28 February 2016

'Prodigal Son'

It’s been my observation that playwrights who write plays about their own lives, autobiographical plays, nearly always indulge in the conceits, first, that they are unquestionably worthy of that focus and, second, that every iota of their lives is significant.  I think of Arthur Miller and After the Fall and A. R. Gurney and What I Did Last Summer—and now Prodigal Son by John Patrick Shanley (2005 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for Doubt; 1988 Oscar for Moonstruck).  When my friend Diana asked me after the show why a playwright would want to write such a play as Prodigal Son, I said that I always felt as if the writers had something they needed to write through, for their own benefit—writing, as I’ve noted before, can be cathartic—but that I also always wondered why they felt it was necessary to inflict it on the rest of us.  Shanley’s Prodigal Son, even at only 95 minutes, is an apt example of what I mean.

The world première of Prodigal Son, which Shanley, 65, wrote last year, started previews on Stage I at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center home on 19 January and opened on 9 February; it’s slated to close on 27 March (after a week’s extension).  Diana and I caught it on Friday evening, 19 February.  The play’s overtly autobiographical, as Shanley, who’s long history with MTC includes 10 previous productions, states in the program: “It’s a true story for the most part.  The changes I’ve made have been to simplify, or to make a point.”  Except for the young character who stands in for the author, Shanley affirms that “most of the names remain unchanged, or only slightly altered.” 

Prodigal Son covers the years 1965, when young James Quinn (Timothée Chalamet), then 15, meets Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry), headmaster and founder of Thomas More Preparatory School in Harrisville, New Hampshire, at a diner in Keene for what amounts to his admissions interview, to 1968, the year Jim graduates from Thomas More at 17.  An Irish Catholic kid from a tough neighborhood in the Bronx, Jim’s a scholarship student at the boys’ Catholic prep school, after having been expelled from Cardinal Spellman High in New York City.  He’s an obviously extremely intelligent boy, and what Jesse Green in New York magazine called “a questing soul” (stop me if you’ve this before) with a head full of poetry who’s a voracious reader of such diverse authors as Heraclitus of Ephesus, Rafael Sabatini (Scaramouche), T. S. Eliot (The Wasteland), H. Rider Haggard (She), Siegfried Sassoon, Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front), and others whose names and works get dropped throughout the play.  Jim displays a talent for writing and critical thinking.  But he’s angry and confused, picks fights with other students (often, apparently, the freshmen), drinks, steals (both from other students and local shops), lies, possibly smokes pot; except for his roommate, Austin (David Potters), the nephew of Headmaster Schmitt, Jim’s made an enemy of every student in the school.  Schmitt describes the boy as “the most interesting mess we have this year” and asks English master Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard, 2001 Tony for The Invention of Love) to befriend him because Hoffman’s so good with the troubled boys.  (Does that strike anyone else as ominous foreshadowing—or is it just me?)

I guess it’s no spoiler to say that Jim becomes a thorny problem for Headmaster Schmitt, who comes off as such a liberal-minded educator at that meeting in Keene when he answers Jim’s question about why he’d accept him at Thomas More with his academic record and his expulsion from his previous school.  Schmitt explains that he finds something in the boy and thinks he should have a second chance.   Now he seems to be looking for justification to expel Jim, whose escapades always leave no evidence even though everyone seems to know who the guilty party is.  (My own experience at private schools where the headmaster is also the school’s founder/owner is that court-worthy proof is hardly necessary to expel a troublesome student.  It didn’t help me.  Wait, did I say that out loud?)  Of course, if Schmitt, whose wife, Louise (Annika Boras), who teaches Jim and one other student (whom we never meet) honors English in tutorials at the Schmitt house, is an advocate for Jim, had thrown the boy out at the first—or even second—opportunity, there wouldn’t have been a play.  (Hmmm . . . .

At any rate, Jim survives at each juncture by swearing firmly that he didn’t do whatever he’s suspected of until just before graduation when he’s accused of having gotten drunk the night before a final exam for Schmitt’s religion class, causing him to miss the test because he was . . . er, sick.  The inquisition into this allegation goes on for several days during which he has a counseling session with Hoffman.  (Hoffman says he believes Jim’s denial of the drinking, but when the boy confesses, his teacher blurts out that he had figured that.  Really?  Is Hoffman a liar?  A vacillator?  Forgetful?  Has Shanley forgotten what his character’s said earlier?)  In the course of the session, Shanley reveals that Hoffman and Schmitt both have buried secrets, each hinted at once in an earlier scene (as if to justify the subsequent revelation) but dropped in here like little bombs, having only the slightest repercussion on the play’s dénouement but reverberating in the background as if to make the two teachers—and, by implication, Louise Schmitt—seem more complex. 

At one point, Hoffman suddenly reaches out and places his palm on Jim’s scalp in the most awkward bit of blocking I’ve seen in a long time.  (I whispered to myself, ‘Phrenology?’)  That gesture becomes an even more awkward feeling of Jim’s face, at which point Jim jumps up and shouts, “What are you doing!”  (Not an inapt question under the circumstances.)  Now, I know what was supposed to be going on—but this bit of physicalization Shanley devised (the playwright also directed the MTC production) was just plain weird.  That’s not even considering that it came out of nowhere (aside from the ominous hint back in the earlier scene).  I mean, who does that—feel someone’s scalp and then his face?  That’s not a pass, is it?  Maybe Hoffman was channeling Annie Sullivan!

I guess it goes without saying that Jim survives the inquiry and Schmitt’s self-examination and graduates.  We don’t see that because the last scene in the play, which starts off as a final showdown in the headmaster’s office the day before graduation, turns into a series of soliloquies by each of the characters recounting their futures.  It wraps up the plot, but it hardly concludes the drama.  Why does Schmitt let Jim off after he confesses to breaking Thomas More’s zero-tolerance no-drinking rule?  Why is Jim so angry?  It’s more than the fact that he comes from the Bronx, but we never learn what his trouble is.  What does Louise Schmitt (whom Shanley especially mentions in his author’s note) find in this difficult teenager?  We have to take it on faith that she sees something, but we’re not allowed to learn what. 

Schmitt tells Jim that he founded Thomas More because he wants to create “extraordinary young men.”  Beside being a little arrogant, are we supposed to then assume that Jim Quinn, AKA John Patrick Shanley, became one?  Maybe I’m alone in feeling that writing an autobiographical play in which you declare yourself extraordinary—we don’t see it; we’re simply left to believe it—takes a large portion of chutzpah.  (Okay, maybe that’s not the most apt word to use for a play in which all the characters are Catholic.  Hubris just seems so . . . tragically Greek.)

I guess you got that I have huge reservations about this play.  (ROTters may already know that I’m not Shanley’s biggest fan.  I think I made that clear in my report on Storefront Church, posted on 16 June 2012.  I didn’t see Doubt on stage, but I found the 2008 film pat and contrived.  Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, which I saw in Washington in 1985, also struck me as set up and artificial.)   There wasn’t one thing that went on on the MTC stage that Friday night that I believed for an instant.  I’ll accept Shanley’s word that the events in the play are real—at least as far as he can recall half a century back—but that “making a point” business he allowed himself to justify some alteration must have done him in.  Even the acting was unconvincing, a fault I lay directly at the feet of Shanley since he directed the cast—and I’m sure these actors are all capable of much better (especially Leonard, whom I’ve seen before to much greater advantage). 

I’m not sure what could have been made of the situation Shanley lays out in Prodigal Son; true or not, it’s such a cliché I despair that any dramatist could have come up with a truly engaging script.  Furthermore, despite the highfalutin language Shanley puts in the mouths of his characters—especially Jim Quinn, who speaks more like a 30-year-old grad student (and a pretentious one at that) than a teenage prep-schooler—he never gets beneath the superficial and obvious to let us in on what’s extraordinary about them.  Mr. and Mrs. Schmitt, Hoffman, and Austin are all ciphers about whom we learn almost nothing, and Jim’s little more than a mouthpiece for some empty verbiage from Shanley, what he would like to imagine now at 65 he ought to have said back when he was 16 or 17.  But the language aside, Shanley never shows us what his characters, these people the author tells us were the making of him, are capable of—he just tells us.  Shanley even has one character say of the dramatist’s younger self: “You have a remarkable mind”; I’m unconvinced.

As director, Shanley fares no better than he does as author.  I’ve voiced my problems with playwrights who direct their own work before, and the MTC staging of Prodigal Son fits perfectly into that category.  Shanley paid more attention to the words the actors are saying—that is, what he wrote—than he did to any believable characterization.  If his cast weren’t as talented as they are, the production would look like soap-opera acting at best.  Every character falls into the cliché or stereotype for his or her role.  (It’s coincidental that in his 1985 review of Deep Blue Sea in the Washington Post, David Richards wrote that “it is possible to believe the actors on a stage and not believe the play in which they’re appearing.” In the case of Prodigal Son, however, I didn’t believe either.  In fact, I didn’t believe the actors believed it themselves.) 

