Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See includes the best representation of love that I have ever read in a novel. The two main characters—a 16-year-old blind French girl and an 18-year-old German soldier—meet In Saint-Malo, France, after traversing each other’s paths for the entirety of World War 2. Marie-Laure and Werner are together for only a few hours after being trapped for days in near-death experiences. With each rereading, I always hope the conclusion of the scene will be different—the words in the book will change, and my memory of the actual ending will somehow be wrong. That is how much Doerr has made me care about these fictional characters and their bond.
I experienced this same emotion in the Walter Kerr Theater while watching Hadestown. One decision I have made as a theater-goer is to learn as little as possible about a play before seeing it. I do not listen to the albums or watch clips online or read summaries of the plot because nothing can recreate the lasting impact of something unexpected on the stage. In the case of Hadestown, the moment I will always remember is the dramatic shift from a beautiful song to complete silence.
Beginning with what I did know before seeing Hadestown, the musical is inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. From that starting point, I was unsure what to expect from creator Anaïs Mitchell (who wrote the music, lyrics, and book). In Ovid’s translated words, Orpheus can write songs powerful enough to open the walls of Hades and bring tears to a God’s eyes, but could Mitchell’s music live up to that standard? The music in Hadestown is, in fact, masterful—a sung-through opera combining elements of rock, jazz, and country. From the opening song “Road to Hell”, a jazz-style dance number performed by André De Shields as Hermes, I was convinced that Hadestown was going to be extraordinary.
Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) sings most of her songs in a country/folk style, which is fitting for a character who is a runaway looking to stay on the move. Orpheus (Reeve Carney) falls deeply in love with Eurydice at first sight. He often sings in a rock falsetto with his power ballads conveying his overwhelming desires to create beauty and light in a darkened world. He wins over Eurydice with the aptly titled “Epic I” only to lose her with “Epic II” before his last desperate attempt to win her back with “Epic III.”
Just as intriguing as the love story between Orpheus and Eurydice is the much more damaged tale that Mitchell creates for Persephone (played by Afra Hines at the performance I saw) and Hades (Tom Hewitt). While Persephone once loved Hades, the intensity of his attraction for her has overwhelmed her into a manic depression exhibited in blues songs like “Livin’ it Up on Top.” Hades, in turn, deals with his wife’s absence by using the dead souls in his domain to build a massive, lifeless industrial complex in the underworld.
I will not discuss every aspect of Hadestown beyond hinting that the setting and the choreography are grand achievements. However, the greatest compliment I can pay to Hadestown is to admit that throughout much of the second act, I was increasingly overwhelmed with a sense of dread because, like most of the audience, I know how the myth ends. I sat entranced as Mitchell first convinced me to believe in the immense love shared by Orpheus and Eurydice. Then she convinced me to believe that Orpheus’s song conveyed so much emotion that Hades relents on keeping Eurydice’s soul. I even remember a brief moment of denial, thinking to myself, “Maybe this play is going to cheat. Maybe it will just skip the part where Orpheus fails.” Without giving away the ending, Mitchell’s script does not cheat, and the result is a moment of complete silence practically the equivalent of sitting alone in an dark, empty auditorium.
Rest assured, though, just as every other aspect of Hadestown works, so does the conclusion. Yet, when I get a chance to see Hadestown again, I am sure I am going to still hold out hope that maybe it will end differently—not just for Orpheus and Eurydice, but for all of the very limited number of characters so brilliantly created that their love transcends fiction.
Few experiences in musical theater can match the exhilaration felt by the audience and the performer during a remarkable solo. The best of solos – the true upper-echelon – provide a deep insight into not only the character’s mind but also the unique world in which he/she lives.
For this blog, I am going to focus on some of the best solos in which female performers put everything on the line. They are experiencing some form of crisis, and by the end of the song the character’s inner turmoil reverberates through our brains as much as the song’s melody. Some of these songs are recognized Broadway canon, but a few are more unique to my tastes and memories.
