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WATCH: Meet Lesser America

Welcome to Meet the Theatre, our film series about interesting theatre companies in New York City! Today we’re featuring Lesser America, which celebrates the USA’s cultural underbelly.

This video features Lesser America’s co-founders — Laura Ramadei, Nate Miller, and Daniel Abeles.

Watch the other Meet the Theatre films.

This film was written and directed by Mark Blankenship, TDF’s online content editor. It was shot and edited by Nicholas Guldner.


February 23, 2015   No Comments

Which Musical Theatre Legends Need a New Show?

Sutton Foster & Annie Golden in Violet

Sutton Foster & Annie Golden in Violet

Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get super enthusiastic about things.

This week, Mark Blankenship geeks out (via Google Doc), with Jennifer Ashley Tepper, who is both a musical theatre historian and a producer. Jennifer’s new book, The Untold Stories of Broadway: Volume 2, is an  oral history of eight Broadway theatres, as told by the legends who worked there. A portion of every sale benefits TDF, so… you know… go buy a copy!

Today’s Topic: Which musical theatre legends need to appear in a new show right now?

Mark Blankenship: Hi Jen! I’m so glad we have a minute to discuss the vital topic of musical theatre stars who need another show immediately. And for those who don’t know, you are actually quite well-versed in theatrical history. I’ve heard a rumor that you’ve even written entire books about it. Is this rumor true?

Jennifer Ashley Tepper: Thank you so much for having me! There is nothing I love more than a good theatre geek-out session. Indeed, I can confirm the rumor—I have written books about musical theatre history, making me what one might call a super-nerd. And proud of it! Excited to discuss this topic.

Mark: I acknowledge and honor your super-nerdism. Along those lines, I should add that when I was in 8th grade, my parents had to sit me down and request that I stop listening to the original cast recording of Into the Woods so much. Apparently, there was a limit to the amount of times they could hear the Witch’s rap. Which brings me to Bernadette Peters. Can my homegirl get another splashy musical right now? AM I RIGHT?

Jen: I love that!! We are kindred spirits because last night, we had Emily Skinner singing “My Brother Lived In San Francisco” at 54 Below, and my mother was looking at me like: “Didn’t I listen to this coming out of your boom box in high school, about 100 times a week?”

Bernadette Peters for SURE needs a new musical! She is a legend among us. I would love to see her leading an all-star revival of Ruthless!

Mark: Wait… is that the show about the little girl who’s maybe evil? That Laura Bell Bundy was in, and Britney Spears and Natalie Portman were her understudies?

Jen: It is!! The music is by Marvin Laird, a long-time collaborator of Bernadette’s, and I know she’s done a benefit or two of the show. It’s a fantastically original and hilarious send-up of the classic show biz story, with nods to Gypsy, All About Eve, The Bad Seed, and so forth, with a great score. Bernadette would be incredible as the leading lady, a housewife-turned star named Judy Denmark who goes a bit berserk over the course of the show.

Mark: Oh man… I love that so much. Please pardon me while I a cash a few war bonds and try to buy the rights. What I especially like about that suggestion is that it would allow BP to surprise us a little. She’d still be in her Fabulous Diva wheelhouse, of course, but that self-aware edge would also give her the opportunity to show off some colors we don’t get to see from her that often. That’s what appeals to me about this whole question, actually… how can we bring folks back on stage in roles that will excite us? Do you know what I mean? Instead of just having them do the thing we’ve loved for so long.

Jen: Definitely!! It’s thrilling to think of brand new collaborations that could bring something truly original to the table. Can you imagine the new show that Lin-Manuel Miranda would write for Mandy Patinkin? I mean… I’m already sold.

Mark: YES! He’s another one who needs to get back to the stage pronto, and I would love to see him take on something as sonically current as a Lin-Manuel Miranda show. My only caveat would be that he has to keep his Saul Berenson beard from Homeland.

Jen: Oh, I am sure Lin would be open to writing Mandy a role that incorporates the beard.

Mark: He could build the show AROUND the beard. The beard could hide secrets.

Jen: This is already a Tony Award winning idea!

Mark: Damn straight! Especially when we hire Meryl Streep to play the on-stage embodiment of the beard in Act 2. She can finally win a Tony!

Is there anyone else on your dream list of missing favorites? [Read more →]

February 17, 2015   1 Comment

She’s Destroying My Career, But We’re Still Friends

Tonya Pinkins & Dianne Wiest

Tonya Pinkins & Dianne Wiest

In Rasheeda Speaking,Tonya Pinkins navigates race, class, and the power of kindness

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

You might assume that Tonya Pinkins focuses on the conflict in Rasheeda Speaking. After all, Joel Drake Johnson’s play, now in a New Group production at the Signature Center complex, basically turns a Chicago doctor’s office into a war zone.

