2018 Theater

The first week of the new year is full of goals, hopes, and eating leftover holiday sweets. Luckily, we have plenty of reading material to accompany those cookies because everyone is busy laying out their plans and schedules for 2018. I’ve been reading through upcoming shows coming to Broadway and beyond this year, and want to share some of the ones I’m most excited about.

I’m starting with the Great White Way, of course, and there are few shows this year that have generated as much buzz as the Frozen musical. This isn’t the first Disney animated feature to be turned into a Broadway musical—Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast spring to mind as immediate (and successful!) examples. Like those productions, the adaptation uses the movie’s soundtrack as a starting point for a full musical, expanding both the music and the plot to fit a longer show. Previews begin on February 22 and Frozen will open in March. Read more here.

When I said no show has as much buzz as Frozen, perhaps I meant besides Mean Girls, the inevitable musical adaptation of the wildly popular 2004 movie of the same name. (Think about Legally Blonde and Bring It On and try to tell me a Mean Girls musical wasn’t inevitable.) Tina Fey, who wrote the original movie (which includes several of the most widely quoted lines of all time), wrote the book; her husband Jeff Richmond composed the score. Lyricist Nell Benjamin, who also worked on Legally Blonde: The Musical (see??), rounds out the writing team. Previews begin on March 12 and opening night is April 8. Read more here.

While I’m primarily a musicals fan, I’ve been more and more interested in straight plays since I started directing. Even if I wasn’t, it would be a crime to leave Angels in America off of this list. This masterpiece first premiered 25 years ago, and now a much-lauded revival is being brought from London to Broadway this spring. The production is led by Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield and directed by Marianne Elliott, the Tony award winning director of War Horse and The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time. Previews begin on February 23 and the limited-run show will play through on June 30. Read more here.

Speaking of groundbreaking gay plays, The Boys in the Band is heading to Broadway (forty years after its unexpected smash Off-Broadway success) for a limited engagement. The all-star cast is composed of Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Andrew Rannells, and Matt Bomer, all of whom have achieved success on movies or television in addition to their theater performances (with the exception of Bomer, who will be making his Broadway debut). All four have also previously worked with one of the show’s producers, Ryan Murphy, on his TV series. Previews begin on April 30 and the limited-run show will play through August 12. Read more here.

While these Broadway performances captured my attention in part for their well-known subject material and famous cast members, the shows coming up Off-Broadway are interesting for all the ways they color outside the lines. Relevance, a play about feminism, generations, and communication in the world of social media, tells the story of the viral clash between a veteran feminist and an emerging writer and cultural critic. It feels fresh and incredibly, well, relevant—fiery divisions in the feminist movement and the gasoline of social media is a show we’ve seen played out before. Relevance will be Off-Broadway from February 1 to March 11. Read more here.

Meanwhile, in the category of “shows that will definitely make me cry,” Miss You Like Hell is coming to the Public Theater. Written by the Pulitzer Prize winning Quiara Alegría Hudes (beloved to me for writing the book for In The Heights) and singer/songwriter Erin McKeown, the show is the story of a 16-year-old undocumented immigrant and her estranged mother. They come back into each other’s lives and start a road trip that explores the lines between states, countries, and people. Miss You Like Hell will be Off-Broadway from March 20 to May 6. Read more here.

To round out this excellent roster is Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World, directed by Tony winner Diane Paulus. This one-woman play is based on Ensler’s memoir about suffering from a life-threatening illness while working with women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ensler is best known for her monumental hit The Vagina Monologues; In the Body of the World is just the latest installment in her career focusing on women and bodies. Previews begin on January 6 and the show opens on February 6. Read more here.

This is far from Diane Paulus’s only show this season, however; the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater is staying busy. Jagged Little Pill, an original musical directed by Paulus and based on Alanis Morissette’s iconic album, is premiering at the ART in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The show is running from May 5 to June 30. Read more here.