The Who’s Tommy was my first Broadway musical, an interesting choice for a sheltered middle-schooler more familiar with REO Speedwagon than The Who. I don’t remember if I even knew what “dropping acid” meant when I walked into the theater, but I sure knew by the number’s end as the silhouetted Gypsy shoots heroine into her arm. At intermission I peppered my mother with questions about how “Acid Queen” fit into the plot, and she responded, “In the 60’s, some people just liked to write songs about drugs.” Years later, as I found myself listening to this song on near repeat (maybe even belting along when I was alone), I realized that the greatness of “Acid Queen” is that the performer’s manic intensity is an embodiment of the character’s addiction. The Gypsy needs Captain Walker’s money, and to get it she is willing to “tear [Tommy’s] soul apart.” “Acid Queen” is the Gypsy’s only song, yet it serves as the rock bottom of the psychedelic experience that is Tommy’s journey.
The 2001 Tony Awards were dominated by The Producers, which set the record by winning 12 Tony Awards, a sweep of every musical category except Leading Actress. However, I contend that amid all the hype was one of the greatest gaffs in Tony Awards history. Namely, the late Polly Bergen should have beaten The Producers and won Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance of “I’m Still Here” in the Roundabout revival of Follies. As the title implies, “I’m Still Here” is a tour-de-force number. Sung by the character Carlotta Campion, the aging actress tells the story of career setbacks and humiliations articulated by some of Stephen Sondheim’s most glorious lyrics (“First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp / then someone’s mother, then you’re camp”), and ultimately her success is attributed to the fact that she relied on no one but herself. Bergen’s performance was a lightening-in-a-bottle moment followed of waves of applause that started thunderous, then died down before reigniting multiple times, ending only after Bergen signaled her exit stage right.
A number of moving parts contribute to the anticipation of “Music and the Mirror.” Subtle inferences that Zack and Cassie have a troubled past build to a fever pitch when the two finally share a dialogue. With Cassie exposed on center stage and Zack unseen from his director’s booth, Cassie is forced to beg just to continue her audition: “I need a job. I need a job and I don’t know any other way to say it. Do you want me to say it again?” Once the music begins, an actress must convey the desperation of the lyrics (“Put me to work, you would think that by now I’m allowed. I’ll do you proud.”) over the increasingly intense trumpet flourishes and drum licks. Other characters in A Chorus Line sing about their love for dancing, but Cassie is in a higher plane: her need to dance is expressed in every step of the 5-minute dance solo. As a character, Cassie is extremely vulnerable, but when she dances she takes full control of the stage.
My first exposure to this Sondheim classic from 1970 was, unfortunately, in the form of the Forbidden Broadway parody “The Ladies Who Screech,” which is more obnoxious than funny (although Elaine Stritch’s rendition does become a bit screechy). What I have since discovered is that the extended belting at the end of the song (“Everybody rise. Rise. Rise, rise.”) is the musical embodiment of how Joanne perceives her own existence – she is bored, trapped in a tedious life with little to drink to beyond wealthy women who hide their own banality by shopping and taking art classes and (of course) meeting for lunch. The lyrics for “The Ladies Who Lunch” provide opportunity for each actress to tell a unique story. The best interpretation belongs to Patti LuPone, but don’t discount the Camp version in which a teenaged Anna Kendrick accentuates her anger by shattering her own martini glass.
The first act of Wicked focuses heavily on plot development, moving from Elphaba’s birth to her renunciation of the Wizard. The second act of Wicked slows the pace and emphasizes Elphaba’s internal struggles as she becomes The Wicked Witch, and the anchor of that second act is “No Good Deed.” Beginning with a rhythmic chant of magical words, the song lulls the audience into Elphaba’s turmoil before Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics expose the frustrations of her failures. When Elphaba sings, “One question haunts and hurts / Too much, too much to mention. / Was I really seeking good / Or just seeking attention?” Schwartz manages an ingenious summary for Gregory Maguire’s novel. The musical is lighter in tone than its source material, but “No Good Deed” creates a momentary glimpse into the question surrounding Elphaba’s life: was she predestined toward wickedness, or is her wickedness a result of her own actions? For both melody and emotional impact, “No Good Deed” is the best song in Wicked – greater even than the more popular “Defying Gravity.”
