The Rundown: Kristin Chenoweth in Concert at The Borgata

Spencer Lau

  • OnStage New Jersey Columnist

Kristin Chenoweth is a bonafide superstar. We have seen her in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown”, “Wicked”, “On the Twentieth Century” on stage; “The West Wing”, “Pushing Daisies”, “Glee”, Disney’s “The Descendants” and in NBC’s live performance of “Hairspray” on December 7th; and in the movies “RV”, “Rio 2”, “Four Christmases” and most recently “The Peanuts Movie”. Tonight she went back to her roots and the eclectic audience who packed the Music Box Theatre at the Borgata in Atlantic City was treated to a synopsis of Kristin’s life and career up to now.

Kristin opened her show with the song “Should I Be Sweet” from the 1932 musical Take a Chance. You are probably asking yourself right now, “I’ve never heard of that show, why would she open with that?” The answer is simple and in the lyrics. The song asks the two age-old questions: Who should I be? Who could I be? Those questions define Kristin’s career as she has played the gambit of characters available to an actor. Throughout the evening, Kristin told wonderful stories about her career, and how she grew up (she has a connection to West Chester, PA) and sang songs that she felt represented her life, her views, and the most meaning to her.

Kristin sang “Taylor, the Latte Boy”, a song that she made famous fifteen years ago. Following that she sang a song, written by Jodi Marr, and dedicated to her father called “Fathers and Daughters”.  Kristin then sang one song from her upcoming album The Art of Elegance. The album is a collection of American songbook standards like the one she sang, “I Get Along Without You Very Well”. Some of the stories Kristin shared were about her first acting experience as a child, what it was like growing up in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and how some of the songs she would sing on Broadway needed to be edited for the Midwest audience.

There was a poignant moment in the show where Kristin told the audience to take a minute and be kind. She also said that we should all be grateful for our lives and then sang a beautiful rendition of “Bring Him Home” from the musical Les Miserables. Soon after that, and while the audience is still drying their tears, she was able to lighten the mood by singing “Popular” from Wicked, which she dedicated to Donald Trump. After a couple more American songbook standards, Kristin brought out an octet of seniors from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts musical theatre program. She then talked to the students and to the audience about “being yourself” and opened up about her faith. She told the audience you could be a Christian and be a gay activist as well.  Kristin then closed her concert with two songs about her faith with the students singing back up for her.

Kristin returned to the stage after a standing ovation and sang two more songs. One of the songs was a favorite of mine called “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin. The song reminds us that a smile can get you through anything in life.

I had a few observations about the concert. The first observation was how diverse the audience was. There were Broadway fans and teenagers hoping to hear songs from musicals to seniors hoping to hear songs from the American Songbook and religious songs. None of them walked away disappointed. Kristin actually took a minute to thank all the boys, dads, and men who attended the concert because they may have been forced to. My second observation is that Kristin’s concert is emotionally charged and powerful. The set list that she picked for this concert brought out so many emotions in her. She openly shared them with the audience throughout her performance and her narrative in between the songs. Finally, many of us knew how great a singer and performer Kristin was, but I do not think many people knew or understood how humble and grateful she is for the life that she has.

Kristin Chenoweth will be touring domestically through May of 2017. If you have an opportunity to see her, Kristin is another must-see performer. You will laugh, you will cry, you will understand that Kristin Chenoweth is a force of nature, but still the girl from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

Kristin Chenoweth
http://www.officialkristinchenoweth.com
Four out of Four Stars Concert
The Art of Elegance (release date September 23, 2016)

The Rundown: Leslie Odom Jr. at The Borgata Music Box

Spencer Lau

  • OnStage New Jersey Columnist

When you walk into the theatre, the stage is gorgeously bathed in a violet light, the seats are soft and comfy, and there are great sight lines of the stage from every seat. Which theatre am I at this evening? Actually, this is The Music Box Theatre in the Borgata in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I was privileged to be in the audience for one of Leslie Odom Jr.’s first solo concerts promoting his self-titled debut album.

