A Return to Medieval Times

Erin Fossa

OnStage North Carolina Columnist

Ever wondered if that Medieval Times place is any fun? Ever gotten invited and thought, “I’m not into that medieval stuff.” 

You may want to reconsider. Like me, you may have an unexpectedly large amount of fun. 

When I first met my husband seven years ago, he introduced me to a theatrical phenomenon I had never heard of - Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament. Today, we have become something like connoisseurs of the experience, having visited six of the nine locations across the country (some of them several times). For us, it has become a hobby and a family activity that we will continue with our children for years to come. If you’ve never had the experience, I highly suggest you go at least once. It is an experience you cannot get anywhere else. 

There are several ways to experience the show, and how you go about seeing it is just as important as where or when. The atmosphere is not one where the audience sits back and is simply entertained. It is VERY interactive. You are encouraged to yell and cheer throughout the show, rooting for your knight as he battles the others. Going with a group of couples, coworkers, family or friends can alleviate any self consciousness and make it more fun to participate. (So can a bottle of wine or a stop at the bar in the entryway before the show starts!) It’s a show that’s great for children or adults no matter how much of a theater or medieval era buff you are. 

So what are the good and bad aspects of the show? First of all, the show is really theater meets a sporting event. The overall format of the show is always the same no matter what location or day you attend. However, you never know which knight will win each battle. When the knights begin battling each other one-on-one, they eliminate one another tournament style until only one winner remains. And the winner is different every time. So you truly are experiencing a show AND a tournament every time you go. I love the uncertainty of not knowing how the show will end! That fact alone makes it different from most other theater experiences. 

On the flip side, do NOT go expecting to be floored by the acting. The storyline is extremely simple and the actors playing the king, the princess, and other members of the royal court serve more as iconic characters than anything else. The real “stars of the show” are the six knights battling for righteous victory. 

On that same note, I have attended shows where the knights themselves were… less than enthusiastic about their fight choreography. It takes real commitment to stage combat in order to make it appear genuine. Not all of the knights have that commitment unfortunately, which does ruin some of the magic. But it doesn't happen every time and there are so many other amazing aspects of the show that it is hardly a reason to discredit it as a whole. 

The meal is always great as they serve garlic bread, tomato bisque soup, roasted chicken, sweet buttered corn, herb-basted potatoes, the pastry of the Castle, coffee and two rounds of select beverages. No silverware is provided, though so everything must be eaten by hand. While this sounds messy and unappetizing, it really isn’t. The food is delicious every time and wet wipes are provided. So even the most neat-freak eaters will be fine with the provided meal. 

Dinner, drinks, horses, a flying falcon, a little theater and a whole lot of medieval sport make Medieval Times unique and thrilling no matter how many times you go. I can honestly say, I have enjoyed every show I’ve attended, despite not being a fan of much else that is medieval themed.  So if you ever get the opportunity, join the lords and ladies of the medieval realm and raise a toast to victory! Because you won't regret it. 

High School Students Need More Shakespeare Not Less

Rebekah Guin

  • North Carolina Columnist

“2B or not 2B,” is that the question? 

The renewed debate about Marlowe writing some of Shakespeare’s classic has brought the infamous bard’s prose back into the spotlight of the theater community. However, the debate over who penned the words seems quite silly when you look at how little respect our culture has for his work in the first place.

Countless 21st-century authors have revisited his classic plots in an attempt to make his stanzas more palatable for today’s youth.  

These travesties range from side-by-side modern translations to emojis and zombie reincarnations. 

Nearly every high school in the country forces glassy-eyed high school students to read at least one of his more popular plays before paper hats, bath robes and diplomas can be distributed. Though some future English majors do not mind reading “Romeo and Juliet,” many students opt for the SparkNotes version instead. 

This, mixed with the decline of U.S. literacy scores, has led authors down the long and winding path to save Shakespeare for the next generation. If high school students will not rise up to meet the text, we will bring the text to their level.  

When students scream that Shakespeare is too hard to understand, they are handed “No Fear Shakespeare.” When students scream that Shakespeare is too wordy, they are handed a series of texts and emojis in the form of “OMG Shakespeare.”  When students scream that Shakespeare’s plots are old fashioned and slow, they are handed “Romeo and Juliet and Zombies.” 

