26 February 2015

Getting from 'Summer and Smoke' to 'Eccentricities'

I suppose most people, especially anyone reading an ostensibly theater blog, knows that Tennessee Williams’s mid-century plays Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale are related texts.  If you read my blog post “The Lost Première of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” (20 March 2010), you certainly know this.  That article recounts some of the process by which Williams developed Summer and Smoke and then transformed it into Eccentricities.  There’s a good deal more to that progression, however, and it’s much more complex and intricate than a superficial account suggests.  From my research on the two plays, which resulted in the chapter on them in Phillip C. Kolin’s Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance (Greenwood Press, 1998) and “The Lost Première” (Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Spring 1999), I’ve pieced together the story of that nearly unique circumstance.

Tennessee Williams was a habitual rewriter and recycler.  Many of his plays were developed through several versions and forms.  Quite a number started out as short stories (the 1961 play Night of the Iguana was adapted from a 1948 story of the same title), others as one-acts (1952’s The Enemy: Time became Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959, and the 1953 full-length Camino Real started as the one-act Ten Blocks on the Camino Real in 1949), and one famously began life as a screenplay (The Gentleman Caller for MGM in 1943 was the basis for The Glass Menagerie in 1944).  Almost all of Williams’s plays exist in two or more variations, usually considered an "acting" version for production and a literary version for reading (Summer and Smoke is one of these; the Broadway première in 1948 generated the shorter text, but José Quintero’s long-running Off-Broadway revival in 1952 was produced from the longer, “reading” edition); however, a few even rendered two separate scripts with different titles after the playwright revised and rewrote them, often after initial productions.  Seventeen years after Battle of Angles, Williams’s first professionally produced play, closed on opening night in Boston in 1940, his revised “new play based on an old one,” Orpheus Descending, opened on Broadway.  (I’m not even counting here the plays Williams used as the bases for films such as 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, 1946, which the dramatist redeveloped for the movie Baby Doll in 1956, or The Fugitive Kind, Williams’s 1959 film adaptation of Orpheus Descending—using a title he borrowed from a 1937 play of his with a completely different plot.) 

Williams authority Nancy Tischler wrote that the playwright “does not abandon an unsuccessful or incomplete work”: “I revise continually, because I’m never quite satisfied,” the dramatist himself attested.  “Finishing a play, you know, is like completing a marriage or a love affair,” he once said.  “You feel very forsaken by that, that’s why I love revising and revising, because it delays the moment when there is this separation between you and the work.”  In his introduction to Williams’s Collected Stories (1985), many of whose pieces had been reworked a dozen times or more over many years, Gore Vidal asserted: “I once caught him in the act of revising a short story that had just been published.  ‘Why,’ I asked, ‘rewrite what’s already in print?’  He looked at me, vaguely, then said, ‘Well, obviously it’s not finished.’”  He was such an inveterate reworker that one of his friends dubbed him “Tenacity” Williams. 

But no other of Williams’s plays resulted in two independent scripts that generated such impassioned comparisons and which are still today seen as competing texts for the attention and admiration of theater professionals and audiences than Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.  In fact, the one-act predecessors of the full-length plays we know are almost never staged (Ten Blocks is performed in schools as if it were a cut-down version of Camino Real) and Battle of Angels, the early version of the better-known Orpheus Descending, is not in many theaters’ repertoires since it failed the first time around.  Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities, however, are both fairly frequently produced and there’s a rigorous debate every time one is staged about which play is better and which one people like more.  (In Williams’s estimation, Eccentricities “is less conventional and melodramatic,” but which is “better” is pretty much a toss-up, depending entirely on taste and personal interest.  Even Williams vacillated.)  Among Tennessee Williams’s works, that only occurs with regard to these two plays, and the wonderful things is—both scripts are readily available for production or reading.  (When I did a production of The Wood Demon, Anton Chekhov’s early version of Uncle Vanya, in 1976, we had to use a photocopy of the translation prepared for the Actors’ Company’s U.K. revival because the published text was long out of print.  Even the Russian-language version, which I consulted, was hard to locate.)  A few other playwrights have multiple versions of related plays in print, such as William Inge, who rewrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Picnic (1957) into the more obscure Summer Brave (1962; produced 1975), which was actually an early version of the better-known script that Inge resuscitated (if you can follow that), but even here the second in the pair is seldom done and little known. 

All this makes the pairing of Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities of a Nightingale all the more fascinating to examine.  Not just why did Williams go from Summer and Smoke to Eccentricities—a simple (and incomplete) answer to that would be that Summer failed in its first Broadway outing—but how did he get from Summer and Smoke to Eccentricities?  The explanation, in my analysis, has as much, if not more, to do with the great writer’s personality as it does with circumstances and professional considerations.

In order to lay out the transformation as I perceive it, I have to recover some of the ground I reported superficially in “The Lost Première.”  Bear with me if you’ve already read this; it all links up in the end.

Williams developed Summer and Smoke from a short story, “The Yellow Bird,” published in 1947, which introduces Alma Tutwiler (the name Winemiller first appears in the short story “One Arm,” published in 1948) as an incipient spinster and daughter of a small-town Southern minister.  Aside from literary recycling, most of Williams’s writing also contains elements of his life and the lives of his family and neighbors, but next to the specifically autobiographical Glass Menagerie, none of the dramatist’s major plays are as tied to his private history as are the two Alma Winemiller plays.  The character of Alma, for instance, contains elements of both Williams’s mother, Edwina, who in her youth had been called a nightingale, and his cherished sister, Rose; the egocentric hedonist of Summer and Smoke, John, is a portrait of Williams’s father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, the traveling salesman who preferred carousing to domesticity, and at the same time, the elder Dr. Buchanan, a remote and cold father, depicts another aspect of C. C. Williams.  The Reverend Winemiller is inspired by (but not a portrait of) Williams’s beloved grandfather, Rev. Walter Dakin.  (Port Gibson, Mississippi, where Reverend Dakin served as Episcopal minister from 1902-05, had a famous landmark: the steeple of the Presbyterian church was topped by “an enormous gilded hand with its index finger pointing straight up, accusingly, at—heaven,” as Alma describes her father’s Glorious Hill Episcopal church in Eccentricities.)  The foundation of Summer and Smoke, in fact, are the tales of Edwina Williams about her youth in Port Gibson and Natchez, Mississippi.

In 1916, the year in which the play is set, the Williamses were living with Edwina’s parents, Walter and Rose Otte Dakin, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the town which became Glorious Hill.  Like Reverend Winemiller in Summer and Smoke, Reverend Dakin was the Episcopal minister of the town and like “The Nightingale of the Delta,” Williams grew up at the rectory.  Reverend Dakin’s father had been a small-town doctor like the Drs. Buchanan and Rose Dakin had taught piano and voice like Alma.  There were Tutwilers in Clarksdale, and other names from Williams’s life appear in the play: Williams’s own first love was Hazel Kramer and the salesman in Summer and Smoke is Archie Kramer (who, like the playwright’s father, is a commercial drummer for a shoe company); Rosa Gonzales shares her first name with Williams’s sister and grandmother; and Williams, himself, had a hot-tempered lover, Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzalez (the inspiration for Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire), in the 1940’s. 

Williams began composing Summer and Smoke, originally entitled A Chart of Anatomy, in St. Louis as early as February or March 1944.  As was his habit, he continued to work on the script—in 1945 in Mexico, where he went to recuperate from a cataract operation, and in Texas, where he met with Margo Jones in Dallas; in New Orleans; in Taos, New Mexico; on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, in 1946, where he shared a cottage with Carson McCullers while she dramatized her novel The Member of the Wedding; and on until well after its successful Dallas première in 1947.  (A typescript of Summer and Smoke in the theater archive of New York Public Library is labeled “Rome Version (March 1948)” and hand-annotated “Produced by Margo Jones at the Music Box Theatre, 6 October, 1948.”)

