Monday, July 18, 2011

Midwest New Musicals: Spring Rains and Labor Pains

A Writers Workshop and Development Program

John Sparks founded the musical theater writers workshop at the Theatre building in 1987. The program ran for thirteen years until it was suspended in 2009. It has now been resurrected by Sparks as Midwest New Musicals and run in association with Light Opera Works. Having both a Fall and Winter/Spring term, the program teaches both the writing and production of musical theatre. The Mini-Musicals are the capstone for the Winter/Spring semester where aspiring composers, lyricists and writers showcase their work performed by professional actors in front of a live audience.
This year’s theme, Spring Rains and Labor Pains, was subject to several constraints (as are all of Sparks’ exercises.)
·         No scenery or props are to be used.
·         Each mini-musical must utilize each of the following elements at least once:
o   The image of a pound of rancid bacon
o   The line “I want a blue sweater and I want it now!”
o   A four-note musical motif (which we weren’t given but sounded like Do-Mi-Sol-Fa to my relatively untrained ears.
Once the assignment is presented, each team has twenty-four hours to produce an outline for their proposed musical. Next they have about ten days to write the first draft which is then subject to a reading and critique. Following revisions another reading takes place and after a final revision, the rehearsals and performance are produced.
This is a very hectic schedule and high-pressure creativity. Sparks deliberately plans it this way to simulate the real-life situations his mentees will experience in the real world of theatre.

Life Has Its Ups and Downs

This first mini by Laura Toffenetti (Book), Gail Sonkin & Laura Toffenetti (Lyrics) and Gail Sonkin (Music) dealt with a Blagojevich-styled politician who was busy cheating on all of his mistresses as well as his wife. The gimmick was the elevator operator, an illegal Polish immigrant who hoped to gain legal status through the politician’s underhanded manipulations.
The creative team came up with some good music and lyrics that was appropriately styled to both the situation and the character. The politician’s introduction of himself was particularly effective, filled with bravado and self-congratulatory music and words. The other high point musically was a song the ensemble sang together. The sense of drama experienced by the group while trapped in an elevator during a power outage was strongly conveyed.
This was a good, solid effort by the creative team although it isn’t stellar. The major weakness seems to be the core idea and basic plot, that doesn’t seem to have a sufficiently interesting series of events to hold the audience’s attention.

Another Life

The team of J. Linn Allen (Book & Lyrics) and Leo Schwartz (Music) also dealt with a man cheating on his wife. This was a bit darker than the previous mini. The piece has a fast, upbeat opening that lets us know in uncertain terms how happy this philanderer is with his girlfriend (who is two years older than half his age). Enter wife and children and a long scene featuring nothing but dialogue. I kept hoping for some music to break up the monotony but none was forthcoming. There really needs to be something added to this portion of the mini.
Enter wife and grown children, each with his or her own complaints to pile on our hapless wanderer. The song What Am I to You? while using appropriate lyrics for the situation seemed to have missed the mark musically. It is the composer, after all, that must assume the role of dramatist in any musical production.
Overall, this was a good effort. Like the first mini, the fundamental premise and plot needs to be strengthened to hold an audience’s imagination. Musically it was okay, but the composer/lyricist combination needs to polish the synergistic application of words and music to achieve maximum emotional impact.

Reeeeeeeeal Life

David Nelson (Book) and Scott Free (Lyrics and Music) created an hypothetical reality TV news program featuring a reporter who claimed absolute objectivity. (Right there, I was suspicious!) The creative team clearly hates Republicans, conservatives and especially Tea Partiers; they make no bones about and take no prisoners in their relentless pursuit of the “bad guys” of today’s political scene. This strong political statement unfortunately makes the mini degenerate into a series of musical numbers that all sound like agitprop and suspiciously similar in melodic, rhythmic and lyrical content. Certainly at one point, anyway, some sort of anthem might have been an appropriate way for the “workers” of the mini to express unity and determination.
The closing musical number was something of a tribute to Barack Obama, an ethereal almost angelic piece of writing that emphasized Obama’s attempts at unification of an inclusive power base. Overall, the entire piece was so extreme in its characterizations that little doubt was left in the audience’s mind that the archetypes portrayed were completely artificial and contrived regardless of political persuasion.
This is one case where art really has suffered at the hands of politics. The entire concept needs to be discarded and a more sophisticated approach to parody adopted. There’s nothing wrong (and indeed much right) with parody but when it becomes ham-handed the effect is not only lost but may actually have the reverse of the intended impact.


