28 July 2018

Short Takes: Some Unique Performances

[Back on 17 June, I posted another “Short Takes,” the ROT shorthand for a collection of brief articles usually too short to post on their own.  That collection, subtitled “Some Art Shows,” consisted of six small reports on art exhibits that didn’t merit extensive discussion.  Now I’m doing the same thing with some reports on four shows, three from 1985 and one from 2006 (all before I started Rick On Theater in 2009) that also didn’t get longer write-ups.  They’re all also, in their  own ways, unusual performances. 

[The last report below, Man of the Heart, was originally a section of a longer one on theater and art that I sent out to friends out of town before I launched ROT.  (Long-time ROTters will know that that was the seed of this blog: reports I sent to those out-of-town friends.)  The three 1985 performances were in-house reports I made for my boss in an abortive theater venture back then.  I briefly worked with a former teacher who was planning to start a theater.  While the founder and artistic director was exploring the possibilities, she often asked me to scout out performances, performers, scripts, and writers as potential future production material and creators.]

18 February 1985

Theater of Panic (the title is adapted from Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal) with Geoff Hoyle and Keith Terry is billed as “a contemporary vaudeville featuring bits, skits, gags, falls, trips, disasters. miscalculations. letdowns, vulgar slapstick and intellectual comedy.”  (Both performers are alumni of the San Francisco-based Pickle Family Circus.)  Presented by the Dance Theater Workshop’s Economy Tires Theater at the Bessie Schönberg Theater, 219 W. 19th Street in Chelsea, the performance was “especially commissioned . . . by Dance Theater Workshop, Inc.”  I saw it at the 8 o’clock show on the evening of Sunday, 17 February [1985].  (The show, which runs Friday through Sunday, opened on 15 February and closes on 3 March.)

It’s a two-man routine, or series of routines, that’s reminiscent of Bill Irwin’s The Regard of Flight in approach and attitude, if not in material (though there is some similarity) or appeal.  [The Regard of Flight first appeared at the American Place Theatre in Mid-Manhattan in 1982 and was televised by PBS for Great Performances in 1983.]  Most of the pieces are essentially solo turns by one or the other of the performers, each with his own specialties, though there are a few in which both men perform.

The program doesn’t identify the individual pieces (which may change from performance to performance—I’m not sure).  Here’s a very simplified description of what I saw:

The first piece seemed to be an abstract mime/dance routine, performed by Hoyle with off-stage accompaniment by Terry on home-made percussion instruments (cookie sheets and the like).  The audience broke out into intermittent peals of laughter, but I had no idea what was happening, or why it was funny.  I got the impression that the audience was full of people familiar with the duo’s work.  (This was the third performance, and the first Sunday show—that is, the first 8 p.m. show; Friday and Saturday shows are at 11 p.m.) 

After this piece, and between all the rest of the bits, Terry did one of his specialties:  Body Music.  For the uninitiated, that’s the use of the body as a percussion instrument, with pops, slaps, taps, clicks, and slides, which Terry sometimes accompanies with vocal “music” as well.  The first of these bits was mildly amusing to me, but subsequent repetitions, though they were all different, did not excite me.  The audience seemed to enjoy it, and met each one with anticipatory laughter when Terry stepped center stage with the sheepish look that signaled he was about to do this bit.  Except for the manual dexterity it demonstrates, I don’t really see the talent in this.

The second bit was a “lecture/demonstration” of the relation of percussion and movement that was primarily a series of slapstick pratfalls which were supposed to be punctuated by Terry on drums, but for which he missed all the cues (on purpose—Terry’s persona is dim-witted.)

One of the cleverest bits, but which, like most of them, went on too long, was a strange routine in which the two men, dressed in overcoats a size or two too large, stood as if on a subway.  While Terry read his paper, Hoyle struggled with a hand which came out of his overcoat, first through the front, then through the neck, and attacked him.  Eventually it was joined by its mate and strangled Hoyle.  Macabre, but funny.

After Terry’s usual Body Music interlude, he returned with two of those “canned cow” toys—the kind that “moo” when they’re moved.  He did a very funny rendition of “Proud Mary” with the cans as accompaniment.

There followed a bit that started with Hoyle doing both Pantalone and Arlecchino in Commedia dell’Arte masks in Italian.  Though fairly standard characterizations, this was mildly amusing until it kept going on, with the Italian dialogue.  This bit was combined with a long piece in which first Hoyle, then both the men, performed in a jester’s belled cap and “nose and glasses” (Groucho) mask, and with a series of puppets which consisted of a stick with a head mounted on it which was made to look exactly like the two men in their masks.  This piece had no dialogue, and very soon became uninteresting and repetitious.

Terry’s next bit was an amusing piece in which he made “music” with a collection of children’s toys.

Hoyle’s final solo piece was a true clown performance, which was marred again by its length.  It centered on his attempt to play a trombone: at first he can’t assemble it, then he can’t remember the music, then he can’t hold the music and play, then he assembles a music stand, but extends it nearly to the ceiling, then he tries balancing on a chair on top of the prop trunk to reach it.  Toward the end, Terry hands him a violin, which Hoyle proceeds to play in a poor man’s Victor Borge routine (not Jack Benny).