Summer and Smoke’s world première was presented by Jones and her Theatre ’47 at the Gulf Oil Theatre in Dallas on 8 July 1947. The original cast included Katherine Balfour as Alma and Tod Andrews as John, with the appearance of Jack Warden as the waiter at the Moon Lake Casino.  It was a significant success, garnering even a laudatory review in the New York Times and extending its scheduled run, but because Streetcar had already opened on Broadway that December, the transfer of Summer and Smoke to New York’s Music Box Theatre was delayed until 6 October 1948, when nearly every critic unfavorably compared it not only to Streetcar but also to The Glass Menagerie.  Though they praised Jo Mielziner’s set and the performance of Margaret Phillips, who replaced Balfour as Alma, the production closed on 1 January 1949 after 100 performances.  (The production marked an early appearance of Anne Jackson, who played Nellie Ewell.)

Most critics condemned Williams for re-covering in Summer and Smoke the ground he previously covered more movingly and magically in Menagerie and more dynamically and powerfully in Streetcar.  Alma was seen as a wan successor to Laura and a pale precursor to Blanche, and some reviews felt that Williams had overlooked the characters in favor of a theme which becomes unclear because the characters don’t actually represent the ideas Williams intended to place in opposition.  The overall point was often deemed too obvious, with schematic characters representing superficial traits making a simplistic statement.  Several critics remarked that Summer and Smoke’s short scenes don’t cohere into a whole drama.  The play’s too symmetrical and too pat, they said, and the reversals too neat; Williams, some charged, had composed an elementary psychology lecture, not a play, because the text is larded with such obvious symbols. 

Having sailed for Gibraltar in December 1948 with his long-time lover, Frank Merlo (the basis for Alvaro Mangiacavallo in The Rose Tattoo), and his friend, writer-composer Paul Bowles (who composed the music for Summer and Smoke), Williams was in Fez, Morocco, when he received the telegram announcing the closing.  He was depressed, according to his brother Dakin, but the character of Alma Winemiller was indelibly imprinted on his soul.  Indeed, Alma means ‘soul’ in Spanish, as Williams points out in the script, and the character was, indeed, the writer’s soulmate.  She “seemed to exist somewhere in my being,” he wrote, and later, during rehearsals for the Broadway premiere of Eccentricities, Williams candidly acknowledged, “Look, I’m Alma.”  As Williams explained, “You’re totally absorbed in the play or the novel or the piece of writing” so that it becomes “the center of your life.”  Williams confessed once that “I cannot write any sort of story unless there is at least one character in it for whom I have physical desire.”  That suggests that once having conceived of this desire, it was hard, even perhaps impossible to let it go.  I don’t know which character in Summer and Smoke would have attracted the playwright physically—perhaps John Buchanan, Jr.—but Williams frequently acknowledged that his emotional connection to this story was the Nightingale of the Delta, and that relationship was likely just as compelling for the writer as physical attraction.  Numerous critics have asserted that Alma was Williams’s favorite character of all those he created, including Blanche, Laura, and Maggie the Cat.  Even Williams himself admitted, “Alma is my favorite—because I came out so late and so did Alma, and she had the greatest struggle.”  He could not let her go.

Ronald Hastings, theatre correspondent of London’s Daily Telegraph in the 1960s and ’70s, reported that Williams “did not, eventually, like his play, but he liked the characters and decided to write another play for them.”  So, while on one of his frequent retreats to Rome in the summer of 1951, the dramatist continued to rework Summer and Smoke.  Correspondence from Williams to producer Cheryl Crawford and his agent Audrey Wood between January and September 1951 affirm that he’d completed a new version of the script. 

Around New Years 1951, Williams wrote Crawford, who was producing The Rose Tattoo on Broadway at the time, “I am still working on the new ‘Summer’.  It has turned into a totally new play, even the conception of the characters is different,” and in June, he wrote: “I am doing a completely new version, even changing the title as it now takes place in winter, and I think I have a straight, clean dramatic line for the first time, without the cloudy metaphysics and the melodrama that spoiled the original production.”  By August, Williams was writing to Wood that he’d completed a draft of the new script, which he was still calling Summer and Smoke, and by September, he must have finished the revision because he wrote Crawford that he didn’t know which version the London company would present, “the new or old one.” 

Producer H. M. Tennant’s London première of Summer on 22 November was already in preparation by this time, but Williams rushed off with his new version of the play.  His friend Maria Britneva, who was playing Rosemary at the Lyric Theatre, met the writer at the airport but he arrived too late to substitute the new script for the one Britneva explained was “already deep into rehearsals” under the direction of Peter Glenville (who, ten years later, would direct the film version).  “Crestfallen,” as Williams described himself at the bad timing, the playwright recounts that his friend told him, “Give me the new play and I’ll put it safely away . . . .”  That script, which Williams says he didn’t see again for “10 or 15 years,” the dramatist insists was The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.  

I found no archival evidence that Williams focused on Eccentricities, under either its old or new title, between 1951 and 1961, so apparently Britneva, a model for Maggie the Cat of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, did keep the script hidden away during the intervening decade.  There doesn’t seem to be any existing typescript of the revised Summer and Smoke dated 1951 or 1952 in any archive I could search; the latest Summer and Smoke script of which I know is the 1948 “Rome Version” and the earliest Eccentricities edition is a 1961 text in the NYPL and New Directions archives.  So Williams appears to have returned to his new Alma play in about 1961.  A typescript of Eccentricities in the NYPL is dated 20 June 1961, and letters in 1963 and 1964 to Robert MacGregor and Jay Laughlin at New Directions, Williams’s publisher, state that he was working again on the play he now called The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.  Except for a subtitle—The Sun That Warms the Dark (A very odd little play)—the typescript is nearly identical to the published 1964 text.  A duplicate typescript is in the New Directions archive, but it was marked for typesetting.  One change from the NYPL copy is that the subtitle had been crossed out, indicating that it never again appeared on any version of the play—which, with one exception, it didn’t.

In any event, Williams reworked the new play between at least 1961 and its première in 1964.  (Even though by this time, the play was officially entitled Eccentricities of a Nightingale, many people still referred to it as Summer and Smoke.)  New Directions announced in June 1964 the publication of a single volume to comprise the texts of both Alma plays and the New York Times’ report of the forthcoming publication noted that the new play would receive its première later in the month.  The Eccentricities of a Nightingale premiered at the Tappan Zee Playhouse in Nyack, New York, on 25 June 1964 under the direction of George Keathley.  Edie Adams, star of TV variety shows and Broadway musicals, was cast as Alma and Alan Mixon played John.  Because of an early-morning backstage fire at the theater, however, the play’s scheduled Broadway try-out of 10 days was truncated after the Friday night performance on 26 June.  Eccentricities of a Nightingale got a world première of two performances.

There wasn’t a lot of critical coverage for the début.  The only New York City paper which reviewed the Tappan Zee Playhouse opening of a new play by one of America’s most renowned and respected playwrights was the New York World-Telegram and Sun.  Review-writer Norman Nadel complained that “‘Summer and Smoke’ never looked better than it does in comparison with this revision” and that Williams “has made Alma and the play more, rather than less melodramatic.”  Nyack’s own Rockland County Journal-News touted the “excitement” of seeing “variations on a familiar theme” in Williams’s new version of Summer and Smoke with the “added fillip” of “a new play, still in try-out.”  Reviewer Mariruth Campbell, citing part of the subtitle in the production’s program, confirmed that Eccentricities was, indeed, “a very odd little play”—the Nyack production was, in fact, the only one that ever carried the subtitle as it appears on the title page of the NYPL collection’s typescript.  Campbell objected that the play was “over-long” and noted that the cast “[a]ll worked valiantly to breathe life” into the play. 