Just as I’m doubtful any director could have saved Prodigal Son from being unconvincing as drama, I’m also uncertain any actors could have made these puppet figures more believable.  The situations they’re in and the lines they have to say subvert any real chance at verisimilitude as far as I can see.  Shanley hasn’t given them an opportunity to redeem their roles.  No one fares any better than anyone else, but a great deal of attention has been paid to Chalamet as Jim.  Ben Brantley in the New York Times, for instance, says Chalamet has “enough easy charisma to confirm his status as a rising star.”  I barely remember his appearance on Showtime’s Homeland in 2012 and I never saw his other performances (Interstellar, 2014), but I found his work here unimpressive and unoriginal, using all the hackneyed behavior of every troubled, volatile teen since J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in 1951’s Catcher in the Rye and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).  If this 20-year-old actor is anywhere near as promising as his reviews suggest, then I have to blame director Shanley once again for sabotaging his performance at MTC.  (I’ve already mentioned the peculiarity of Leonard’s portrayal of the English master, Alan Hoffman.  It’s ironic that Leonard came to prominence playing another troubled student at an exclusive boys’ school in 1989’s Dead Poets Society.  I recall that being a poignant and daring performance.)

The technical production was fine, though given what I think of the whole megillah its kind of expensive gift wrap for a middling present.  Santo Loquasto’s fragmentary set, with sliding panels for walls and platforms for floors of different rooms, is swaddled in the branches of a copse of birches, lending the set the feel of a New England countryside.  The schoolhouse is a small, dollhouse-sized model way upstage, like a painting by James Kinkaid (if he painted large mansions instead of little cottages); the warm, yellow lights glow invitingly, despite the turmoil that we know goes on inside.  This is all washed appropriately by Natasha Katz’s mood-setting lighting, casting shadows over some scenes from the tree branches as if they were some kind of watchful spirit.  Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s late-’60s clothing, though unspectacular (it is a Catholic school, after all—no hippies or bohos here) was suitably unobtrusive.  Paul Simon (of Simon & Garfunkel back in the play’s period) provided music that, while unremarkable, set a nice atmosphere for the goings-on.

The press coverage was less harsh than my assessment, but generally put more store in the production and performances than in the script.  Elisabeth Vincentelli virtually dismissed Prodigal Son in the New York Post under a sub-head of “Skip It”: “‘Prodigal Son,’ is . . . vague. . . .  [E]verything about it is generic, from the by-the-numbers bad-boy rebellion to the young protagonist’s . . . poetic aspirations to the teacher with a secret . . . .  ‘Prodigal Son’ flirts with big themes—religion, sexuality, feminism, literature—but never ventures beyond a light make-out session.”  With a “Bottom Line” slug that included the characterization “bizarre vanity from Shanley,” Newsday’s Linda Winer opened her notice by stating, “Without identifying the 90-minute memory play as autobiographical, we could have been left to ourselves to fall in love, or not, with the troubled but brilliant 15-year-old protagonist from the Bronx and not have to deal with Shanley’s admiration for his fascinating, handsome, poetic young self.”  Winer praised Chalamet as a “gifted actor [who] is giving a breakout performance” and affirmed that Leonard is “so good . . . that we wince at the cliché Shanley’s memory forces him to become.”  She even asserted that Shanley “ably directs” the production. 

In the New York Times, Brantley characterized Shanley’s “painful” play, “a hymn to the impossible, combustible and brilliant young thing he once was,” as “the sound of a raw adolescent ego screaming for attention.”  Brantley applauds the playwright for not just recalling his teens “so vividly that he hasn’t just written about it; he has also rendered it as if . . . he were still writhing in the stinging throes of his midteens.”  The play’s “inescapably all about Jim” even though the other characters “are given problems and secrets of their own,” but the playwright “deals rather perfunctorily and inconsistently” with them.  A “subtle probing of mixed motives and shaky certainty . . . is seldom in evidence” in Prodigal Son, observed Brantley.  In the end, the Timesman pivoted and lamented that “the man that Jim would become seemingly has yet to achieve the distance to make this struggling artist-in-the-making worthy of a play of his own.”  Matt Windman, in amNew York, described Prodigal Son as “raw and choppy, with long gaps in time between some scenes, meandering discussions of philosophy and a heavy reliance on direct narration.”  Windman added, “At times, it resembles a heavy-handed takeoff of ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ though in the end, “it is an engaging and candid coming-of-age piece.” 

The New York Daily News’s Joe Dziemianowicz, calling the Prodigal Son a “satisfying play,” noted, “Over an hour-and-a-half, themes that have occupied Shanley as an adult are seen emerging here.”  Dziemianowicz felt that Shanley’s direction “skillfully guides” the cast, whom the Newsman praised with special mentions for Chalamet and Leonard, though he had some reservations about the physical production.  In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout stated simply, “Finely directed by the author himself and exceptionally well acted by a five-person cast led by Timothée Chalamet, ‘Prodigal Son’ is a heart-sore portrait of adolescent turmoil that bears the stamp of hard-earned truth on every scene.”

In the Village Voice, Miriam Felton-Dansky described Prodigal Son as simultaneously “[h]eartfelt and frequently well observed” and “teeter[ing] between restraint and emotional overload, eventually (and unnecessarily) succumbing to the latter.”  Felton-Dansky found that the play’s final development “grows surreal, becoming a kind of stagy séance in which Shanley resurrects the dead so as to bare their long-ago souls.”  When Jim learns of Hoffman’s secret and demands details, the teacher refuses to tell the tale.  The Voice reviewer commented, “If only he (and Shanley) had meant it.”  In the “Goings On About Town” column in the New Yorker, the review-writer admonished that Shanley has painted his younger self “perhaps too admiringly,” though the capsule review dubbed Chalamet’s performance “incandescent.”  “But the playwright shouldn’t have directed his own work,” lamented the reviewer, the result of which is that “the pace is often stilted.” 

As if reading over my shoulder, Jesse Green of New York magazine warned:

A playwright enters dangerous territory when he attempts to dramatize his struggle to become an artist: a struggle that is supposedly resolved, or at least justified, by the artistry he now puts before us.  When the play turns out to be less than thrilling—as was the case, for instance, with A. R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer—the disproportion between the setup and the result risks bathos, if not ridiculousnsess.

Green continued that Shanley’s “propinquity to danger,” meaning his tendency to “take dramatic fiction as close to the electrified fence of narcissism as possible without getting electrocuted,” is what “animates and partly defeats Prodigal Son.”  “Trying to climb that electrified fence,” continued Green, “has apparently shorted some of Shanley’s circuits.”  On one hand, Green wrote, the autobiographical play “displays all of his mature talents for moral inquiry, rich dialogue, and compelling scene-making” and on the other “like its biblical namesake, is also a mopey and vexing testament to the confusions of self-regard.”  By the time Prodigal Son nears its end (I don’t say conclusion), Green complained that “the play has reached a murky depth of perplexity from which . . . it can’t seem to find its way back to the surface.”  The man from New York expanded on this deficiency:

I don’t even know whom I’m criticizing when I say, in teacherly fashion, that the work is promising but undisciplined; is that Jim’s fault, or Shanley the playwright’s, or Shanley the director’s?  (This is one of those cases that confirms the conventional wisdom of not directing one’s own work.)  Another intelligence, not so in love with the author’s, might have helped him prune deadwood, focus the narrative, avoid the whirlpools of narcissism, and possibly even eliminate the interstitial narration that too directly pleads for indulgence. 

Green’s conclusion is: “It seems that Jim and John [that is, Shanley] both take Thomas More’s example too much to heart, telling too much truth, or what they imagine to be truth, for their own good.”

Entertainment Weekly’s Melissa Rose Bernardo asserted that in Prodigal Son, “Shanley crafts a captivating warts-and-all portrait of not only a budding artist but also an average teenager struggling to find himself.”  The play, Bernardo states, “recalls all of our mouthy, insecure teenage meltdowns” and brings “us back—for a brief, but intense, emotion-packed 95-minute trip.”  In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney, calling the play an “unsatisfying new work” and a “wordy text,” characterized it as “an opaque portrait revealing little beyond the author’s romanticized self-image as an embattled hero.”  Though “beautifully acted,” Prodigal Son “lacks drama, and Shanley’s solution to that feels forced.”  “The writing doesn’t match the elegance of the production,” asserted Rooney, especially in that final revelatory scene, which the HR reviewer called “a mess.”  Praising the technical production, especially Loquasto’s set, Katz’s lighting, and Simon’s music, Rooney declared, “The chief reward is the acting.”  Time Out New York’s David Cote called Shanley’s play “a keen, passionate portrait of the author as a poetry-spouting romantic punk” and describes it as “pure, splendid Shanley: shaggily idealistic and always scratching a philosophical itch underneath jokes and banter.”  Prodigal Son “is lean and cool-headed,” wrote the man from TONY, “but it contains one or two emotional explosions that cast the previous action in a new light.”  Shanley directed “with a tender hand” and Loquasto’s set was “spare, efficient.” 