Leslie opened his show with a few of his songs from his album “Leslie Odom Jr.” (iTunes $9.99). The first impression of his band is just silky smooth, like his voice. Tonight he opened up with “Autumn Leaves”, the third track from his album, and just set a beautiful tone for the evening. Following that, he sang the beautiful song “Look for the Silver Lining”. This upbeat song truly does represent Leslie’s outlook at life. If you don’t know Leslie Odom Jr. from that “small” Broadway hit Hamilton that earned him the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actor, then you should get to know him.

Leslie was born in New York and raised in Philadelphia. He was in the same class at Carnegie Mellon University with a few people you might know: Josh Groban (debuting this fall in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812), Josh Gad (Book of Mormon, Disney’s Frozen), Rory O’Malley (Hamilton), and he was at school the same time as Megan Hilty (Noises Off), Billy Porter (Kinky Boots), and Renee Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton) were there. Can you imagine having been there at the same time seeing all these phenomenal talents together? If you want to hear stories, check out Leslie’s Playbill Vlogs. They are by far hysterical (PG for language) and insightful of how supportive, loving, and caring they are of each other. 

The third number was his beautiful samba Spanish track, “Brazil (Aquarela Do Brasil)”. I heard from people around me that they wished they could dance to it and I found myself asking why I took French in school and not Spanish because I wish I understood it when I first heard it rather thank looking up the translation. Following that song, Leslie introduced his next song by telling the audience that so many people asked him “Why would you leave the hit Hamilton?” He asks the question “Well why would you leave your job?” before giving his response with the song “Joey, Joey, Joey”. The chorus of the song is:

“Joey, Joey, Joey, 
Joey, Joey, Joe
You’ve been too long
In one place
It’s time to go
Time to go, oh”

The song perfectly sums up Leslie’s attitude towards his work. He is always striving to improve himself, learn something new, and take a chance. Now I know you are reading this and asking, “Does Leslie sing anything from Hamilton?” Well, of course he does. 

After “Joey, Joey, Joey”, Leslie talks a bit about Hamilton, the creative process, and his love of the show and Lin Miranda. He then goes into a couple of his signature songs from Hamilton. I was fortunate enough to see Leslie in Hamilton before he left and I can tell you that he delivered those songs with the same fire and passion as he did on stage, although the arrangements were built around his jazz sound. But following the Hamilton songs, Leslie then goes back to his first big break, replacing Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) in Jersey Boys. Leslie then explained his role in the production and love of that style of music. He then sings this amazing medley of Jersey Boys songs.

Following his Broadway set, he said something that I think anyone who knows his voice was thinking. Leslie said that when he started to create this album, he wanted it to be “something Nat King Cole or Sammy Davis Jr. would have made right now.” The medley of songs he then sings, like the Jersey Boys medley, just take you back in time. They are what our parents or grandparents (depending on your age) listen to and would sing in the car. His soulful sound just bring you back to those days of simpler times, or how you enjoyed hearing a parent or grandparent singing these songs as it did for me. 

After the medley, Leslie comes back around to the album to close the show and features the amazing band and has a song where his wife, Nicolette Robinson sings the vocal backups to him. Following the concert, his encore, tonight was a crowd-pleasing song from Hamilton. You know, the one that is a love letter to Aaron Burr’s beloved at the time.

Leslie’s concert was absolutely wonderful. It was a night of unbelievable music, a marvelous band, and fascinating insight into Leslie as a person and performer. As he said during the show, this is still a very new and fluid process. He is just getting started and this concert wasn’t even his tenth yet. I hope that when you go out and get tickets to see him that he gives you more of his Broadway songs, and a few more of those good old fashioned crooner songs.

So why didn’t I just give you a set list? Because they are all going to change up and I want you to go out there and buy his CD and learn more about him and his story. After his concert, he came out and met with everyone who wanted to meet with him, and it was pretty much like the Hamilton stage door. Leslie signed Hamilton Playbills, “Hamilton: The Book”, his CD, and took pictures. He took time with his fans and took in their thoughts on his show and spent time with younger members of the audience. I know because there were a few of my students in attendance that evening. Leslie connects with people through his story, his music and voice, and in the person he is. You could see how much he appreciated the younger crowd he had there and that he was inspiring the next generation of musical theatre actors and singers. He was also exposing them (and the entire audience) to more than musical theatre and that is something everyone can appreciate.