What it’s about: working hard but still getting nowhere
On my last viewing of Caroline, or Change, a brilliant 2018 collaboration by Timeline and Firebrand theater companies, I had a distinct lyric in my head at the start of intermission and even at the end of the show. Anchored by a rhythm reminiscent of the repetition of a basement dryer, Caroline sings, “And I am mean and I am tough but…/ Thirty dollars ain’t enough./ Thirty dollars ain’t enough.” This is an anthem for Caroline Thibodeaux, a maid in 1963 Louisiana struggling to support three children on her dismal salary (her oldest son is in Vietnam). This opening song with lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori combines the soul of blues and the rigors of opera. Caroline’s tribulation is to hold tightly to a world which stacks the odds against her while knowing that she cannot last much longer. Caroline is one of the most difficult parts in any musical, and I have been very fortunate to see Tonya Pinkins (2004), E. Faye Butler (2008) and Rashada Dawan (2018) each excel in the role.
I remember the awe I felt upon seeing the song “Cabaret” performed live for the first time. This was the 1998 Broadway revival at Studio 54 and Molly Ringwald (performing in 2002) was one of many capable actresses to step into the role of Sally Bowles. I was well acquainted with the song and understood it to be a celebration of life: “Come taste the wine, / Come hear the band./ Come blow a horn,/ Start celebrating;/ Right this way, your table’s waiting.” In fact, Liza Minnelli’s movie performance (directed by Bob Fosse) is an ode to exuberance. Imagine my shock upon seeing that this number had been completely turned on its head for the revival. Gone was the carefree ignorance of the growing Nazi presence. It was replaced by Sally clinging to her last thread. The world is crashing around her, and suddenly the morbidity of a song about a deceased prostitute/roommate is foreshadowing the oncoming destruction – a calamity that Sally is unlikely to survive. The magic of “Cabaret” is that the song is remarkable either way. It can be a boisterous drinking song or a sad commentary about futility.
Thanks for reading. Theater was all but nullified for most of 2020, but I am hopeful that the arts will make a slow reemergence in 2021. If you have other favorite female solos, post them in the chat. I am planning on posting in the near future a similar blog featuring favorite male solos.
Am I committing an act of musical-theater sacrilege by not naming Hamilton the best musical of the decade?
To begin with some similarities, both Hamilton and Come From Away are sung-through musicals exploring key moments in American history. They both begin with toe-tapping expositional songs (“Alexander Hamilton” and “Welcome to the Rock”) that introduce not only the characters and settings but also unique narration styles. They both have show-stopping power-ballads (“Wait for It” and “Me and the Sky”) in which characters connect their passions to their fears. They both have songs that explore the pressures of time (“Nonstop” and “On the Edge”) and songs that divert from the style of the show to relieve tension (“What’d I Miss” and “Screech In”).
Hamilton is the more extensive musical – it’s an hour longer and covers a span of 28 years. It explores the political maneuverings needed to secure a strong federal government back in 1790, and by extension manages to communicate a great deal about the divided politics of today. For many, the casting of Hamilton emphasizes the degree to which America is and always has been a land of diversity.
Come From Away is much smaller in scale – it is under two hours with no intermission, features a cast of 12, and uses a limited set comprised mostly of chairs and creative lighting. Yet, while Hamilton persuades us to reexamine events that define America, Come From Away inspires us to find hope within the tragedy that defined an entire generation. I am sure everyone 30 years and older remembers the moment he/she first learned of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. I was 23 on that day, working as a graphic artist in New Jersey, when our art director’s phone rang. While listening to his wife, he told me, “Someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center.”
