Encores Off-Center Brings Vonnegut Novel to Life

by Anne E. Johnson

There probably weren’t many of us in the audience at City Center for the Encores Off-Center production of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater who had read the Kurt Vonnegut novel on which the musical was based. I’d read it three times. I got hooked on Vonnegut by a forward-thinking high school English teacher, so by college I was seeking out the more obscure books. Decades later, Rosewater remains my favorite of his works.Rosewater

Given that the music was by Alan Menken and the lyrics by Howard Ashman, I expected a saccharin, Disney-esque treatment of the material. Not so! The ruthless criticism of the status quo and power structures; the baffled wonderment at life’s purpose; the deep-seated love of all humanity despite its considerable foibles — these trademarks of Vonnegut’s worldview, present in all his writing, were offered in the music, lyrics, lively direction and spirited performances.

And, a fun surprise: we all knew James Earl Jones’ recorded voice would be used for narration, but in the last scene Jones actually came onstage to play the role of the wise science fiction novelist Kilgore Trout (who is mentioned in most of Vonnegut’s novels and clearly represents Vonnegut himself).

Rufus Wainwright Really Did Judy This Time

By Anne E. Johnson

To commemorate ten years since he first performed his “Rufus Does Judy” show, which recreates a 1961 concert by Judy Garland, Rufus Wainwright got the gang back together (once again conducted by Stephen Oremus), and put on quite an extravaganza at Carnegie Hall last night.

You know what the best thing is about great musicians getting older? They become even better musicians. Now in his forties, Wainwright sings with more sophisticated emotional nuance and phrasing. And while he no longer has the superhuman breath control of his youth, ten years haven’t diminished either his vocal range or power. What a glorious instrument!

Like all of us, Wainwright’s been through a lot in ten years. He’s seen darkness and joy. His mother died, he got married and became a father, he had his first opera produced. He’s absorbed all those experiences into his understanding of the songs, and somehow it all just makes him more like Judy.

The highlight came in the second half, where any seasoned entertainer knows it belongs: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” sung while sitting at the edge of the stage (where else would he sing it?) was heart-rending. Ten years ago, his mother, Kate McGarrigle, accompanied this song on piano. Now that she’s gone, Wainwright pointedly used an arrangement with no piano at all.


Battlefield Art: In Defense of “The Normal Heart”

By Anne E. Johnson

Today I heard from an intelligent, usually sensitive person with a great deal of experience watching theater. While his email was in praise of a local production of Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons, I was distressed by his contrasting of that play with Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which he called “a ham-handed political rant…which I hope never to see again in my life.”

This was my response:

“The Normal Heart and Mothers and Sons are, to my mind, not in the same genre, so I would not compare them. Kramer’s play is an accurately excruciating portrayal, not only of the time and society it represents, but of the playwright himself. It is autobiographical, and Larry Kramer has a shrieking, damaging personality. As much as anything, the play is a confession of that fact. And there was nothing subtle about the political Auschwitz that New York gays found themselves in during the 1980s. This does not mean you should like the play. It’s supposed to be almost impossible to watch, just as the period was almost impossible to live through. It’s an entirely different perspective from that of well-off 21st-century gays with the right to marry, or from a mother’s sorrowful memory.”

In other words, when a play is written in the middle of a real battlefield, the pages will likely be splattered with blood and skull fragments from the corpses tumbling by. But as gruesome and uncomfortable as that paper is to look at, the writing on it is still art.

Luna Stage seeking play submissions

Luna Stage Seeking Short Play Submissions for 4th Annual Festival

West Orange, NJ. – Luna Stage is now accepting submissions to its 4th Annual New Moon Short Play Festival.  Playwrights of all career levels making their home in New Jersey, New York or Pennsylvania may submit short plays between five and ten minutes in length and monologues of up to five minutes in length.

The selected plays will be presented over two evenings, on Monday, May 9th and Tuesday, May 10th 2016 at 7:30pm at Luna Stage in West Orange, NJ.  Each evening will culminate with a talkback with the playwrights.

There is no fee to apply to the Festival. The deadline for submission is a postmark date of February 20, 2016. Selected plays will be announced by March 31st, 2016 and will be posted on the Luna Stage website.

For full submission guidelines and  further information, please visit lunastage.org

Luna Stage is a small but mighty professional theatre company located in Essex County, NJ, just under 15 miles from New York City.  Throughout the past 23 years, the company has earned a national reputation for developing and producing outstanding new plays and timely revivals and for taking on challenging and provocative subject matter in their work.

