As devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic has been for South Florida theatre (and most everything else), it’s also had some unexpected but undeniable bright sides — and today, I’m talking super-nova bright. Thanks to Zeezou’s Stardust Extravagnza, the inaugural production of Area Stage’sMiami Queer Theatre Collective (or MQTC), I’ve managed to expand my theatrical horizons as far as outer space without ever actually leaving my house!
It all started around 5 months ago, when I stumbled upon one of the MQTC’s “Queerantine Creativity Challenges” on an early-pandemic Wednesday morning. These bi-weekly challenges took the form of morning prompts meant to inspire the creation of an artwork to be shared via livestream later that day. I participated in one of these challenges by impulsively writing an essayistic “love letter” to NYC, and a few weeks later, MQTC put out an open call for artists interested in participating in a longer collaborative project. Not only was I by then on the prowl for anything that would keep me from falling into a void of COVID-related creative inertia, I was also fascinated by the chance to delve more deeply into queer culture and my queer identity.
Thus far, being bisexual is actually not something I’ve thought a lot about, and this mostly because it just never seemed like a particularly big deal. For one thing, as someone on the autism spectrum, I was used to being thought of as “queer” in the word’s original “strange/odd” definition far before I had any awareness of sexuality period.
My natural Aspergian weirdness, in turn, led me to retreat at an early age to ultra-accepting and ultra-liberal social landscapes like theatre troupes and art schools, where queerness was commonplace and homophobia was basically nonexistent. So my gradual realization that I was attracted to women as well as men struck me as… like, literally nothing to worry about.
Still, though my dating app profiles have long been set to “seeking both,” I generally described myself as straight up until about 2 years ago primarily because I didn’t feel “bi enough” to use the label given that I’d never actually acted on any of my same-sex attractions, which probably circles back to the fact that I haven’t dated much period due to, like, the inherently terrifying nature of interaction with the rest of the human race. But post ~certain experiences~ during my time in grad school at, pardon the cliché, Sarah Lawrence College: I feel pretty damn bi.
Now, all that being said: back to Zeezou’s Stardust Extravaganza!
I admit that I was a little nervous going into the project, bc, you know, the inherently terrifiying nature of interaction with the human race, but I quickly found that working with my talented and friendly collective-mates was nothing to be scared of. On the contrary, I quickly found myself enjoying the camraderie, especially given that the pandemic had interfered with much of my usual interaction with the rest of the human race.
It’s the same push-pull paradox that’s kept bringing theatre back to the forefront of my life despite my repeated attempts to abandon it for more “sensible” and less nerve-wracking pursuits. Seldom do I feel more vulnerable and exposed than when performing in a play or seeing my writing come to life onstage; but seldom do I feel more alive, fulfilled, and genuinely connected to other people than when in the midst of putting on a show, even an online one!
It’s also worth noting that the decision to take this project virtual is likely the only reason this particular collective of people was able to convene. Though a non-COVID version of MQTC would have presumably been open only to artists who lived in Miami or close enough to commute there regularly, the online version attracted artists from not only all corners of Florida but as far away as Texas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.
The resulting troupe of 12 also ended up being an incredibly diverse one in regards to age, gender identity, and ethnic background as well as sexuality, meaning that getting a chance to work with and learn the perspectives of my fellow collective members was often as enlightening as entertaining!
After a few rounds of “collaborative speed dating,” we were able to establish a few basic objectives for our project:
We wanted to address the sparsity of queer-themed children’s programming by creating a theatre work that would be suitable for the whole family and appeal to kids as well as adults
We wanted to tell a positive and uplifting queer story rather than one that focused on struggles and hardship
And we wanted to center gender nonconforming characters, play with metatheatrical themes, and embrace an out of this world aesthetic!
Thus, Zeezou’s Stardust Extravaganza was born! The appropriate-for-all-ages show mostly takes place on far-away Planet Rainbow, which is imperiled due to the ongoing war between the the two alien species who call it home. As one might guess from their names, “TellTales” are defined by their storytelling abilities while “SingSongs” prefer to spend their time singing and playing instruments.
The feud began when TellTales of yore started spreading “stories” about why singing was wrong, leading all but the bravest of SingSongs to abandon their music. This is the status quo until chosen alien Blippy learns via oracle that the only way to restore harmony is to fuse the two art forms is by putting on a Broadway musical with the help of a special and talented human child from planet Earth!
The resulting journey to opening night is a hilarious, whimsical, and tremendously catchy one, but the story also hints at deeper themes. For example, though sexual orientation is never addressed directly, it’s impossible to miss the affirming implications of songs like “Welcome to Planet Rainbow,” which celebrates a planet where everyone is free to be their true self without fear of judgement.
The harmful stories about SingSongs that TellTales pass down through generations are also a meaningful nod to the ease with which flawed representation can erpetuate negative stereotypes and insidiously work to perpetuate systemic oppression. It probably wouldn’t hurt most of us to think a little more about the kinds of stories we tell!