The team of David Charles Goyette (Book), Jean Vanier (Lyrics) and Mike O’Mara (Music) scored the real winner of the evening with this well-conceived premise of two gay men in a committed relationship who are seeking a surrogate mother to bear the child they hope to raise. First they approach one man’s sister, who declines. This is followed by the two men interviewing a series of prospective surrogates. All the women decline for one reason or another.
The mini includes some remarkable music from a composer who clearly is on his way to understanding the power of the music and how to make music and word combine to give a power that would be impossible with either words or music separately. An early ballad between the two men effectively conveys their love and devotion for one another. A trio with the two men and one man’s sister approaches a parlante style of opera with each singer expressing differing but relevant viewpoints. The mini concludes with another fine trio between the same characters where the sister finally agrees to become the surrogate for her brother and his partner.
I spoke briefly with Vanier and O’Mara following the performance and asked whether the mini would be developed into something larger. The answer, it seems, depends on whether Book writer Goyette feels he can develop the plot sufficiently for a longer production. Stay tuned; this one could turn into a real winner.
Regardless of this particular mini’s fate, the careers of Goyette, Vanier and O’Mara bear watching, especially O’Mara. He has a firm grasp on what it takes to pack real strength into a musical production; this is rare in one as young as he appears and we can only hope he continues to nurture his great gift.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Godspell: Millennials Rising

The Theatre and Interpretation Center at Northwestern University

What? Still more Judeo-Christian mythology?

I wondered why anyone would want to take the time to see a rock musical based on the Biblical New Testament Gospel of St. Matthew. Then it occurred to me that the same question might be asked about wanting to see Montiverdi’s Orfeo, Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, or Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des carm√©lites. All four of these operas (and I include Godspell as an opera avatar that is uniquely American culturally and linguistically) fit the definition of opera provided by composer-musicologist Robert Greenberg who says:

[Opera is a] whole that is greater than the sum of its parts in its combination of combination of soliloquy, dialogue, scenery, action and continuous (or nearly continuous) music. We see how music can evoke what words cannot express; the composer is the dramatist. This combination of words and music endows opera with a unique dramatic power.[1]

This is why, for over 400 years, opera has endured as an art form regardless of content.

But that is only part of the reason for being interested in Godspel.l Regardless of your own personal belief or skepticism[2] regarding the supernatural, most systems of religious thinking have morals and ethics woven into their fabrics that are generally accepted by the vast majority of humans, not all of whom share the same theological basis. We therefore are able to collaboratively share these principles across religious boundaries, at least on a selective basis, at the same time challenging one another where those beliefs are in conflict.

Another reason for our universal interest in matters religious is the simple fact that throughout the history of homo sapiens religious thought, whether affirmative or negative, has shaped our history as a species on this planet. Understanding the journey of mankind is significantly enhanced if we understand the religious underpinnings of many of his activities.

There are, of course, devoted Christians who will view Godspell as a refreshing romp back at Sunday School, where Biblical lessons were drilled into them as a child. For this group, and I suspect it is large, there is no need of any other justification.

So whether you are a student of opera, and Broadway musicals in particular, or seeking illustrations of morals and ethics you can support and adopt, or attempting to understand the religious underpinnings of man’s inhumanity or benevolence toward his fellows, or simply looking for a way to reinforce your already-determined system of religious faith, Godspell is definitely your cup of tea.