The last bit was a routine with wooden batons.  It combined syncopated “martial art-like” exercises, rhythmic rapping, and a little balancing and acrobatics.  I found it mildly interesting.

Though the New York Times made the obvious comparison to Bill Irwin, Theater of Panic isn’t anywhere near as funny, clever, or antic as Irwin’s work, and Hoyle and Terry don’t measure up in the talent department either.  There were a few clever bits (the “hand” routine, for instance), but all of them went on far too long.  The evening was an hour and a half, but should have been an hour at most. 

I also acknowledge that the audience seemed to enjoy the evening, and gave the men two extra curtain calls (they came out for a third while everyone was putting on their coats, which got a final laugh).  I may just not be the right audience for this material—clowns are not generally my favorite humor.  Theater of Panic was also apparently taped for the Dance Collection of the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center; it may be available for viewing there if anyone’s curious.

Mel Gussow of the Times characterized Hoyle and Terry as “polar icecap opposites and therein lies the key to their New Vaudeville comedy.”  The Timesman continued: “Mr. Hoyle, who is English, would not be out of character in the Monte Python company.  He is a fervidly expressive clown, always in a rush or in a dither—or a rushing dither—while Mr. Terry, a bearded American, is his calm, deadpan straight man and musical accompanist.”  Gussow found that the pair “are an amusing team, though in Mr. Hoyle's case there is a tendency to attenuate the circumstances.” Like me, the reviewer felt, ”Careful pruning would enliven the evening.” 

*  *  *  *
27 February 1985

On Saturday night, 23 February [1985], I went down to the East Village to catch Danitra Vance and the Mell-0 White Boys at the La MaMa Cabaret.  Vance is a black, female, solo artist who performs in a cabaret atmosphere.  She works with a “back-up group” called the Mell-O White Boys who accompany her when she sings. (One of the “Boys” was sick and replaced by a Mell-O White Girl the night I saw them.)  The New York Times described her as “feminist,” but that label is misleading in the sense that her material isn’t aggressively political or hostilely anti-male.  She does deal with the role of women in our world with humor and biting satire, but her tongue is planted so firmly in her cheek that it’s a kind of feminism without tears.  I laughed continuously throughout the entire hour-and-a-half, despite the late hour (11 p.m. starting time); excruciatingly uncomfortable, hard, wooden chairs; and the crowded, small, close cabaret in the basement of La MaMa. 

The audience for the performance was a very mixed bag.  There were as many blacks as whites, the ages were decidedly mixed, ranging from 20’s to 40’s and 50’s, and, though there was a majority of women, there were also a large number of men, mostly accompanied by women.  (I think I was the only single person there.)  Many came with wine or beer, expecting small tables and a night-club set up.  Instead, there were only small, wooden chairs set up in a proscenium arrangement with a center aisle.  The cabaret had a bar in the rear of the room that sold coffee and tea.  The audience didn’t seem to mind the long wait upstairs in the small lobby or the fact that the house was opened late and the show was delayed for some reason.  Everyone was very convivial and social, jockeying for seats, and opening drinks.

The stage had a piano, a microphone, and several pieces of costume draped about, ready for quick changes of character.  As it turns out, some of Vance’s changes also take place off stage.  In the hour-and-a-half, she did 10 character turns, all of which are unique and startling.  Her characters aren’t recognizable types, but strange exaggerations created from her own imagination, touching on reality only in the sense that they are those kinds of situations we would like to see (remember the old Mad Magazine bit, “Ads We’d Like to See”?) 

Among her most outrageous characters are a Lesbian Recruiter; Harriet Hetero, a feminist stripper; and Robin Reluctant, a female-to-male transsexual.  Some of Vance’s more off-the-wall ideas: her entrance bit with a tommy gun swaddled in a blanket like a baby; a character who is a “Mydol junkie”; an “avant-garde rap artist” who will be performing her new rap opera, “Feinstein on the Beach” at SLAM—Some Little Academy of Music.  Harriet requests that we call her “ma’am—in honor of my mammary glands”; Robin introduces his back-up group as the TIT’s—Transsexuals In Training.

Vance has a fondness for using lyrics to popular songs in her dialogue, and the results are often hilarious.  She also parodies the songs themselves in some of her routines (the Lesbian Recruiter sings “My Girl” and Robin uses “I Am a Man” as his routine).  She likes to play with her audience, and she knows how to get them to respond and play along.  This isn’t, however, an “audience-participation” show.  She doesn’t restrict herself to the stage, moving up and down the center aisle, and doing the Lesbian recruiter turn from the bar in the rear (this wasn’t particularly easy to see, however). 