There are countless other theater events going on in New York and Boston and London and Smalltown, Indiana, and so it’s also best to keep updated on the local theater scene, wherever that is for you. It’s also exciting to remember that theater is becoming more accessible every year, from movie musical adaptations like the live action Aladdin or the upcoming roster of live televised musicals. Now will they just show us the recording of Hamilton they made? Please?

WARHOLCAPOTE

WARHOLCAPOTE is a new play that premiered this week at the American Repertory Theater. It is based on the real recorded conversations between Andy Warhol and Truman Capote, two visionary artists. I am convinced that it is secretly about college, and here’s why:

  1. Both characters are constantly going through crises.

  2. Capote is definitely that kid in your class who likes the sound of his own voice.

  3. Alcoholism.

  4. They’re constantly gossiping about people they know.

  5. Warhol immediately goes from “let’s write a play” to “let’s write EIGHT plays and have them ALL on Broadway at the SAME TIME.” Same, Warhol, same.

  6. Sex.

  7. Capote feels like he’s being slandered, who hasn’t gotten essay feedback that feel like a personal attack?

  8. “Some people let the same problem make them miserable for years. Oh, my mother didn’t love me, so what?”

  9. “My doctor suggested I take up a healthier hobby than wine tasting and fornication.”

  10. Trauma.

  11. “Art is so hard.”

  12. One friend yelling “you’re so smart” while the other one denies it.

  13. And in conclusion, both characters are constantly going through crises.

Youth, Art, and Aliebns

It’s easy to play “spot the difference” between “Burn All Night” and “everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too.” “Burn All Night” is an electrifying, immersive theater experience. The audience is thrust into the narrative and encouraged to dance as the actors whirl through the crowd, sometimes brushing against you as they dance with dizzying joy and intensity. The characters yell at each other in anger and passion, and even the rare moments of silence are piercingly bright and loud. “everyone’s a aliebn” is a book, deliberately designed to be as minimalist as possible. The drawings are in black and white and there is rarely more than a sentence or two per page. The story itself is quiet and unassuming, wandering through a small community with only a shadow of the driving narrative structure.

And yet. I experienced both pieces of art within 24 hours of each other, and was struck not by their differences, but by their similarities. While they chose different forms of expression, both works were grappling with the same questions. What is our place in this world? How do we deal with the knowledge that we are all going to die someday? Who are we, really? What does it mean to be a young person trying to “find themselves” in the twenty-first century?

It’s this last question that drives at the heart of what I find most striking about both creations. It’s common for art to be created for and about people coming of age, but it often misses the mark in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. From my perspective, it’s a mounting problem as technology and culture evolve at dizzyingly fast rates—there’s a small cultural divide even between me and my sister, who’s only two years younger than me. While older artists can write beautifully about what it means to be a young person, they can’t capture what it feels like to be a young person right now. The explosion in documentation and publicity, the accessibility and diversification of fame, the globalization of culture and humor and fights for civil rights—being an emerging adult right now means entering a world that is constantly connected, chronicled, and in flux to a degree that it has never been before.

Some shows, like “Dear Evan Hansen,” attempt to capture how modern inventions like phones and social media intersect with age-old issues of relationships, insecurity, and coming-of-age. But even though the show fits together, there’s something clunky about it. It’s too on the nose, too “look how in touch we are.” “Burn All Night” takes a different route. The performers use phones in multiple songs as part of their choreography, but never explicitly discuss social media. They cry out about how they must be documented to stay alive, to be immortal. Instead of making social media a pointed part of the narrative, it’s written the way our phones exist in real life: baked into the fabric of our experiences, entirely casual but always in view.

“everyone’s a aliebn” stretches the subtlety of this narrative to a new level. There is no content about social media; in fact, the world exists outside of phones, modern technology, and humans altogether. However, the author is Twitter personality Jonny Sun, and the form of the story itself is a modern construction. The book could have been divided into distinct vignettes, but instead each storyline gets a few pages at a time and the characters often run into each other. Sun described the narrative style as deliberately modeled after a Twitter timeline: instead of getting disparate stories, you experience gently intersecting narratives that weave through each other. The tales are about loss, uncertainty, love, and many more fears—everything that’s relatable to today’s teens. That sounds like a joke, but honestly, I don’t know anyone who couldn’t relate to Sun’s heartbreakingly simple writing that somehow soothes all of our deepest insecurities.