In Variety, Marilyn Stasio complained that Shanley “lavishes an inordinate amount of attention” on his stand-in, Jim Quinn, although the writer “has done an excellent job of directing.”  Despite the complexity Stasio found in the role of Jim, she felt that “Shanley makes little effort to delve deeper into such a troubled character” which is where she believed the “real but largely unexplored drama lies.” 

The on-line press was essentially an echo of the print outlets.  David Gordon of TheaterMania, after praising Chalamet’s “true star-is-born performance,” reported that the MTC production, while “still extremely moving,” “hasn't entirely realized its full potential.”  Overall, said Gordon, Shanley’s play, “both on page and in production, never completely rises to the level of curiosity we feel about its protagonist,” spending too much of its length on “exposition or . . . mood setting” so that “it doesn’t offer particularly new insights.”    On New York Theatre Guide, Margret Echeverria noted that Prodigal Son, which she described as “beautifully crafted,” asks if we “remember fifteen” and decided that “yes, we remember fifteen and, despite that warning, we’re charmed; we come willingly.”  BroadwayWorld’s Michael Dale drew a distinction between “coming of age stories where you identify with the awkward struggles of the protagonists and recognize a little of yourself “ and those “where you wish they’d just grow up already.”  Prodigal Son, said Dale, “leans a bit towards the latter.”  As director, Shanley treats the play “as a soft and sentimental memory,” wrote Dale, and added, “The action is sparse, the tension is mild and the plotting always seems more or less familiar.”  Citing the script’s line characterizing Jim Quinn as an “interesting mess,” the BWW reviewer declared that Prodigal Son “is neither interesting . . . nor messy enough to make an impact.”

On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray described Prodigal Son as a “curiously cursory new play” in which memory “is at once crystalline and cloudy” and in which the playwright “discovers . . .  Well, not much, as it turns out.”  Acknowledging that the “dual portrait” of Louise Schmitt and Alan Hoffman “is not without merit,” Murray declared that “it’s tough to escape the fact that . . . Jim is not particularly interesting at the head of his own story.”  The development, however, in the supporting characters “doesn’t remotely feel like revealing anything.”  Shanley’s writing and directing, said Murray, are “formulaic” and it seemed to the TB blogger that the playwright “cares little for connecting” the separate incidents of the play.  The reviewer also missed the “crucial character points” that show Jim’s growth: “There’s something frustrating in watching a year pass by in a blink but no discernible change or growth appear in those who ostensibly endured much during that time.”  Murray asked, “What are we supposed to take away from this?”  “Nothing,” he answered.  Murray is the only reviewer I read who had reservations about Chalamet’s performance, finding that the actor “holds his anger too close to the surface, and draws upon it more readily than the other emotions that ought to be writhing inside Jim.”  Concluding that the play “doesn’t make for riveting drama,” the TB writer decided that neither the playwright nor his character were “able to convince us that their joint past is a puzzle we are, or should be, desperate to solve” and “like its central figure, Prodigal Son is forever striving to be more and having to settle for less.”

CurtainUp’s Elyse Sommer called Prodigal Son “a compelling, well cast memory piece” which “[w]hile not without humor, . . . is neither light entertainment or a romance.”  “Prodigal Son . . . is interesting and likable,” said Steven Suskin of Huffington Post.  “It is also uneven.”  “After an effective opening,” observed Suskin, the pace slackens until “near the midway point, the pace finally picks up.  Shanley gets back on track, and the rest of the evening is markedly more interesting.”  The HP writer gave a pretty cogent analysis of how I felt about this theater piece (including my feelings about playwrights who direct their own work):

The overall results are more than workable, but one suspects there’s a considerably stronger play in Prodigal Son than what we see at City Center.  The trouble with writing autobiographical plays is that the author can be overly concerned with what actually happened, the way it happened; this sometimes leads to accurate reporting but less-than-scintillating dramaturgy.  That’s where the director comes in.  It could well be that Prodigal Son would benefit from the prodding of a director other than the autobiographical playwright, who might be too rigidly staging the events just like they were lodged in memory—and rejecting cuts that would strengthen.

Most writers, dramatists included, use bits of their lives, families, backgrounds, and hometowns as grist for their writing.  Tennessee Williams did it all the time; Neil Simon did it a lot.  A. R. Gurney, David Henry Hwang, and Richard Nelson do it in almost every play, and Shanley has done it in Doubt, Defiance, and Storefront Church.  But the plots and characters, though drawn from real life, are fiction—some more than others, granted.  When the playwright needs to make a dramatic point, she doesn’t have to shoehorn it into a factual sequence, throwing everything out of balance.  In a fictional play, the writer is free move bits around and even cut them with impunity.  (Unless, of course, the writer is one of those who have trouble cutting anything they’ve composed.  Then he needs an editor or a dramaturg to help him be ruthless.  “Kill your babies,” one of my teachers admonished us.)  It’s ten times harder to do when the details are true and the subject is the writer’s life.  If it happened, the writer feels, it has to be in the play.  A couple of the reviewers of Prodigal Son thought that Shanley had fallen into that rabbit hole.

As for the playwright who serves as his own director—in my experience there’s no remedy for that.  Unless one or the other is a (certified) theatrical genius.  I believe that’s quadruply true when the play’s autobiographical: when the writer, the director, and the main character are one and the same, the playwright will always win disputes, hands down.  Then the audience (and sometimes the actors) lose.

23 February 2016

'Cabin in the Sky'

The history of African Americans on Broadway, especially before, say, 1975 or so, is skimpy.  Looking only at musicals, there were black characters in plays like 1927’s Show Boat (though in many shows, the roles were played by white actors in blackface because mixed-race casts were risky—and even prohibited in Jim Crow states).  All-black shows appeared as early as 1898 with Clorindy, a series of scenes and sketches by black poet and lyricist Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) and musician-composer Will Marion Cook (1869-1944), deemed the first Broadway musical with an African-American cast, followed in 1903 by In Dahomey starring Bert Williams (1874-1922) and George Walker (1873-1911), the first nationally prominent black comedy team, written by Williams and Walker in collaboration with Dunbar and Cook.  In 1921, Shuffle Along came into New York after a moderately successful tour—and became a smash hit with white audiences.  Written by vaudevillians Flournoy Miller (1887-1971) and Aubrey Lyles (1884?-1932) based on one of their music hall sketches, and scored by Eubie Blake (1883-1983; music) and Noble Sissle (1889-1975; lyrics), its story was simple and silly, but the music was glorious (spawning the hit “I’m Just Wild About Harry”) and Shuffle Along ran for 504 performances on Broadway (to integrated audiences) and then spawned multiple touring companies. (A revival of Shuffle Along with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, directed by George C. Wolfe, who’s written a new libretto, and choreographed by Savion Glover, will open on Broadway in April 2016.)

Sissle and Blake went on to compose other Broadway musicals, none as momentous as Shuffle Along, and a short-lived trend of black musicals enlivened Broadway theater for a time.  Until Porgy and Bess hit the boards in 1935.  Set in Charleston, South Carolina, with a serious book and soaring score, Porgy and Bess, the Gershwins’ folk opera, was a ground-breaker, but there was little follow-up.  Despite its acclaim, Porgy and Bess only ran 124 performances in its début mounting, but it quickly became a perennial on Broadway (seven revivals through 2012) and spawned a 1959 award-winning film adaptation with a star-studded cast.  In this milieu arose Cabin in the Sky, a 1940 all-black musical with a book by Lynn Root, lyrics by John Latouche, and music by Vernon Duke.  It also had choreography by George Balanchine (who directed as well), assisted by Katherine Dunham, and a cast that included Dunham, Dooley Wilson (soon to be nationally recognized as Sam the piano-player at Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca), Ethel Waters, and Todd Duncan (Porgy in Porgy and Bess).  The play ran 156 performances at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld).  Cabin, however, has been described as a “simplistically drawn allegory” and a “succès d’estime,” and has never been revived on Broadway since its première.  (There was a 47-performance run Off-Broadway in 1964 with Rosetta LeNoire and a concert staging at New York City’s 14th Street YMHA presented by Musicals Tonight! in October 2003.)

I’d known of Cabin in the Sky by title for decades, but I’d never seen it or heard the score.  (It’s possible my father saw the play in his youth—he saw a lot of the classics growing up in New York City—but the cast album, if there even was one, wasn’t among those I inherited.)  Even though I was familiar with songs like “Taking a Chance on Love” and “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” (which was added for the bowdlerized 1943 movie version), I was never aware they’d come from Cabin.  So when my theater friend Diana called to say that Encores! was presenting Cabin, I jumped at the chance to see it.  Perhaps not as historically prominent as Mark Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, which I saw in an Encores! Concert in 2013 (see my blog report on 1 August 2013), but it’s something I’d known about in a vague sense and wanted to check out.  So on Friday evening, 12 February, Diana and I met at City Center to see the Cabin concert, despite the bitter-cold temperatures (it was under 25ºF that night).  The Cabin in the Sky concert opened at City Center on 10 February and ran through the 14th.

Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel, who also made the concert adaptation of the book, calls Cabin “one of the most unusual black musical theater experiments” in American stage history.  The play began as a story, “Little Joe,” by playwright and screenwriter Lynn Root (1905-97) and passed through several hands before reaching choreographer George Balanchine (1904-83), who showed it to composer Vernon Duke (1903-69).  After reading the story, essentially a libretto without the music, Duke pronounced Little Joe” “a workable book complete with song cues,” but he was reluctant to take it on because he felt his Russian heritage wasn’t a good fit for the story’s African-American setting.  So taken with Root’s story was Duke, however, that he relented and enlisted John Latouche (1914-56) to write the lyrics after the project was turned down by other composers such as Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg (who would later write new songs with Harold Arlen for the film score), and Johnny Mercer. 

Duke, Latouche, and set designer Boris Aronson went south to Virginia, Latouche’s home state, to get a feel for the play’s milieu.  (The play’s setting is described only as “Somewhere in the South,” but there are hints in the script that Root was thinking of Virginia; not the least suggestive is the song “My Old Virginia Home on the Nile.”)  Ultimately, the script and score were written and producer Albert Lewis convinced Balanchine to direct and choreograph the production.  (Cabin was Balanchine’s début as the director of an entire Broadway show.)  The creative team also brought in Katherine Dunham (1909-2006), to whom they also gave a lead role (Georgia Brown), and her company to create the dances.  The J. Rosamond Johnson gospel choir was added to sing traditional spirituals in the show to augment the original material. 

Coming on the heels of both Porgy and Bess and Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures (on Broadway in revival at the same time as Porgy and Bess), the cast of Cabin’s première included Duncan, the original Porgy, as The Lawd’s General, and Rex Ingram, De Lawd in the 1936 film version of Green Pastures, as Lucifer, Jr. (The Head Man in the Encores! concert).  Ethel Waters agreed to star as Petunia Jackson, Little Joe’s wife, once the title had been changed from Little Joe to Cabin in the Sky.  Like Green Pastures, the musical had a biblical premise and featured gospel singing; like Porgy and Bess, it was set in the rural South. 

But the play was only a modest hit on stage, and the MGM film version was considerably altered, omitting most of the Duke-Latouche score (replaced with Harburg-Arlen numbers).  Little of the original staging has survived, reports Viertel—just the script, the piano score, the première’s program (as a guide to where some numbers went in the performance sequence), and four songs by Waters that were recorded with the show’s orchestra (to give a hint about the arrangements).  The original orchestrations are lost and so is Balanchine and Dunham’s choreography.  (The film version was directed by Vincente Minnelli and, though no choreographer was credited, Busby Berkeley is known to have assisted Minnelli and clearly “Hollywoodized” the dancing.) From these scant artifacts, Encores! had to reconstruct Cabin for performance.  Starting in 2014, under the guidance of Encores! musical director Rob Berman and arranger Jonathan Tunick (2014 winner of the Stephen Sondheim Award for contributions “to the works of legendary composer, Stephen Sondheim, and the canon of American theater”), the Encores! team reassembled the score, orchestrations, and dances as closely as they could to the 1940 production.  (In honor of Tunick’s recognition, I ran an old report on the 1976 première of Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, which Tunick orchestrated, on ROT on 15 May 2014.)  Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, an actor and director with a special gift for the works of August Wilson, co-edited the text, deciding what should stay and what should go, including sensitive racial references (he excised words like ‘pickaninny,’ for example) that in 2016 might disrupt the receptivity of the play. 

(That the play, like many other “African-American” scripts of its era—with the notable exception of Shuffle Along—was created by white men was a concern only glancingly noted by the current press.  Even the major contribution of Dunham, the only black artist on the creative team, went uncredited in the program, a common practice when it came to African-American collaborators.  Only Jesse Green of New York magazine made a point of this circumstance, calling the play “compromised.”  By today’s standards, the characters come close to racial caricatures, and so does the plot.  In addition, as Green pointed out, the musical’s set in “a mythical American South untroubled by racism or even much poverty,” as if those aspects of American life didn’t exist.  Of course, I don’t know what else, in addition to the word ‘pickaninny,’ Santiago-Hudson cut from the text, but it’s pretty certain that Cabin in the Sky was a product, however well-intentioned, of an America that practiced at the very least a subliminal racism, including on its mainstream stages.  Green also saw that the top-flight black performers in the Encores! Cabin being “available for this production says a lot about the conditions still governing the commercial theater.”  Nonetheless, as even Green acknowledged, seeing even “compromised” plays like this one—and Encores! has staged quite a few of them in its history—is a useful and worthwhile practice lest we forget that aspect of our theater history.  Furthermore, Green suggests, “the opportunity to keep black musical artists working, if even on thorny material like this, is not to be gainsaid.”)

The story of Cabin in the Sky is of chronic gambler and womanizer “Little Joe” Jackson (Michael Potts) who, having been slashed by Domino Johnson (Jonathan Kirkland) at John Henry’s club over an unpaid IOU, lies on his deathbed.  As Little Joe is attended by Dr. Jones (Wayne Pretlow) and Brother Green (J. D. Webster), the pastor, Joe’s wife, the devout Petunia Jackson (LaChanze), prays to God not to take her husband, whom she says is really a good man at heart.  She even promises that if God gives Joe back to her, she’ll gladly go with him when his final time comes.  On the scene is the Head Man (Chuck Cooper), Lucifer’s agent, perched on a gold throne, aided by three Henchmen (Dennis Stowe, Tiffany Mann, Rebecca L. Hargrove), expecting to pick up Little Joe’s soul.  Dr. Jones pronounces Joe dead, but Petunia’s prayers have reached Heaven and the Lord’s General (Norm Lewis) arrives on a silver throne with three Angels (Nicholas Ward, Kristolyn Lloyd, Jared Joseph).  The two supernatural figures argue over who should get Joe’s soul, and they strike a deal to give Little Joe six months to redeem himself by living a moral life.  

Joe rises from his bed, much to the surprise of everyone—and the delight of Petunia.  Joe intends to live a Godly life, but he’s sorely tempted.  He attends church with his wife and stays away from gambling and John Henry’s place—until a fellow comes around selling sweepstake tickets.  Joe refuses at first, but in the end, breaks down and buys just one ticket.  Meanwhile, he’s watched over by the ever-vigilant Petunia, who takes John Henry (Harvy Blanks) and his men on to “settle” a craps debt—by beating them at their own game with the loaded dice they tried to switch on her!  With Petunia keeping her eye on Little Joe on behalf of the Lord, he’s still stalked by Georgia Brown (Carly Hughes), a gold-digging vamp who learns that the sweepstake ticket Joe bought is a winner and, on the side of the Devil, tempts Joe to go off to live the high life with her.  

Petunia returns from an errand just at that moment and thinks that Joe has brought Georgia into her house to cheat on her.  Petunia never lets her husband explain how the woman came to be there and Petunia sends both of them packing.  They head to John Henry’s club, stopping on the way to acquire some sharp duds—Joe enters in black tie and a topper!  Who else should arrive at John Henry’s but Petunia herself, come to drown her disappointment in Joe.  Domino Johnson, who’s just been let out of jail for carving Joe up in the first place, shows up to finish the job.  Domino’s finished his sentence of six months—exactly the length of Little Joe’s reprieve.  When Domino makes for Joe, Petunia intercedes and pushes Domino away.  But the assailant turns, pulls out a pistol and shoots both Little Joe and Petunia.

No one doubts that Petunia’s bound for Heaven, but once again, the Lord’s General and the Head Man vie for Joe’s soul.  The Head Man expects to take him because he slipped, and the Lord’s General, reading from a ledger, seems to say that Joe’s tally comes out on the Devil’s side.  But there’s a flag on the play because Georgia Brown, the cause of Joe’s downfall, felt so bad about her part in Joe’s death (time has moved faster on Earth than in Heaven, so it’s many years later now), that she joined the church, opened a school for orphans and spent the rest of her life doing good.  Since that’s down to Little Joe, the Lord’s General explains, Joe’s soul is saved and he gets to accompany Petunia to Heaven.

I included a brief description of Encores! and its mission in my report on Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella (10 April 2014).  The series’ home since it’s inception in 1994, New York City Center at 131 W. 55th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues), was built in 1923 as the Mecca Temple of the Shriners.  Replacing a movie house on the site, the current building is in the Neo-Moorish style with myriad polychrome tiles both in the interior decor and on the exterior façade forming mosaics.  The tiled roof dome is 54 feet tall.  The association met at the temple until the stock market crash of 1929 made it impossible for the Mecca Shriners to pay the taxes on the building. 