Vance, who calls herself “Everywoman—and some men,” is a clever, funny, imaginative, and creative performer. (Comparisons with Whoopi Goldberg seem to be based on two similarities: they’re both black and female.  From what I know of Goldberg, the similarity ends there.)  According to La MaMa, she will be performing her current show weekend evenings (11 p.m.) “indefinitely.”  She is usually sold out a week in advance.  Go with a friend or two, bring a bottle of wine—and a cushion.  And keep an eye on her!

In the Village Voice, Alisa Solomon wrote, “Danitra Vance creates magic of a sharper sort.  [Solomon was comparing Danitra Vance and the Mell-O White Boys with a Sam Shepard play which shared the Voice reviewer’s column.]  Her comedy stabs while it entertains, actually causing a physical catch in your laughter as she undercuts every pose she takes.”  Solomon characterized the performer as “[b]eginning with and then undermining stereotypes” and adding that “Vance creates an unsettling tension among stereotypes, reality, and the conditions that create stereotypes.”  She reported that Vance “doesn’t stop to let zingers sink in; she hits and runs.” 

Stephen Holden described Vance and her back-up group as offering “incisive, cheerfully liberating musical comedy that knowingly turns sexual and racial stereotypes inside out.”  In an earlier column, Holden reported that Vance’s “comedy is as endearing as it is incisive.”  The review-writer characterized the comedian as a “classically trained actress who is equally cognizant of Shakespeare and Motown” and “takes special delight in overlaying highbrow and pop cultural references in amusingly drastic combinations.”  Holden explained, “The theme of Miss Vance’s show, repeated in many variations, is the comic thrill and liberating insights of every sort of role reversal.”  He cautioned: “Miss Vance will inevitably be compared to Whoopi Goldberg, but she’s no carbon copy, and the town is big enough for two of them.”

[Danitra Vance did a brief stint as a regular member of the cast of Saturday Night Live from 1985-86, the sketch-comedy show’s 11th season.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990 and after a mastectomy and a brief remission, the cancer returned in 1993 and Vance died of the disease in 1994 at the age of 40.]

*  *  *  *
30 March 1985

You must see Mary Ellen Bernard sing.  I caught her on 27 March [1985] at Panache, the cabaret at the Magic Pan (1409 Avenue of the Americas, between 57th and 58th Streets).  On the surface, her act is a standard cabaret solo turn, but her material and style are fresh and unusual.  I can’t really describe what she does because it falls flat in words, but I can give you a taste.  Most of her material is either original (by friends of husband Paul Guzzone, who’s her musical director) or seldom-performed material by the likes of Noel Coward and Stephen Sondheim.  Furthermore, what she does with the songs makes even the familiar numbers new and fresh. 

Emmy draws heavily on her background and experience as an actress.  At the risk of sounding over-intellectual, she imbues her performance with abhinaya, the quality of Indian performance that indicates that the artist is experiencing and communicating something special through her technique.  An example:  One of her numbers is an operatic version of a musical-comedy version of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.  Emmy plays all the roles, switching costume pieces for each character.  Not only is the idea wonderfully absurd, but the presentation had the entire house on the floor. 

I know Emmy slightly through some friends with whose acting company she used to perform before she decided to turn her energies to preparing a cabaret singing act.  She was a good character actress, but she’s special in her new guise.  There’s something in her of the qualities of Edith Piaf and Lotte Lenya, though they haven’t fully matured yet.  I saw her act for the first time this week, though she’s been performing around the cabaret showcase circuit for about a year now.  My estimation is that as soon as she gets either a major review or the kind of exposure TV can provide, she’ll take off. 

She has no current plans for her next appearance, but she won’t be idle too long.  She’s promised to send me two flyers for her next performance.

*  *  *  *
9 May 2006

I got an e-mail from an acquaintance—Suman Mukherjee—informing me that he was here in New York City with his latest directing project, Man of the Heart: The Life & Times of Lalon Phokir, a one-performer, multi-media piece about the life and philosophy of a 19th-century Bengali sage.  (‘Phokir’ is an alternate spelling for what we commonly call ‘Fakir,’ a Sufi Muslim ascetic who’s taken a vow of poverty and religious devotion, renouncing all connection to the secular world.)  The piece, written and performed by Sudipto Chatterjee from research he conducted, with Suman’s assistance, over some 15 years (including a recent trip to Bangladesh, where Lalon died in 1890 at about 116—and no, that’s not a typo!), reminded me very generally of Peter Brook’s Tierno Bokar, which I saw in 2005.  [My report about this play was posted on 28 August 2011]. 

It’s not that the pieces were alike in terms of production, or even theme, but both Man and Tierno Bokar are essentially single-performer pieces (Tierno Bokar had other actors and characters, but the focus was almost exclusively on the title character) and they’re both about religious figures, sages and teachers, who are generally unknown in the West, both of whom have ties to Sufi Islam, and both of whom lived in regions under the rule of European colonial powers (Lalon in the India of the British Raj and Bokar in French Africa).  Tierno Bokar, however, is about that colonialism and the devastation of intolerance (in this case, Muslim-on-Muslim intolerance) and Man is an exploration of the profundity of Lalon’s true philosophy, as opposed to the myths and legends that grew up around him and his legacy after his death.  Granted, the similarities are superficial—but nevertheless, unmistakable.

