I really messed up on this one, friends. That’s right, I STILL haven’t seen Hamilton. I’ve never been so behind the times.
For the people out there who, as they say, might be living under a rock (or maybe they’re just not on social media), Hamilton is the new Broadway musical that’s currently taking over the world. Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Tony winner for In the Heights in 2008, has teamed up again with Director Tommy Kail and a million other crazy talented people to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton through hip hop and rap music. Perhaps you saw the scoop on “60 Minutes.” Or Miranda freestyling on the Tonight Show two weeks ago. Or heard about the education initiative in which 20,000 high school students will get to see the show for $10 each. Or seen some of the amazing mini-performances at the #Ham4Ham lottery. Or know that POTUS and FLOTUS have both seen the show (twice).
Listen, let me explain myself. I had planned on seeing it when it was Off-Broadway at The Public earlier this year, but the prices were so steep (the irony, I know) that I decided to wait until a discount became available. Then the reviews hit, and the show blew up. I knew it was going to be big – I didn’t know it was going to be a cultural phenomenon. Anyway, I felt that a post explaining myself was necessary since anyone and everyone is talking Hamilton, and it has yet to be mentioned on this blog.
This thing has been on my radar since Miranda’s first performance of a song at the White House in 2009. I was always excited because I was a super Heights fan. Back when I worked at Marquee Merchandise, the spring of 2008, we jammed out to the cast recording every day, learning all the rhymes as we charged credit cards, packaged, labeled, and mailed stacks upon stacks of pre-ordered CDs. Ah, memories. Whenever I had a spare evening that year or found myself wandering around Times Square around 9pm, I would swing by the Richard Rodgers theatre to check on the merch sellers, but really it was so I could go stand in the back of the orchestra and watch select scenes. I loved having a Broadway show on-call like that. I could go whenever I wanted. Need a little “96,000” in my life? Or “Champagne?” Want to see how Corbin Bleu is doing? I felt like the Richard Rodgers was mine. I also was watching this video on repeat at the time.
So when Hamilton hit the scene, I was ready – just not ready enough apparently. I waited on that ticket and then missed the boat. All this to say, I dropped a chunk of change (way more than it would have been at the Public, whoops) and bought my ticket a few months ago. I probably could have gotten a seat in the back and seen it by now, but for that kind of money, I wanted a SEAT, you know? December 17th it is. I will wait impatiently until that day and continue to avoid the cast recording that I so desperately want to hear.
Thus, let the one-month countdown begin. Then we can discuss.
I’ve been thinking about Found recently and how much I liked it. This was that new musical at Atlantic Theater Company last fall that had lyrics completely made up by found items (lists, love letters, notes, etc.). The story was based on how Found magazine was…founded.
My roomie and I became obsessed with this one song in particular. Why that song? Because it’s the only one available to us on the interwebs, sadly. So this thing played on repeat for a solid month last year. I like revisiting it from time to time and have been known to sing it to myself on the streets of New York.
The ballad is called “Barf Bag Breakup,” but don’t let the title scare you away. It’s a touching breakup letter that was found written on an airplane barf bag. Barrett Wilbert Weed, who played Denise in the show, sang it (with Mike Pettry on guitar) for “In Performance” with the New York Times.
Watch it here.
Last month, I went to The Town Hall theatre to check out TJ & Dave for the first time. You comedy fans out there may have heard of these guys. I hadn’t until my improv class instructor told us about them. TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi are a comedy duo, performing together since the early 2000s. Master improvisers, their shows entail the two of them making up a one-hour play on the spot. Yup, a whole play. Just TJ, Dave, and three chairs. Their tagline is, “trust us, this is all made up.”
After doing a little research, I realized I knew these two individually but not as a team. TJ you might recognize from the Sonic commercials. And Dave was Stew on the forever-fabulous “Strangers with Candy” which aired on Comedy Central back in 1999. If you know me personally, you’ve likely heard me quote this gem of a show starring Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and Stephen Colbert (maybe you’ve heard of him?). Dave played the butcher who Jerri Blank’s mother is having an affair with. The show is crazy, weird, and offensive. I highly recommend it.