When society was handed one of the most beautiful playwrights the English language has ever seen, we screamed that it was too hard and not worth the effort. 

Society is losing the battle to save Shakespeare because we are not looking at it in the right way. 

Instead of forcing moody teens to read his plays, encourage them to watch them.  Shakespeare was never meant to be analyzed in a freshman English class. It was meant to be consumed from the front row of the house. 

When it is performed well, his plots are not hard to understand, they do not feel long-winded and they are just as relevant today as they were when his ink was still wet on the page. 

The emotion is presented on the face of the actors and not through emojis. Your eyes can not experience his careful use of alliteration, soothing vowels and stop plosive consonants in the same way even an untrained ear can hear them. 

Forcing students to read a play of this magnitude is like asking your average teen to read and understand the sheet music for a symphony. Instead of handing students the sheet music or dumbing it down to the level of a Taylor Swift song, we tell students to experience it for themselves. Shakespeare should be no different. 

There are about 60 recognized Shakespeare festivals left in the country.  Additionally, non-specialized venues will produce shows, but many will only include one of his works every few seasons.

It is up to the theater community to make sure students will have the chance to witness and enjoy Shakespeare in his true form by keeping his plays in their season rotation.  

Each performance of “Hamlet” helps keep a love for the words alive regardless of whether a man named William wrote them.

Photo: The Tempest performed by Berkshire Waldorf High School in collaboration with Shakespeare & Company Fall Festival of Shakespeare

 

Stagecraft 101: Designing and Building a Set

Melissia Gary

  • North Carolina Columnist

What does it take to design and build a set for a community theatre play? It takes dedication, love and hard work. Many people don’t know all the hard work it takes to put on a show.  Let’s first discuss set design and building. 

The set designer usually meets with the director and the producer to get their vision, discusses the budget and the time lines. Measurements of the stage and space are taken; perhaps an inventory of what the theatre already has in walls, wood, and trim is assessed.  Questions such as, “Are doors needed, if so how many? Do we have what we need? Do we need to buy them?

If we need to buy them is it in the budget?”  The inventory will tell us if we need to purchase any more wood for additional items like stairs if they are used in the set.  If the theatre does not have enough of something and it is within the budget then materials can be purchases and the items like stairs can be made. If the theatre is lucky they have everything they need already. If not hopefully the budget is large enough to allow for the expenditures.  If neither is true then everyone gets to stretch their creative muscles to make it work. 

The set is designed based on what the budget, inventory and vison.  The director and producer meet with the designer and the schedule is set up. In my experience with community theatre, it’s a call for all hands on deck. Everyone involved in the show is expected to participate in some way. If you are especially skilled in using a saw, hammer or drill you are especially smiled upon. We come together on the weekends, to hold walls in place, to bring wood and trim from storage to the stage and assist in any way we can. 

For a couple of weekends the sounds of the actors voices are replaced by the whirs of saws and the piercing sounds of drills as the set comes together. It can take longer depending on the complexity of the set.  After everything is built and in place we come forth with gallons of primer because of budgetary constraints most of our walls are used over and over. Primer is a magical thing. After all is primed, the painters take over.  After many coats of paint, sometimes multiple colors, we look at all we have accomplished. We smile. We are dedicated to making the show everything it can be and the setting is a big part of the magic of our community theatre. 

 

Whitewashing in Theatre Will Always be a Method of Racial Exclusion

Rebekah Dare Guin 

  • North Carolina Columnist

When Tom Sawyer whitewashes, it is a cute anecdote about a little boy’s hilarious manipulation. When live theater whitewashes, it is a systematic method of racial exclusion. 

Whitewashing, or race-bending, is not referring to an old-school method of painting your garden fence. It is when directors cast white actors as characters of color. 

Most recently, Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theater cast a white actor in the lead of the new Lin-Manuel Miranda musical “In the Heights.” This production is getting noticed because of Miranda’s fame and the success of “Hamilton,” but this is not the first time whitewashing has happened. 

Kenan Theater Company, the undergraduate theater company at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, produced “9 Parts of Desire” a few seasons ago. “9 Parts of Desire” is based on experiences among Muslim women of the Middle East. The cast was almost exclusively white. 