Though Tierno Bokar included some of Bokar’s teachings, most of the text of that play—and it was more of a conventional “play,” despite Brook’s proclivities, than is Man—was ordinary prose (performed entirely in English) adapted by Marie-Hélène Estienne from Amadou Hampaté Ba’s biography of Bokar (Tierno Bokar, le sage de Bandiagara, 1957; translated into English as A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar).  Man of the Heart’s text—in English and Bengali (with supertitles)—is a combination of research (there is very little record of Lalon and even less that is reliable) and the songs he composed to spread his philosophy, which preached tolerance and an abhorrence for religious conflict. 

Brook’s physical production was simple, but it was a stage set; Suman designed a non-representative playing area—essentially a long white bolt of cloth and a stand-alone doorway, various parts of which also served as the screen—very interestingly used in several different ways—for the projections which were an integral part of the show at the little Off-Off-Broadway Kraine Theatre across from La MaMa in the East Village, where the show ran from 27 April until 7 May [2006].  (In this one, small aspect, Suman’s staging brings to mind the use of projections by Ariane Mnouchkine in Le Dernier Caravansérail at last summer’s Lincoln Center Festival, projected, like Suman’s, on different parts of the set and surrounding drapes—and, in several instances in Man, onto the back of Lalon’s robe which Chatterjee held spread out.  Mnouchkine’s projections, though, were all text, while Suman’s are text, occasionally title slides like Brecht might have used; charts, such as an abbreviated family tree; drawings; photos; and film/video—both original and “borrowed.”) 

Another difference between Brook’s effort and Suman and Mr. Chatterjee’s: Tierno Bokar was only curious for a while, then became entirely unengaging to me [as you can see from my report] but Man, though less smooth and polished (not necessarily a fault) than Tierno Bokar, was almost always interesting.  I attribute this to the content more than anything else: Brook was examining intolerance—certainly a worthy and potentially dramatic subject—but his vehicle was an extremely narrow point, whether a particular Muslim prayer should be said 11 times or 12, that is totally irrelevant and incomprehensible to us here in the West.  It was like Swift’s Little-Endians and Big-Endians.  But Man is an attempt to examine Lalon’s lessons about life and the spirit—a subject that has more resonance for all of us, regardless of our faiths (or lack of it). 

Some of Lalon’s songs are hard to interpret (part of his legend, because he had to disguise his intent in codes and misdirection to avoid persecution by both Muslims and Hindus), and the passages that are essentially lectures by Chatterjee were hard to stick with because they are uncharacteristically untheatrical, but enough of what Lalon and Man are examining is worth hearing to make the whole endeavor worthy.  While I didn’t walk out of Tierno Bokar wanting to know any more about Bokar, I left Man curious to learn more about Lalon.  That may have been in the nature of the two subjects, or it may have been because of the two performances.

[There were no reviews of the New York production that I could find at the time, but Suman and Chatterjee have staged the play many times around the world and I’ve collected several notices of other productions.  First, there’s a review of that Kraine Theatre mounting by Prachi Deshpande, who teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley, on a website called parabaas.com in 2007.  In it, Deshpande stated at the outset, “The writer-performer Sudipto Chatterjee and the director of the performance Suman Mukherjee deserve tremendous praise for their efforts to showcase the oeuvre and philosophy of this remarkable poet and thinker.”  He declared, “The performance succeeded above all in conveying the sheer joyousness and irreverence that pervades so much of devotional, mystic poetry across the subcontinent in so many of its languages.”  He praised Chatterjee’s performance, “which combines an intensely physical and energetic command of the stage with a clear monologue and rendition of some of Lalon’s most well known songs.”  The history prof, who speaks Bengali, added, “The live singing, it seemed to me, enabled Chatterjee to ‘become’ Lalon Phokir.”  Deshpande found the “multi-media format . . . rich and informative” as an effective way to place Lalon into the context of Indian and Bengali history, though he felt that Chatterjee’s lectures were presented “a little heavy handedly at times.”  The history teacher also appreciated the play’s “success in conveying complex philosophical concepts through an extremely sparse stage set up” of a few props and stage decorations.  “Mukherjee's direction makes excellent use of these props to convey these abstract ideas,” said Deshpande.  He concluded:

In all, this was an ambitious effort to showcase one of Bengal's most well known mystic poet saints; the broader questions it raises is testimony to its success in presenting on stage the rich philosophy and music of Lalon Phokir.