In the 1940s, the building became the property of New York City and, threatened with demolition, it was converted in 1943 by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia into the city’s first performing arts center.  The main stage seats 2,257 patrons and on the lower level there are two smaller theaters which seat 299 and 150 spectators each; there are also four studios in the center. Today, New York City Center is home to a number of performing arts troupes such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Manhattan Theatre Club, the Flamenco Festival, and the Martha Graham Dance Company, among others.  (MTC occupies the two lower-level houses.)  Encores! Off-Center, a spin-off of Encores! that focuses on Off-Broadway shows, was launched at City Center in the summer of 2013 under the artistic directorship of composer Jeanine Tesori.  In 2000, the American Theatre Wing awarded Encores! a Tony for Excellence in Theatre. 

The show has the reputation of having a terrific score but a weak book, and that turns out to be accurate.  (In New York’s Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz judged it: “Score, 10; book, 3 — or maybe 2 in this case.”)  That fact, however, makes it perfect material for a concert presentation, which dispenses with much of the libretto to focus on the score and the singing of the Broadway vets in the cast.  Certainly the characters are one-dimensional and unsophisticated, and the story, which seems to owe a little to Goethe’s Faust (a completion between God and Satan for  one man’s soul, a set period of time after which the man in question will lose his soul, and a sudden reprieve at the last moment which sends his soul to Heaven instead of Hell; see my recent post, “Faust Clones, Part 1,” 15 January 2016), is a bare-bones plot on which to hang the songs and dances, which have more to offer.  (I can only imagine the dances conceived by Balanchine, one of the great choreographers in ballet as well as on Broadway, and Dunham, a renowned dancer-chorographer of the mid-20th century, since there’s no record of what they looked like and the Encores! stage, largely occupied by the 31-piece orchestra, leaves little room for elaborate movement.)

Director Santiago-Hudson managed quite well on the cramped stage—made even more space-challenged by the two large thrones for the emissaries of God and Satan, accompanied by their minions, which were nearly always present at stage left and right.  (The next world’s agents weren’t just a decorative entourage: the two trios added marvelous harmony to their masters’ songs, like otherworldly Pips or Raylettes.)  Most of the story doesn’t require a lot of physical action—the bar scene in act two is an exception—and Santiago-Hudson kept the show moving without drawing attention to the space problem.  So did choreographer Camille A. Brown, who must have had a tougher job as the dances were generally quite energetic (Dziemianowicz called them “sinewy and spirited,” which is exactly right) and usually involved several members of the company up to the entire ensemble.  (The full cast for this presentation of Cabin was 46—probably another reason the show isn’t revived.)  

Santiago-Hudson clearly cast the best voices he could find—not to take anything away from the acting.  Some of the actors are already well known for their singing (LaChanze, a Tony-winner for the original production of The Color Purple), but all the featured cast were superb in the musical numbers and the chorus measured up equally.  I don’t like to single any one performer out here, but I must say that Chuck Cooper (Tony for The Life), as the Head Man, has a genuinely stirring baritone that resonates throughout the theater.  (We were in the middle of the mezzanine.)  Beyond that, all of the singers brought character and emotion to the songs that stood in excellently for the acting in the missing book scenes.  (For those who don’t know the Encores! process, the concerts are only rehearsed for eight days, plus one dress rehearsal.  The actors carry scripts for many of the book scenes.)  Needless to say, the standards like “Taking a Chance” and “Happiness” were joys to hear, especially so gorgeously rendered, but there were also nice surprises among the less-well-known pieces, like “Do What You Wanna Do,” sung by Cooper’s Head Man (a paean to . . . well, devilry) and Georgia Brown’s saucy “Honey in the Honeycomb,” vibrantly sung by Hughes (and which I urge someone to revive in a contemporary pop or rock style).

Between the simplistic book and the cuts for the concert presentation, the characters are pretty simple.   Nonetheless, the company gave them color and dimension beyond the mere words Root provided them.  This is down to Santiago-Hudson, too, of course—though given the short rehearsal schedule, the actors would have had to do a lot of (quick) work on their own.  Perhaps the hardest characters to fill out were the Head Man and the Lord’s General because they’re essentially allegorical figures with no back story.  Yet both Cooper and Norm Lewis (Tony nomination for The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) brought a sense of humor and a kind of frat house competitiveness to the parts that prevented them from being the stiffs they could have been.

Of course, one of the great pleasures of the Encores! concert performances of seldom-seen musicals is hearing the score played by a full orchestra, the way they were produced back in the day.  Broadway orchestras have been shrinking consistently for the past couple of decades so that it’s a rarity to hear ensembles of 28, 30, or more nowadays.  But Encores! regularly uses full-sized orchestras for its concerts: The Most Happy Fella had 38 musicians and Cabin had 31.  (Irma La Douce in May 2014 had just 10 instruments, but that was dictated by the nature of the show: the musical ensemble represented a café house band rather than a theater orchestra.  See my Irma report on 20 May 2014.)  Like the cast, the musicians are all Broadway pros and many have been playing the Encores! concerts for a while.  (They, too, only get a few rehearsals for each production, so they need to draw on all their skills and experience to hit their marks and pick up their cues, so to speak.)  Under the direction of Encores! musical director Rob Berman, the Cabin orchestra made Tunick’s arrangements of the Latouche-Duke score swell right from the overture.  (Overtures apparently have become almost passé—you don’t hear them much anymore—but I like them.  Not only does a musical’s overture give you a preview of what’s to come, musically speaking, but it sets the tone for the show before the curtain—another bygone theater element—goes up.  It also signals the start of the performance, the moment the real world morphs into the stage world, in a way that nothing else does—like the blinking lights in the lobby that tells us to go on into the auditorium.)

There’s a trade-off, of course.  The large orchestra is placed on the stage rather than in a pit, reducing the playing area the director and choreographer can use for the play’s action.  It also reduces the flexibility of the stage for the set design, which tends more to the practical than the pictorial at Encores! productions.  In Cabin, Anna Louizos created the environment with carefully selected pieces of furniture—Little Joe’s bed, the bar at John Henry’s, a bench in the Jackson’s back yard—and a projected backdrop, painted in a naïve, folk-art style, that helped set the scenes.  It was functional and allowed the maximum use of the stage space remaining after the orchestra platform upstage had been installed.  (Hand props are kept to a minimum, mostly because actors carrying scripts can’t manipulate objects very well.) 

Karen Perry’s costumes were simple, too, for the most part; only the Head Man and the Lord’s General had what you’d call flashy attire.  (The General was in a white outfit that looked like a cross between a naval uniform with epaulets and a silver sash, and an Elvis jump suit; the Head Man, wearing the coolest costume on the stage—the Devil, it seems, doesn’t only get the best lines, he gets the best duds—wore red—what else?—trousers and a red sequined jacket that sparkled in the stage lights.)  The women’s dresses came in all colors and the skirts swirled out when the actors danced like Marilyn Monroe’s in the famous Seven Year Itch photo.  The men’s outfits varied, but were generally less colorful—though the trousers came close to zoot suit pants.  The whole look was a kind of romanticized ’40s, like a Hollywood movie set in that era, but made in the ’50s or ’60s.

In the press, the response to the Encores! Cabin in the Sky was pretty even.  The Daily News’s Dziemianowicz, calling the show “a tuneful curiosity and a hit-and-miss labor of love,” characterized it this way: “Songs by Vernon Duke and John Latouche are mostly ear-ticklers, wrapped in newly restored arrangements that lend a juicy big-band bounce. Lynn Root’s book is an odd mix of faith, fable and fantasy.”  In amNew York,  Matt Windman, pronouncing the production not “so much a revival as it is a full-scale resuscitation,” described the plot as a “combination of romance, marital drama and religious trial.”  With Santiago-Hudson’s “focused direction” and Berman’s “characteristically excellent music direction,” Windman concluded that Cabin was “an admirable production of a dated, diffuse and difficult work.”  Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post asserted that with the “brilliant” score, this Cabin in the Sky is “one of the best-sung, best-danced Encores! ever.” 

Newsday’s Linda Winer, dubbing Cabin “a naive period piece,” lamented, “Despite an A-list cast, the elaborate and loving direction and adaptation by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and viscerally original choreography by Camille A. Brown, the production can’t shake off enough dated stereotypes to revitalize history.”  She blamed “a hokey old story” and “a jaunty, if hardly revelatory mix of jazz, showbiz and gospel.”  Winer praised the “wonderful” dancing, the “textural transparency” of the choral numbers, and Santiago-Hudson’s “elegant musical ear,” but found the acting “comic mugging.”  Noting that Vernon Duke founded the Society for Forgotten Music, the Newsday reviewer concluded, “‘Cabin in the Sky’ has been remembered, which, alas, is not the same as being rediscovered.”