Indeed, this version of Godspell is a remarkably well-steeped and produced cup of tea.

Godspell: Good Word

Wikipedia tells us

The word "Gospel" is derived from Anglo Saxon "Gódspell" (ca AD 1000), which means "good word".[3]

In this production, the good word comes to us through thirteen amazingly talented and energetic performers who can not only act, but can sing and dance as though they have been doing it most of their lives (and many probably have). All are Northwestern University undergraduates or recent undergraduates.  Christopher Herr’s (Jesus) status isn’t clear from the program, but his roots to Northwestern are obviously deep. He’s a member of Asterik, an all-male a cappella group at NU that can be seen in this YouTube video: ?ASTERIK: "Rockin' the Suburbs" by Ben Folds?? - YouTube.

The most striking thing about the cast is that they are all capable soloists, yet they are able sing as an ensemble with equal skill and grace. One by one (with two exceptions) they step forward to present us with one musical number after another that ranges from the gentle ballad Side by Side effectively sung by Letty Perez and Rebecca Ruttle to the raucous tent-meeting O Bless the Lord featuring Hannah Kahn. The velvety tenor of Will Carlyon adds a special quality to All Good Gifts while the Kermit the Frog-style rendition of Light of the World brings the first act to a rousing close.

The second act finds Frankie DiCiaccio’s We Beseech Thee one of the most energetic and effective of all the musical numbers. It was DeCiaccio and Herr who rewrote Save the People in the first act, converting it from a somewhat boring spoken vocal to the stirring rap number it is in the present production. The Day by Day reprise of the second act finds the cast reenacting the Last Supper, where Herr (Jesus) delivers what to my ears was a traditional prayer in Hebrew. (Disclaimer: I speak not a word of Hebrew other than “Yaweh” so I could be easily fooled.) On the Willows finds Herr embracing each of the disciples in turn, an effectively staged and presented vignette. Finally, in this version of the Matthew Gospel, Judas arrives, but is too terrified to kiss Jesus; instead Jesus kisses him, and is carried off to be crucified.

Throughout, this amazing cast sings, dances, runs up and down aisles, climbs poles and scales ladders and other assorted props with a never-ending store of energy. They can dance. They can sing. They can act. Their tambre, tessitura and intonation are superb. What more could you ask for in an American opera, a Broadway musical?

We shouldn’t forget the contributions of Patrick Sulken’s orchestra, out of sight but never out of earshot: Elizabeth Doran on Synthesizer, Charles Mueller on Guitar, Jesse Bowman on Bass and Dylan Frank on Drums. Sets by William Boles and Costumes by Jeremy W. Floyd were especially effective in bringing Godspell up to contemporary speed in the grit of a large urban setting. Matt Raftery’s choreography deserves special mention for its variety and effectively deployment of limited resources in a pretty confining space.

The Ethel M. Barber Theater features a thrust stage with stadium seating that rises from the performance floor on three sides. I counted between three hundred and three hundred fifty in attendance with room for perhaps another fifty in vacant seats. This is in every sense, intimate theatre, especially if one is seated in the first half-dozen rows. You can literally reach out and touch the actors in many cases, and they’d probably take your hand and touch you back in this production that emphasizes community, fraternity and collaboration.

Director Dominic Missimi give us a really tight production. I typically feel a “beat” to any kind of performance, whether it’s a symphony orchestra or a dance company or live theatre. What passes before you in all these cases has a rhythm that is unmistakable when it is done correctly and jarring when it “misses a beat.” Sometimes the beat or the miss is obvious, as when an errant trombone makes a “social error” during the closing measures of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. More subtle, but equally as important, is the tempo and timing of a piece as it rolls from the opening bars or scenes on toward the finishing moments of the performance. Does everything seem to follow naturally, one event after the other? Is there sufficiently large or adequately small space between logical segments for the audience to both connect the action and at the same time shift attention? Does is appear that someone has anticipated incorrectly or forgotten to continue the performance on a timely basis? These are questions of artistic competence and not always easily applied. In the present case, I found only one point where I found myself “waiting” for something to happen. The pause was very brief, less than a second I would guess, but after so many minutes of perfect execution, even a slight misstep can be easily detected. Fortunately, it was brief, immediately repaired and I noticed hardly a break in my concentration or enjoyment of the production. I wish all productions of all kinds were as professionally paced as this one.