Nevertheless, the new Alma play was launched, and publication followed in February 1965.  Over the rest of the decade, there were revivals and regional premières of Williams’s new play, and the British début was staged on 10 October 1967 at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, Surrey, directed by Philip Wiseman with Sian Phillips as Alma and Kevin Colson as John.  Then on 16 June 1976, the play’s profile was considerably raised when it was aired on PBS for Great PerformancesTheatre in America, in collaboration with San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, starring Blythe Danner as Alma and Frank Langella as John, directed by Glenn Jordan.  Following that broadcast, which Williams himself pronounced his “most successful” television adaptation, a staging at Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theatre starring Betsy Palmer as Alma and David Selby as John was transferred to Broadway’s Morosco Theatre for a long-awaited New York City première on 23 November 1976.  Directed by Edwin Sherin, who’d staged a Long Island revival eight years earlier, the play was not well received in New York despite a successful run in Buffalo, with evaluations ranging from “a pleasing, small play” to “a pale outline of a play” whose “production was in every way substandard.”  Clive Barnes, on the other hand, wrote in the New York Times that while he’d expected Eccentricities just to be “a rewrite of Summer and Smoke,” he was surprised to find “a different play with different characters and even a different theme.”  Williams “new work effectively knocks Summer and Smoke off the map,” Barnes declared, “except as a literary curiosity.”  The Times reviewer concluded, “This is a warm, rich play full of that compassion and understanding and that simple poetry of the heart that is Mr. Williams at his shining, gentle best.  It may be an eccentric nightingale but its tune is still sweet.”  Brother Dakin recalls that Williams felt good about Barnes’s response: “It was the best Broadway reaction he had received in a long time.”  Nevertheless, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale on Broadway closed on 12 December after eight previews and only 12 regular performances. 

Among the differences between Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, possibly the most discussed are the changes Alma and John undergo.  Alma, it has been observed, evolves from hyper-conventional and old-fashioned but essentially normal to truly eccentric.  John, on the other hand, mellows from a rebellious, hedonistic egocentric to a decent, if somewhat dull, young man.  The other significant alteration is the replacement of John’s father in Summer and Smoke with his mother in Eccentricities

We have seen that both John and his father are, in part, depictions of Williams’s own father, the man who called him “Miss Nancy” and lost part of an ear in a fight over a card game.  Shortly before C. C. Williams’s death in 1957, Williams acknowledged, he stopped hating him and began to understand, even love him.  This adjustment, Williams has confessed, resulted from treatment by Lawrence Kubie, a Freudian psychoanalyst he began seeing in 1957.  As a consequence of his treatment, Williams asserted, “I felt like a great load was lifted from my mind.”

Williams saw Kubie every weekday for nearly a year, and, according to Williams biographer Ronald Hayman, Kubie even telephoned his patient on Saturdays and Sundays to check on him.  During the time of this treatment, the writer also began to become estranged from his mother, whom he had adored as a child just as he had hated his father.  He described the shift in a 1961 radio interview with writer Studs Terkel: “My homelife was dominated by a very wonderful but rather puritanical mother, who was in conflict with a very wonderful but rather profligate father. . . .  First I sided with the mother’s side and then after my father’s death, for some strange reason, I began to see his point of view better.”  Under analysis, Williams came to see that his very survival had depended on his father’s fighting spirit, inherited, according to family lore, from 18th-century East Tennessee Indian fighters like John Sevier (Revolutionary War officer and first governor of the State of Tennessee), and the playwright himself later wrote of C. C. Williams: “I wonder if he knew, and I suspect that he did, that he left me something far more important [than inherited money], which was his blood in my veins?  And of course I wonder, too, of there wasn’t more love than hate in his blood, however tortured it was.”

As for Williams’s feelings toward his mother, he came to blame Edwina for allowing his beloved sister’s lobotomy, which left Rose a hopeless invalid, surviving in what Dakin Williams said his brother “considered . . . a kind of living death.”  Williams also felt that Edwina, whom the playwright called in his 1975 Memoirs “a little Prussian officer in drag,” had alienated him from his father and “that my mother had made me a sissy.”  Under analysis, his affections shifted as did the personas of the parental villains in the Alma plays, from the remote and absent father in Summer and Smoke to the imperious and controlling mother in Eccentricities of a Nightingale.  A similarly striking change for the worse takes place between the Mrs. Winemiller of Summer and Smoke, whom critic Felicia Londré characterizes as “a querulous and perverse child,” and the Mrs. Winemiller of Eccentricities, who’s become “a social liability.”   

As Williams biographer Lyle Leverich asserts:

Although Tom’s mother and grandmother were giving him the concrete support he needed, paradoxically it was not so much their inspiration as his rage against his father that inflamed his burning desire to write.  Tennessee Williams’s career could be called an act of revenge, until at length he entered analysis, understood his sublimated love for his deceased father, and turned his anger on his mother, thus changing the character of his plays.

It seems clear that Kubie’s influence on Williams’s feelings for his parents are reflected in the shifts in character manifested in the reworking of Summer and Smoke into Eccentricities.  I contend that though he may have begun the new play in 1951, he certainly continued to work on it during the years he underwent psychoanalysis or just afterwards when he was still under the psychoanalyst’s Freudian influence, and the completed script illustrates the new-found Freudian outlook.  Indeed, Williams acknowledged that his plays “reflect somehow the particular psychological turmoil I was going through when I wrote them.”  Without a copy of the earlier revision from 1951 or ’52, it’s impossible to know for sure if that’s so, but that’s my sense of Williams’s process. 

Rather than a cold and distant father, for instance, John now has a dominating, controlling mother, the “heavy” that theater historian W. David Sievers pointed to in his psychoanalysis of the American stage as a Freudian figure.  John’s relationship with Mrs. Buchanan in Eccentricities  is nearly classic Oedipalism, a distinctly Freudian concept.  (It is also significant that Mrs. Winemiller transforms from a childlike personality to a potentially destructive one.  Compare, also, the pre-analysis mother, Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, 1944, with the post-analysis Eccentricities mothers.  The most salient manifestation of this attitude change is Violet Venable, Sebastian’s dragon-lady mother in Suddenly, Last Summer, 1958.)  Sievers also identifies as Freudian developments “the dethroning of motherhood and the liberation of children from possessive parents,” both of which appear in Eccentricities but not so much in Summer and Smoke.  John, himself, is no longer the undisciplined savage that was Williams’s other image of his father.  Together, Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale are a study of a shifting parent-child relationship, a depiction of Williams’s own vacillating allegiance.

With the elimination of the fiery Gonzaleses, furthermore, the violence of Summer and Smoke is also eliminated in Eccentricities .  (The Daily Telegraph announcement of the British première of Eccentricities was even entitled “Unviolent Williams.”)  There’s no longer, for instance, a stabbing or shooting, and the Moon Lake Casino episode has been replaced with a visit to a cheap hotel.  The excision of the violence of Summer and Smoke, a hallmark of Williams writing since the beginning, from Eccentricities  was almost certainly also a direct response to Williams’s treatment under Kubie.  “If I am no longer disturbed myself, I will deal less with disturbed people and violent material,” Williams acknowledged in a 1958 interview in the New York Herald Tribune.  (This outcome of the psychoanalysis didn’t last long, as Williams returned to writing about violence in later plays like Suddenly, Last Summer and Sweet Bird of Youth.  In 1959, after the playwright had stopped seeing Kubie, he wrote that in the previous 19 years, “I have only produced five plays that are not violent: The Glass Menagerie, You Touched Me, Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo and, recently in Florida, a serious comedy called Period of Adjustment, which is still being worked on.”  Most critics would argue with his appraisal of Summer and Smoke—unless, of course, the playwright meant the “new” Summer and Smoke  which was actually Eccentricities of a Nightingale and which had been stashed away by this time for eight years.)

Another shift that takes place between Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities is the one from a summer setting to a winter one.  It’s less clear that Kubie’s therapy had an effect on this change, especially since Williams noted that it had already taken place in the 1951 script on which he was working in Rome that June.  Nevertheless, it reflects a change in the writer’s psychological adjustment—as well as the manifestation of his lifelong bugaboo, the destructiveness of “life’s destroyer, time.”  As Williams said to New York Post writer Robert Rice in 1958: “It haunts me, the passage of time. . . .  I think time is a merciless thing.  I think life is a process of burning oneself out and time is the fire that burns you.”  (Remember that his one-act precursor to Sweet Bird was entitled The Enemy: Time.)  Summer and winter echo the two aspects of Alma: fire and ice, and the passage from one to the other accompanies Alma’s passing from “brief bloom to . . . decay.”

