Tommy Tune’s Tenth Tony Trivia Tribute

by Anne E. Johnson

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.

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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.

Aristotle, mimesis, cartharsis, and bawlin’ my freakin’ eyes out

by Anne E. Johnson

Recently I went to a play that left me with a rare reaction: By curtain calls, I was weeping uncontrollably. Not just sniffling and daubing the eyes. Sobbing. There was an open wound where my heart used to be.

Aristotle knew the secrets of great theater.

Aristotle knew the secrets of great theater.

This wasn’t just “being moved” by the play. This was getting sucked into a high-walled psychological maze unique to my brain.

As is true for all important elements of art, there’s a Greek philosopher for that. Typically it’s Aristotle. He identified the essential ingredient needed to make an audience connect to a play: recognition. If the theatergoer saw something on stage that he had already seen or experienced in life (albeit, in a smaller, less dramatic way) he would respond emotionally.

This representation of known things is called mimesis. Here’s what Aristotle wrote about mimesis in his Poetics, from around 340 BC:

Thus men find pleasure in viewing representations because it turns out that they learn and infer what each thing is — for example, that this particular object is that kind of object; since if one has not happened to see the object previously, he will not find any pleasure in the imitation for its own sake…

Not every person in an audience will recognize the representations in any given play. The other day, by chance, I recognized a lot.

What happens to us when we do find something we know being acted out is what Aristotle called catharsis. Theater teachers and students toss this word around as if they know what it means, but in truth Aristotle gave us no definition. This is also from the Poetics:

Tragedy is an imitation of a noble and complete action, having the proper magnitude; it employs language that has been artistically enhanced….; it is presented in dramatic, not narrative form, and achieves, through the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents, the catharsis of such pitiable and fearful incidents.

Not too helpful, as you see. It was actually from commentary on the Poetics by the sixteenth-century translator Longinus that we get our current understanding of catharsis as some sort of “purging” of emotion.

Aristotle? Longinus? Who cares? I turned inside out and regurgitated my soul at the end of that play. All I know is, mimesis and catharsis are mighty harsh when they catch you at full force.

Terrence McNally’s A PERFECT GANESH coming to @LunaStageCo

Here on Busker Alley, we don’t usually just quote press releases. But in this case, time is of the essence, lest you miss a rare opportunity to see one of Terrence McNally’s classic works:ganesh

Luna Stage begins 2015 with a revival of A Perfect Ganesh, Terrence McNally’s beautiful story of love and redemption. A Perfect Ganesh opens to previews on Thursday January 29, 2015 and runs Thursdays through Sundays through February 22nd. Opening night is Saturday January 31, 2015.  Select performances are followed by Talkbacks with the creative team. Tickets range from $25-$35.  Group sales available. $10 Student Rush tickets available one half-hour before curtain. Individual tickets can be purchased at lunastage.org, or at the box office Tues.-Fri. 10am-3pm (973-395-5551).

A Perfect Ganesh finds two outwardly unremarkable middle-aged women on a quest for meaning  via a rousing tour of India. Each woman having her own secret dreams of what the fabled land of intoxicating opposites will do for the suffering she hides within. Faced with the women’s despair, who but the golden elephant god could intervene? Fluid in his power to assume any guise, at peace with all things, Ganesha is the spiritual center around which the play spins itself, drawing upon the tragic and the comic, the beautiful and the deplorable, until a breathtaking release arrives for both women at his hands.

Luna Stage’s revival of A Perfect Ganesh is directed by James Glossman, and features a cast of four: Segun Akande, Mona Hennessy, James Rana, Linda Setzer. 
Luna Stage, a proud member of Valley Arts, is located at 555 Valley Road, West Orange, NJ 07052. The theatre is handicapped accessible and offers assistive listening devices.

Daniel M. Wolpe explores Jewish film archetypes in his play “Forever Intertwined”

Daniel M. Wolpe has written a one-man show that’s very close to his heart. He’ll be performing it in February. Busker Alley asked him to talk about this special work.

Busker Alley: In brief, what is this play?

Daniel M. Wolpe: “Forever Intertwined” examines the six archetypes of Jewish male characters that are found in the movies, and explores who these people actually are.