A special thank you to Brian Brennan, PR Manager (Borgata) and the Borgata for bringing Leslie Odom Jr. in. There are a lot of Broadway performers who come down to Atlantic City to perform, but the Borgata’s Music Box is by far, my favorite venue. It is state of the art, beautiful to be in, and is just such an intimate venue for performances like this. I hope that there are more Broadway performers who choose this venue to perform because there are so many Broadway fans, young and old, who would love to attend and hopefully meet these brilliant artists and be inspired.

So in summary, you have to buy Leslie’s CD, find out the closest place he is performing near you, and go get your tickets right now. If he can stay and chat with you, take the time and stay, you’ll come on here and thank me later.

School Theatre: Needed now more than ever

Spencer Lau

OnStage New Jersey Columnist

I have been going back and forth about this column.  What I settled on was to open a discussion about how musical theatre can be inspiring on many different levels for different kids and how to discuss them with school administrators.  Hopefully, after reading this post, you can go on here and comment with a success story or two of yours and share it so that we may begin to amass a thread of success stories that performing arts administrators, teachers, and specialists can use as examples in defense of their programs across the country.  I believe at the end of a school year it is nice to hear some positive stories.

School theatre programs always come under fire around the end of the school year.   There are budget cuts, staff cuts, etc., and as we all know far too well, the fine and performing arts are usually the first programs to be cut.  This article will discuss what specific reasons you can make school theatre programs important, viable, and a necessity in schools today.

Vocational Opportunities:

Theatre offer wide range of vocational opportunities.  Most people who attend your standard middle or high school theatrical performance are not aware of all the opportunities for learning vocational skills.  If you watch any Broadway.com vlogs (video logs) or if you read the “Unusual Jobs in Theatre”, or even Hamilton’s “Ham4Ham” videos, they all spotlight the hard working people behind the scenes that shows need in order to function and you can integrate students into those roles. Kids become more invested in a show when they help build the set, or help design or sew the costumes.  

Perhaps your child would be interested in helping design the programs or cast shirt?  Student “gamers” might be interested in the light and sound design of a show.  Theatre is not just for acting and singing, there are so many more opportunities available for everyone.  We can reach the general population of a school just by putting out there what we need help in or are willing to teach.  So when the school curriculum coordinator comes to you and says you need to integrate more vocation into your curriculum or general music classes, here is a perfect way to integrate your students with various interests into the arts.

Cross Curricular:

Theatre programs reach out across math, science, history, physical education, English Language Arts, foreign languages, etc.  The math can be in the music, it can be in area of a stage, or in the set design.  Collaborate with your math teachers and find some ways to either integrate math in your program or consult them for ideas as to how they can integrate music into their class. For example area to paint on a backdrop, or distance between objects on stage, etc.  There is a lot of STEM careers that can be considered in sound, and lighting.  Since STEM is a big catch phrase now, how about starting a discussion about how the science of music, sound and technology contribute to a whole education.  In English and Language Arts there are opportunities for writing Playbill biographies, learning to write reviews on shows, or writing their own shows.  In Social Studies or Reading class you can connect how all shows are based upon some kind of event or story and relates to a particular time or historical period. I could continue to go on and on, but I think we all know to impress an administration/community questioning the need for a theatre program, you have to be able to relate it to the common core subjects and how your work is cross-curricular.  Luckily, if you order shows from MTI, R&H, Tams-Witmark and Samuel French, they all come with ways to make what you do and your specific show a cross-curricular event.  

Source of Community Pride/Public Relations:

How often can other extra-curricular programs pick up and demonstrate what they do and have learned?  Could a football team or basketball team do run a touchdown play in the middle of a Board Meeting?  Theatre is very portable and can be performed for anyone at any time.  For instance, students can perform the Star Spangled Banner at a multitude of community and regional events. They can perform for Seuss Day for elementary schools.  They are usually made up of the students who are part of a choir that perform at the Holidays and a Spring Musical.  A strong, supported theatre program can unify a community.  If you Google “Junior Theater Festival,” (JTF) you will find community and school theatre programs performing during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in Atlanta, Georgia.  