With the change from a summer setting to a winter one came also the title change.  With that was also the elimination of a focus, almost an obsession, in which Williams engaged in Summer and Smoke: the life, and particularly the death by suicide, of poet Hart Crane.  The title of Summer and Smoke is adapted from a line from Crane’s poem “Emblems of Conduct” and Crane, a homosexual like Williams, drowned himself on 27 April 1932 in a moment of deep despair by throwing himself overboard while aboard ship in the Gulf of Mexico.  (The line, “By that time summer and smoke were past,” is from a stanza that seems to predict the poet’s own death.)  Williams viewed Crane’s struggle to confront a hostile and indifferent world as a reflection of his own and even left instructions, which were ignored, that his body should be buried at sea near where Crane is believed to have drowned.  In the 1937 one-act play Escape (presented under the title Summer at the Lake for its 2004 New York première; see my report, “Uninhabitable Country: Five By Tenn,” 5 March 2011), Williams depicts a young man who swims out into the sea to his death, a clear reference to Crane’s suicide, an act with which Williams was preoccupied.  All this is gone from Eccentricities and I suspect that Kubie’s treatment had something to do with why Williams deemphasized the poet’s watery death—perhaps because he’d come to know himself better. 

Williams consistently identified two conflicting strains in his nature: the Puritan, representing the gentler, poetic side of his character, inherited, he felt, from the Dakin line of his family, as embodied by his mother, versus the Cavalier, vital, dynamic, even violent, side passed down through the Sevier-Lanier-Williams line, personified by his father.  One reason, I think, that Summer and Smoke  and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale were such important works for Williams, plays for which he had such a constant and irrepressible commitment, is that though this internal war plays out in most of his dramas (Blanche Du Bois-Stanley Kowalski; Lady Torrance-Val Xavier, Princess Kosmonopolis-Chance Wayne), in no texts other than the Alma plays is this conflict so front-and-center—dramatically, thematically, scenically, symbolically.  Dakin Williams even asserts that the Alma plays “would haunt him all his life.”  None of Williams other plays, including the autobiographical Glass Menagerie, is the dramatization of the playwright’s own inner struggle.  Kubie’s psychoanalysis may have shifted Williams’ allegiances to one side of his nature or the other, but the fundamental focus on the conflict remained from Summer and Smoke to Eccentricities.  Alma Winemiller may have been Williams alter ego, his soulmate, but the plays were, quite literally, about the writer’s own soul.  No wonder he couldn’t let them go. 

21 February 2015

Little Dancer, Inspired by Degas Sculpture, Premieres at Kennedy Center, 2

[I recently posted a collection of three Washington Post articles on the Kennedy Center première of a new musical, Little Dancer, inspired by the famous wax sculpture by Edgar Degas.  The Post’s extensive coverage of this new musical provides an inside glimpse at how a new musical is mounted, what goes into the production, and how it’s promoted and scheduled for viewing.  I’ve chosen a half dozen pieces from the paper to present on ROT because I think the blog’s readers would be interested in this phenomenon.  The first three articles—an examination of star Boyd Gaines’s efforts to develop the character of artist Degas, the review of the art exhibit built around the original statue planned to coincide with the opening, and the review of the musical’s presentation—were posted a few days ago.  (I urge readers to go back and read the first installment, before or after reading the selections here.)  Below are three other articles discussing the preview-performance practice, the treatment of the female characters in the play, and how set designer Beowulf Boritt was inspired by Degas paintings.]

by Rebecca Ritzel

[This article was first published in the “Style” section of the Washington Post on 19 November.]

There’s a splashy party planned in the Kennedy Center’s upstairs atrium Thursday to celebrate opening night for “Little Dancer.” That news may come as a surprise to anyone who has already seen a performance of the musical’s world premiere, noticed advertisements or read glowing endorsements of the show on social media.

There have been no formal reviews of the musical about artist Edgar Degas and his ballerina muse because the production is still not officially “open.”

Since Oct. 25, the cast has been performing nightly in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. But technically, the show is in “previews” – an extended period during which the creative team continues to make changes and the press is not allowed to attend. (Post theater critic Peter Marks’s review will appear Thursday night online and Friday in print.) The musical will close on Nov. 30 after just 10 days of official performances to allow the Kennedy Center plenty of time to prepare for holiday programming.

Ticket prices for “Little Dancer” range from $65 to $120.

While a month of previews is typical before a show opens in New York, the lag time between “Little Dancer’s” first performance and its opening is a record in Washington for an “out-of-town tryout,” a commercial production of a show with Broadway aspirations.

Max Woodward, the Kennedy Center’s longtime vice president for theater programming, said director and choreographer Susan Stroman and her creative team told him upfront that they were starting from scratch, and they made their decision to come to Washington only after he agreed to an extended preview period.

“This is the longest we’ve ever had,” Woodward said. “I don’t think it’s a trend.”

And yet, long preview periods could become the new normal as unions continue to differentiate between pre- and post-opening rehearsals and producers keep Washington on the list of just five cities in North America that can support a pre-Broadway run.

The other four, according to a panel of producers who spoke at a recent American Theatre Critics Association conference, are Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto. Each city has its pluses and minuses: Chicago offers a tax break, Toronto offers slots on a subscription series and D.C. offers willing partners at the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre, which has comparable dimensions to a Broadway house.

Kristin Caskey, president of Fox Theatricals, a co-producer on the D.C.-launched musical “If/Then,” blames rehearsal logistics for the extended previews. With two shows on most Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays and an off-day on Monday, creative teams have just three weekdays to tweak the show and implement changes in rehearsals. Three or four sets of changes are reasonable for a new musical, said Caskey. “So, basically, that puts you at 31/2 weeks right there.”

The rehearsal rules are set by Actors’ Equity Association, the union that negotiates Broadway contracts for the Kennedy Center and shows like “If/Then” at the National. According to Equity, the actors can initially rehearse for 81/2 hours a day, counting breaks.

The week before the first public performance, known as tech week, that work period extends to 12 hours, with up to 10 spent rehearsing. After the first public performances, the total working hours for performances and rehearsals is capped at 10. But once the show is finally open, actors can only rehearse for a total of eight hours per week.

As recently as Friday, the “Little Dancer” cast was called for five hours before its evening show. Cast members have needed the extra rehearsal time, Woodward said. More music has been added, and some dance numbers have been cut.

It is possible, however, to get a new musical off the ground in fewer previews than the Kennedy Center has allowed. “If/Then,” began previews on Nov. 4 of last year and opened on Nov. 19. In Chicago this year, Sting’s musical ran in previews for 13 days. (“The Last Ship” has since opened on Broadway.)

The only recent new musical that appears to rival “Little Dancer” when it comes to lengthy out-of-town previews is “Aladdin,” which ran for 17 days last year before opening in Toronto.

On Dec. 9, previews begin in Arlington for another regional theater musical with Broadway aspirations: singer Sheryl Crow’s adaptation of the Barry Levinson film “Diner.” Actors will be paid less because they are not working on a Broadway contract, and the Signature Theatre’s agreement with Equity allows for 50-hour workweeks once performances begin, making no distinction between before and after the Dec. 27 press opening.

What the runs of “Diner” and “Little Dancer” have in common – besides the hope of good things to come – is a dilemma that puts them at odds with a Helen Hayes Award regulation requiring voters to see a show during the first half of its run. In Toronto, Broadway tryout producers feel strongly that such advanced viewing for award voters is not appropriate.

“We want them to see a show that is set and finished, like the press,” said John Karastamatis, a spokesman for Mirvish Productions. Signature Theatre concurs and will also not allow Helen Hayes voters to see previews.

But the Kennedy Center appears to have forgone a polished production in favor of buzz from the theater community, and that wager may have worked.

“Word of mouth has been very, very good for us,” Woodward said.

Regardless of whether Signature successfully launches “Diner” to Broadway, the theater has other springtime plans about which to be excited. On March 30, celebrated director James E. Lapine will come to town to accept the theater’s sixth annual Sondheim Award at a black-tie gala to be held at the Italian Embassy. Lapine has been at the helm of the original productions of “Into the Woods,” “Sunday in the Park with George” and many other musicals. He is also the screenwriter of the forthcoming “Into the Woods” film.