But I digress. Back to TJ & Dave’s show! They were great. It feels silly to tell you about the story since it will never exist again. What surprised me was that it wasn’t just funny but also ended up being quite an insightful portrayal of human behavior. You can immediately identify with these characters (or you’ve at least met someone like them). It’s realistic, relatable, and sometimes has moments so perfect that it’s hard to believe it was made up that second. Their pacing, introduction of new characters (there were eight in this show), and the right usage of callbacks (references/shout-outs to earlier jokes) were super cool to witness. Plus I appreciated that they weren’t afraid to sit in silence at times. It got me all the more excited to take Level 2 at Magnet Theater, in which we start to study long form improv.
TJ & Dave are in the city occasionally, but their home base is Chicago, so if you find yourselves out there, look ‘em up! I think Colbert says it best, “”One of these guys is the best improviser in the world. And the other one is better.”
I had difficulty connecting with Futurity at the start. I liked that it was quirky but thought it was maybe trying too hard to be “different” or “out of the box.” Then again, there were these pearls of wisdom that kept multiplying as the show progressed, and I found myself getting more and more involved. This is a show that gets you talking. Jenn and I spent the whole walk from Avenue B to Broadway discussing the issues brought up: slavery, war, fighting for change, progress, changing people’s minds, using art as a weapon, if art makes things better, if it even makes a difference. Pieces like this spark conversation and hopefully forward movement.
But let me pass you over to our guest blogger today, Jenn Haltman. Jenn is my uber-talented friend and partner in crime (well, art). I got excited by the idea of Jenn sharing her thoughts rather than I as she clicked with the show in a more significant way. I think I got there; I was just a little late to the party. Here’s Jenn and her very own doodle (note: she looks just like me but with longer hair).
Soho Rep and Ars Nova have combined forces to co-produce Futurity, which makes a lot of sense. Soho Rep perennially produces bold new theatrical voices, and Ars Nova has a very heavy musical component to its programming. They were smart to look beyond their respective, intimate home theatres and present this work at the Connelly Theatre to allow for the space needed for the breadth of this story. I went in knowing nothing about the production except that it was originally produced at A.R.T. in Boston in 2012 (there is even a concept album on Spotify).
Futurity opens with The Lisps (an indie, experimental band) coming out on stage in front of a traditional velvet curtain, riffing about things they talked about backstage and setting up the characters of the show, causing us, the audience, to wonder what we are about to see. Is this a concert? A musical?
They go on to tell a fictional story about the real Ada Lovelace, a 19th century mathematician known as the first computer programmer. We follow her correspondence with fictional character Julian Munroe, a young Civil War soldier. Ada and Julian are played, respectively, by The Lisps band members Sammy Tunis and César Alvarez. Through letters, the two forge a relationship based on their shared love of math and science, and they develop the “steam brain,” a thinking machine intended to improve society and eliminate war. Together they examine the idea of collective conscience, morality, and the question of whether or not a machine would think ceasing war and slavery is in fact the ultimate moral choice.
Alvarez also wrote the book and lyrics, and he co-wrote the music with Tunis and the incredibly talented percussionist Eric Farber (also a member of The Lisps) who plays various “contraptions” in the piece. They are joined by a wonderfully diverse cast of ten actors who play the ensemble of soldiers in addition to providing the impressive live accompaniment.
Since Futurity is framed as a musical within a concert, I was able to step back and appreciate the craft of it alongside the storytelling. As I watched the advancement of Ada’s invention against the ever-growing Civil War, it forced me to think about how each person plays a role in “advancement.” It allowed me to value the inventor with the same weight as the soldier and how we all contribute what we can to a cause. One song in particular called “How Much” movingly shows the cost of war. The inimitable Karen Kandel plays The General, and her rallying of the troops about why they need to fight shows us both how far and how little we’ve come as a country. The set design by Emily Orling and Matt Saunders is subtle yet transformative (especially the reveal in the second act!), and David Neumann’s choreography is simple yet evocative. Director Sarah Benson (a favorite of mine) expertly shapes this sprawling vision with heart and intellect.
Tunis and Alvarez periodically step out of character to remind us of the construct of the evening, and this is where the Brechtian influence is most clear. German director Bertolt Brecht believed that plays should provoke self-reflection and action by the audience to improve the world around them. If everything is tied up in a neat bow at the end of the story, then the audience is left feeling complacent and not compelled to act. In true Brechtian style, Becca and I left talking about how the play reflects the world around us and what that means. With so many plays I’ve seen of late, I’ve walked out of the theatre thinking about my laundry or to-do list than what I just witnessed. Futurity will likely not leave me for a very long time. It’s proving to be a hot ticket, so if you can get your hands on one before it closes November 22nd, do it!