You can read about how proud their schools and communities are of the young people that are representing them.  Musical theatre groups can perform powerful, moving pieces at senior centers, and in a variety of settings and contexts. These opportunities to perform o overlap with a choral program from time to time, but many community groups will appreciate and call upon these programs to help contribute to community events.  Theatre programs, in turn, make the school district look great and well rounded.

Discipline/Self Confidence:

Do people forget how much the arts develop skills as individual students?  The fine and performing arts teach students that they have to budget their time, complete work, speak in public, and interact with people on multiple levels.  We live in a time period where communication does not have to be done through face-to-face interaction.  Theatre and the arts help to bridge that gap.  It assists students confidence in writing and public speaking skills.  It helps students to be more motivated to attend school, participate in school, and statistically do better on SATS.  But what you have to do as an advocate is bring up those statistics to your administrators (for example: AATE Facts).  

Administrations and communities want to see statistics and this is where I believe many of you find your success, but you have to bring national statistics and track your own students statistically.  Another benefit to theatre education is that it provides many students with incentives to attend school on a regular basis as well as help kids to become motivated.  Here is where you can make a tremendous impact on a child’s life.  You just have to find out what makes that child excited and work out a plan with their teachers or the Child Study Team, and the results are some of the best you can get.  When you find the switch to turn that child’s mind on, and you are more able to effectively motivate them so that, their self-confidence builds and they believe they can do more than just what they do in theatre.

Inclusive Safe Zone for ALL Students:

Where else can you have all students, regardless of skill level or background, participate in an activity together?  Let’s look at the revival of Spring Awakenings and how their casting opened new doors for wonderful actors like Ali Stroker, Daniel Durant (2016 Theatre World Award Winner) and Austin P McKenzie (2016 Theatre World Award Winner). Right now, theatre is expanding in so many ways and giving actors with different abilities an ability to show the world the amazing talents and abilities they have to move us with powerful performances.  Theatre gives everyone a voice, and through TV shows like Glee and Smash, really made musical theatre mainstream. These shows made it cool to be able to sing, dance and act for everyone. The one skill that you need to possess is desire and with that you can do anything in theatre.  In my humble opinion, theatre is a valuable safe zone for kids to express themselves, who they are, and what they want.  

Theatre helps contribute to emotional health and sanity by allowing performers to express themselves rather than feeling they are isolated and have to keep their emotions bottled up.  There are amazing programs being done in New York City public schools that include theatre for special needs students that will bring you to tears because these students have a forum to express themselves.  If you’d like to see an example of these programs, check out the documentary: Spectrum of Hope. The joy this movie will cause you to ask yourselves, “How can I change a life like that?” and I hope you find some way to support a program like that in your school district or community.  There are still negative aspects though.  We do live in a world of bullies who insult everything the arts and theatre stand for.  We have politicians who demonize minorities, villainize religions, create laws against genders.  

Are we shocked when these things seep into our schools and our communities?  Are we truly surprised when a parent or small group of people rail a community theatre or school theatre program that is inclusive of all people and provides them an opportunity to express themselves?  Kids need to know that they are important, beloved individuals who should and can express themselves and how they are feeling.  Theatre is perhaps one of the most effective and fun arenas in which students can openly express themselves.

I said I wanted to have examples of success stories, so would like to lead off with one of my own.  I have this former student of mine, Desmond, who is one of the biggest examples of theatre changes lives. He’s a 10th Grader now but when I was asked to mentor him in 5th Grade, he was a disciplinary problem.  He spent more time in the principal’s office than in school, terrible grades, and used his dyslexia as an excuse rather than working on it.  He was going downhill in a fast way.  I remember thinking to myself: What can I do with this kid?  How do I motivate him?  It turns out I didn’t have to do anything.  I asked him to come to a rehearsal and maybe he would be interested in stage crew for a show.  Little did I know that the rehearsal would change both of our lives.  Des was sitting there watching, and from the opening rehearsal number, he was hooked.  