“James has been my good friend and collaborator over the course of 32 years, and it’s about time I thanked him ostentatiously,” Sondheim said in a statement.

In the District, the Shakespeare Theatre Company – with its rush ticket promotions and $35-and-under cheap seats – has long been one of the most accessible venues in the District. Monday, the theater announced it will open its doors even further by offering 1,000 no-cost “Free Will” tickets to every show. Although some tickets will be distributed to specific “community partners,” an average allotment of 150 to 200 seats will be available every Monday at noon and distributed in person, online and over the phone.

[Ritzel is a freelance writer.]

*  *  *  *
by Sarah Kaufman

[The following piece appeared in the “Style” section of the Washington Post on 24 November.]

For all its glamour and luxury, the Belle Époque had an ugly side. The decorative arts and haute cuisine were flourishing in Paris in the late 19th century, but the era’s booming opportunities did not extend to its slums – nor to the majority of Frenchwomen.

The narrowness of women’s lives at that time gets expansive treatment in Susan Stroman’s new ballet musical, “Little Dancer.” In unraveling the back story of the once-scandalous sculpture by Edgar Degas, titled “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” director-choreographer Stroman, collaborating with writer-lyricist Lynn Ahrens, fills this production with strong-willed and outspoken women of all ages.

These are sharply drawn characters, witty and wisecracking and sometimes utter messes. They evoke the little-known wretchedness of an age celebrated for its beauty. But in the optimistic and ultimately uplifting view of this show, they are survivors.

As Broadway veterans, Stroman and Ahrens are a couple of survivors themselves, and in “Little Dancer” they betray a bit of a rebellious touch. They are unafraid to address a poetical and feminized subject – the ballet world – and make it appropriately woman-centered. In so doing, they give voice to many who have gone through history unnoticed and unsung. When was the last time laundresses, embittered alcoholic single moms and hard-working ballerinas got to belt out their dreams?

There are so many ways in which “Little Dancer,” finishing its world-premiere run at the Kennedy Center this week, is a corker. It features the ravishing Tiler Peck of New York City Ballet as Degas’s young model, Marie van Goethem, for one thing. The clear, open style of her dancing is a marvel, particularly the way she lingers at the height of her movements, conveying all the power and ease, authority and transcendence of a great star.

Then there’s the stagecraft, which, while relatively simple (no explosions, no outsize costuming, no flying effects), is transporting and magical. The songs, the music by Stephen Flaherty: I could go on. But one of the most striking elements of this show, and the least talked-about, is the wide lens it focuses on women’s existence in a society where they were easily swept into the gutter.

Paris of 1881, when “Little Dancer” takes place, was bracing itself against the onrush of modernity. Grim realities – poverty, child labor, girl sex slaves – were best ignored. Nothing epitomizes this better than the firestorm of ire Degas ignited when he exhibited his sculpture, daring to place a lowlife and potential strumpet on a pedestal.

In Degas’s day, as polite society fretted over the moral decay it saw in so many artists, ballet wasn’t seen as a high-minded pursuit. Degas stepped on a lot of toes in bestowing his snub-nosed adolescent with an insolent grandeur.

He wasn’t the only rebel, of course. That same year, a feminist named Hubertine Auclert published La Citoyenne, France’s first suffragist newspaper. Going beyond voting rights, La Citoyenne also looked at how women were treated in primitive cultures across the world and argued that Frenchwomen’s lives were not always better.

Auclert had a point. Rich wives may have had comforts, but they were essentially decorative property, without a voice. And poor women stayed poor, or got poorer.

In “Little Dancer,” the art of ballet becomes a cruel example of how civilization and oppression were entwined. A delight for the audience, it was often harsh behind the scenes. Ballet was a last resort for poor girls, who in some cases were a step away from streetwalking. If a dancer was not already a prostitute, she had a good chance of becoming one. Leering male patrons, such as the top-hatted gents in so many of Degas’s ballet paintings, haunted the Paris Opera Ballet’s hallways.

This hard lot was surely on Degas’s mind as he created his figure in wax, with her tough, muscular neck, strong spine and faraway gaze.

In fact, the real-life Marie van Goethem didn’t have much of a future. Her older sister was a prostitute. Her widowed mother was an alcoholic washwoman. Marie’s little sister eventually had a dance career, but as for Marie? She made it into the Paris Opera’s lowest rank, then vanished from history.

Stroman crafts a dream ballet to propose some possibilities about what happened to Marie. We can make our own guesses from the role models around her throughout the show. There is Marie’s older sister, whose fortunes rise and fall with the attentions of her johns. There are impoverished laundresses like her mother. There’s a ballet teacher with warmth but no power in the company’s male hierarchy; there’s a well-married and overbearing dance mom. Degas has an elderly, humpbacked, maltreated maid, and there are other young ballerinas, all but pushed by company officials into the arms of wealthy men. A grown-up version of Marie serves as a narrator, looking back on her youth, although we never discover what kind of life she grew into.

There is but one independent, self-supporting ray of hope: painter Mary Cassatt, who was Degas’s friend in real life. (She was also a noted clotheshorse, and a character ideally gift-wrapped for costume designer William Ivey Long, who dresses her as if she’s just unpacked the fashions of Paris’s top designers.)

At other key points in “Little Dancer,” Stroman makes the bold, brave choice to tell the story in dance terms. She lets movement speak what the characters – who are mostly unschooled and unsophisticated – do not have the words to express. Peck’s first solo tells us about the lighthearted joy and freedom that dancing brings to Marie; these notes only deepen and become more urgent as the story proceeds.

In the song “Laundry,” Marie’s mother and her laundress co-workers muse in the wash house about how they, too, once had dreams like Marie does, and they slip into a ballet-style reverie of roughened, weighted, wistful grace.

“C’est le ballet,” as the recurring song by that title makes clear with its quarrelsome, keening notes, takes on a sardonic meaning, along the lines of “business as usual.” The business of hustling for money, that is. This hasn’t changed much. Nowadays, donors/sponsors are a critical force in ballet companies. Some company Web sites and printed programs list who each dancer is “sponsored by,” turning an artist into a billboard for a benefactor’s name. Dancers are expected to turn up and schmooze at parties for funders; I’ve even heard of company members being required to serve tables at donor dinners. No matter how it’s framed, this is all in the name of easing money out of bulging wallets.

“Dancers are determined and never quit,” sing Marie and her younger sister, played by Sophia Anne Caruso with the magnetism of a future CEO tucked into a little girl’s body.

It’s all so ineffably poignant. Marie’s harshest treatment is dealt by the ballet company she loves – and by her own mother. Degas’s attentions, artistic and paternal, seem to do Marie little good in her own lifetime.

Yet through him, she left a mark for posterity. And in the musical about her life, others like her get to make a mark, too. They give us a lot to think about.

[Sarah Kaufman is the dance critic for the Washington Post.]

*  *  *  *
by Rebecca Ritzel

[This article was originally published in the “Backstage” column of the “Style” section of the Washington Post on 26 November.]

In Edgar Degas’s most famous paintings set in a dance studio, three two-story windows spill light into an otherwise gray room where ballerinas in white tulle stretch and strike balances before a ballet master. There’s often a violinist in a corner, or a worried stage mother preening on the sidelines. The French impressionist would continue to paint that scene for decades, even after that studio burned down and the Paris Opera relocated to the Palais Garnier. Like Degas, set designer Beowulf Boritt was deeply attached to those windows, and when he was charged by director Susan Stroman with creating the sets for the new musical “Little Dancer,” there was never even a discussion or a question.

They would replicate those windows onstage.

More than a dozen Degas paintings and sketches – from big-picture settings to scraps of background wallpaper – are mirrored in the musical. Nearly all are works Boritt saw in person during the more than two years he spent working on his designs for “Little Dancer.” (The show closes Sunday at the Kennedy Center; limited tickets are available.)