I could continue writing about these two pieces of art for hours, but for now I will end with this: I am so excited for this trend of media written about, for, and by emerging adults in 2017. As young artists earn wider audiences and break into more traditional media spaces, we will only see more of ourselves represented, not only in how we appear to outside observers but in who we really are.

“Burn All Night” by Andy Mientus and Teen Commandments just concluded its world-premiere run at the American Repertory Theater.

“everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too” is the debut book from jomny sun.

Musical Movie Adaptations

Adapting stage musicals for the big screen evokes a similar reaction to me as book adaptations: you know, “the book is better.”

Movie musicals are different and more subtle than the differences between books and their film adaptations, however. Generally speaking, when a book is adapted for the screen, it is (sometimes significantly) cut down and decisions are made about how to visually portray characters and sets. I think book-to-movie adaptations often seem inferior because reading book is entirely too different from watching a movie. Different people experience books differently, but for me, I get certain feelings from different characters. I don’t visualize what they look like, but I can feel how they look and sound. If an actor doesn’t match that feeling-- and they rarely do-- it’s jarring. This is escapable if they movie is done very well, staying true to the books while making the necessary changes to translate to a visual medium (for example, I think Hunger Games is a great movie series). It also works if the movie series is so prolific that the actors feel like the characters with time, even if they originally didn’t (hello, Harry Potter). Finally, and most simply, it works if I haven’t read the book.

Musicals, however, are already a visual medium, and they’re designed for different actors to take the same role as time goes on. It seems like they would be easy to adapt for the big screen, but it seems like they often have huge problems. Musicals are visual, yes, but they’re also designed to be performed on a set in front of an audience. If the actors need to be in a car, they can sit in a fake car and pretend to drive, and no one cares or questions it. One set can represent several different locations as actors move around the stage, and that’s fine too. Some shows, like Pippin, are entirely dependent on the live stage setting. A movie adaptation has to take the story of the musical and make all of the sets and locations look real. I find that even when movies manage to capture a musical’s spirit and translate the difficulty of the stage onto the screen, it is impossible to capture the joy of live theater. Even watched a professional recording of a musical can’t compare: there’s something lovely and magical about live theater that can’t be reproduced in a movie.

So, these are our problems with musical movies. How do different musicals deal with these problems? I’ve seen quite a few stage musicals, and even more movie musicals. Here are some of my thoughts on a few of the shows that I’ve seen both the stage and movie versions. (Minor spoiler warnings for all three!)

Rock of Ages: Ohhh boy. I saw a touring production of Rock of Ages a few months before I watched the movie. I am VERY glad I saw the stage version first, because the movie was awful. Don’t get me wrong, the stage version wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of modern theater either, but it was a ton of fun and a thoroughly enjoyable show. However, none of the fun carried over into the movie. They kept the main plotline surrounding the central couple (for the most part… they even made some frankly unnecessary changes to that), but removed a lot of the rest of the show. Unfortunately, this was a show that wasn’t easy to make into a movie. A lot of the best laughs would have been impossible to pull off on screen. At one point the club owners walk onstage and start talking about how they’ve cleaned out the building. One then turns to a wall of the set, which is still covered in pictures, and says “...Except for all that shit over there.” He then turns to the band, which have been in the back wall of the set for the entire show, in apparent amazement. “And you guys! Have you been here the whole time?!” On stage, it was hilarious. In the movie, it was nonexistent, because how could they have pulled that off? The best character in the entire show, a flamboyant German man named Hans, didn’t appear in the movie. Goodbye, half of the fun. Also, to be clear: it wasn’t just a bad adaptation, it was also a terrible movie in general. Stage: B/Movie: F

 