Despite Missimi’s excellent direction, he clearly misses the message of Godspell by characterizing it as “family entertainment” and a “lovely way to get a dose of religion.” It’s not about religion; it’s not about anybody’s god. It’s about mankind, and mankind’s future. For a better understanding of Missimi’s point of view see ?Behind The Scenes With Godspell Director Dominic Missimi?? - YouTube.

So What’s All This Millennium Stuff?

Godspell isn’t really about Trinitarian Christianity. It may use New Testament stories as a basis, but right off the bat you discover that Jesus’s followers are equally divided between men and women, and we all know that the twelve disciples were all male. You can’t have a Broadway musical with an ensemble that doesn’t include girls as well as boys, so of course we have a mixed gender group of disciples. The story becomes immediately more believable, doesn’t it? We also begin to understand that New Testament stories are just that: stories intended to teach lessons, but hardly the stuff of accurate historical fact.

I’m a great fan of William Strauss and Neil Howe, whose landmark book Generations[4] laid the groundwork for what has become a fascinating and never-ending journey for every marketer, politician and student of American culture (plus a few other countries) now alive. Basically, Millennials are members of the Hero archetype, characterized as:

This generation is defined as the one with a deep trust in authority and institutions; they are sort of conventional but still powerful. They grow up during the Unraveling with more protections than the previous generation. They believe in team work and thus when they come of age, turn into the heroic team-working young people of a Crisis. During their midlife they are the energetic, decisive and strong leaders of a High era; while they become the attacked powerful elders during the Awakening cycle. The Greatest Generation (1916-1924) belongs to this category. Generation Y is expected to become the next example of this type.[5]

We find ourselves currently in one of the greatest crises of modern times in the form of imminent financial collapse world-wide. If ever we needed a group of heroic, team-working young persons, it is now. In fact, that is what Godspell is really about; there was this guy who lived about two thousand years ago, who was a little off his rocker but charismatic as a leader; he gathered a group of twelve followers about him who literally changed the course of the world. Sit and watch the energetic, confident, collaborative, loving and intelligent young actors that comprise the cast of Godspell and see if you, too, are not swept up in the sheer optimism and capability of this group of men and women who, as they explain in the musical number Beautiful City

Out of the ruins and rubble
Out of the smoke
Out of our night of struggle
Can we see a ray of hope?
One pale thin ray reaching for the day.

We can build a beautiful city
Yes we can; yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels but we can build a city of man.

We may not reach the ending
But we can start
Slowly but truly mending
Brick by brick, heart by heart
Now, even now
We’ll start learning how.

We can build a beautiful city
Yes, we can; yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But we can build a city of man.

When your trust is all but shattered
When your faith is all but killed
You can give up, bitter and battered
Or you can slowly start to build.

A beautiful city
Yes, we can; yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But finally a city of man.

This is hardly a Trinitarian Christian lyric; it doesn’t even reference any kind of god, let alone the God of Abraham. But it does tell us something about what’s ahead, I think, and frankly, I’m excited. There will be pain, and the old Boomers will grouse and complain about losing their cherished entitlements that they never really earned, but the Millennials will fix things, for better or for worse. Do yourself a huge favor and go see The Theatre and Interpretation Center at Northwestern University’s production of Godspell. You may find it a playful romp back to your days in Sunday School, but if you really think about it, it’s about our future, yours and mine, and how today’s youth will eventually inherit and improve the incredible problems that are their legacy.