“Every scene in the play is a sketch that he could have done,” Boritt said. “I had taken a course on Impressionism in college, but I actually spent the first three or four months trying to learn more about him. I looked at what was shown in the paintings and what we wanted to copy.”

In every city where he worked, he would visit museums and take pictures of the Degas works, covertly if necessary. And Boritt, 44, has worked in many cities. The son of an opera singer and history professor who weren’t worried about burdening their child with a literary name, he’s away from his New York base working on high-profile shows about three months a year.

He designed the current touring productions “Annie,” “Rock of Ages” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which opens at the Kennedy Center Dec. 16. Other recent projects include “Chaplin” in St. Petersburg, which allowed for a side trip to the Hermitage, and the West End production of “The Scottsboro Boys,” his first collaboration with Stroman, dating back to a 2010 off-Broadway production.

“He is a true artist with the heart of a storyteller,” Stroman said via e-mail this week. “I knew that was exactly who we needed to bring the world of Degas and ‘Little Dancer’ to life.”

A few of the many Degas works featured in the show include his paintings of laundresses washing and ironing, sketches of debonair men with dubious intentions lurking backstage at the ballet and “The Absinthe Drinker.” (Although historians know the despondent woman in this painting is actually an actress friend of the artist’s, in the musical she’s the Little Dancer’s alcoholic mother.)

Not all of Boritt’s projects require museum-quality replications. His big break came a decade ago, when “Putnam County Spelling Bee” became a surprise hit. Now on Broadway, Boritt’s work is featured in the revival of the Bernstein musical “On the Town,” with sets that are more simplistic than those in “Little Dancer” but much more vibrant. His central idea was to focus on the silhouettes of the Manhattan skyline and create images that remind theatergoers of how shiny and big New York must have looked to sailors docking on the East River.

“These guys were supposed to be a bunch of hayseeds who show up in New York for the first time,” Boritt said of the three sailors who look for love onshore in the musical. “It’s a sleek, magical place to them.”

The link between the two shows, besides the designer, is their ballerina stars: New York City Ballet principals Tiler Peck in “Little Dancer” and Megan Fairchild in “On the Town.” And therein lies a special challenge. The average Broadway or touring-show stage floor is a maze of grooves and tracks to aid in moving scenery. Going up on pointe with a toe stuck in the middle of a track would be disastrous at worst and less than pretty at best.

For “On the Town,” Fairchild ended up deciding to dance in rubberized pointe shoes, which limits her mobility slightly, but is safer, and also allowed for Boritt and his team to use a shinier, more reflective flooring.

For “Little Dancer,” though, Boritt challenged himself to use as few tracks as possible. The major set pieces are five giant rotating panels kept off to the sides, and the flooring is marley vinyl, buffed and treated daily with a coating called “Slip No More.” The major obstacle that Peck and the other ballerinas must avoid is the trap door at center stage, “We worked forever trying to make that as smooth as it could be,” Boritt said. “There are still slight cracks, but Tiler learned to dance around it.”

That trap door allows for a replica of the Little Dancer and a pedestal for Peck to stand on to be raised and lowered. The musical’s finale finds her at center stage, re-creating a scene you can see every day the National Gallery, where tourists admire Degas’s original statue. Marie van Goethem, Degas’s real life model, never became a star dancer, but she’s inspired many a museum-goer to hold her shoulders back just a little straighter.

“That statue is so stunningly beautiful,” Boritt said. “In all likelihood, [Marie] didn’t come to a very happy end. I’d like to think that maybe we are giving her a happier afterlife, because she’s become such a symbol.”

[This concludes my series of Washington Post reports on the new musical Little Dancer.  Should the Post run more informative coverage of the play and its production, I’ll be sure to bring it to the attention of ROTters.  I do have in reserve the New York Times’s review of the première, but I’m holding it in reserve against the possibility that Little Dancer makes it to a Broadway stage.  In that event, I’ll run some of the New York reviews of the new play and I’ll include the Times’s review of the Kennedy Center pre-Broadway presentation as part of that package.  I expect that’ll be an interesting comparison if it comes about.]

18 February 2015

Little Dancer, Inspired by Degas Sculpture, Premieres at Kennedy Center, 1

[The world-première production of the new musical Little Dancer began performances 25 October at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Eisenhower Theater.  The opening was on 20 November and performances continued through 30 November. The play’s title refers to the famous Edgar Degas wax sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans, c. 1881).  Degas’s model was a teenaged ballerina from the Paris Opera Ballet dance school, a young Belgian named Marie van Goethem.  Degas created many wax copies and bronzes of Little Dancer after he sculpted the original, but that statue, purchased by Paul Mellon in 1956, was given to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1985.

[“Part fact, part imagination, and set in the harsh backstage world of the Paris Opera Ballet,” KC press releases state of the ballet musical, “Little Dancer is inspired by the young ballerina who posed for Edgar Degas and became, inadvertently, the most famous dancer in the world.  Torn by her family’s poverty, her debt to the artist and the lure of wealthy men, Marie struggles to keep her place in the ballet corps—a girl on the verge of womanhood, caught between the conflicting demands of life and art.”

[Workshopped by the Lincoln Center Theatre Company in August 2014, Little Dancer features book and lyrics by Tony Award winner Lynn Ahrens and music by Tony Award winner Stephen Flaherty (both 1998 Best Original Musical Score, Ragtime); the Kennedy Center production was directed and choreographed by five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman (Best Choreography: 1992, Crazy for You; 1995, Show Boat; 2000, Contact; 2001, The Producers; Best Direction of a Musical: 2001, The Producers).  (Ahrens and Flaherty were also responsible for last year’s flop Rocky and Stroman staged both 2013’s Big Fish and last season’s Bullets Over Broadway which together totaled only 254 performances.)  The cast included four-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines (1989 Best Featured Actor in a Play, The Heidi Chronicles; 1994 Best Actor in a Musical, She Loves Me; 2000 Best Featured Actor in a Musical, Contact; 2008 Best Featured Actor in a Musical, Gypsy) as artist Edgar Degas, three-time Tony Award nominee Rebecca Luker (Best Actress in a Musical: 1995, Show Boat; 2000, The Music Man; 2007, Mary Poppins) as Adult Marie, and New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck as Young Marie.  The production also had set designs by Beowulf Boritt, costume designs by William Ivey Long, lighting design by Ken Billington, sound design by Kai Harada, and music supervision by David Loud; Shawn Gough conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.  Plans for a Broadway transfer are under consideration, but no announcement has been made.

[The Washington Post did comprehensive coverage of this pre-Broadway première, publishing articles on many aspects of the show and its production.  Because this provides a glimpse into the inner workings of a Broadway-level musical in production as well as the business of producing and promoting a major commercial show, I’ve collected a number of the articles and will post them on ROT as a sort of record of this work.  For the first installment of this examination, I’ve selected three pieces from the Post, starting with an article about star Boyd Gaines and his work as an actor to get into the role of the painter Edgar Degas, Rebecca Ritzel’s “Getting into Degas for ‘Little Dancer.’”  Then I’m presenting a side bar on the simultaneous art exhibit at the National Gallery of Art which was built around Degas’s original statue of Little Dancer, “As Disturbing As Enchanting” by Philip Kennicott, the Post’s review of the exhibit.  That art review is followed by Peter Marks’s “‘Little Dancer’ at The Kennedy Center, with the Accent on ‘Dancer,’” the Post’s review of the opening of Little Dancer, the musical, on 20 November.]

by Rebecca Ritzel

[This article first appeared in the Weekend magazine of the Washington Post on 24 October 2014.]

Just as Edgar Degas began painting dancers after becoming fascinated by backstage life at the Paris Opera, actor Boyd Gaines became intrigued about the musical “Little Dancer” after spotting ballerinas roaming backstage at New York’s Lincoln Center. It was spring 2010, and the four-time Tony Award winner was starring in a play at the venerable performing arts complex. Gaines also came across director Susan Stroman, with whom he had worked on the Tony-winning show “Contact” in 2000.

“I saw all the ballerinas and Stro, and I would say hello,” Gaines recalls. “I was curious as to what she was doing, because it’s always something interesting.”