Chicago: I saw the movie version of Chicago first, which may have helped my perception how good it was compared to the Broadway production. However, I thought that both the stage and movie versions were very good, and that the movie managed to preserve an impressive amount of the appeal of stage musicals. In the show, the full band is right in the middle of the stage, and the characters interact with them. Music and theatricality is a huge part of the show’s plot, so the presence of the band and the casual fourth-wall breaking fits seamlessly into the show. The movie handled this in what I thought was a surprisingly effective tactic: they had all the musical numbers be hallucinations/fantasies of the performance-obsessed main character. They get to keep the glamour of stage sets, the appeal of fourth-wall breaking, and made it plausible by keeping it all inside a woman’s mind. It was a little strange at first, but the performances were excellent and the movie sucked you in quickly. Stage: A-/Movie: B+

 

Les Miserables: Les Mis is a classic musical for a reason. It’s an epic story, entirely sung through, historically featuring some of the most powerful singers on Broadway. Try to listen to “On My Own” and not weep. You can’t. (I once had the joy of watching two of my theater-nerd friends simultaneously sing “On My Own” in two different languages: one in English, one in France. Another friend indicated which one should sing by placing his hand on their head, switching between the two at random enough intervals for it to be both beautiful and hilarious.)

The first version of Les Mis I saw was the televised 25th anniversary. It wasn’t really staged, it was just sung through by the actors. Still, it was an incredible show. Soon after, I watched a touring production live and loved it.

In my opinion, the movie version was… alright. Some of the cast members were perfect in their roles (Aaron Tveit and Samantha Bark, obviously. On a related note, I would like to marry both of them). Others… I love Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Amanda Seyfried in other movies. I just don’t think they worked in these roles, considering what I’ve come to expect from Les Mis performers. (Don’t even get me started on Russell Crowe. Whoever cast Russell Crowe can fight me.)

The movie itself is pretty good, it’s just not the kind of musical that works well on a movie screen. The director was trying way too hard to be “big musical epic” in a way that didn’t translate to a screen. Also, watching completely sung-through movies is a little disconcerting. Stage: A/Movie: B

Am I too harsh on theater adaptations? Perhaps. That doesn’t mean I don’t love them, especially for shows that I really enjoy. In The Heights and Wicked, the first two shows I ever saw on Broadway (I saw them both in the same day #bestmomever) and two of my all-time favorites, are both in the early stages of movie adaptations and I am SO excited. I’ve seen the movie version of Rent approximately seven thousand and twelve times. Live theater will always be my favorite form of entertainment, but movie musicals can be pretty incredible too.

 

Theater Motivation Playlist

I love musical theater.

I really really really love musical theater.

This is the first of what will probably be an infinite number of blog posts relating somehow to musicals. I was raised by a musical-loving mother and spent family road trips singing along to “Broadway’s Best Hits.” I’ve seen nearly a dozen Broadway productions, either on Broadway or on tour. I joined a singing group on campus that exclusively sings musical theater (despite the fact that I can barely sing). Don’t even mention Hamilton to me, or I will sing every single song at you.

Recently I’ve been pumping myself up with a great “Theater Motivation” playlist that I thought I would share here. It includes songs from several of my favorite musicals, and I’ve been playing it while exercising/walking to class/doing laundry/anything else I need to make a little more epic. I hope you can find a little inspiration in it as well.

Prologue: Into the Woods // Into the Woods

Wait For It // Hamilton

The Room Where It Happens // Hamilton

One Short Day //  Wicked

I’ve Decided to Marry You // A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

My Shot (NSFW) // Hamilton

It Won’t Be Long Now //  In The Heights

Rent // Rent

Run and Tell That // Hairspray

Right Hand Man (NSFW) // Hamilton

Dancing Queen // Mamma Mia

96,000 (NSFW) // In The Heights

The Bitch of Living (NSFW) // Spring Awakening

Mamma Mia // Mamma Mia

La Vie Boheme (NSFW) // Rent

You Can’t Stop the Beat // Hairspray

Guns and Ships // Hamilton

I Believe (NSFW) // Book of Mormon

Totally F*cked (NSFW, duh) // Spring Awakening

One Day More // Les Miserables

Defying Gravity // Wicked