In the Times of India, Sreemita Bhattacharya wrote in January 2017 that Man of the Heart “narrates the story of 19th century Bengali Sufi saint and song-maker Lalon Shah Fakir . . . in a way that the moner manush [one of Lalon’s most famous songs of love and separation] tugs at your heartstrings.”  Bhattacharya also declared, “Simplicity is not easy to portray, especially on stage where every action is as deliberate as it is spontaneous,” adding, “Add multimedia elements to such a production and it becomes harder to retain and balance out the essence of the play.”  All together, the reviewer promised that “the play takes you on a haunting musical journey.”  “The elegance of simplicity in Lalon’s life of abstinence are highlighted in the costumes, stage design and props which accommodate only the necessary,” reported Bhattacharya.  Dismissing a few flaws, she concluded, “Above and beyond, the drama progresses on a soothing note as moner manush once again manages to find his place close to your mind and heart.”]

[Suman Mukherjee—or Suman Mukhopadhyay, as he also calls himself—is one of those acquaintances to whom I sent the theater reports before I started ROT.  He’d been a student of Leonardo Shapiro here in New York City, hence his interest in what was happening theatrically here, and I reached out to him when I was doing research on Leo and was looking for information on a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame he’d staged in Bengali In Kolkata in 1993.  I didn’t know Suman, but I found an e-mail address for the company that presented the production and he responded and sent me a packet of wonderful material.  We continued to correspond and then he e-mailed me that he was in New York with Man of the Heart.  That was the first time we’d met in person.]

23 July 2018

"Artist's massive birds to nest on Broadway"

by Mary Jo Dilonardo

[On Thursday, 19 July, my attention was caught by a short report on CBS 2 News at 5 about an up-coming public-art project planned for upper Broadway.  Artist Nicolas Holiber , a Brooklyn artist, is planning 12 huge wooden sculptures of birds, all of which are either native to the tri-state area or pass through on their migrations, to be displayed along upper Broadway next spring for eight months.  Sponsored in part by the National Audubon Society , the Audubon Sculpture Project, as the series is called, has an environmental purpose as well as an aesthetic one.  All the birds, sculpted from scrap and recycled wood, are “part of a group of over 300 North American species . . . that are in peril or face threats due to climate change,” said Holiber in the WCBS story.  (The 12 birds are: Red-necked Grebe, Peregrine Falcon, American Bittern, Scarlet Tanager, Brant Goose, Double-crested Cormorant, Common Goldeneye, Hairy Woodpecker, Hooded Merganser, Snowy Owl, Wood Duck, and Merlin.  I’ve added the artist’s renderings of the sculptures and a map of their proposed locations following this article.)  The WCBS report was very brief and only exists on the Internet as a video (https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2018/07/19/birds-on-broadway-project-hopes-to-send-environmental-message/), so I went in search of a more detailed text article I could republish.  Below is Mary Jo Dilonardo’s article, “Artist’s massive birds to nest on Broadway,” from the Mother Nature Network (MNN); it was originally posted on 9 July 2018 (https://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/stories/new-york-city-massive-bird-sculptures-holiber).]

Sculptures represent NYC birds threatened by climate change.

There are all sorts of unusual things to be seen on the streets of New York City — so much so that out-of-the-ordinary sights are often ignored. But that will be difficult to do with an art installation due to open on Broadway in April 2019.

A dozen huge bird sculptures — some bigger than a minivan — will alight on Broadway, stretching from 64th Street north to 166th Street in Manhattan. Called the Nicolas Holiber: Birds on Broadway, Audubon Sculpture Project, the exhibition features much-larger-than-life works by artist Nicolas Holiber.

Location map for the bird sculptures to be displayed along upper Broadway from April through December 2019.

The huge sculptures are being constructed from reclaimed wood gathered from the streets of the city. The goal of the project is to call attention to just a few of the many birds threatened by climate change.

Holiber chose the birds from the National Audubon Society’s 2014 Birds and Climate Change Report [http://climate.audubon.org/]. The report classified 314 species — nearly half of all the birds in North America — as severely threatened by global warming. From that list of 145 birds, Holiber focused on those that live or migrate through New York City.

“When I first looked at the list, I was amazed at how many bird go through New York City. It’s amazing that New York City has all these diverse habitats,” Holiber tells MNN. “I picked these 12 birds basically to show the public what an amazingly diverse species pass through New York City, but in my opinion, these are also the most eye-catching on the list.”

The birds include the brightly colored scarlet tanager, the double-crested cormorant, the peregrine falcon and the snowy owl.

“I got to pick whatever would be fun to make,” Holiber says. “When we paint them, they’re all going to be true to how the birds appear in real life.”

. . . .

Working with reclaimed materials

Holiber grew up just outside of New York City. He attended the University of Vermont, then got his master’s at the New York Academy of Art where he studied traditional techniques in painting, drawing and sculpture.

When he received a fellowship after earning his degree, he was able to devote a year to teaching and focusing on his new interest in sculpture. As a student without a lot of money, Holiber needed a material that was cheap and easy to get, so he started using reclaimed wood from shipping pallets.

“It was a super-new experience for me. I always thought art took place in the studio, and I was used to being in front of a canvas. That whole process of getting found materials broadened my horizons and pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

In 2015, Holiber made ‘Head of Goliath,’ a giant sculpture constructed from reclaimed wood that sat (on its side) in Tribeca Park in Manhattan.