Why did you write this?

I wrote it for two reasons.  First, I wanted a new one-man show to perform. (I had been performing my other one-man show, “Dear Jeremy” for close to 30 years.) Second, I have always been fascinated by how Jews are portrayed on stage and screen.

What sort of research did you do?

Each character has a profession in the play and I had to research the history of aluminum siding, arachnology (the study of spiders), selling cars, and advertising.

What has it been like performing material you are emotionally attached to?

It has been a lot of fun.  I haven’t felt this creatively fulfilled in a very long time.

What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing “Forever Intertwined”?

I hope that they will see that in cinema, the Jewish characters are usually boiled down to shallow stereotypes, but that there is greater depth to the archetypes used.

Sounds like a very interesting piece. For those who are curious to see it, here are the details:

Forever_Intertwined_2015-2

Carmen Rivera’s LA CAIDA DE RAFAEL TRUJILLO at TEATRO CIRCULO

To celebrate its 20th anniversary this month, New York’s Teatro Circulo is presenting the World Premiere of LA CAIDA DE RAFAEL TRUJILLO by playwright Carmen Rivera. The play is a study of the fall from power of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, despotic leader of the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961.

Playwright Carmen Rivera

Playwright Carmen Rivera

Playwright Carmen Rivera is best known in New York theater circles for her Obie-winning play La Gringa, which opened in the 1995-6 season and is still running at Repertorio Español.

LA CAIDA DE RAFAEL TRUJILLO is an intensely political play that not only deals with a specific historical event, but also suggests broader parallels with other, current socio-political situations throughout the world.

Recently Rivera discussed her influence for the Trujillo play in an interview with Diana Diaz. You can read the entire interview here. “I’ve always been drawn to violence, control and issues of subjugation,” Rivera told Diaz. “I found that in times of overwhelming oppression, a metaphoric language evolves as a survival mechanism to communicate truth. When the opportunity to write about Trujillo came my way, I jumped at it. It was an opportunity to apply my passion and all of my studies into one artistic experience…

“Because I worked on the play over the course of several years, I was able to see the connections between current events and the events I included in my play. This is especially true concerning Imperialist interference/conflicts in the geo-political landscape. I’m thinking of places like Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Venezuela, and the Sudan. Then, of course, there is Occupy Wall Street. When there are forces that impose oppression, there will always be forces that reject the subjugation and fight for liberation.”

Performances begin October 17, 2014. For tickets and information about LA CAIDA DE RAFAEL TRUJILLO, click here.

The Incredible Instance of Marlon Brando Being the Wrong Guy for the Role

A vortex of charisma. A supernova of hyper-realistic emotion. Marlon Brando was a Great Actor and a Gorgeous Creature. Of that there is no doubt.

Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire

Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire

But sometimes, it seems, there is such a thing as too much charisma. I discovered that when I went to see a theater-on-film showing of A Streetcar Named Desire from the Young Vic in London.

I was a stage-Streetcar virgin, having only seen the work in the famed Elia Kazan movie with Vivien Leigh and Brando. Directed by Benedict Andrews, the Young Vic production was a revelation to me because of its casting.

In the complex and sympathetic portrayal by Gillian Anderson, Blanche becomes the center of the story, as she should be. On the other side of the conflict, Stanley (Brando’s character in the movie) is an ordinary, small-minded guy as played by Ben Foster. It’s not his story. He just happens to be stuck in Blanche’s orbit for a while, and in for a very bumpy ride.

With these casting choices, the balance of the work shifted, making it into something the film could not attain because of Brando’s magnetism. And surely this particular brand of domestic mess was closer to the mess Tennessee Williams intended.

Whee! It’s almost time for Broadway Flea! #bwayflea @bcefa

The Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Broadway Flea Market and Grand Auction takes place tomorrow, Sunday, September 21.

Get thee to 44th Street between 7th and 8th Aves! It’s time to rummage through tons of Broadway memorabilia at crazy prices, get autographs and photos of theater stars, bid on specially donated treasures in the silent auction and the live auction. And generally have tons of fun for a wonderful cause.

See you there!