From the first scene, it seems the decks are stacked against Pinkins’ character Jaclyn, who works in a reception area with her white co-worker Ileen (Dianne Wiest). The doctor wants Jaclyn replaced, and he enlists Ileen to gather proof that she deserves to be fired. But as soon as Jaclyn catches wind of the plot, she goes on the defensive, working angle after angle to protect her job. This battle chips at everyone’s professionalism until their true feelings about race, class, and power burst into view. By the end, everyone’s wounded, everyone’s guilty, and it’s hard to say who’s right or wrong.

But for all that, the Pinkins and Wiest focus their performances on how much Jaclyn and Ileen like each other. “The two of us were in agreement about the fact that what needed to be on that stage is a friendship between two people,” says Pinkins. “We knew that if we could play the friendship until [the script] absolutely says the friendship is over, then that would hold up the play and make it have a devastating effect on people. No matter what we’re saying, we’re trying to stay connected and bridge whatever’s going on.”

That’s why, for instance, the co-stars find so many opportunities to touch each other, to pat shoulders or even embrace. Those moments remind us that beyond the situation their boss has put them in, beyond their personal agendas and fears and flaws, they are fundamentally decent. “If that friendship is not there, then it’s just a play about a bunch of really nasty, cruel, lying, deceptive people,” Pinkins says.

At the same time, the blunt facts of racism also compel Pinkins to shade her performance with compassion and vulnerability. “I’m a large black woman,” she says. “Dianne is a small white woman. Just that physical relationship on the stage—the first appearance of that is going to make it look like I’m the bad guy. That’s going to be a visceral response.” [Read more →]

February 6, 2015   7 Comments

Can a Song Heal America’s Wounds?

Lillias White & Scott Wakefield in Texas in Paris

Lillias White & Scott Wakefield in Texas in Paris

Race and music collide in Texas in Paris

When Osceola Mays sings “Oh Freedom,” we can feel what it means to her.

One of two characters in Texas in Paris, a play with music at the York Theatre Company, she’s a black woman in her 80s, the daughter of a Texas sharecropper, who suddenly finds herself singing for the French in 1989.

This actually happened. After folklorist and writer Alan Govenar heard Osceola sing, he helped her get to France. He did the same for cowboy John Burruss, who favored prairie songs like “Git Along Little Dogies.” The two performers didn’t know each other before they shared a Parisian stage, and they had never dreamed of the spotlight. But for several nights, they treated Europeans to a taste of authentic American culture.

In the play, which Govenar wrote, the unlikely duo navigates the audience, the city, and each other, with varying degrees of success. And while John, the taciturn cowboy, despises the Parisian life, Osceola’s flush with it.

“She was someone who saw the kindness and the light in people,” says the actress Lillias White, who plays Osceola as a buoyant spirit. Even when John confesses how uncomfortable he feels talking to a black woman—it’s against the way he was raised—she pushes right ahead with becoming his friend. “She was a very positive person and did not take hate for an answer,” White says.
But she had certainly known hate. Considering who she was and when she lived, that was a given. And when she performs “Oh Freedom,” the show underscores how that affected her. “Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave,” she sings. “And go home to my Lord and be free.”

During this number, the room gets heavier. White sings her lowest, most mournful notes, and her body bends like it’s carrying weight. “I believe there’s a good part of Osceola standing there and feeling that sadness,” says the actress. “She probably saw and heard a lot of terrible things that happened to black people in that period—lynchings and burnings and killings. She doesn’t wear those memories on her sleeve, but for that moment she gives into them.” [Read more →]

February 4, 2015   No Comments

Of Course His Arm Fell Off. He’s Sad.

The cast of Anton Dudley's City Of

The cast of Anton Dudley’s City Of

Feelings become facts in Anton Dudley’s new play

Of course Dash’s arm falls off. When you lose someone, it can feel like losing a limb, and in City Of, now at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater in a Playwrights Realm production, feelings like grief (and love and hope) become physical facts.

Dash, a man traveling to Paris in the wake of his mother’s death, isn’t the only one whose internal life becomes reality. Every character in Anton Dudley’s play, from other Americans seeking answers in France to a talking gargoyle on the top of Notre Dame, exists in world where a singing voice can be tucked inside a handbag and an art love can step inside a painting.
That’s arguably what the theatre’s for: showing us things that may not be literally possible but are still emotionally true. “There are times in life where emotions become your logic,” Dudley says. “Those images, if they’re moving the plot forward, feel very real to me.”

Advancing the story is key. That’s how Dudley knows a fantastical element is crucial to his show.

“When you get into the world of the play—and this sounds a little magical, maybe—it starts writing itself,” he says. “As long as you’re committed to the reality of the characters’ experiences, the play develops its own language. That’s why I like to give my stage directions a personality, because I feel like that lets the director and the designers hear the tone of what the play wants to be. The theatricality of the play, through the stage directions, becomes its own character.”

At the same time, the director and designers also teach Dudley about his own work, especially once the show is in rehearsal. “As soon as you put something on stage, you realize the three-dimensional life of the play is communicating in a way that lets you pull away language,” he says. “The mere fact that a character walks over to another character—there’s a whole speech in that [action] that the audience can hear.” [Read more →]

February 2, 2015   No Comments