“Stro” – as she is known in the theater world – was at Lincoln Center workshopping “Little Dancer,” the original musical that begins previews Saturday at the Kennedy Center. Gaines says that, back then, he had no designs on the role of Degas but that he remembered the project. Then, months later, Stroman contacted him: There was to be another round of workshops. Would he like to play the famous impressionist?

Gaines wasted no time. He told Stroman yes and hurried to the Metropolitian Museum of Art to do some homework.

“The research that I started out doing initially was just going out and looking at as much as I could,” the 61-year-old actor says during a dinner break from rehearsals at the Kennedy Center. “Fortunately, there was much I could see in New York, but I did that not knowing what the future of the show would be.”

In 2011, while Gaines was working in London, he took in the Royal Academy exhibition “Degas and the Ballet,” which included 26 studies Degas made before sculpting “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” the subject of the new musical, and on a side trip to Paris, he visited the impressionist Musée d’Orsay. Then there were books – volumes of photographs, biographies and books of letters that Gaines can quote from off the top of his head.

“Hopefully, [all the research] gives me a feel for the man who surfaces in the playing of the scenes,” he says. “He’s a fascinating person, very complicated, obsessed and incredibly passionate about art and the making of art itself.”

Gaines holds a sketchbook during much of the time he’s onstage in “Little Dancer,” and will be drawing scenes staged by Stroman and her design team to evoke famous works by Degas. (Don’t ask to see his sketches; he claims they’re terrible.) One, obviously, is the “Little Dancer” statue itself, of Marie van Goethem, Degas’ 14-year-old model from the Paris Opera (played by New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck). Another is “The Absinthe Drinker,” a portrait of a woman sitting dejectedly in a café, a glass of the alcohol in front of her. In the musical, that woman is Marie’s mother, and the rumpled man next to her, the van Goethems’ ne’er-do-well landlord. Those fictional characters are examples of the liberties that composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens took to craft a narrative inspired by static works of art. (In reality, both figures in the painting – an actress and an artist – were friends of Degas.) In the same way, Gaines says that in portraying Degas, he has cherry-picked from his knowledge of the artist.

“This is not a docudrama,” he says. “I have used art historians – stealing at will, and using what helps, and discarding what doesn’t – in order to make the text and lyrics come alive. The story that we are trying to tell is not historically accurate, but it has bits and pieces of the truth in it. Hopefully, the audience will find it truthful.”

Locally, there’s at least one art historian who’s not bothered by the changes: Alison Luchs, the curator of “Degas’s Little Dancer,” an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art that opened earlier this month to coincide with the musical. The West Building space – usually used to exhibit European paintings – houses the statue itself and about a dozen of Degas’ dance and opera works, including two recently acquired from the Corcoran Gallery.

When it comes to Degas and “Little Dancer,” Luchs says, “there is room for imagination,” because so little is known about Marie, other than that she was dismissed from the ballet company in 1882. “I believe someday we are going to find an answer, but I almost hope we don’t,” she adds.

The exhibition also includes an 1882 graphite drawing of Degas by French artist Paul Mathey. Degas is shown from an odd angle and appears to be peering at a framed painting. His top hat sits before him on a chair, and his one visible eye is heavy-lidded and sad. The drawing, Luchs says, reminds her of the pictures she has seen of Gaines in the show. “He certainly has the look down,” she says of the actor’s full beard, tailored costumes and pensive bearing.

Both Luchs and Gaines remain committed to learning more about the artist, and both are excited about a lecture Nov. 15 by leading Degas scholar Richard Kendall and his wife, dance historian Jill De Vonyar.

By that point, Gaines will be more than halfway through the musical’s run at the Kennedy Center. Many actors might consider that too late to keep investing in a character, even for a show that is likely headed to Broadway. Not Gaines.

“If Richard Kendall is giving a lecture, I’ll be there,” he says.

[Rebecca Ritzel is a freelance writer whose writing has appeared in more than 20 publications in the United States, Canada, and the U.K.  Ritzel regularly contributes arts and entertainment articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer.]

*  *  *  *
by Philip Kennicott

[Edgar Degas’s groundbreaking statuette of a young ballerina that caused a sensation at the 1881 impressionist exhibition takes center stage at the National Gallery of Art in an exploration of Degas’s fascination with ballet and his experimental, modern approach to his work.  Degas’s Little Dancer is presented in conjunction with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ world-premiere musical Little Dancer, which ran from 25 October through 30 November 2014.  This review originally appeared in the “Arts & Style” section of the Washington Post on 19 October 2014.]

The best Degas exhibitions take you past the prettiness and straight to the heart of weirdness that makes his work, despite overexposure, always worth further effort. “Degas’ Little Dancer,” a one-room show at the National Gallery of Art, gets straight to the matter, looking under the waxen skin of the artist’s most famous and beloved sculpture and then at a cross section of his fascination with young ballerinas over time. And in almost every one of the 15 works on display, there is something troubling and odd.

In an oil painting made around 1879, “The Dance Lesson,” a young dancer sits in the foreground, apparently lost in thought, or merely exhausted, staring at the floor with her head resting on one hand. But she seems to be sitting on a string bass, which, even given her diminutive frame and the instrument’s substantial bulk, is a very bad idea. In a painting that once belonged to the Corcoran, the “The Dance Class,” a spiral staircase frames two views of the young women, some of them merely legs and skirts descending the circular stairs, another glimpsed through a gap in the metal or wooden form, in a more idealized attitude, as if on stage and fully enveloped in the theatrical fantasy of a performance.

And then there is the Little Dancer herself, which an X-radiograph reveals is made not just of wax, but also clay, rope, wire, padding, paintbrushes (for her arms), and wood and other organic materials. She is, in a sense, made of trash, or at least utilitarian stuff. Knowing this changes our sense of her, from a simple girl with her eyes closed, perhaps anticipating the next step she must take, or wishing she were someplace else, to a more complicated and perhaps pathetic figure. She isn’t pretty or ugly, but a classic example of what the French call “jolie-laide,” which not only combines attributes of both but also suggests a deeper sense of conflict between appearance and inner life.

Making figures out of wax had a long history before Degas made this sculpture – as a preparatory step toward casting something in metal and as a tool for the study of anatomy and the display of anthropological and zoological specimens. The tradition lives on today, in etiolated form, in commercial wax museums. Making sculpture from stone or metal idealized the figures represented; making them out of wax was more disturbingly naturalistic, forcing an encounter with something more organic and more organically connected to flesh and blood. White marble was the stuff of admiration, even worship; brown wax invited a different kind of objectification, something to be studied, dissected and penetrated.

The last of those should be taken with all its implications. The brochure accompanying the exhibition dances around the facts (“Most dancers made very little money and often looked elsewhere for support”), and it doesn’t use the word prostitution, which is unfortunate. Very likely, the girl who posed for Degas (we know her name and have a vague sense of her family and early career on the stage) exchanged sex for money. She certainly had no choice in the matter.

Ballet, at the time, was closely linked to prostitution; the impoverished girls drawn to the ballet were not only forced in many cases to seek income by selling sex, they worked in a system almost perfectly designed to exploit. They were at the mercy of men who made subjective judgments not just on their beauty but their skill, as well. And ballet, like other art forms, offered those men a fantasy of ideal femininity, which could also be pursued through patronizing courtesans, prostitutes and dancers.

In both dance and sexual exploitation, men experienced the great gulf between the fantasy and the means of realizing it. The ideal is never real, the voluptuous swan or handsome prince is in fact an athlete, sweating and straining, and at the behest of the choreographer’s whim. This is not to say that dance is prostitution or that sex workers are to be valued less than artists. But a man like Degas, with a visual fixation on young female dancers, and a deep love of the theater and the society around it, would probably have looked at the young women who were so beautiful, so available and so essential to both artistic and erotic fantasy, and wondered: What is inside them?