Music by César Alvarez with The Lisps, Lyrics and Book by César Alvarez, Directed by Sarah Benson
Connelly Theatre, Closing November 22nd
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Cast: César Alvarez, Andrew R. Butler, Fred Epstein, Eric Farber, Eamon Goodman, Karen Evans Kandel, Kristine Haruna Lee, Mia Pixley, Jessie Shelton, Kamala Sankaram, Darius Smith, Storm Thomas, and Sammy Tunis
Credits: Choreography: David Neumann; Set Design: Emily Orling and Matt Saunders; Percussion and Contraption Design: Eric Farber; Lighting Design: Yi Zhao; Costume Design: Emily Orling; Sound Design: Matt Tierney; Props: Noah Mease; Fight Choreography: J. David Brimmer; Music Direction: César Alvarez
This, y’all. What a well-made play. A Roundabout Theatre Company production currently running at the Laura Pels, and now expected to transfer to Broadway in the spring, The Humans is a new play by Stephen Karam, whose play Sons of the Prophet (a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist) was also staged at the Roundabout back in 2011.
Thanks to the fantastic direction by Joe Mantello (you can always count on him) and an extremely strong cast, everything about this piece feels so…real. That’s the only word I can think of to describe it. Time and time again, I keep coming back to that one – real.
First let me give you some context. The Blake family has gathered together for Thanksgiving dinner, this year at their younger daughter’s new apartment in lower Manhattan. Brigid has moved in with her older boyfriend, Rich, and the place isn’t bad by New York standards. It’s a ground floor apartment, and they have a second floor in the basement of the building, both fully executed by set designer David Zinn (see photo below). Sure, there are bars on the windows, and the trash compactor is crazy loud, and who knows what the hell the neighbors are doing upstairs, but hey, it’s home! They’ve just moved in, and their stuff hasn’t made it to the apartment yet, so it’s a very bare bones Thanksgiving, adding to the creepiness vibe of the place as the thumps get louder and louder upstairs. Brigid’s older sister Aimee is there, and their parents, Erik and Deirdre, have trekked in from Pennsylvania with their grandmother “Momo” who is suffering from the beginnings of dementia. The evening is full of prepping for dinner, exchanging gifts, complaining about the noise, and getting to know the boyfriend (watch a clip here). Because it’s a play (and we all know how plays work), we can guess from the start that this isn’t going to be the smoothest of family dinners, but the way in which the plot unfolds is so seamless that it doesn’t feel the least bit contrived. Nothing in the entire 90 minutes seems false or forced. Things unravel like a sweater as old reflexes kick in, snide comments are exchanged, and secrets are revealed.
Whatever these actors did to prep for these roles worked. It’s as if they really grew up together in the same home. The dynamic of each relationship has been so well developed. As tensions rise and fall, each character alternates taking on the role of mediator or instigator. It’s so familiar it’s almost like watching your own family up there – maybe not the same relationships or secrets but in the way they speak to each other. The history between them is just as strong as what’s being said in the moment. Whenever Brigid makes a rude comment toward her mother, I didn’t sit there thinking, “She’s a mean person.” Rather I saw the layers of their relationship and understood that they have a history to which we are not privy. We may not get the whole story in this play, but we know it’s there, and the actors definitely know it. AH – all of them are so good! I don’t feel the need for other adjectives! All I’ve got is GOOD and REAL.
Oh, also, don’t let me give the impression that this is a heavy, all-intense family drama. That’s definitely part of it, especially as we build to the haunting climax, but this play is crazy funny. Other things I loved? It’s told in real time. The characters overlap and interrupt each other the way people really talk. They overhear one another’s conversations, but it doesn’t feel like a convention. We are truly flies on the wall witnessing raw, real moments between family members as they snap at each other and love one another hard. The Humans is so relatable it’s painful at times, and when I wasn’t laughing, I was struck by the inner workings of this family. I found myself continuously surprised as other elements were looped in toward the end of the play, even moments of pure terror. And when the lights went out, my hair was standing on end.
Written by Stephen Karam, Directed by Joe Mantello
Laura Pels Theatre, Closing January 3, 2016
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Cast: Cassie Beck, Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Sarah Steele, Arian Moayed, and Lauren Klein
Credits: Set Design: David Zinn, Costume Design: Sarah Laux, Lighting Design: Justin Townsend, Sound Design: Fitz Patton