What makes Come From Away so exceptional is its exploration of how the shock and horror following the attacks engendered unified experiences. It turns out there is no better place to explore community than Newfoundland. As “Welcome to the Rock” tells us, Newfoundlanders have survived harsh weather, grueling waters, and loss of loved ones, and yet they maintain overwhelming optimism grounded in their pride for being Islanders. From the moment that Bonnie says to Oz, “Jesus H, Oz! Turn on your radio!” Come From Away moves through the moments following September 11 that exist in our shared memories. Here are just five scenes that invoke significant emotional reactions:
In “Bedding and Blankets”, Newfoundlanders feel stir crazy from the constant, repetitive news coverage: “Can I help? Is there something / I need to do something / To keep me from thinking of / All of those scenes on the tube.”
In “Phoning Home”, the stranded passengers forego exhaustion and hunger for the chance to assure their loved ones that they are okay.
In “On the Edge”, Ali endures unwarranted hostility from other passengers because he is Muslim.
In “Costume Party”, Beverly (an American Airlines pilot) announces to the passengers on her plane that the United States airspace is still closed, and no one knows how long it will be before it reopens.
At the end of “Something’s Missing”, a song about how quiet Gander seemed after the passengers departed, Hannah calls Buelah to announce that “It’s over,” meaning that there is no longer hope that her son, a NYC firefighter, survived.
Even with scenes that so effectively pay tribute to all that was lost because of the terrorist attacks, Come From Away is more about generosity than despair. The 7,000 plane people discovered that they had landed in a world of front doors that are never locked, casserole dishes too heavy to lift, and even an alcohol-induced initiation involving kissing a cod fish. Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the book, music, and lyrics after conducting interviews at the 10-year anniversary in Gander. This anniversary event becomes the setting for one of the most rousing final numbers in musical theater history. For days I was actively bobbing my head and singing aloud the show’s anthem: “I am an Islander.”
Hamilton is extraordinary, but Come From Away – a small-scale Canadian musical – holds its place as my favorite musical of the decade. Its inspirational storytelling and quality songs create the perfect depiction of how the modern world finds hope within the shadow of tragedy.
Before continuing the tournament, I would like to pay tribute to Broadway actor Nick Cordero, who passed away from COVID-19 on July 5. Cordero had scene-stealing talent—his imposing 6ft, 5in frame making him a perfect fit for menacing roles. I saw Cordero perform in five shows: The Toxic Avenger, Rock of Ages, Bullets Over Broadway, Waitress, and A Bronx Tale. In The Toxic Avenger, Cordero threw himself with full manic energy into the role of nerd turned environmental superhero turned political. In Bullets Over Broadway, Cordero earned a Tony nomination for his turn as a mafia bodyguard with a secret talent for fixing bad scripts. Cordero will be greatly missed by the Broadway community. He is survived by his wife Amanda Kloots and his 9-month-old son.
Tournament Recap — the Final Four
Now that we are down to the elusive Final Four, trying to find flaws in any of the competitors is just nit-picking. Therefore, in this semi-final round I am going to celebrate the two musicals not moving to the finals with a consolation prize focusing on a Tony that each musical did not win in its respective year.
Dear Evan Hansen vs. Hamilton
Winner: Hamilton Dear Evan Hansen consolation prize: Best Scenic Design
I have discussed how Dear of Hansen captures the fears and anxieties of today’s teenagers. The scenic design by David Korns embodies the paradoxical relationships we have with social media. During critical moments characters are surrounded by digital messages—big, small, relevant, immaterial, supportive, antagonistic. For Evan Hansen, this overload of technology contributes to his anxiety and his perception that no would listen to anything he has to say. The marvel of Korns’s work is that the flashing lights and moving screens do not distract from the characters on stage. Instead, they highlight that all of the characters feel this same sense of isolation at various times. Oddly enough, Dear Evan Hansen’s 9 Tony nominations did not include a nod for scenic design. My only explanation is the nominating committee fell for the allure of lavish sets in shows like Hello Dolly! and failed to grasp the more complex accomplishments of Evan Hansen‘s design.
Hamilton moves to the finals, but Dear Evan Hansen is worthy of its multi-year distinction as the second hottest musical ticket on Broadway.