This problem can be tied back to racially charged instances of blackface. Though whitewashing is not a satirical portrayal of stereotypes for comic relief, it comes from the same place of cultural appropriation. 

In the same way an African American man should not play Otto Frank in “Anne Frank,” a white girl should not play Lil Inez in “Hairspray” regardless of the actor's ability to sing and dance. Racebending.com’s whole mission is to raise awareness of the topic in both cinema and theater. 

“More often than not, this practice has a resultant discriminatory impact on an underrepresented cultural community and actors from that community (reinforcement of glass ceilings, loss of opportunity, etc.),” the website said. 

Most small theaters claim that there simply are not enough actors of non-white ethnicities to fill roles that complete their seasons. This is true. Participation in the theater by minorities has always been disproportionate to the population as a whole. This is its own problem. The theater community should look at what is going on behind the scenes to cause these statistical inconsistencies. The search should start with educational theater and work up to the professional working environment. 

However, that is a long-term fix. Choices have to be made today. Casting directors of small theaters have to decide who to put in non-white roles. 

Most theaters already have a good understanding of their casting pool. Of course, some shows will draw in new blood, but most small theaters see the same faces audition over and over again. If these pools are known and known to be predominantly white, should a small theater produce diverse titles? 

Large theaters, particularly those in large and diverse cities, do not have these excuses. The casting pool is much larger, and they have the funding to expand their scope if need be. 

Theater is a place for the open discussion of real problems, real people, and real cultures.

Theaters should expand their seasons to include shows that examine all walks of life. Productions that talk about experiences among Muslim women of the Middle East, Latino neighborhoods in New York and African American struggles during the civil rights movement should be shared. They just need to be shared in the right way. 

Photo: Kenan Theatre Company, Chapel Hil

Knock, Knock....I'm home

Skip Maloney

  • North Carolina Columnist

There is a particular genius in adapting works of art from one form to another. From book to screen, book to stage, stage to screen and sometimes, from screen, down in scope, to the stage. Adaptations are big business. If you've read even this far, you can probably name two or three in the stage to screen category right off the top of your head. The screen to stage column boasts a few entries (Spider Man?). The novel to stage column has fewer, I suspect. The Bridges of Madison County, with its book-to-screen-to-stage route, comes immediately to mind. So does Stephen King's Carrie, although its Broadway run was short-lived. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, of course, which, to my mind, was a better play than film.

On October 14, at a dinner theater in Wilmington, NC called TheaterNOW, three stories by Edgar Allen Poe were adapted to a 3/4-round stage in a play entitled "Of Men and Monsters." The adaptation was written by a young man named Steve Raeburn, who took the central characters from two stories by Poe - The Cask of Amantillado and The Tell-Tale Heart - and brought them together as they were both 'on the run' from their heinous crimes. He sends them to the Maison De Sainte in Canada (in the original story, it was in France), where the third story - "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather" - unfolds.

Adaptations invariably fall victim to a variety of problems, related usually to a reduction or expansion in scale from the original source. I'm surprised that it took them as long as it did to scale a Harry Potter story 'down' to a stage, as they've done recently in London. It'll cross the ocean, soon no doubt, and it's a new story, though it's not precisely an adaptation. It was written directly for the stage.

So, there's that scale thing to think about. And language and atmosphere, and just the process of adaptation itself. In the case of Edgar Allen Poe, you're into language patterns that barely survived the 19th century and were gone, I'm guessing, completely by the second decade of the 20th century. Not only that, but the words of the original were written to be read, not spoken. Poe wasn't thinking dialogue on a stage, although maybe, born to traveling actors in Boston in 1809, he was.

I'd love to be able to write about this production with some objectivity, but being in the thing, I can't do that. Think of this as a postcard that says. . . Having a wonderful time! Wish you were here!

Raeburn's adaptation draws heavily on its source. A lot of the dialogue is word for word, about which there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that people don't talk like that anymore. I'm not convinced they ever did, although Poe seems to have been convinced. The good news is that they're well-written words. They have a touch of the poetic to them, and the words flow freely. Flowered language, decorating the horror of Poe's varied visions.