After seeing the various parts of a show and how helpful he could be after one rehearsal, Des turns to me and says this is what he wants to do.  Fast forward a couple years, and Des was nominated for the Sharidan Giles Technical Scholarship Award at the 2014 Junior Theatre Festival and was one of three winners.  Since then, he has racked up an impressive list of accolades and is a theatrical connoisseur.  He has seen a dozen musicals and now does work with Telemundo, stage manages shows for multiple schools, and has a passion to teach the fundamentals of stagecraft to young kids to inspire them as he was inspired.  

Now we are discussing college and where he can go for stagecraft (God I feel old).  It has by no means been an easy change for him, and he still calls or comes to school to talk about problems but theatre changed him.  He realized his calling very quickly and nothing stands in the way of that.  I could keep going on about the type of person he has become, I don’t credit his success to myself but to theatre.  It was the family he found (rather than a gang); it was the self confidence he found in working with his hands; it was the sense of pride he found in himself and the community found in him; but most of all, he found a home to be himself and not worry about testing or his dyslexia being an issue.

So now it is your turn!  Tell us about one of your success stories.  What did I miss?  Hang in there and have a great end of the school year. 

Photo: Wilsonville High School

Stop! You, Yes You, Are Killing the Future of School & Community Theatre!

Spencer Lau

  • OnStage New Jersey Columnist

Did that catch your attention?  Who is killing in school and community theatre?  Aaron Burr? Scar?  Monty D’Ysquith?  Madame Morrible?  No, it’s not any of them.  They may be killing it on Broadway or on Tour but not in School or Community Theatre.  It’s production teams, directors, choreographers, etc. who either don’t know any better, or worse, don’t care.  

The State of the Art:

Earlier this year Chris Peterson, Founder and Editor in Chief did an article about a theatre company in Connecticut that had a set designer who copied from another company.

Believe it or not that has become something that is more common than we care to admit.  A little education on this subject, when a school, or community theatre, license a show they are all given a contract.  Some are more extensive than others.  But within that contract are regulations for show billing, videotaping (if allowed), scripts, etc. that production teams are to strictly follow.  Here’s where we go off the rails, READ AND FOLLOW THE CONTRACT!!!  It’s right there in front of you!!!

Right now you are saying, who are you to be telling me how to envision my show or who cares?  Honestly a lot of people do!  It’s a copyright that you are violating when you copy costumes, set, choreography, change songs, or add things that are from revivals or past productions.

Put simply, would you want someone to steal your creativity and imagination, or borrow it and not be given some kind of credit or compensation?  So how are these people killing the future of school and community theatre?  I’m glad you asked!

God I Hate Shakespeare:

If you know Something Rotten, then you know this song falls where the Nick Bottom wants to get ahead of William Shakespeare so badly, he takes extreme measures to do so.  Let’s apply that to present day school or community theatre.  There are a bunch of programs/companies in your area that you are competing against or groups doing the same show; you are just trying to get ahead because you know that your company is just that great.  Can you put a price on your integrity?  Are you really willing to risk it all?  Maybe you are a school in South Jersey or a community theatre group in Ohio?  Perhaps a blended program in Wisconsin or summer theatre program that is part of a dance academy in Texas.  Sure you could roll the dice and assume that no one is looking, and copy things from a Broadway production, or tour, regional theatre, whatever.  What does that say about your integrity?  What does that say about your trust in yourself, your production team or your actors?  Do you know what happens if you get caught?  Let me give you some examples from one particularly popular show right now, Lion King Jr.  Not billing the show as THE LION KING JR OR KIDS; copying the costume plots of the Broadway show; adding songs from the Broadway show to your KIDS version; turning your community theatre stage into a knock off of the National Tour.  I think anyone can keep going because you probably have seen things like this with any show.  What happens if you get caught?