A proud member of Valley Arts, Luna Stage is located at 555 Valley Road, West Orange, NJ 07052. The theatre is handicapped accessible and offers assistive listening devices.

A belated farewell to Roger Rees

I must admit, when Roger Rees died in July of this year, the news turned me upside down. I’d never met him, but he was part of my life. Ever since I saw Nicholas Nickleby on PBS as a high schooler in the 1980s, Roger Rees was a piece of the mosaic that was my mind. And that brought me joy. Whenever I learned he was in something, it made me look forward even more to whatever it was.

So, when he left this earth, I felt pretty lost, as if I’d had unexpected–if minor– surgery on my soul.

On Monday, September 21, 2015, Disney on Broadway helped me fill in that little hole in my soul’s fabric. I am grateful that the beautiful memorial they sponsored at the New Amsterdam Theatre was open to the public, so I got to witness the love of Rees’  family, friends, and colleagues and share in their grief and joyous memories. As if I belonged. As if my grief for this wonderful man mattered in some kind of cosmic way.

So now I’m ready to say it: Goodbye, Roger Rees, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.

2 Astonishing Digital Theater Archives

Are you a theater history geek? Are you writing a biography of a long-forgotten chorus boy? Do you want endless, joyous distraction from your day job? Try these:

playbillPlaybill Vault. Broadway bonanza! Every Playbill cover and internal pages, searchable by creative and performing artists, awards, theaters, and other criteria.

New York Public Library Billy Rose Theatre Division. If you’ve ever done any theater research in NYC, you’ve run into this vast collection, but might not have been allowed to look at the NYPL_logo1_black_posvideo or document you ached to see. Well, the videos are still tightly guarded (a personal note from Edward Albee might get you in), but now the division is making its massive collection of ephemera available to anyone with an Internet connection. 100,000 pieces are viewable so far, and that’s just the beginning.

Best of all, both of these resources are FREE!

The Great David Greenspan Spins Out Gertrude Stein at @TargetMargin Show

There is a fixture of New York theater named David Greenspan. He is unquestionably one of our best and most intelligent performing artists. I've seen Greenspan in probably ten different shows over the years, from quirky off-off B'way recitations and happenings (sometimes performing his own writing) to high-profile Off-Broadway productions of more traditional plays.

Last night I watched him recite two essays and a poem by Gertrude Stein at Target Margin's Stein festival at the Connelly Theater. (Scroll down for link.) Think that sounds boring? Believe me, I was riveted for ninety minutes. It was like hearing Glenn Gould play Schoenberg, the way Greenspan found meaning and nuance in every phrase of this obtuse material.

Fascinating. My love affair with David Greenspan continues.

You can see this show, "Composition...Master-pieces...Identity," through June 27. Info here.


Tommy Tune’s Tenth Tony Trivia Tribute

We at Busker Alley could not be more pleased to see Tommy Tune receive a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement at the June 7, 2015 ceremony.

In honor of this great occasion, we have compiled some rare T.T. career tidbits to delight and tickle the curiosity of any Tommy Tune fan. (And, no, you won’t find these factoids in the pages of his memoir.)


1. Tune filmed a version of Pinocchio for CBS television’s “Hallmark Hall of Fame” in 1968. It was choreographed by Michael Bennett (!!) and costarred pop singer Peter Noone (of Herman’s Hermits) as the title character. Some proof can be seen here. Tune presumably played Jiminy Cricket. Watch this recent video interview to see how much he loves that character:

2. When Larry Kramer and Joseph Papp were trying to mount the first production of The Normal Heart at the Public Theater, Papp’s first choice for director was Tommy Tune. Mike Nichols suggested him as well. Read about it here.

3. In 1977, Tune performed a specially-commissioned one-man show called Ichabod, inspired by Washington Irving’s story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The songs were by Thomas Tierney and Gene Traylor. Tune performed the show once in New York (at the Town Hall), and four times at the American Rep in Boston. There are some more details in Dan Dietz’s book, Off-Broadway Musicals.

WorkShop #Theater serves up “A La Carte: A Feast of New Plays”

By Anne E. Johnson

If music be the food of love, then perhaps theater is nutrition for the soul. New York’s WorkShop Theater, under the artistic direction of Thomas Coté, has laid out a buffet of six short plays related to food.

À LA CARTE: A FEAST OF NEW PLAYS at the WorkShop Theater

312 West 36th Street, Fourth Floor East, New York, NY 10018
(between 8th and 9th Avenues, on the south/downtown side of the street, a.k.a The Theatre Building)

Click here for tickets and information.