There's a learning curve involved with translating the language of the stories to the language of the stage and it's not just about the speaking component of the language itself. You have to proceed from the assumption that as odd as a particular set of words might seem coming out of your mouth, the character on stage that's speaking them has spoken this way all of his life. The people in Poe's stories sound like they've had a British education. Even the louts, some of them, have a way of speaking that reveals an education of some sort. And it's not so much revealed in what they say, but how they say it.

It comes as a bit of shock to those of us living in the Twitter-verse that people can use so many words to say something simple. "Yo, dude, 'sup?" becomes "Greetings, my good man, and what dark motive brings you out on an evening so rife with the stench of evil?"

As performers in this production, we seem to have found some creative space in which we've discovered, explored and brought the language of the three tales told by Poe to an audience. How successful we were at accomplishing this would depend, of course, on who you ask.

Pretty much every character in this adaptation and the original stories is bat-shit crazy. Tough to hang your acting hat on that as your only character trait. But I think we manage pretty well. Comes easy for me. 

You could run into problems sometimes, when, for example, someone on stage has no feel for Poe's language. Someone who  never quite catches the rhythm of it. Or someone who doesn't match up spoken language with body language to vitalize the character on stage. To the best of my ability to detect, the people I work with in this production are locked in that way.

Director Ron Hasson plays this relatively silent character called Boullard, who positively lurks on stage. All ratty clothes, scruffy beard, scraggly hair and terrifying little giggles and phrase repetitions, as he contemplates whether to eat you for lunch. He is continuing to surprise me with subtle little things he does to cement what's turning out to be a pretty significant, though no dialogue, relationship between us. We'll catch each other's eyes at different times, and I'll lay a hand out to calm him (Boullard) down. Or he'll look up at me, giggle and silently ask me if he can eat now.

I remember, early on, reading through a portion of the script near the end, during which all of the lunatics of the Maison De Sainte, myself included, are on stage. A stage direction indicates that one of the lunatics is to step up to someone chained, standing up against a wall, rip out his tongue and eat it. And then, as if that wasn't enough, other performers, wielding buckets are supposed to start painting the hapless prisoners (there are two) with tar. And then, sure enough, throw feathers at them (the so-called 'system' of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather). This, in the midst of a cacophony of sound as we lunatics are screaming and cackling our heads off, while Boullard feasts on tongue. Just another crazy night at the Maison de Sainte.

They used a combination of congealed Twizzlers and stage blood to effect the tongue ripping and the first time I saw this, on stage, while I was in front of an audience, a part of me was saying, "Holy crap, this is insane." This, of course, was the effect that Poe was after, but here it was, with living flesh moving around on a stage, and (stage) blood actually pouring out of a character's mouth. It should be noted that the stage at this point is littered with body parts; legs, a disembodied head, a severed hand, all cast in this eerie, greenish glow.

The audience has been around for about two hours at this point, having enjoyed a delightful meal (part of the dinner theater package offered at TheaterNOW) and suddenly, things have gone from a little weird, on through vaguely threatening (with a lot of talk), to downright crazy in the play's final moments. We freeze our screaming and cackling. Our victims go quiet, too, and the lights blink out. We have yet to encounter an audience that didn't burst into enthusiastic applause at the end of that little visual treat.

I think it's a terrific adaptation of Poe's work. It isn't Poe's work, but it brings to the stage all the atmosphere, language and horror of the writing. As a performer, you don't really get to see what it looks like or sounds like from the seats, nor, for that matter, whether the performances themselves are as good as all us actor-types like to think they are. But that's not about the adaptation itself. That's on us and how well we do our jobs.

I think Poe would be tickled.

Photo: From L to R: Kristina Daniel, Jef Pollock, Kent Vest, Penelope Grover, & Ron Hasson (not pictured, David Heck, Phil Antonino, and Skip Maloney)

The Challenges of Decreasing Theatre's Carbon Footprint

Rebekah Dare Guin

  • North Carolina Columnist

The Globe Theatre and theaters around the Globe, build elaborate sets for each one of their shows. Every time, they must face the environmental impact of set building and striking.  

“Theater is tough,” Adam Maxfield, technical director for Playmakers Repertory Company, said. “There is so much we can’t reuse. By the time material gets cut down, it is just cut down.” 