Fun Home vs. Come From Away
Winner: Come From Away Fun Home consolation prize: Best Featured Actress, Sydney Lucas
Fun Home lasted about a year and a half on Broadway, which is an achievement for a small-cast musical based on a very literary, autobiographical graphic novel. Alison Bechdel is split into three characters. Here oldest characterization is searching to find a reason behind her father’s suicide. Medium Alison is navigating the awkward first year when she acknowledged that she was a lesbian. However, Small Alison is the backbone for the entire show, and the actress playing her must convey innocence even as the audience begins to piece together the mysteries of her father. Why does Bruce tell her that he is “a bad man” when he is on his way to court? Where does Bruce sneak out to in the middle of the night in New York, leaving his kids alone in an apartment? Sydney Lucas singing “Ring of Keys” was the stand-out moment of the 2015 Tony Awards, and her brilliant performance lives on in Fun Home’s soundtrack.
Come From Away is a bigger, more universal musical making this particular bracket a mismatch, but Fun Home would be my choice in a tournament consisting just of the smaller musicals.
That leaves us with the final two shows: Hamilton and Come From Away. Check back soon to see which will be named the best Broadway musical of the 2010 decade.
Today we are continuing to the semifinals of the tournament to decide the best Tony-nominated musical of the 2010-2019 decade. I explained the methodology for choosing these musicals in part 1 of this series. These are the pairings for the semifinals. If you would like to see me explain my choices, here is a video.
In this post I am going to declare the winners for the remaining four first-round pairings. My previous post explains the methodology I used to choose these 16 musicals as candidates for the best Tony-nominated musical of the 2010-2019 decade. If you would like to hear me explain my choices for each pairing, check out this video.
The Tony awards, originally scheduled for June 7, are delayed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 crisis. You can still check the potential nominees for Best Musical and Best Play (original and revival) at tonyawards.com.
YouTuber Katherine Steele created a March Madness-style Broadway musical tournament titled Which Broadway Show is the Best?, which I recommend watching. Fair warning that Katherine’s energy will make you feel lethargic by comparison. I decided to create my own tournament to determine my pick for the best musical of the 2010’s decade. I will be presenting this tournament over four posts, with each post featuring four pairings. For those who prefer a verbal run down of my choices, I created a video. Check out the video here.
I started by including the Best Musical winner from each year from 2010-2019. Unfortunately, a glowing omission exists because I have not yet seen Hadestown, so the 2019 Best Musial winner is not in the tournament. However, the other nine Tony winners from the decade are included along with seven wildcards–my seven favorite nominees that did not win Best Musical in their respective years.
Consider playing at home before reading my pics. The first-round pairings are based on a commonality between the two shows. If you have not seen one of the musicals, you can give its competitor a bye for the round. Also, I included links to each show’s performance at its respective Tony Awards ceremony, so you can see a small piece of each for yourself.
In the book Which Lie Did I Tell, famed screenwriter William Goldman explains a concept with applications beyond the movie business. To paraphrase, Goldman stated in reference to two films released in 1997: Of course everyone in America wanted to see a four-hour love story about the sinking of the Titanic, and no one wanted to see Kevin Costner play a singing post-apocalyptic mailman… in hindsight. The truth is, until they open, no one knows which movies people will want to see.
Before Thursday, March 12, I had not comprehended the extent to which COVID-19 is an unprecedented event in our lifetimes. The reality, not surprisingly, hit me while I sat in a theater—specifically the Drury Lane Oakbrook. Prior to the show, two Drury Lane executives addressed the audience and tearfully announced that we were witnessing the last production of An American in Paris. This large-scale musical would be closing early in accordance with Governor Prizker’s executive order.
The way I remember it, I am eight years old and playing Nintendo one Saturday morning when my father walks down the basement stairs to tell me about the play he and my mother saw the previous evening. He refers to the title as Say Yes, Pablo and notes that the play was supposed to be about Pablo Picasso but it was not really about anything, and in the place of normal dialogue there was a lot of chanting. He also said that 25 minutes into the show the first audience members exited out the back door, and the steady flow of unhappy patrons kept that back door open until the end.
Say Yes, Pablo holds a special meaing in our family. When we see a play that we really dislike, we say, “Well, at least it was better than Say Yes, Pablo.”