Those early “weird, mutant things” — as Holiber describes them — are what made him a natural for the Audubon project.

“The reason I came into this project was because of the material I use. It’s just a great connection to the message we’re sending about the birds and the environment,” he says.

Go big or go home

The size of the sculptures isn’t daunting at all, Holiber says. Some of the largest ones will be the size of a van or an SUV. The Brant goose, for example, is about 8½ feet tall and 11 feet long.

“I prefer working big. I find it really frustrating to work on a small scale,” he says. “When I can move around the structure and it becomes a full body movement rather than a finger or hand, I’m much better at it.”

Many of the sculptures have to be big for practical reasons, too, since they’ll be on the streets of New York with pedestrians constantly darting around them.

“A lot of them have to be so big because of the beaks,” Holiber says. “I don’t want anyone hitting their head or running into the beaks or it would be hazardous.”

From the warehouse to the streets

Holiber is working with a local company that collects salvageable materials from throughout the city. His studio is a warehouse where he’s joined by an assistant, Vito, who also happens to be a dog.

Nicolas Holiber (left) with his pet dog, Vito, and his assistant, Bishop McIndoe, in the artist’s workshop sitting atop an unfinished bird sculpture; another is in the background. (Photo by Holiber)

Although many of the materials are donated, there’s a Kickstarter campaign [https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/967088629/nicolas-holiber-birds-on-broadway-audubon-sculptur/description]  to raise funds to help pay for the installation and transportation of the work.

Of course Holiber is happy to showcase his art, but he says education about the birds is the main focus of the exhibit.

Each sculpture will have information about the bird and the threats it faces, as well as information about climate change and predicted habitat losses. “I hope that people really get into the message we’re sending about these birds,” he says.

The exhibition is in partnership with New York City Audubon, Broadway Mall Association, New York City Parks Department, and Gitler &_____ [sic; see below] gallery. It’s scheduled to run from April through December 2019.

[Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting—and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

[Mother Nature Network (https://www.mnn.com) is a website with news and information related to sustainability, health, lifestyle, technology, money, food, home, and family.  Founded in 2009 by former marketing executive Joel Babbit and Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell, it is the flagship property of Narrative Content Group, whose equity partners include CNN and Discovery Inc.  It covers a wide range of topics beyond traditional “green” issues—including family, pets, travel, health, home, and food.

[Gitler &_____ is an art gallery located at 3629 Broadway in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of west Harlem in upper Manhattan.  It was founded by Avi Gitler, a Manhattan art dealer, in September 2014, soon after which, in an effort to spruce up the the run-down neighborhood, Gitler got the permission of a shop owner to invite a street artist to paint one of the roll-down shutters on his block .  The artist happened to choose to depict a flamingo and Gitler decided to reference the neighborhood’s history by commissioning a series of paintings on walls and shutters inspired by the bird paintings of John James Audubon, the famous naturalist and artist who once lived on an estate nearby.  This was the origin of the Audubon Mural Project, sponsored by the National Audubon Society.]

Sculpture Renderings in their Broadway Mall Locations:




18 July 2018

Two on Musicals from 'Allegro'

[I’ve frequently republished articles about musical theater from Allegro, the member magazine of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians.  Local 802 is the union chapter that represents the people in the orchestra pits of Broadway and (some) Off-Broadway theaters (among other New York City musical venues) and their issues and interests are often central to musical theater in general, from the singers and dancers to theatergoers.  Here are two articles about experiences in musical theater from the inside, one from a composer who chronicles his experience getting his original Off-Broadway musical onto the boards and the other about a program the union sponsors that gives children an inside look at how a professional musical play works in production.]

by Dan Manjovi

[Dan Manjovi’s account of the work of seeing his musical play, I Am, I Will, I Do, produced appeared in Allegro, volume 117, number 10 (October, 2017).]

Creating and writing an original musical and bringing it to successful production is a time-consuming – and often arduous – labor of love. Local 802 member Dan Manjovi, a keyboardist, composer and arranger, debuted his original musical, “I Am, I Will, I Do,” last month at the 2017 New York Musical Festival. He wrote the following essay for Allegro about the process of navigating an original musical from the page to the stage. Manjovi has had a wide-ranging and interesting career as a musician, vocalist, actor, composer and teacher. His song “Somethin’s Comin’ My Way” appeared in the 2009 Oscar-winning film “Precious” (and its soundtrack recording). He’s also recorded several solo releases, and his credits in theatre include numerous regional and Off Broadway productions. Dan is a proud longtime member of Local 802, Actors’ Equity, and the Dramatists Guild, and is especially proud that the first New York production of “I Am, I Will, I Do” was all union. Manjovi was also thrilled to utilize Local 802’s Referral Service in recruiting the band personnel for the show.