It seems likely that the strongly articulated dichotomies in this exhibition – between the whole and the part, the ideal and the real, practice and performance, means and ends – are symptoms of this desire to go from surface to depth, to possess or subjugate intellectually, emotionally and physically the young dancer. Women, for millennia, have been the locus of this frustrating sense that we can never get at the essence of what we most desire, and great violence has been done to them, particularly through religion, by making them embody irreconcilable opposites such as purity and degradation. So the young dancer who sits on the string bass isn’t just doing something odd and unlikely, she is connecting the ground, the bass, the well-springs of desire, to our most seemingly refined, articulated and elusive embodiment of the beautiful.

As our values have changed, as euphemisms like “protector” (i.e., older man who pays girls for the illusion that he is still desirable) have been unmasked, the question of what Degas was doing has become more urgent and painful. Did he capture this girl’s humanity, her defiance of the ugly and exploitative milieu into which she was thrust? Was there a morally redeeming aspect to his visual fixation on the young dancers of the ballet? Or is he working comfortably within the self-satisfied paradigm of misogyny? Those are exactly the questions that must be asked of the new musical, “Little Dancer,” which is inspired by Degas’ statue. It may seem like an obvious thing to do, even a noble one, to give voice to this young woman. But it is complicated, too, and as the work of Degas reminds us, the lines between representation and exploitation are porous. Degas’ dancer isn’t just a sweet girl lost in the moment; she is also Frankenstein and Pygmalion product, a male construction, and no matter how long you stare at her face, you will never know if she is saying no, or yes.

[Degas’s Little Dancer, which opened on 5 October, was on view in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art through 11 January 2015.  Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of the Washington Post.  He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.]

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by Peter Marks

[Peter Marks’s review of the Kennedy Center première of Little Dancer appeared in the “Style” section of the Washington Post on 21 November.]

Love of ballet flows from every pore and plie of “Little Dancer.” The new Kennedy Center musical showcases most rewardingly the technical gifts of Tiler Peck, a beguiling New York City Ballet star cast here as the gamine model for the celebrated Degas sculpture of the show’s title.

That ardor for the dance form and its classical rigor are filtered through the becoming choreography of director Susan Stroman, who, in the footsteps of Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins, has created as a finale for this musical – still, it seems, deeply in progress – a delightful dream ballet, with Peck at its center.

But musical theater doesn’t live by dance alone. In many of its other particulars – having to do with plotting, character development and expressing interior life through song – “Little Dancer” feels as if it has only scratched the surface of possibility of its story, about the hopes of a talented young dancer, both immortalized and dashed on an artist’s pedestal. So Stroman, composer Stephen Flaherty and book and lyrics writer Lynn Ahrens would seem to have more work to do if “Little Dancer” is to sweep out the cliches and present itself as more than just another pretty face.

The venture is an intriguing one-off for the Kennedy Center: an original musical produced entirely by the institution and conceived under its past president, Michael M. Kaiser. Having recruited a top-tier assortment of Broadway pros – other major roles are filled by Boyd Gaines, Karen Ziemba and Rebecca Luker, and the designers include William Ivey Long (costumes) and Beowulf Boritt (sets) – Kaiser put this project on a promising path, and on a scale of ambition commensurate with the center’s place in the arts ecosystem.

The results in the Eisenhower Theater – where, after a nearly four-week preview period, the show officially opened Thursday night – reveal a fairly pedestrian tale, buoyed at times by a romantic musicality redolent of Belle Époque Paris and a smart, eye-catching design. The towering, rotating panels of Boritt’s set resemble artists’ stretched canvases, on which projection designer Benjamin Pearcy splashes a changing pattern of vibrant, colliding colors, enhanced by Ken Billington’s lighting. (This is, after all, the age of impressionism.) Long, too, is entirely in his element here, dreaming up outfits for the women worthy of Toulouse-Lautrec’s vision of the Moulin Rouge, as well as tutus for the dancers that give them the air of soignée sprites.

As the show is inspired by an object, albeit a dazzling one – the expressive Edgar Degas sculpture whose original wax version is in the National Gallery of Art – the show’s creators had a formidable assignment: making a statue breathe. To do so, Stroman, Ahrens and Flaherty used the mysterious fate of Marie van Goethem, the Paris Opera Ballet student who posed for Degas, as the linchpin of their musical. The insufficiency of the exploration of Marie, however, is the show’s biggest weakness.

If another musical tale set in the impressionist era, James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George,” is about the relationship between an artist and his painting, “Little Dancer” is the story of an artist and his subject. Marie is such a vital character that she has been split in two here: At the beginning of the musical, an older, sadder Marie, portrayed (and sung lusciously) by Luker, visits Degas’s atelier just after he has died, in hopes of seeing the artwork. It’s this scene that triggers the musical’s warmest, most memorable melody, “C’est le Ballet,” but also triggers the question that dogs the entire evening: Why exactly does Adult Marie keep popping up?

We will, eventually, get an answer, but in the interim, Adult Marie feels less like a person than a narrative device, and why and what she’s remembering, and for whom, are lost in the onrush of subplots and pirouettes. The story of her younger, more carefree self, embodied by Peck, unfolds more concretely. The impoverished Marie is competing with richer girls for a featured role in the latest Paris Opera Ballet production and trying to provide for her little sister (Sophia Anne Caruso) and alcoholic mother (Ziemba, agile as always).

Peck’s Marie is a little sunnier than might be expected of a girl who has known hardship; there’s a beaming indefatigability about her that reminds you of Annie Warbucks or a Disney heroine. More oddly, though, among the show’s two dozen songs, none is a number that lets us inside Young Marie’s thoughts. Why does she so desperately want to dance? How does she feel about the handsome street singer (Kyle Harris) hanging around, forever seeming ready to burst into “On the Street Where You Live”? Why does she risk her ballet career by sneaking off to pose for Degas? An idea suggests itself: Maybe Luker is there to interpret Young Marie’s feelings in song and Peck, in dance. It proves an idle notion.

A lack of development also afflicts the bond between Marie and Degas, played by an impressively crusty and, owing to the artist’s failing eyesight, short-fused Gaines. Not until late in the second act and the song “A Box of Things” are they accorded a duet of any moment. The withholding inclination of this show unreasonably restricts our access to the characters, leaving us waiting in vain to discover more about them. At the same time, it bogs down an audience in unrewarding side stories, such as the travails of Marie’s older sister Antoinette (Jenny Powers), who escapes penury by attaching herself to a refined Parisian brute (Sean Martin Hingston).

The more finely wrought diversions of “Little Dancer” occur when Stroman and her corps of dancers remind us that this is indeed a musical about ballet. These dance sequences offer the most invigorating exposure in a musical to the beauty of the form since “Billy Elliot.” Stroman’s choreography here betokens the passion for dance she infused so exhilaratingly into “Contact,” her Tony-winning triptych of dance-theater pieces.

Whenever Peck is sent leaping and spinning, it’s as if the hindering tethers on “Little Dancer” come off, too. And the musical is set free.

[Little Dancer: Music by Stephen Flaherty, book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Kai Harada; projections, Benjamin Pearcy; music supervisor, David Loud; orchestrations, Doug Besterman and Larry Hochman; music director, Shawn Gough. With Janet Dickinson, Jolina Javier, Polly Baird, Lyrica Woodruff, Juliet Doherty and Michael McCormick. About 2 hours, 40 minutes. 

[Coming up in a subsequent post will be articles on the way the women of Degas’s era and the milieu of the Paris ballet are portrayed in the play, what inspired set designer Beowulf Boritt, and why this production played in preview until just ten days before it closed.  Other related articles on the Kennedy Center première of Little Dancer include “The Arts of Perseverance from an Iconic Ballerina,” a discussion of director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s work on the show by Sarah Kaufman; “Tiler Peck: A Dancer Takes Her Next Big Leap,” a profile of the New York City Ballet dancer who plays the young Marie, Degas’s model for the sculpture, by Peter Marks; “Making Art Sing Is Hardly a Walk in Park,” a consideration of how visual art may be “illustrated” by music by Anne Midgette; and “Flaherty and Ahrens: 30 Years in the Life,” a profile of the collaborators Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens by Nelson Pressley.  All four pieces appeared in the “Arts & Style” section of the Washington Post on 19 October 2014.]