Cell Block Tango:

He (she) had it coming…He (she) had it coming.  He (she) only had himself to blame…If you’d have been there…If you’d have seen it, I betcha you would have done the same.   Ok so you might not go to jail like Velma in Chicago and sing this but come on, you didn’t think I’d just use the title for this one did you?  How do you explain to your school/community theatre group when they get a cease and desist letter?  Or a fine of thousands of dollars?  Revocation of show rights?  We all hear the stories, this school or company got caught, but yet we don’t fear that?

Why is that?  Is the risk worth the gain?  Do you want to be known as the director or production team or company that ripped off a Broadway show or tour?  Take stock in what you do and the manner in which you do it!!!  Can you do very small things to “tip the cap” to the Broadway show?  I think it’s only respectful to do so.  Give your audience some Easter eggs (like so many movies do now).  For instance, the school I direct just did Legally Blonde Jr.  For the prison scene we had 15 girls on stage in highlighter orange T-shirts and each kid had a different number on it: 24601 (Les Miserables), 525600 (Rent), 1776 (1776), 442 (Allegiance), 42154 (MTI Offices), etc. etc.  Perhaps a very recognizable dance step (NOT STEPS OR CHOREOGRAPHY) will suffice, but to turn your production into something that it’s not.  There are people at iTheatrics who work with MTI, Samuel French, R&H, Disney, Tams Whitmark to craft these shows for schools or folks who work at these companies who do it for professional productions.  When did you get smarter and better than the folks who work with the writers, composers?  Now don’t get defensive, settle down.  How do we fix this?  It’s actually kind of simple folks.

Breathe:

There are high stakes in community theatre but there are ways to ramp up your show.  Here’s what you can do:

1.    Don’t watch any productions of the show you are producing.  Have a fresh perspective and let your creativity flow.
2.    Read and follow your contract, if you have questions, call your representative.  They have people who handle what is in bounds and what is not.
3.    Roundtable discussions with colleagues or your production staff and have reflective time on their ideas.  Some of the most insane ideas don’t always have to come from you.
4.    Pay attention to your surroundings.  There are so many other things that can inspire you and give you paths to follow.
5.    Ask for permission to make changes.  While this is doubtful to happen often, if you have a revolutionary idea, get it out there with the people who created the work.  You might just have opened a new path for yourself!
6.    Experiment, experiment, experiment but set yourself a deadline as well.  Try things 1000 times.  It’s part of the creative process, honestly.  If you trust your people, they may help guide your direction.
7.    Research, research, research.  Research the time period, the characters, society, the norms of society, the culture, psychology, all those things.  The more you read and learn, the more your mind will want to expand.

Always Starting Over:

So at this point you are saying to yourself, “oh jeez, I’ve read all of this and I still don’t get it.

How am I killing school and community theatre?”  How is my show imitation, change show billing or copying things from the show going to hurt my school or community theatre group?

There are a few answers to that.

1.    Show titles will become harder to license.  The more groups are found to be doing things the improper way, the better chance that the producers of the shows or the license holders of the shows will be less likely to allow them to be adapted for schools or community groups.
2.    Show titles will become more expensive to license.  If the current trend continues, I would imagine you will have to pay higher amounts for licensing, which you will have to turn around and put into your ticket sales, which, in this day in age will hurt your ability to operate in the black.
3.    Reputation, trust as lost.  You are as good as your work and your word.  I live and teach in a community that boasts 4 community theatre groups within 20 miles of each other.   The word gets around (yes that is a Hamilton reference), not only amongst the community but licensing companies.  It is a much small world than you think it is.
4.    Money, money, money.  You won’t be in the money, you’ll be out a lot.  Can you imagine what would happen if your school program was misusing your contract?  Even worse, you cause your community theatre company to fold?  You look at your Young Simba, or Flounder, Red Riding Hood and tell them and their parents what you did.

In order for musical theatre, or theatre in general is to flourish, we all need to work in concert with each other.  In the end, doesn’t our work speak for itself?  Do we really need to copy and steal to get ahead?  If you think so, you are in the wrong world folks.  There is brilliance in everyone that is involved in theatre.  How do we use that and actively engage it is the difference.  Be great, create great things, teach great things and do great things.  But make sure they are your things and not someone else’s.

Break a leg!!!

Spencer