s being sung by Squeaky Fromme and John Hinckley- a wannabe Manson follower and Jodie Foster’s stalker, respectively. These two also attempted to assassinate U.S. Presidents in an effort to win their beloved’s attention. Now that’s what I call tainted love!

“I Don’t Like Mondays,” The Boomtown Rats. What it’s about: This staple rock song is deceptively catchy for such dark lyrical inspiration. The title comes from a quote by Brenda Ann Spencer, a troubled teen who was asked why she sniped ten people in a playground (two died). Though composer Bob Geldof received some flack for allegedly “exploiting a tragedy,” which he denies, the record became the Boomtown Rats’ biggest hit.

“Pumped Up Kicks,” Foster the People. What it’s about: In a similar vein, the earworm-worthy hook of this band’s debut single masks some morbid subject matter. When closely listening to the lyrics, it becomes clear that the song is about a school shooter, in the vein of Columbine. “Pumped up kicks” refer to the designer shoes worn by the narrator’s intended victims. The lead singer, Mark Foster, said that he wrote the piece to raise awareness for teen mental illness.

“Sweet Painted Lady,” Elton John. What it’s about: A majority of the tracks from Elton John’s smash Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album manage to be incredibly fun while telling some grim tales. In this slow, sea-soaked jam, a sailor sings of the prostitute he’s hired for the night and wonders how she feels about the life she leads. With its thoughtful lyrics by Bernie Taupin, the song achieves a certain poignancy.

“At the Ballet,” Marvin Hamlisch. What it’s about: This number from A Chorus Line is a semi-torch song for a trio of women. Typically sung by soubrettes, it conveys three distinct dramas that have something in common: their heroines all found relief when they went to the ballet. Sheila’s parents had a loveless marriage, Bebe’s mother made her feel unattractive, and Maggie’s father was absent entirely. Audiences who get lost in the glitter of the show tend to forget the inherent sadness of this scene.

Shine…Again?

Thank you to everyone who took an interest in my NYC cabaret debut!

I’m pleased to announce that thanks to this show, I have booked another gig- this time at Don’t Tell Mama. I’ll be singing in the April 4th edition of Seth’s Showcase, emceed by Seth Bisen-Hersh, alongside 5 other performers. We’ll each be doing a set of two songs, and all of the sets will either share a theme or tell a story of our choosing.

I don’t want to give too much away, but here are some clues as to my rep for this show:

  1. Both songs will surround a theme.
  2. Both songs are from modern musicals.
  3. One song is an uptempo and the other is a ballad.

My kingdom for a Tony Award…

Get tickets!

Round and Flat Characters, as told by Fire Emblem Fates

When I was a freshman in high school, I learned that all characters (whether from books, movies, etc.) could be grouped into one of two categories: round and flat. Simply put- round characters have a multi-faceted development, while static characters do not. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the latter equates to an unimportant character, but round ones are typically those that readers find more interesting.

I’d like to illustrate this concept with two characters from the Fire Emblem video game series…I haven’t written a gaming-themed entry in a while, so here you go. Furthermore, I believe these two are good examples because they also happen to complement each other: they are twin sisters. Warning…spoilers ahead!

On the left is Felicia; Flora (not to be confused with my blonde doll) is on the right. In the world of Fire Emblem Fates, both girls serve as retainers to the main character (Corrin). Unfortunately, when Corrin is forced to choose between the armies of Hoshido and Nohr, the plot (fate) of everyone in his/her life takes a drastic turn.

Felicia is the twin that we see more of in the game, but Flora (in my opinion) has a far more complex character arc.

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From start to finish, Felicia is the faithful servant- quite clumsy with her work, but always someone with a warm heart. She and Flora live in Nohr, but even if Corrin goes to Hoshido, Felicia follows them. And that’s pretty much it. Flora is a different story.

Flora is revealed over the course of the game to have many underlying personality aspects. For one, she is secretly in love with Jakob, one of Corrin’s other retainers, but she cannot actually marry him…for reasons unknown. Furthermore, although she loves her sister deeply, she is also resentful of her. While Flora is a far more capable maid, Felicia is a stronger warrior.

Flora also feels a strong sense of responsibility for the village where she was born, as the elder daughter of its Chieftain. All of these combined factors determine what happens to Flora after Corrin chooses an alliance. If they fight for Nohr, they actually wind up battling Flora when the latter thinks that Corrin is out to destroy her tribe. Ultimately, however, this confusion is cleared, and Flora later joins Corrin’s front lines.

If he/she stands with Hoshido, the situation becomes more complicated. As Corrin and their friends infiltrate Nohr, they meet up with Flora, who promises to provide sanctuary in her village. In a stunning twist, Flora betrays them when they arrive and sends tribal warriors out to attack. We later learn that Flora did this because the wicked king of Nohr threatened to kill her entire community if she did not.