How does a musical get born? Before I had ever thought about writing one, I had served in many productions as either a performer or musical director – or both, in a few cases. But my first foray as a musical theatre writer began in the early 2000s. I was approached by a small theatre company to write a musical revue and some scenes built around a few of my existing songs. I came up a loose plotline and three characters: a gay musician  and his two best friends, who were boyfriend and girlfriend. We performed it once, but the company folded and the show went nowhere. But writing was fun and intriguing for me. I enjoyed creating characters, developing and writing scenes and songs, and combining elements of drama, comedy, lyrics and music.

Afterward, I spent the next few years on the road, musically directing or performing in various productions throughout the country, among them “Master Class” by Terrence McNally, and “Gunmetal Blues,” by Craig Bohmler. I also performed in staged readings of new works, including a 2006 workshop of a musical revue called “The End,” by George Furth (“Company,” “Merrily We Roll Along”), and Local 802 member Doug Katsaros. I credit those productions, and the directors and writers with whom I worked, with giving me the training ground, guidance, and valuable lessons in how a show is honed, staged and produced.

In 2010, back home performing, teaching, and recording in New York City, the initial creative impulse for what eventually became “I Am, I Will, I Do” came to me, ironically, through my work in the single engagement club date field.

Working, teaching, and doing occasional single engagement club dates, I found irony, poignancy, and humor in seeing so many LGBT people (myself included) who were part of the wedding business, but legally unable to get married. I also drew from my experience of how people of all ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and walks of life seek the same things: love and fulfillment. I created a plot line that tracked the lives and struggles of a diverse group of friends, all connected to each other in some way, all at that pivotal age of 29 to 35, and all not quite where they had expected to be in life in one way or another. The ongoing national conversation about same-sex marriage was also part of the plot. I envisioned a romantic musical comedy about the ups and downs of 21st century relationships, not from a political, polemical standpoint, but from a human one.

Writing continued over the next few years, with continued character, plot, and score development. Rewrites were also required as the legal battle over same-sex marriage worked its way through the court system.

The three initial characters now became Dave Abbott (the musician) and  Nancie and Richard Peterson (now married and Dave’s business partners in a wedding planning business). Dave is perpetually disappointed in his search for true love, and frustrated with his stalled composing career. Nancie and Richard, married ten years, are facing unresolved strains in their marriage around money, career and family planning. Valerie and Tony, a bickering couple whose imminent wedding is being planned by the three, are taking their second trip down the aisle due to commitment issues. The best man, Harris Barnsworth, an African-American human rights attorney, and would-be singer is not living his own life. And Dr. Lara, a minister, and Oprah wanna-be, is a 40ish single woman, whose dreams of success have been dashed. When Dave and Harris are suddenly thrown together to rehearse Dave’s song “I Am, I Will, I Do” for Valerie and Tony’s wedding, the two men are forced to confront each other and their foibles. Simultaneously, the different yet related struggles of the other two couples and Dr. Lara emerge. For the NYMF production, a small feature role was added for Grace Hightower DeNiro, who plays an elegant night club singer at the Bijou, the local Karaoke bar.

By 2015, having completed a script and score draft, I set about finding a theatre to stage a reading, and eventually found a developmental home at Amas Musical Theatre. Amas has developed many shows to successful fruition over 49 years. With their help and expertise, we mounted two developmental readings of the show in 2015. Extensive book, music and lyrics exploration and revisions were made, with songs and scenes edited, revised, re-written or replaced. That development process is so necessary for a show to move forward.

In 2016, I pursued every opportunity to move the show forward. Then, unexpectedly, in January 2017, I was invited by the New York Musical Festival to stage “I Am, I Will, I Do” as part of their Beta Series. The Beta series focuses on shows that are further along in their development, and the production focuses on one or two elements. I quickly accepted, and decided to focus on the elements of staging/choreography, and implementing the full orchestrations, which I had written during the course of the show’s development.

“I Am, I Will, I Do” is scored for a four-piece band: keys, guitar, bass and drums. As an 802 member, I felt it was important that our musicians and creative team be union, because union talent is simply the most professional and the best. I recommended David White (bass) and Brian Radock (drums) for the project. They had worked together on another show, “The Illusionists,” at the Palace, during its Broadway run.

The guitar chair was still unfilled, however. I was very committed to equal opportunity and diverse hiring at every level of our team, and I conveyed that to the music director, who contacted 802’s Referral Service. The union recommended the wonderful Ron Jackson to us, and we were all set!

From May to July, the various elements that go into putting a show on its feet began to take shape. The arrangements were an important part of the show, and I took a lot of care in rehearsing them with the band. We ran down each arrangement, and the musicians contributed 100 percent in making the charts sound their best – they were terrific! In July, during our final week of rehearsal, when we finally brought the band and the cast together, everyone was really excited and energized.

David White told me, “It’s always a pleasure to work on shows in development and be able to have one-on-one interaction with the composer and creative team to be able to really help craft the show. ‘I Am, I Will, I Do’ was no exception. Local 802 has been making such outstanding headway in the NYMF festival and I look forward to see what the show has to offer going forward!”