I asked the playwrights and director to share their secret ingredients in this platter of

Mary Ruth Baggot and Susan Izott* in 'Eat Dessert First,' one of the plays in A LA CARTE at the WorkShop Theater. (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Mary Ruth Baggot and Susan Izott* in ‘Eat Dessert First,’ one of the plays in A LA CARTE at the WorkShop Theater. (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)

dramatic delicacies.

“Food is woven into our childhoods, holidays, romances, tragedies, religions,” said artistic associate and project dramaturg Laura Hirschberg, who is also one of the playwrights. “It’s a great jumping-off point for writers to work with.”

Director Leslie Kincaid Burby took the theme of food deeply to heart as she approached this project. “I think that food and nourishment, both physical and emotional, are such profound elements in our lives,” she said. “I looked for every opportunity I could to actually use real food and drink on stage, and let the audience vicariously enjoy it along with the actors.”

The theme affected her approach to the production’s visual elements, too. “I tried to find set items which would draw audience members back to their own memories of childhood foods and favorite meals. I worked closely with the Duane Pagano, our set designer, to try to bring as many kitchen and cooking related elements into the set as possible. I am ultimately really delighted with the playful look of the show.”

Burby tried to bring a sense of unity to the six plays. “My approach was first and foremost to honor the writing style of each piece, and help the actors to make strong acting choices as they helped to develop this new material. I hope that the pieces do have an in-common feel, even though they are extremely diverse.”

A glance at the six works highlights this diversity:

The collection begins with The Cook and the Soldier by Allan Knee. Molly is a 16-year-old high schooler and part-time belly dancer who yearns to be a cook for the rock group Pussy Riot. At NYC’s Port Authority Bus Terminal she encounters Tom, an emotionally damaged soldier who has gone AWOL. As their relationship develops, both grow up and face the reality of their lives. Knee was not available for comment here, but in a short video he describes the piece as a “coming of age” story for two characters who are “both in kind of a disturbed state.”

 Joe Boover and Cody Keown in 'Popcorn'. (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Joe Boover and Cody Keown in ‘Popcorn’. (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Playwright Scott C. Sickles said he didn’t expect to come up with anything to match the food theme. He only found the idea for his play, Popcorn, when considering what he most liked to eat. “I’m basically a popcorn addict,” he said. “The idea of these two young guys, Stan and Kip, getting involved in some teenage sexual exploration, with all the anxiety and hormones, supported the metaphor of a food that was prepared by heating it until it explodes and ricochets.”

Sickles’ play also deals with the words gays use to describe themselves, and whether those words are perceived as hurtful. “During the course of the play,” he said, “Stan, joking and utterly without malice, calls the other boy, Kip, a fag. Kip takes offense and the drama is off and running. Providing counterpoint to their conflict is an episode of Nigella Lawson’s cooking show. There’s really no one – on TV at least – who bridges food and sex the way she does. Ultimately, the food in the play is a metaphor for a very personal struggle about identity.”

In contrast to Sickles, Dana Leslie Goldstein, author of Eat Dessert First, found herself with too many ideas. “But there was one image that kept coming back to me. It was a cookbook, filled with scribbled messages from a recently deceased mother to her estranged daughter. A daughter who harbors more resentment than compassion for her mother’s choices. Gradually, however, as the daughter packs up her late mother’s cooking tools and other possessions, she begins to remember what her mother’s food was really like: it was filled with both love and disappointment, hurt and care.”

Goldstein had a personal stake in this story. “As both a mother and a daughter myself, I wanted to use food to write about parenting, about nurturing, about hunger and satisfaction. As the mother in Eat Dessert First says, our children ‘eat what we feed them.  They have to, to survive.  They eat our fears.  They eat our dreams.  They eat our absence.  And eventually they’re made up of all those things.  That we fed them.’”

C.K. Allen and Bob Manus* in 'Palate Cleanser'. (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)

C.K. Allen and Bob Manus* in ‘Palate Cleanser’. (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Gary Giovannetti’s play, Palate Cleanser, is a comedy with biblical roots. Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and fishes comes under criticism from Yelp reviewers.

“Yes, the loaves and fishes have a deeper meaning,” said Giovanetti. “Imagine a world in which the divine Jesus walks and breathes as a human being, yet is subject to the hyper-critical sniping of current social media. So it’s not just about life-sustaining food. It’s about the poison being served up daily in our current connected environment, which is the opposite of life-sustaining.

“With the overwhelming prevalence of social media, everyone has an opinion and everyone is all too willing to share it. What can happen in a forum without gatekeepers, though, (such as social media) is that everyone’s opinion is greeted equally in the marketplace of ideas. Even if those ideas are discredited or demonstrably false.”