In the New York Times, Christopher Isherwood dubbed Cabin in the Sky “musically vibrant, dramatically a dud” and reported, “The first act of Lynn Root’s book . . . contains virtually no action and glides by rather sluggishly, enlivened only by a couple of standout songs.”  The Timesman continued, “Things pick up, modestly, in the second act,” but demurs that “little of that life [of the original Broadway production] blooms anew on the City Center stage.”  He complained, “If I closed my eyes, I think I might have had a better time at ‘Cabin in the Sky’ . . ., since the singing throughout is so pleasurable.”  Despite the “suitably seductive” rendering of the score by the Encores! orchestra, Isherwood ended on a down note: “[B]y the time this sweet fable of a sinner redeemed, and then redeemed again, panted to its conclusion, I had long ceased to care whether the Devil or the Lord took home the big, or rather little, prize.”

Describing the story as “icky” and “very thin” in New York magazine, Jesse Green affirmed it’s “full of faux-naïve folkloric touches that give off a strong odor of condescension today.”  In a tone that even sounds a little angry, Green added, “The ending is happy if you are Christian enough to believe that getting to heaven is worth it even if it took a gunfight to get there, while dragging your blameless wife along.”  “Were this only a play,” the man from New York asserted, “no one would produce it now . . . .  As drama, it is so mild that cringeworthiness may be its strongest trait.”  It’s not a play, however, Green continued, “it’s a musical.”  “The score is flat-out lovely,” with “a clutch of” tunes with Duke’s “adventurous jazz harmonies.”  But the New York review-writer still isn’t fully satisfied: “And yet a show so problematic cannot ever be totally satisfying.”  He faulted Santiago-Hudson’s “very flat and visually cluttered” staging, which Green found “emotionally withdrawn as if slightly embarrassed.”  He had, however, words of high praise for both Hughes as Georgia Brown and Camille Brown’s choreography. 

The cyber press paralleled the print outlets.  On Theater Pizzazz, Brian Scott Lipton, warning that Cabin in the Sky is “the kind of early musical theater piece that, in less seasoned hands, could easily have come off as unpleasantly dated and too folksy by half,” but, “thanks to” a sterling creative and performing ensemble, “the result is delightful.”  This, despite the fact that “Lynn Root’s book is a bit silly and old-fashioned, and the characters are mostly two-dimensional” and “the show is written so lightly that the actual outcomes hardly matter.”  Still, said Lipton, “The score . . . does matter.”  After lauding the sets, costumes, and choreography, TP’s reviewer concluded, “Indeed, this is one ‘Cabin’ you’ll leave grudgingly, albeit with a smile on your face.”  On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart described the Encores! production “lovingly re-created”: though the “characters are a little too cute for their own good,” Santiago-Hudson and co-adapter Viertel “keep the tone buoyant and airy, highlighting the craftsmanship of the score while acknowledging the ridiculousness of the book.  Nothing is too serious and everything is fair game for a laugh.”  He added, “Really, the wisp of a book is just an excuse for the song and dance.”  Though Stewart gave kudos to many of the performers, he declared, “LaChanze delivers the evening's only completely sincere performance. . . .  It’s only through her performance that the serious themes of life and death ever come to the fore in this mostly lighthearted romp.”  The TM writer found this satisfactory, since, he offered, “We don’t go to Encores! for gut-wrenching drama; we go to hear beautiful old Broadway scores brought back to life with a full onstage orchestra, and that’s exactly what we get here.” 

Matthew Murray of Talkin’ Broadway, averring of Cabin “that what’s truly on the table is the African-American spirit, and a unique culture that, in the pre-Civil Rights era, was particularly dashing, distinct, and dangerous,” adjudged that at City Center, “what should be searing is instead a snooze.”  Murray confirmed, “There’s no single point of failure, no one culprit at whom all the fingers should be pointed,” even acknowledging that under Santiago-Hudson’s direction, the production “is hardly poorly executed,” praising the “fanciful sets . . . and costumes” and “playful lighting.”  He went on to laud the actors, the score, and the musical performance, “But,” he laments, “there’s a shimmering, shivering ‘So what?’ quality about the proceedings that none of these 24-karat components can overcome.”  The TB blogger diagnosed “a listlessness at work that keeps sparks from igniting into flames” and asserted that “there’s little meat or spice to the” main plot line so that “it’s tough to rustle up desire to follow it to the end.”  Murray found Camille Brown’s dances “workmanlike and lacking in energy” and the actors “technically proficient but a bit short on house-flooding charisma.”  He concluded, given what was to come of musical theater post-Oklahoma!, that “Cabin in the Sky just doesn’t feel connected at all.”  BroadwayWorld’s Michael Dale declared, “Cabin in the Sky, though mildly dramatic, is more of a showcase for its stars than an attempt at serious musical theatre.  At Encores!, the stars come through divinely as do Vernon Duke’s sweet, sweet melodies.”

Barry Singer of the Huffington Post confessed that, like me, “I have long wondered about Cabin in the Sky”—though he had stronger and more personal reasons for his curiosity.  Unhappily, Singer found that “Cabin in the Sky at Encores! did not really settle anything for me”; he felt that the Duke-Latouche score “was not fully trusted” since it was “augmented . . with a surfeit of beautifully sung, authentic, black spirituals that went on far too long and only served to obscure Vernon Duke’s full Cabin in the Sky conception.”  Even Camille Brown’s choreography, “magnificent, to a degree,. . . went on with a frenzy and a sense of overkill that seemed to cry out: ‘Look at me! Not at this show, which we all find a little embarrassing.  Don't we. . . .”  In the end, Singer lamented, “Something about this piece seems destined to always tempt condescension in one form or another.”  Steven Suskin, on the same site a few days earlier, declared, “There’s ‘honey in the honeycomb’—and ‘jelly in the jelly-roll’ as well—at City Center this week with Cabin in the Sky,” especially noting that “the overall score itself turns out to be irrepressibly joyous.”  Echoing his colleague’s caveat about the “book trouble” of pre-Oklahoma! musicals, Suskin lauded Brown’s “vibrant choreography” and the “impeccable corps of dancers,” which, he asserted, “carries the evening, which I suppose we could describe as ‘heavenly.’”  Despite a “flimsy” plot, Suskin affirmed, “Cabin in the Sky is well worth a hearing, and Encores! has polished it into a honey of a show.” 

Like my experience at The Cradle Will Rock 2½ years ago, I’m glad to have finally seen a rendering of Cabin.  As I’ve confessed on ROT numerous times before, I have a fondness for the old musicals—it was how I was introduced to theater as a boy—and I’m also a student of theater history.  Seeing the Encores! presentation of Cabin has filled in a gap in my theater life.  Beyond that, however, it’s always a huge pleasure to see such immensely talented actors, singers, and dancers, as well as the work of their directors and choreographers, doing what they do best.  Even if Cabin is ultimately forgettable as a play, the performance is not.

18 February 2016

How to Write a Play

by Kirk Woodward

[As frequent readers of ROT will know, my friend Kirk Woodward, who contributes often to this blog, is a multi-tasking theater talent.  He’s an experienced actor and director, he composes music and writes lyrics, he’s written reviews and criticism, and he teaches acting.  When Kirk sent me “How to Write a Play,” I noted that I’d already published his advice on directing (“Reflections On Directing” – four parts on 11, 14, 17, and 20 April 2013) and my commentary on his book The Art of Writing Reviews (another four-parter on 4, 8, 11, and 14 November 2009).  But principally, Kirk’s a playwright, as you can tell from his website, Spiceplays (http://spiceplays.com/).  If you check out Spiceplays, you‘ll see that Kirk writes many different sorts of plays for both adult audiences and for children and, if my word means anything, they’re delightful, surprising, charming, and exceptional.  If Kirk knows something about reviewing and directing from his years of experience, he knows even more about writing plays, straight plays and musicals, mysteries and comedies, children’s plays, religious plays, and adaptations of classics.  He’s also wise enough (or, perhaps careful enough) to know that any advice about something as individual as writing a play may be one man’s meat but another’s poison—and he says so.  That’s no reason, of course, not to listen to it and make your own judgment.  Furthermore, Kirk points out that most how-to guides for writing plays are really advice about reading plays.  Since that’s so, what he says here is useful for those of us who aren’t playwrights but avid playgoers.  Give “How to Write a Play” a read and see if it ain’t so.]

Have you ever written a play? If not, do you want to? Do you have an idea – maybe it’s just a fleeting thought or a fragment of an idea, or maybe an incident or even a full story – that you think would make a good play?

The effort to lay out principles for writing a play has led a large number of people to write articles and books on the subject. When I began writing this article, a  Google search provided over eight hundred million hits on the subject (and its related theme, writing screenplays); by the time the article was finished, Google listed over nine hundred million hits. Amazon lists dozens of similar books.