Corrin tries to convince Flora to join his/her team, but she is overwhelmed with guilt over the betrayal and commits suicide in front of Corrin, Jakob…and Felicia. (This scene is the first truly tearjerking moment in the tale.)

Bottom line? I was able to tell Felicia’s story with one paragraph. It took four paragraphs to adequately summarize Flora. That, my friends, is how you can identify a flat character from a round character!

A Tale of Two Show Boats

One of my favorite musicals ever is the groundbreaking Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein piece called Show Boat. Although I have never seen it live, I did watch the Papermill Playhouse production that PBS recorded…it was during my high school Musical Theatre class. I remember being blown away by the grand set designs, the gorgeous music, and the heartbreaking story that also managed to be very hopeful.

Anyway, when I was a teenager, I acquired a CD of the 1965 Lincoln Center Show Boat, which starred Barbara Cook, Constance Towers, and William Warfield. I loved this recording because everyone was in fine voice and the orchestra was amazing. I was also annoyed at this recording because it didn’t include the complete score of this phenomenal show. But it was all I had.

And because it was all I had, fast-forward to the premiere BroadwayCon in 2016. There, I got an autograph from Rebecca Luker, who played Magnolia Hawks in the 1994 Broadway staging of the piece. (Magnolia is one of my bucket list roles, incidentally.) Since I only had the Barbara Cook production, I asked her to sign that, which she happily did. So, I have the wrong recording of Show Boat signed by Rebecca Luker.

Picture it: Midtown Manhattan, the last day of February, 2017. I’m on lunch break and decide to stop by the secondhand electronics/bookstore. I browse through the music section and choose the Almost Famous soundtrack for my boyfriend; it’s one of his favorite movies. A few minutes later, I find- wait for it- the 1994 Broadway cast CD of Show Boat, starring…Rebecca Luker!

Both discs cost $5, and you really can’t ask for a better deal than that. So I headed for the cashier, two items in hand and a silly grin on my face. The moral of the story: now I just need this album signed by Barbara Cook and I’ll be in business!

I don’t know…were you able to follow this story? Or are y’all feeling a bit like the secretary in Cagney right now?

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(Thanks to BroadwayBox for creating this magical thing.)

Videos to Get You Pumped for NEW WORKS on Broadway This Spring

Okay, okay guys, calm down.

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Yes, I know the news came out today that Sara Bareilles will be succeeding Jessie Mueller as Jenna in the former’s own musical, Waitress. From what I’m seeing, half of the world is super excited and the other half is concerned. With some overlap between the two. The concerned side feels as such because they worry how this show’s almost-certain reappearance on public radar could affect the multitude of brand new musicals that will already be struggling to secure an audience just before Tony Awards time.

Well to these friends I say, “Never fear!” Puccini’s Chronicles is here to help. Today I’m going to share some awesome previews that are sure to entice folks into taking a chance on a new show. You know, along with their already-purchased revival tickets or 900th attempt at the Hamilton lottery. (Click on the name of the musical to watch the video!)

AMELIEWhat you’re seeing: A well-arranged selection of visual highlights from the piece’s pre-Broadway run in Los Angeles, set to a lovely duet from its stars, Philippa Soo and Adam Chanler-Berat.

ANASTASIAWhat you’re seeing: Christy Altomare, as Anya, singing the beloved Oscar-nominated song “Journey to the Past” in Columbus Circle.

BANDSTANDWhat you’re seeing: A very cinematic trailer, complete with a bass-baritone narrator and appearances from the original Papermill Playhouse stars, Laura Osnes and Corey Cott. Also, keep an ear open for a Hamilton name-drop.

WAR PAINTWhat you’re seeing: The two leading divas, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, doing what they do best at the Guggenheim Museum.

On Writers and their Dark Sides

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Recently, I read a forum member’s assessment of the new play being presented by MCC Theater: Yen. Their description was as follows:

It’s a stellar production of a disturbing, twisted, and dark play… there are no physical effects or vampires to be found here. It is a raw, animalistic portrayal of 4 characters who cannot love themselves, and are doomed from the start…recommended, but not for the faint of heart.

As I read such an evaluation, I am reminded of works like The Pillowman or even Desire Under the Elms. These are not mere tragedies…these are dark, sword-of-Damocles stories that go beyond the unspeakable side of life. As a reader, I stay away from this kind of lachrymose literature. As a writer, I marvel (is it a form of admiration?) at these other authors’ guts. Where do they come up with these plot points? How is it that they can reach into the darkest depths of their hearts to tell such grim tales?