For her play Fish Food, Laura Hirschberg turned the issue of food inside out, so to speak. A man wakes up to find himself inside a whale with a strange woman, and he wants to get out.

“My mind landed on the notion of being food,” she said, “the one who is eaten rather than the one who eats. In the case of one of my characters, the apparent doom of being eaten may be the only thing that can save him. The act of eating is an act of transformation–turning food into energy–and transformation can be very tempting.  A clean slate, an escape, a chance to leave things behind.

“In the belly of the beast, that temptation is very real, very present, and the character has very little time to decide whether this particular brand of transformation is the right thing for him.  He has a bit more agency than the average entree, but it’s a difficult test he needs to pass nonetheless.”

Desirée Matthews* and Robert Bruce McIntosh* in ‘The Incredible Egg’. (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)

The final play of the sextet is The Incredible Egg by Laurie Graff. “I always like to write a play to submit for consideration, whatever the theme,” Graff said, “because being part of the WorkShop Theater Company’s one-act festivals is a wonderful honor and opportunity.” The concept for her piece came to her when work for a PR client exposed her to an unusual theory, “that using egg whites as a lubricant could help a woman to get pregnant.” She built a play around that idea.

Her two main characters do not agree about applying this fertility method. “The play spins off into conflicts, not just about marriage, equality, and male/female roles, but the food, the egg itself: is it GMO, a pasteurized egg, gluten-free, good for a vegetarian… a vegan? The egg and the hope of conception is the event of the play, but the craziness of modern life is what creates the conflicts and the fun.”

Food means something different to each of us. What we all have in common is that we can’t live without food. And in that way, at least, food is very much like theater.

À LA CARTE: A FEAST OF NEW PLAYS runs through May 2. Get tickets here.

 *Appears courtesy of Actor’s Equity Association

Home in Her Heart: Margaret Morrison’s play explores a hidden aspect of lesbian history

By Anne E. Johnson

When I first moved to New York a couple of decades ago, I studied and worked with a tap dancer/choreographer named Margaret Morrison. Over the years she’s added playwriting and acting to her cache of impressive skills.

Today I’m delighted to catch up with Morrison as she celebrates her current project, Home in Her Heart. She kindly agreed to share the fascinating story behind her play with music. Her passion for this work is evident in her words.

(Photo Keith Gemerek)

(Photo Keith Gemerek)

Home In Her Heart,

a play by Margaret Morrison

At Stage Left Studio, NYC, through April 19, 2015

Click here for tickets.

Busker Alley: Why write this particular story?

Margaret Morrison: Home In Her Heart is a love story between Claire Hicks, an African-American jazz pianist, and her lover, white drag-king Jimmie LeRoy, who plies the boards in their nightclub act as a tap dancing male-impersonator. The play begins in 1939 London, just as Americans have been ordered out to escape the impending outbreak of World War II. As Jimmie (played by me) and Claire (played by Ava Jenkins) pack to leave, the specter of U.S. Jim Crow segregation looms. The women confront their fears around remaining safely closeted while living close to family, and are forced to deal with issues of racism and homophobia in their love affair they have never addressed.

I started writing plays so I could say more on stage. I’ve been a rhythm tap dancer since the 1980s. As a white, female tap dancer, immersed in the jazz tradition, I have always felt very keenly how audiences read gender, race, sexuality, and all types of meaning on my body when I get up to perform. I was tired of my noisy silence and felt desperate to verbalize ideas that were present anyway in my performance.

Margaret Morrison and Ava Jenkins in Home in Her Heart at Stage Left Studio. (Video still: Karin Kearns)

Margaret Morrison and Ava Jenkins in Home in Her Heart at Stage Left Studio. (Video still: Karin Kearns)

I chose these two characters at this moment in history in order to explore the complex ways that race, sexuality, and gender intersect with tap and jazz. Jimmie and Claire must fight to understand whether their relationship is worth saving because Jimmie does not realize that she has white privilege and Claire must deal with the ways her politics of respectability fuel her own internalized homophobia. These are complex, personal issues that fascinate and dog me and I do not feel that we are talking enough about them as a culture. I am also eager to see women on stage who have been invisible: strong, sexy women in love, who must negotiate impossible circumstances.

BA: What is the role of dance and music in this piece?

MM: I am a dancer first. Dance informs everything in my life. On an aesthetic level, this play is a polyrhythmic, jazz duet. Like tap, many themes interlock simultaneously. At times, each player is the leader and a follower. The arc of the play and the dramatic tension stem from the two characters, who, like jazz soloists, grapple with honoring their individual strengths without stepping all over the other or pulling the relationship apart.