Sets, particularly the ones in large performance spaces, use truckloads of lumber, pounds of steel, boxes of screws, and gallons of paint in every shade of the rainbow. These materials are lovingly assembled and displayed during the run of a show. 

Then, the sledgehammers come out. 

Strike is an alarmingly short process in comparison to the build time of most projects. Sometimes, minutes after the audience leaves their seats, the cast and crew will be busy working to dismantle the world of the play. 

It might seem cathartic to chuck broken wood and mangled steel into industrial dumpsters, but it should also be unsettling. The pile of reusable and recyclable materials is dangerously low. 

This is not unusual. As soon as a drop of paint is brushed onto wood, it no longer meets the requirements for recycling. Of course, there is always in-house reuse, but for most items, it becomes impractical. 

Each set is unique. It is hard to see many of the pieces get reused. Pieces from ‘Sweeney Todd’ just don’t have much use in ‘My Fair Lady.’

Because of texturing and other design elements, it is difficult to reuse materials even if another show has a piece of the about the same size and shape. 

Additionally, most theaters do not have space. Even established theaters that have dedicated performance spaces often do not have the option of storing anything on site, and revenue rarely justifies an offsite storage facility.

“We just don’t have the ability to store large amounts of scenic elements,” Maxfield said. “If we had a warehouse somewhere where we could store lots of platforms and flats so we could adapt some basic elements and get two to three uses out of them, it would be great. We have some space, but it is already full of the basics. You try to put much more out there, and you would be breaking fire codes.”

This leaves theaters filling the air with sawdust before the applause even dies down. Load after load of waste is dragged out and stacked high. In a few weeks, set designers and technical directors will be starting the process anew. 

Sets are a vital part of the theater experience. Taking them away or minimizing them would irrefutably harm the art. Sets add life and structure, and they are arguably one of the features that distinguish great works from mediocre productions. Yet, those great works are adding mounds to landfills every few weeks.

It becomes the responsibility of the next generation of theatergoers and participants to find the artistic balance where both performance and the environment can thrive.    

 

When Standing Ovations are Meaningless

Rebekah Dare Guin

  • North Carolina Columnist

When each unique snowflake of a student receives a gold star for every mediocre score, students stop learning, and the institution fails. When each performance brings an audience to their feet night after night, artists stop creating, and the institution fails. 

Standing ovations have become the participation ribbons of live performance. In every school auditorium, local theater and national venue, audience members end every showing on their feet cheering as if their favorite team just scored the winning touchdown. 

Jesse Mckinley of the New York Times referred to standing ovations as a “tyrant.” Audiences feel obligated to rise to their feet even when the performance does not justify it. 

An educational theater director used to tell his students not to sing because it was time for a song, but to sing because you could no longer simply talk. Likewise, he said not to stand because you were told to, but to stand when you could no longer sit. This was designed to get his students to understand motivation and economy of movement and sound. However, these lessons can be brought to the other side of the curtain. 

As an actor, if you stand all the time, sing all the time or repeat any movement over and over, that movement loses its meaning. It is no longer special. It has become mundane and uneventful. You have nowhere to build. The performance will reach a plateau.

As an audience member, if you jump to your feet regardless of the spectacularity of the night, that movement loses its meaning. It is no longer special. It has become mundane and uneventful. You have nowhere to build.

With no way to distinguish sub-par work from creative genius, there is less motivation to push forward and create something worthwhile. We are handing every performer, designer and dreamer a fifty-cent blue ribbon and are telling them “we are all winners here.”

Even shows that remained closed after only a few weeks have received standing ovations night after night. 

A local college performed an excerpt of its upcoming performance of “Distracted” at a nearby retirement community. Although many members of the audience did not stand due to physical limitations, one gentleman did rise.  The group cheered and praised the students for their work. Yet, not two minutes later during a talk-back, 50 percent of the audience complained that the students had been mumbling, and they had not understood a word of the story. 

This is not to say that every audience member should become an unsatisfied critic and be stingier than Scrooge with their praise. The goal is to preserve and save those special actions for work that is truly special. 

If you make students work for academic honors, not only are you encouraging them to dig deeper and work harder, but you are also making that victory much more meaningful and satisfying. The arts are no different. 

We are telling artists that they have done enough. We are not asking them to dig deeper or work harder. We are taking away the glory of the effort already put in. We are handicapping artists by treating the average like it is excellent, and we are disrespecting the excellent by treating it like it is average.  