Some of this information is specialized. There are numerous pieces of advice on the web about playwriting for students and beginning writers, for writers of plays for children, and for writers for the deaf and disabled. Some of this information available is undoubtedly useful – basically, the more specific, the better.

However, it’s easy to see that behind much of the guidance being offered is the hope that by taking the proper advice you will be able to write a play that goes somewhere – that is successful, important, or in some other way worth noticing.

So before diving in to the various categories of playwriting advice, here is a general observation: Much that’s written about playwriting is actually about play reading.

The reason for this observation is simple and logical. A formula will never create important works of art. But by looking at such works, one can see commonalities in them. (A book about reading plays that I highly recommend, as useful for playwrights as anything else, is Backwards & Forwards by David Ball, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.)

But listing commonalities will only go so far. Do you really want to write a play that someone else has written? For money, maybe – but if so, good luck! It’s certainly possible to get rich by writing a successful play; it’s also possible to get rich by winning the lottery, and the odds aren’t all that different.

And what is a playwright’s aim, anyway? Art or money? Success or creativity? Surely, both; but there’s no sense trying to write the plays of Neil Simon, because he’s already written them. Why write somebody else’s play? There may be a play in you that’s more interesting to you, and maybe even to others.

(Unless, again, your focus is entirely on a commercial market, and you treat a play as purely a marketable commodity. Like much else about theater, this has been successfully done, but it may not be as easy as it sounds, unless you have a specific talent in that direction.)

One can certainly learn a lot about plays from reading Simon’s works; the man knows his business. But at some point a writer has to write.

Nowadays, many playwriting guides recommend writing plays with very small cast and set requirements. A two character play, with one chair, the idea seems to be, would be ideal, if you can just write a great play within those limits, and why not?

The thinking behind such advice is easy to follow: plays are expensive to put on stage, so the less they cost, the more likely they are to be produced.

In the 1930’s, when George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote their great comedies, a cast of twenty on Broadway, with multiple sets, was financially feasible. (I’m thinking of Once in a Lifetime, first performed in 1930.)

Today even musicals try to keep their cast sizes down.  Theaters that don’t pay their actors – university and community theaters, in particular – don’t face those restrictions, but may have their own limitations – for example, they may only want to perform Broadway hits.

Current practice suggests shrinking the length of the script, as well as size of the cast and the complexity of the set. In 1930, plays routinely had three acts, with two intermissions. (Shakespeare’s plays, of course, are divided into five acts, but those are editors’ decisions, not necessarily Shakespeare’s; we don’t really know when his audiences took their breaks.)

But today, as Linda Winer points out in an article entitled “Farewell to the two act play” in Newsday, playwrights in the second half of the Twentieth Century typically wrote in the two-act form. By the time she wrote her article (21 Nov 2010), however, even that one intermission was disappearing, with more and more plays lasting only eighty or ninety minutes, with no break at all!

(Does that make those plays long one-acts, or short full length plays? An existential question!)

So, gone are the days when Eugene O’Neill could write Strange Interlude (written in 1923, first performed in 1928) in seven acts, leading Alfred Lunt, whose wife Lynn Fontanne was in the play, to remark that if O’Neill had written just two more acts, Lunt could have sued his wife for desertion. . . .

Or are those days gone? The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby, a success in England and on Broadway in 1980, took 8½ hours to perform in two parts, the first with two acts, the second with three. The next multi-set, large cast play that everyone wants to see could be written at any moment – not necessarily will be, but could be.

As Philip Pullman said of the Harry Potter series of books: before it was written, no one was saying, “I wish someone would write a seven book series about a boy wizard and his adventures in school.” After J. K. Rowling wrote the books, of course, everyone said the thing was obvious.

So, in today’s theater, one of our outstanding playwrights is Tony Kushner (b. 1956), whose Angels in America (1993), in two parts with multiple acts in each, with a minimum cast of eight (including much doubling of roles) and multiple locations, if not sets, has won numerous awards, achieved a series of successful runs, and provided HBO with a memorable broadcast version.

Tony Kushner shows no inclination to follow the current advice about the size and complexity of plays. He has written the play(s) he felt he had to write. What’s more, he has succeeded artistically and financially, and that, of course, is the hard part. A mediocre large play is no better than a mediocre small one.

But how to write at Tony Kushner’s level will not be learned from books. Angels in America is not based on any published principle of playwriting, except perhaps the “rule” that says a play must be worth something.

Imagine, now, that you are reading a treatise called How to Write a Play in ancient Greece. You would read about the necessity for a chorus, three characters, elevated language, unities of time and place. (Some feel that such a guide exists, written by Aristotle: The Poetics.)

However, if articles were written on the same subject in the comic Roman writer Plautus’s time (254-184 BC), they would have had a different slant – and Seneca (4 BC-AD 65), who wrote tragedies, would undoubtedly have objected to them.

Medieval drama playwriting advice would have had chapters on Mystery, Miracle, and Morality plays, which we don’t see a good deal of today. The Elizabethans in their handbooks on playwriting would have laughed at medieval limits. The Restoration would have had new definitions of what to laugh at. Brecht and Beckett would have rewritten everything (Brecht did his best).

This excursion into playwriting advice isn’t entirely imaginary – people in many periods have tried to define what a play should be. Then someone has demonstrated a new approach, and the “rules” have changed. Shakespeare owed a great deal to medieval theater; but he didn’t stop there. The moral should be clear: artists don’t achieve important work by looking backwards. The principle for writing a play is to have a play inside you that has to be written.

So: here’s how to write a play. Go to your word processing program, on whatever platform you choose, or, if you feel more comfortable with an alternate method, take pen or pencil and paper, or even use a typewriter if you can find one. Begin writing, and write until you have a play. Then stop.

That’s step one. If you are satisfied with having written a play, and feel no need for further satisfaction, then you’re finished and you’ve succeeded. You’ve written a play! If however like many you feel the need to have your play produced, you will want to begin show it around and try to get other people to read it.

You will soon learn – hopefully but not necessarily to your delight – whether other people think you’ve written a play. As the Duke of Wellington said, “Publish and be damned.” Or not. Theater, as is often said, is a collaborative art. So yours will not be the only voice involved in the production of your play. But it has to be the first voice, not the second or third.

My advice in playwriting classes is: just write. Write it before you worry about it. Playwrights write (or “wright” – fashion, make) plays, so write one. Nothing else – editing, formatting, printing, circulating, marketing, weeping, applauding – can happen until the play is written. Get it written. First things first.

A hundred fifty years or so ago, this advice would not have been considered sufficient, but then a century ago it was generally assumed that successful plays were written according to certain principles that were – and usually still are – based on the idea of a realistic theater.

(For an entertaining view of the accepted principles of playwriting of that time, see the 1909 essay “How to Write a Popular Play” by George Bernard Shaw, available on the web.)

Today we have the examples of Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco, Caryl Churchill, and many others to remind us that the realistic model of a play is by no means the only option. It works brilliantly for Neil Simon and what he wants to say; it may not work at all well for you.

So don’t write based on any principles at all, at least not consciously. If you have an idea, good or bad, follow it to its logical conclusion. Don’t even assume that it may end up as a play. It may end up as a screenplay, a novel, a short story, a haiku, or a crumpled piece of paper. First, write.

It is however worth noting that, although the first thought brought to mind by the topic “How to Write a Play” probably isn’t formatting, once you’ve written your play, if you want to have it produced, you’re going to have to show it to other people, so it will help for it to be readable. It will help even more for it to have a professional looking format, the same way that a business resume does more good if it looks professional.

Also like resume formats, few recommended playscript formats are exactly alike. But if your script is readable and looks like a play – as opposed to, say, a screenplay, which has a radically different layout – you may be okay. A Google search of “playscript formats” will turn up plenty of samples. The publishing company Samuel French, Inc. also can provide its preferred format in a play amusingly titled “Guidelines” by Sam French.

As you circulate your play, one thing you may learn is that many play readers have no idea how to read it.

There are many possible reasons for this fact. Sometimes the readers are business people rather than artists. Sometimes the readers are theater beginners, interns, students, relatives, or other well-meaning folk assigned to the job of evaluating scripts, often when they would much rather be doing something else.  Agents are crucial to the process of Broadway production; few if any have a dramaturg on staff.

More than one author, therefore, recommends putting massive amounts of description within stage directions in plays, so the most unimaginative reader can get some idea of what it is they’re reading. This advice will not help you write an important play; but it may help you get it read by somebody.

You have undoubtedly heard the saying, “Plays aren’t written, they’re rewritten.” Translated, this means: “Many people will want to rewrite your play.” They will. You will particularly discover this if your play receives a “workshop” production, in which an audience watches a reading, a semi-staged reading, or a fully staged reading of your play, and afterwards tells you how you ought to have written it.

At this point a playwright must be very, very careful. Other people’s opinions are valuable if they point out places where your intentions are unclear, or where they are clear but not fully carried out. But you wrote the play, and they didn’t; if they could have, they would have. Comments like “I’d like it better if it had a happy ending” or even “It’s too long, my attention wandered” have to be taken with a grain of salt.