Guitarist Ron Jackson said, “I was really happy to be recommended by the Local 802 Referral Service! I got to meet such great talent!”

“I Am, I Will, I Do” ran at the NYMF Festival for three performances this year. All were sold out, and enthusiastically received with standing ovations. In attendance were luminaries such as composer (and 802 member) Alan Menken, and actors Robert DeNiro and Judith Light, among others. Seeing and hearing the show performed onstage by a wonderful cast, and the score played by excellent musicians, with everyone giving their best, is thrilling. And big thanks to 802 for creating a positive work environment for its members, so that new shows can be developed and produced.

[Dan Manjovi is a longtime member of Local 802. If you are a Local 802 member with a story idea for our “Member to Member” column, send an e-mail to allegro@local802afm.org.]

*  *  *  *
by Bettina Covo

[This article about Local 802’s Creating the Magic by Bettina Covo was published in Allegro, volume 117, number 8, in September 2017.  This program, which Local 802 supports for obvious reasons (the kids will be their audiences in years to come), is called Creating the Magic because that’s what happens when drama, music, singing, and dancing all come together in a theater.]

The end of the 2017 school year was a busy time for Nick Sala, creator and producer of Inside Broadway’s successful Creating the Magic programs. Per usual, three Creating the Magic events were scheduled for the school year. These educational and entertaining presentations are the highlight of the season for the public school students invited to this unique behind-the-scenes look at a Broadway show. But this year, due to scheduling difficulties, the last two presentations fell within one week of each other, making for a whirlwind tour-de-force season finale.

In spring, 1,600 excited public school students stepped behind the curtain of the classic John Kander and Fred Ebb musical “Chicago” at the Ambassador Theater. “Chicago” is unique on Broadway partly because the orchestra performs on stage for the entire show. The students, most of whom have never experienced a Broadway production, were able to experience the synergy of musicians and actors simultaneously interacting live on stage. That alone made this presentation exceptional.

The actor who currently plays the character Roxie, Mexican-born Bianca Marroquín, kicked off the event with her character’s namesake song. Marroquín  proudly reminded the audience that she is the first person from Mexico who has been cast in a lead role on Broadway. The character Velma, played by South African-born Amra-Faye Wright, smiled wryly as she spoke to the students about the power of immigrants in the theatre. The two ladies made a formidable duo.

Local 802 members Scott Cady (piano), Ray Cetta (bass/tuba) and Tony Tedesco (drums) accompanied the actors, led by conductor /music director Leslie Stifelman. Stifelman spoke to the students about the colorful use of ragtime that helps maintain the decisively vaudeville flavor of the show. When asked about her role as conductor, Stifleman was emphatic: “I like being the boss and I like being the boss of the musicians.” To help demonstrate that point, she raised her hands, cued the students to start applauding and then gave them a clear cut off as the house went silent. Such is the power of the conductor.

The dance captain and others from the backstage crew came out to talk about the choreography, lighting, sound, and other stagecraft for this singularly minimalist production. The students observed firsthand how something that appears so simple requires a carefully coordinated team of extremely talented and skilled people on and off stage who endeavor to present a flawless performance each and every show.

Creating the Magic events take a great deal of planning and coordination, so producing two within a week of each other is no simple feat. Yet, without skipping a beat, Sala and team launched their final show without a hitch at the Majestic Theatre, for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic musical “Phantom of the Opera.”

In stark contrast to the minimalist approach of “Chicago,” the cast and crew of “Phantom” transported 2,500 students on a captivating tour of some of the production’s complex props and stage sets replete with candelabras that magically appear out of the floor, floating gondolas that sail across the stage and, of course, the famous chandelier that soars up to the ceiling.

Creating the Magic usually employs a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums for these educational events. Luckily for this group of students, the producers felt it was important to maintain the show’s sweeping operatic style. So, of the 27 musicians who play “Phantom” nightly, Local 802 members Joyce Hammann (violin), Karl Bennion (cello), Daivd Lai (piano) and conductor Richard Carsey were on hand to accompany the actors. Adding the strings was a pleasant change.

It is has become customary for the music director or conductor to address the audience on behalf of Local 802 and the musicians. But this time, all four musicians were invited up on stage for a brief discussion about the role of the orchestra and the conductor. Hammann introduced herself, holding up her instrument to ask if anyone in the audience knew what she held in her hand. A large number of students proudly and rather loudly proclaimed, “A violin!”

Inside Broadway understands that this kind of interaction with the musicians themselves reinforces the connection between musician and musical. Hopefully, it will be the start of a new paradigm for these events.

Inside Broadway’s Executive Director, Michael Presser served as MC for both shows, deftly guiding the audience on a grand tour behind the curtain to explore and discover the multiple aspects of producing a Broadway show. Together with the actors, musicians, stage managers and the various crew members, the students were happily swept up in the whirlwind that is live Broadway. Bravo to everyone at Inside Broadway!

[Bettina Covo is a member of the Local 802 Executive Board and the chair of the union’s Education Subcommittee.]