Until the human population grows wings and learns to fly, standing is all we can do. It is the highest praise. We should not stand because it is what we are told to do. We should stand because we are so overcome that we can no longer sit. 

High School Theater: What’s Appropriate and Who Decides?

Erin Fossa 

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

While I have never had the opportunity to teach theater at the high school level, I have several friends who currently do. Yesterday, I asked one of them a question. What is the one thing you want to rant about most as a high school theater teacher? She responded without hesitation as though this had been brooding within her for quite sometime… 

Her biggest frustration as a high school drama teacher was not the students or lack of budget or anything I would have guessed. It was the fact that so many of the shows she wanted to produce were deemed “inappropriate” by the principal. For example, she is dying to do Grease and her students are too! However, the idea was rejected due to the “inappropriate content” of the show. I thought about the themes in Grease - high school stereotypes, young love, teen pregnancy - all of which have been addressed on Glee and Saved by the Bell and every other show that has been popular with teenagers. The idea of this show being rejected for being “inappropriate” seemed ridiculous to me, but it prompted a very interesting question: What shows are truly inappropriate for high schoolers and who gets to decide? 

In that particular principal’s defense, he or she will probably be the one receiving the backlash of emails from unhappy parents who also feel the show is not appropriate for their sons and daughters. So, I can understand the hesitation. However, this type of overruling implies that the drama teacher does not have the best interest of her students in mind as she is choosing shows. My friend felt very insulted at her principal’s response which seemed to put her experience and judgement into question. 

My thoughts on this subject are this: If a literature teacher can expose her students to books like To Kill a Mockingbird which deals with subjects like racism and rape, or have the students read Macbeth where the subject matter includes murder and witchcraft, why can’t a theater teacher allow her students to perform Grease? After all, the musical is about high schoolers! 

There is grim content everywhere in a high schooler’s curriculum - from history to art. There is also redemption, hope, and inspiration. Very few plays are void of themes dealing with the darker side of humanity. Should a high school drama teacher be limited to only the handful that are? How does that educate students about storytelling on stage? Teenagers deal with very difficult things every day - pressure to succeed, pressure from friends, bullying, troubles at home - why should we shy away from musicals that tell their stories? Aren’t they a way of telling kids that someone out there knows how you feel? 

Madeleine L’Engle wrote a quote that I love. In her book A Ring of Endless Light, she writes, “Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.” 

It is my personal opinion that a high school drama teacher should be hired with the understanding that he or she has appropriate judgement to choose shows for the season. Needing approval for those choices by a principal or the board of education or anyone else implies that the teacher can’t explain the subject matter to the students or the audience. But as educated instructors, we’ve been taught to consider our performers and our audience when choosing shows. And in turn, we are prepared to be responsible for the feedback, both good and bad. We should be prepared to deal with the consequences of our decisions. Answering to someone higher on the educational totem poll implies that we’re unable to do so. 

Obviously, I do believe there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed; not all plays and musicals are appropriate for high schoolers. But classic musicals like Grease are, in my opinion, exactly what high schoolers should be performing. Wholesome stories with a bit of scandal thrown in to create drama. 

Photo: Lake Highlands High School Fine Arts Department

Sheldon Harnick: Last Man Standing

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

Lyricist extraordinaire, Sheldon Harnick, had his first song on Broadway in “Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952,” the year Elizabeth II ascended to the throne.  His breakout hit from that production, “The Boston Beguine,” introduced a new writer of tremendous intelligence, fantastic wit and deft wordplay.  The show also introduced such future luminaries as Alice Ghostly, Ronny Graham, Carol Lawrence, Paul Lynde, and afforded Eartha Kitt her first opportunity to take center stage.  This past season New York was treated to new productions of his musicals “The Rothchilds” (retitled “Rothchild & Sons”), “She Loves Me” and “Fiddler On the Roof,” which is still running.  A new production of his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiorello!” just opened off-Broadway.  To say he has kept busy during the ensuing 64 years since his debut is an understatement.  