A theater may offer to produce your play only on the basis that you make the rewrites it demands. In that case, obviously, you have a choice to make. You will be on slightly firmer ground if you have joined the Dramatists Guild, which I highly recommend (you don’t have to be a produced playwright to join), and you can have the Guild review the contract the theater offers you.

The Dramatists Guild insists that the playwright is the owner of the play, and has the right to approve or reject any changes. After that it’s a matter of negotiation, of course. When in the middle of those discussions, try to remember what your play was about in the first place.

Needless to say, the advice to “write as you are guided by the play within you” is not sufficient for the authors of articles and books on the subject, so following is a brief survey of what has been said. Just bear in mind that “principles of playwriting” (and of everything else) are there to be violated. No one should read this or any piece on the subject and assume that following rules will make a good play.

If that worked, there would be plenty of good plays, and there aren’t. There are some, but the heyday of principles of playwriting (I’m thinking of the era of the “well-made play,” the Nineteenth Century) was hardly the golden age of theater.

On the other hand, what if there is some underlying structure, or mainspring, or spirit, that’s necessary in order for a play to “work?” We should keep that question in mind. But the quest is inductive – as the dictionary says, “characterized by the inference of general laws from particular instances.” Or, as I have already phrased it, most that’s written about playwriting is actually drawing conclusions based on play reading.

There is a fairly basic consensus about what a play is. Jiwon Chung and Mariana Leal Ferreira [in an article on the web: “Give Wings to Your Imagination and Change the World: Write and Perform Your Own Play!” Chapter 3 of Acting for Indigenous Rights: Theatre to Change the World by Mariana Leal Ferreira (Human Rights Center, University of Minnesota, 2013; http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/edumat/hreduseries/TB7/Chapter%203%20P15-P28.pdf) put it this way:

The basic process is to create an engaging story from an idea that involves an encounter
and a conflict of wills. This story is told through a sequence of physical and emotional actions. . . .

Their definition is wide enough to include a wide variety of dramatic works – any play that begins with a conflict and develops that conflict through action. It is difficult to think of plays that do not fit this general formula in some way.

However, the problem is that the formula is general. (Chung and Ferreria, for example, employ it in terms of politically oriented theater.) What sort of conflict, what sort of action? A definition of this sort has the advantage of ruling out a number of things a play is not – it is not a lyric of appreciation, not a novelistic description, not a series of abstract movements. But the definition is hardly a recipe.

A survey of the literature on “how to write a play” shows that a great deal of what’s said is basically negative. In other words, much advice on how to write a play is really advice on how not to make mistakes in writing one – even when the advice is phrased positively.

For example, “Write small” – advice that I mentioned above – means “Don’t use so many characters or scenes that they scare producers.” “Know your characters” means “Don’t start writing without knowing who your characters are.” “Tell your story through action” means “Don’t just hand the audience big clumps of information, but work them into the scene.”

Some advice is flat-out negative: Don’t overload your play with plot or ideas. Don’t preach to your audience. Don’t use a narrator unless you absolutely have to. Don’t write scenes that are impossible to stage. Note, though, that all these suggestions have been broken by one worthwhile play or another (in order: The Way of the World; several plays by Brecht; Our Town; Suzan-Lori Parks’ play cycle 365 Days/365 Plays).

Here are some other gleanings from the web. Just remember that each one could be followed by the words “or not.”

Have an idea.
Start with a situation.
Start with an action.
Start with characters.
Write profiles of your characters before you write the play, so you know them.
Say something about humanity.
Have actors read your play out loud.
See lots of plays and read them.
Think of a main character.
Think of a conflict.
Figure out where the play should start.
Do lots of rewriting.
Have a setting.
Figure out the psychological story behind the play.
Act, so you know how actors work.
Design, so you know how designers work.
Direct, so you know how directors work.
If the story changes somehow, let it. Or don’t.
Write scenes that go somewhere.
“Kill your darlings” – if you’ve written a passage you particularly like, take it out.
Write dialogue that sounds like the characters do (individually).
Make your characters real people.
Make the story cause and effect.
Give your protagonist a strong cause. Make your antagonist a strong obstacle.
Write characters that actors (especially big name actors) will want to play.
Show it, don’t tell it.
Have time urgency.
Write by yourself.
Write with others.
Start with a familiar story.
Start with your own inspiration and build your story.
Absorb ideas, images, words, then let the story emerge.
Find out “what’s wrong” – what problem the main character must solve or try to solve.
Put yourself inside the characters’ minds.
Write characters that people can relate to.
Playwriting is rewriting. (Or not.)
Leave white space on your script (for comments).
Don’t describe the characters too much. (Or describe them thoroughly.)
Motivate everything a character does.
Don’t write about characters that never appear.
Tell one story.
Write your “one great play.”
Present the problem in the play right away.
Use people you know as your characters.
Make a statement about the human condition.
Don’t judge yourself as you write.
Read lots of plays.

A mixed bag! Some are obvious (“Have a setting”). Some are fundamental (“Make the story cause and effect”). Some may or may not have validity (“Kill your darlings”). Many need a great deal of discussion. Not a single one is absolute – every one of those suggestions may be and has been successfully violated. One or more may strike you as valuable. Mazel tov!

Let me offer three suggestions in closing.

First, the best use of advice on writing plays, like advice on any technique, is to help you re-start yourself when you are stuck. An idea, a phrase, a word, may poke your imagination and get the writing going again.

Second, Broadway is not the only place that produces plays – not by a long shot – and you may find a great deal of satisfaction in writing plays that particular theaters need. Limitations are stimulating. I wrote a play once to meet the following requirements: it had to be set in a library, it had to be a mystery, it had to have a certain number of characters, it had to be of a particular length. I wrote exactly such a play, and it won a production! And a prize!

If you do plan to pursue this approach, make sure you understand what a given theater really is looking for. Tools that help in this effort include annual resource guides published by the Dramatists Guild and the Theatre Communications Group (TCG).

Third and finally, remember the sentence that the playwright Robert Anderson (1917-2009) wrote and posted over his desk: “NOBODY ASKED YOU TO BE A PLAYWRIGHT.” If you are one, or will be one, you will be one no matter what, and hopefully at least have a good time. There are stages of success in playwriting, and they build on each other:

·         You try to write a play.
·         You write a play.
·         Someone reads it.
·         Someone likes it.
·         Someone produces it.
·         It opens.
·         It runs.
·         It runs a long time.
·         It is critically acclaimed.
·         It wins awards.
·         It is produced in numerous theaters.
·         It is published.
·         You make money on it.
·         It is immortal.
·         You are immortal.

We can achieve one, several, or even, in the farthest stretch of imagination, all of these. Whatever we achieve, we can enjoy it.

Playwrights would be well off to read the introductions Neil Simon has written to his collected plays. They are as useful as anything about playwriting I’ve read for this survey, because Simon writes from the inside – from his insides, actually. He tells himself:

“I must take my work seriously, but not the results. I can control only what I write and not what others write about my writing. To agree with the ayes and negate the nays is a foolish pastime.” To get gastric lesions because four people walked out of your play, or euphoric because someone asks for your autograph, will eventually misdirect your intentions and you will work to please rather than be pleased with your work. . . . I am most alive and most fulfilled sitting alone in a room, hoping that those words forming on the paper . . . will be the first perfect play ever written in a single draft. . . . I have either fed and nurtured those who are hungry for whatever it is I have to offer, or I am simply a carcass to be clawed open and ripped apart. The point of view is yours.

True words.

[In his first paragraph of “How to Write a Play,” Kirk asks a series of questions.  If truth be told, I could answer yes to every one of them!  (I’ve even shared some of my “fleeting thoughts” and “fragments of ideas” with my friend.  They didn’t impress him.)  But, believe it or not, I did even write a play once—well, a script, anyway.  It happened sometime back in the late ’70s or early ’80s.  I was killing time one evening watching a spy movie on TV, a 1970 adaption of a Mickey Spillane novel called The Delta Factor starring Christopher George and Yvette Mimieux.  I thought it was lousy—and unintentionally funny.  It made me think: I know something about the espionage biz—I was a counterintelligence officer in the army for almost five years and spent 2½ years in West Berlin, the spy capital of the Cold War.  I could write a spy story that would be more realistic than the dreck I was watching and, what’s more, if I wrote in the jargon we actually used in military intelligence, it would be funnier than the made-up lingo of this movie.  So I sat down and wrote a play based on an actual incident in which I was involved in Berlin in the early ’70s.  (The plot was taken from the story of the time the city of West Berlin was shut down on my account, described in “Berlin Station, Part 2,” 22 July 2009.)  Well, to skip to the last scene—the play was pretty awful and I’ve never shown it to anyone.  Of course, I didn’t have the benefit of Kirk’s sage advice at the time . . . .]