Jeez Louise. I can’t help but wonder how some playwrights are able to dig into the darkest parts of their souls to come up with such twisted elements. Hell, I had to write a MODERATELY political ONE-ACT last weekend and could barely stand it. I simply do not have the fortitude to stir the pot in this manner. I’m all for making people think and feel through art. But a part of me truly believes that shock value or “wrist-cutting theatre,” as I’ve heard it called, is not the most effective channel to use.

Yes, I know that Shakespeare and Greek tragedians were among the pioneers of this genre. Their plays were chock full of bloodshed and sometimes graphic monologues on how the bloodshed occurred. Shakespeare’s descendants in writing modified these aspects to reflect an ever-evolving world. And they make for compelling, emotional evenings of theatre. I get it.

But at the same time, I surmise that there is a certain “breaking point” of bleakness that nullifies what these playwrights aim to do with their work. We all want to change the world with our art, but audiences can only be pushed so far. They will go from a place of determination to one of despair. And, in many cases, despair manifests as inaction. You get this feeling of, “What is the point?”

When I write, I’m not afraid to include some death or melancholy- of course. Yet I also try to maintain a balance between that stuff and a sentiment of redemption. After all, before anyone can strive for goodness, they must be reminded that goodness still exists. Am I making sense here…?

The Good Witch Evolution

This week’s entry is my in-depth analysis of how Glinda, the Good Witch of Oz, has changed all the way from Baum to Broadway. Buckle up, buttercups!

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(Timeline created by me.)

In L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books, Glinda was the Good Witch of the South. I have never read any of them, but it’s a fair guess to say that she was benevolent and wise. In Baum’s last book, titled Glinda of Oz, Glinda tries to prevent war; the dark nature of this is speculated to be related to Baum’s failing health.

In 1939, cinematic history was made with The Wizard of Oz, considered a classic motion picture; here Glinda was portrayed by Mrs. Ziegfeld herself, Billie Burke. If you compare Burke with the Glinda illustration, you’d see that both have red hair and a tall crown. But in the film, Glinda was made the Good Witch of the North rather than the south.

Glinda’s first trip onto Broadway (I think…) was in the African-American musical The Wiz, where she appears near the end as the Good Witch of the South again. But her most famous Broadway incarnation would be spawned from the Gregory Maguire novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. We’ll talk more about that later, but it marked the beginning of Glinda’s personality change. Whereas she has always been depicted as a kind and helpful soul, Wicked gave her flaws, such as shallowness and a need for power.

Early in 2013, Disney put their own spin on Oz through an (in my opinion) unfairly maligned movie that tells the story of how the Wonderful Wizard of Oz came to be. At the beginning of Glinda’s incarnation, she was depicted with red hair; however, starting with the Wicked musical and continuing in Disney’s Oz flick, she had gone blonde. Her crown also dropped several inches in height. Personality-wise, the Disney interpretation of Glinda is more similar to her original demeanor than the one seen in Wicked, but she is still shown to have a sense of humor.

Where is Glinda today? Well, ask most people, and they’ll probably imagine Billie Burke in the 1939 movie. But the Wicked musical has proven such a success that folks may consider her personality in that story to be a part of who she is as a household name. Chances are, as long as the Land of Oz continues to captivate the world, the character of Glinda the Good will continue to morph in our minds and in the media. So I guess the big question is this: To you, who is Glinda?

Happy Hunger Games!

And by The Hunger Games, I mean the 2017 entertainment awards season. It kicks off with the Golden Globes, whose nominations were announced today.

Things I love: Moana‘s dual nominations, the recognition of Deadpool, Ryan Murphy finally giving Sarah Paulson awards material, and Simon Helberg getting a much-deserved Supporting Actor nod for Florence Foster Jenkins.

What I don’t love: the fact that when the Oscars arrive, only one of the two front-runners for Best Picture can win. At least with the Globes, they can both take home a trophy because…well…they couldn’t be more different from one another.

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This is the drama, a gritty coming-of-age story about a gay black man in Miami. The comedy/musical is La La Land, a passionate tale of a musician and an actress, set in Los Angeles.

Oh Lord. Nobody can argue that both of these movies are expertly crafted, masterful in their storytelling and workmanship. Nobody can argue that the people involved put their hearts and souls into the pieces…the two not-so-secret ingredients in all great art that is created.

But the higher-up voters of the motion picture industry will argue the following, and have to make a decision: which of the two films represents GREATER art? It’s a Hobson choice, because no matter whose side you’re on, you’re going to face backlash. If Moonlight takes all the accolades, the other half will claim that the subject matter was catered to. If La La Land wins big, the other half will point out the Academy’s history of white preferences. Still some on both alliances will simply argue that their pick is the more “significant” of the two. Whatever that means.

You want to know what I think?

I find it impossible to compare Land to Light because they both embody the two distinct things that art is meant to do. That is, to both take us out of reality AND teach us about it. In these uncertain times, we absolutely need both.

Good luck, and peace.