 Sheldon Harnick

Sheldon Harnick

Mr. Harnick has written or contributed to a total of 14 Broadway shows.  Along the way, in addition to his aforementioned Pulitzer, he has collected three Tony Awards from eight nominations, in addition to his well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Tony awarded earlier this year.  At the ripe age of 92, and looking a good 20 years younger, he is the last man standing from what is known as The Golden Age of the American Musical.  (His longtime collaborator, composer Jerry Bock, with whom he wrote 10 musicals, passed away in 2010.)  The other composers with whom he has collaborated, each of whom he acknowledged in his humble acceptance speech for his Lifetime Tony, include David Baker, Arnold Black, Cy Coleman, Marvin Hamlisch, Michel Legrand, Joe Raposo, Mary Rodgers and Richard Rodgers.  But this column will not be a biography of the theatrical legend, who began as a violinist and was also a composer and librettist.  I’ll leave all of that to Google and Wikipedia.  Mine is a more personal story.

I first met Sheldon in 1990 when I was working for The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.  He had written the book and lyrics for a musical based upon the classic holiday film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with music by Mr. Raposo, of “Sesame Street” fame.  (Sheldon had also written some additional music for the show following Mr. Raposo’s passing the previous year.)  He was hoping we might be interested in licensing the performance rights to the musical.  He already had a relationship with the office, having written shows with our founding father, Richard Rodgers (“Rex,” 1976), and with his daughter, one of my then-current bosses, Mary (“Pinocchio” for the Bil Baird Marionettes, the celebrated troupe featured in the film “The Sound of Music,” and a song for the seminal Marlo Thomas recording, book and television special, “Free to Be You and Me”).  

How this icon had found himself in my lowly office, I wasn’t sure.  Certainly he could have called Mary and just said, “I want the office to represent this show.”  Perhaps he did and Mary sent him to me.  Sadly, she is no longer here to jar my memory.  I won’t say that I was daunted at the thought of meeting Sheldon but I do recall taking a very deep breath when the receptionist rang to announce his arrival.  She had already proffered him a cup of coffee when I arrived to greet him.  With a smile the size of all outdoors and a handshake I can still feel the warmth of on my palm, he said how nice it was to meet me.  His utter sincerity gave me no reason to doubt him.  He treated me as a professional peer from the moment I laid eyes on him.  (All of the greats don’t, believe me.)

We sat and discussed his musical which, of course, I thought was a wonderful idea and, I felt, was a money title that theater companies and schools alike would jump at.  When we were done with business, Sheldon said, “So tell me about yourself...  Where are you from?...  How did you land at R&H?...  What are you working on?”  At the time, I was writing a stage adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s movie musical, “State Fair.”  He seemed – no, was – genuinely interested in how it was going.  How I would handle the conundrum of the hog; how did I plan to beef up the score as the film had only six songs; what were my dreams for the musical?  When he left the office I felt, not only as if I’d been in the presence of greatness, but like I’d made a new friend.  When “State Fair” opened on Broadway, I received an astounding wooden trough of glorious tulips from Sheldon and his darling wife, Margery, with a heartfelt note welcoming me to the street.  What a guy.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of directing a production of Sheldon’s musical, “A Wonderful Life” (he had dropped the “It’s” from the title to differentiate it from the film).  Of course it took me back to that day when I first met the gentle titan.  To quote one of Sheldon’s lyrics from the show:

“My dreams have been simple dreams.
I’m one of those lucky souls
Whose gifts, such as they are,
Match their goals.
Long ago I knew
You’d never find me in “Who’s Who.”
Still, I’m one of the lucky ones,
One of the favored few.”

You bet!

Is There Such a Thing as Good or Bad Idea for a Musical?

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

How many times have you heard someone say, “What a horrible idea for a show!”  I said it many times, although many years ago.  I have come to believe through the ensuing years that there is really only one distinction between a good idea for a show and a bad one.  If people like it and are willing to pay to see it, then it was a good idea.  If not, then it was a bad idea.

The notion of a pop-opera based on the last week of Jesus Christ’s life was, I thought at the time, a horrible idea.  After the concept album and subsequent musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” both became international sensations, it suddenly seemed to have been a brilliant idea.  Conversely, I considered the idea of a Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical adaptation of Kaufman and Hart’s 1934 play, “Merrily We Roll Along,” an inspired idea for a musical.  And directed by the illustrious Harold Prince, no less!  When it closed on Broadway two weeks after opening in 1981, the common wisdom was that it was a rotten idea to begin with.  But was it?