Jazz music and dance give Claire and Jimmie a deep connection to each other, are the sources of their individual strengths, and define their changing relationship to the world in this moment of crisis. Claire is a talented pianist who has had limited opportunities as a black woman. Music is an essential tool for her to insure dignity and respect in a racist society. Jimmie uses dance to express her masculinity as a tap dancing male impersonator. There are several nightclub scenes with tap dancing and an original piano score (recorded by Cynthia Hilts). Jimmie lives for the stage, which was her ticket out of poverty and family rejection, but as she packs to return to the U.S. she knows her performing career is over. By 1939 male impersonators were out of fashion and “no one’s hiring an old dancer.”

BA: Does your background in dance and choreography affect your approach to playwriting?

MM:  Absolutely. As a playwright, I choreograph the relationship between the characters.

Margaret Morrison dances in Home in Her Heart as Ava Jenkins looks on. (Video still: Karin Kearns)

Margaret Morrison dances in Home in Her Heart as Ava Jenkins looks on. (Video still: Karin Kearns)

The text drives a lot of non-verbal meaning on stage, which illustrates the intimate power play of the two women interacting in love or anger. We’ve received some lovely audience and reviewer feedback on director Cheryl King’s staging and the visual imagery of our bodies in space, our positioning and energies of high/low, near/far, active/still, soft/hard. As actors, both Ava Jenkins and I worked on the choreography of how the characters live in their bodies. I had to practice Jimmie’s every day, relaxed embodiment of butch masculinity.

Costume changes (many in front of the audience), nakedness, or the ways we don’t reveal our bodies are also choreographed. In the nightclub scenes, each woman performs gender, straightness, and race in very calculated ways to insure safety and respect. The script illustrates the potent moments women touch and do not touch in public. These scenes are a queer dance of safety and desire that any non-straight person knows intimately.

BA:  In your research, did you get a sense that Claire and Jimmie’s type of situation was unique, or is there evidence that it was more common than one might expect?

MM:  Before I wrote this play, I had no information about interracial lesbian relationships in the 1930s. I still have only one: Gladys Bentley, famous cross-dressing African-American nightclub performer, called now “the bulldagger who sang the blues,” was reported in the 1930s to have “married” her wife, a white chorus dancer, in Atlantic City. I started with the assumption that women like Jimmie and Claire MUST have existed—women who were not famous and not protected by wealth—and I formulated a premise for how they may have met and lived, and the pressures on them. The gay and lesbian closet is so air-tight, so carefully constructed because life and death depend on it, that the utter lack of evidence is, to me in fact, evidence that these relationships were feasible.

The wave of research since the 1970s that has illuminated and recovered lesbian herstory and gay history has given us some personal anecdotes of interracial lesbian or gay couples who lived in the 1950s and later. But it is VERY hard to find any information about lesbian relationships before then, for VERY good reasons. Ordinary queer women and men would have functioned under the radar, kept their love lives secret, or suffered horrific consequences. A lesbian could be locked in jail, or declared insane by her husband or family, or lose her children, not to mention endure violence, the public humiliations of not being able to get work, being ostracized, or called a pervert.

There are hints of gay life from the rich or famous, such as early 20th century, wealthy white lesbians in Greenwich Village, or the African-American gay and lesbian and bi-sexual culture, writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. I found information on straight, interracial relationships of the 1930s after I had written the first draft. Choreographer Katherine Dunham was married to a white man. Carla Kaplan’s book Miss Anne in Harlem deals with the history of white women who were involved with African-American culture and influential in the Harlem Renaissance, some of whom were married black men.

I plan to do more research, but one of the lovely things about theater is that my job as a playwright is to suspend disbelief, and as an actor I bring truthful behaviors to imaginary circumstances. I believe women like Jimmie and Claire existed, and my audiences tell me they’re able to believe it as well.

BA:  What do you hope audiences will gain by seeing Home in Her Heart?

MM:  Oh, so many things! I want audiences to see lesbians on stage who are hot, funny and courageous. I hope people will laugh at the funny parts, cry at the sad, enjoy tap dance and jazz, and know that love is stronger than hatred. I do hope people will leave with a sense that racism and homophobia are problems for all of us. We all walk with privileges that create separate, but unequal, realities. I wrote the play so that audiences could see the closet from the inside, but know how resourceful and inventive queers can be. Yes the closet is horrible, but there is hope inside and love thrived.

*   *   *

Many thanks to Margaret Morrison for sharing her time and words so generously. Remember, Home in Her Heart runs through April 19, and you can buy tickets here.