Godspell: There are only four performances left. Godspell closes July 24, 2011. See the website for more information: Godspell, Theatre and Interpretation Center, School of Communication, Northwestern University. The July 21 performance will have two sign language interpreters who will sign the entire performance. The actors currently all sign Day by Day, but July 21 will be a complete interpretation by skilled signers.

[1] Greenberg, Robert. How to Listen to and Understand Opera: course Guidebook. The Teaching Company, Chantilly, VA. 1997. p. 5
[2] I use the word skeptic in its literal, Greek sense: inquiring, reflective. The reader may apply the further extension of doubt as he finds appropriate.
[3] This is further referenced to: Bosworth, Joseph. The Gothic and Anglo Saxon Gospells. John Russell Smith, 1874
[4] Strauss, William & Howe, Neil. Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069. Perennial, 1992 (Reprint). ISBN 0-688-11912-3
[5] Excerpted from See the entire web page for a good summary of Strauss & Howe’s theories and descriptive prose.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

First Folio Plans Intriguing Presentation of Merchant of Venice

I'm a city kid that barely has any interest in the suburbs around Chicago except to avoid going there. Traffic is a nightmare and nothing is pedestrian friendly, not even the Woodfield Mall parking lot. But there is an attraction that I used to frequent when I worked in Schaumburg that's known as First Folio Theatre. Of course, they present Shakespeare, but only as an adjunct to their regular season of more main stream work. This season First Folio will mount the most controversial of Shakespeare's output, The Merchant of Venice.

As a species, we never seem to tire of examining the lives of Jews. Literature, opera, theatre and film all have classic expositions of various aspects of Jewish existence. In film, Schindler's List and Rod Steiger's masterful portrayal of The Pawnbroker come to mind. The Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof is another example of our fascination with Jewish life and tradition. In literature I can immediately name Pillars of the Earth and World Without End (both contemporary historical novels by Ken Follett) that portray the prejudices of medieval England toward Jews. The very existence of Hollywood is probably dependent on Jewish immigrants who began making films in the Southern California desert. For a quick overview of the Jewish contribution to American entertainment see the brief article Jews and the Entertainment Industry in Los Angeles California. For a contemporary theatre piece that gives us a realistic look at Jews in the Southern United States, try The Last Night of Ballyhoo by Alfred Uhry. Uhry also wrote Driving Miss Daisy and the libretto for the musical Parade; the three have become known collectively as the Atlanta Trilogy and all three treat themes related to the Jewish experience in the U.S.

Clearly, some portrayals of Jews are sympathetic while others are rife with prejudice and stereotype. The Merchant of Venice falls into this latter category, hence it has become the target of politically correct critics over the years. I write not to judge the merits of Shakespeare's play, nor to judge the wisdom of presenting it or not presenting it. Rather, what is interesting about the First Folio approach is that they have planned The Merchant Project along with the production of The Merchant of Venice. Briefly, The Merchant Project is a series of staged readings of alternate versions of Shakespere's tale.

For what it's worth, I can recall reading a heavily redacted version of The Merchant of Venice for a high school English class in the late 1950s. I wonder if that would happen today?

Here's the lineup of First Folio's staged readings:

  • Maurice Schwartz: Shylock and His Daughter performed by the National Yiddish Theatre.
  • Ramon flores and Lynn Butler: The Merchant of Santa Fe performed by Teatro Vista
  • Shishir Kurup: Merchant on Venice performed by Silk Road Theatre Project
  • Christopher Marlowe: The Jew of Malta performed by Signal Ensemble
I've recently become a much more avid Shakespeare fan which, added to my already nascent admiration of Christopher Marlow makes the whole project that much more attractive. I will probably brave the wilds of Oakbrook's Mayslake Peabody Estate Forest Preserve (home of First Folio) to take in at least a portion of this interesting season.

For more information about First Folio Theatre Company visit First Folio Theatre Home Page.