Is it possible that the success of a musical has more to do with execution than content?  (I’ll probably be asking more questions in this column than offering answers.)  Who thought, when they read Ron Chernow’s dense biography of Alexander Hamilton, “Now there’s a great idea for a multi-cultural rap musical!”  Well, we all know how that gambit worked out.  Does the premise of a depressive woman suffering from bi-polar disease and the emotional havoc it wreaks on her family really sing to you?  It sure sang to the Pulitzer committee, which awarded “Next To Normal” its prize for drama, and to Broadway audiences, which awarded it with a 733-performance run.  I doubt that when Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern decided to adapt Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel, “Show Boat,” for the stage in the mid-1920s that they got many encouraging slaps on the back as opposed to droll comments along the lines of, “Yeah, good luck with that.” 

Theater being the most collaborative of arts, there is much that accounts for success aside from the material itself.  Foremost are a producer and director who have a clear, shared vision for the show that’s in sync with that of the writer.  Then you bring in the set, costume, light, sound and props designers and hope you can get them all on the same page to tell the same story.  Hopefully the orchestrator will jibe with the composer and lyricist to fully realize their score.  And finally there is the casting, about which there are many axioms.  (“Casting is 90% of the battle.”  “Cast the right actors then get out of their way.”)  Many a show has been doomed by ill-advised casting.  (My mother raised a gentleman so I will not point out specific examples.)  But imagine if, in the season when both “Gypsy” and “The Sound of Music” opened, Mary Martin had played Momma Rose and Ethel Merman had played Maria.  Chances are that neither musical would have become a classic.

I once received permission from the always-game Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to do Rodgers and Hart’s youthful musical, “Babes in Arms,” with a cast of 50- and 60-somethings.  Although I did not intend to change one word of the text, my notion was a reunion of sorts where these folks revisited that long gone summer when they put on a show.  I would trust the audience to understand the premise without spelling it out.  The project collapsed when I couldn’t pull the right cast together.  Casting, I felt, was paramount.

Which in its way brings me back to “Merrily We Roll Along.”  The impetus for that musical came from director Prince’s wife, Judy, who suggested that he do a show about kids.  After all, he had kids, he liked kids and it was a novel idea.  Prince thought of the Kaufman and Hart play and pitched it to Sondheim and Furth, both of whom bit.  The plot follows a group of tight-knit showbiz friends whom we meet in their middle age and proceeds backward in time to their high school graduation.  The production was cast with up and coming 20-somethings (including the director’s daughter, Daisy).  From the moment the curtain went up, the audience was confused.  Who are these people?  Eventually the creative team resorted to sweatshirts identifying the characters, literally spelling it out for the audience (“Franklin Shepherd,” “Best Friend,” etc.).  It didn’t help.  

Was “Merrily We Roll Along” really ever about kids, as the creative team seemed to believe?  Or is about adults reflecting on the dreams and schemes that never came true – lives that didn’t work out as planned?  It’s my theory that casting young people, however talented, threw the show off the rails.  It’s awfully hard, when the characters are introduced, to identify with a young woman in her twenties as a middle-aged alcoholic.  Ditto the other “movers and shakers,” as we are told they are at the top of the show.  Might it have worked better if, when the curtain rose, the actors were the same ages as the characters they were playing?  

Imagine, for instance, the lights coming up on Elaine Stritch, John Collum and Jerry Orbach (circa 1981 when the production opened) as the three disillusioned, life-long pals.  The audience would know immediately who those people are.  Now imagine those actors as teenagers at the end of the story, on a rooftop awaiting Sputnik passing overhead, signifying all of their hopes for the bright promises ahead that we know won’t be realized.  “It’s our time, breath it in.  Worlds to change and worlds to win.”  Might that image have delivered the pathos and heartbreak that the musical, as presented, never quite achieved?  

So was “Merrily” a victim of its material or of its concept and execution?  (As I said earlier, more questions than answers.)  Nowadays when someone says to me, “What a horrible idea for a musical,” I hold my tongue.  The audience may be the judge of whether it’s an idea that works, but not of whether it was a good or bad idea to begin with.