Soooo it’s definitely worth tuning in if you’re in the mood for a quirky and upbeat extraterrestrial escape this weekend orrrr if you’re interested in experiencing a script I helped develop as one of the many talented writers on the show’s content team orrrrr in hearing me pontificate in a ridiculously pretentious accent as the voice actress portraying puppet character Roy. G Biv. The role also required me to sing in “virtual public” for what I’m pretty sure is the first time ever, but no time like an international pandemic for jumping out of one’s comfort zone, I suppose! Well, at least as long as you do it inside…
Zeezou’s Stardust Extravaganza will premiere online tonight (July 25th) at 8 PM and will be shown again tomorrow (July 26th) at 2pm. The show will ONLY be viewable during those two time slots, so be sure not to miss its orbit! All you need in order to receive the link to attend is a virtual ticket, which is free with even a minimal donation in support of the MQTC’s future programming. Btw, the show only lasts a little less than an hour, meaning that you can watch and still keep the rest of your night/afternoon free to…um, what are we still allowed to do these days?
Finally: I’ve definitely emerged from this experience both far more aware of the importance of responsible representation and far more curious about the realm of musical theatre writing now that I’ve dipped my toes in. Fitting to realize while working on a super-queer theatre project that there’s no reason I have to stick to straight plays!
Now, all that being said: I should be back on-blog soon(ish) with a post about some other virtual theatre adventures and eventually with the promised last-three-posts in my Isolating Age series. Meanwhile, happy space travels!
“Do you think all this being in masks is hurting people’s souls?” my mother asked me one day, as we put on ours for a routine trip to the grocery store.
How the hell was I to know? I’m a writer, not a theologian. And, on the off chance I do have a soul, I assume mine is already plenty scarred.
She continues: “If you’re in a mask, that means you’re afraid.”
During the first days of the pandemic, I vividly remember coming across the following meme.
There are few theatre-goers who wouldn’t get the joke. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 smash hit, The Phantom of The Opera, is the longest running Broadway show of all time. It’s been a fixture there for over thirty-one years (aka more than six times longer than the confederacy existed…) thanks in part to its almost universal appeal. For instance: it’s one of my all-time favorite musicals. It’s also one of my “not-really-theatre-people” parents’ favorite musicals. Oddly enough, it’s also one of Donald Trump’s.
But not everyone is a Phantom phan. Some critics have deemed the musical too high on spectacle and low on depth and character development to be a truly satisfying one, an interesting criticism of a show that is in many ways about the power of images and the seductiveness of spectacle. The show’s key symbol and instantly recognizable logo, the Phantom’s mask, also makes the play an interesting one to consider now that another sort of mask is becoming a symbol of a completely different kind as the centerpiece of a country-wide debate.
By now, we’re so used to Phantom’s ubiquitous presence on the Great Bright Way that most of us seldom stop to think about, like, how fucking weird it is. Based on a 1910 book by Gaston Leroux, Phantom of the Opera tells the story of Erik, a child born with a severe facial deformity. He is abandoned by his parents and left to make his way as a circus freak, an environment in which he is ceaselessly demeaned and mocked. In adulthood, he finds unlikely refuge in the waterways beneath the Paris Opera House and there refashions himself from the grotesque outcast Erik into an elegant “Phantom,” hiding the withered part of his face behind a pristine half-mask.
Emboldened by his newfound disguise, the Phantom then becomes a masterful composer and architect, uses schemes and threats to exert substantial control over the theatre’s politics, and finds a musical protégé and potential love interest in Christine, a beautiful young orphan training at the institution.
How much a simple mask can empower. How much a simple mask can protect.
And yet…how easily a mask can slip.
“If you’re in a mask that means you’re afraid.”
At first, the Phantom tries to woo Christine from afar, using only his voice to instruct her and keeping himself and his ugliness safely out of sight. It’s no accident that when he finally appears to her corporeally, it is from within her mirror, that this mirror was the place he took over as portal to his subterranean dungeon lair. That, perhaps unconsciously, he had attempted to take ownership over the site of his deepest, earliest wound.
The Phantom expresses his devotion to Christine obsessively, singularly, constantly composing music in her honor and blackmailing the opera’s owners until he lands her a starring role. And though his pursuit eventually drives him to actions that should be considered reprehensible (#problematicfaves), the Phantom’s style and persona help him remain a figure as seductive and sympathetic as he is frightening, a fact to which his story’s popularity attests.
And maybe even the Phantom’s intended would have one day been swayed by his sensual “music of the night” — was she not about to be reunited with her handsome, wealthy, childhood friend Raoul. In the song All I Ask Of You, the two declare their love:
[CHRISTINE] Say you’ll share with me One love, one lifetime Say the word and I will follow you [TOGETHER] Share each day with me Each night, each morning [CHRISTINE] Say you love me [RAOUL] You know I do [BOTH] Love me—that’s all I ask of you
In the movie version, this is a gorgeous moment — until you cut to the Phantom. Watching them. Watching her — his muse, his savior, his everything— getting away. He’s gripping the show’s second most famous symbol, a red rose, one he had given to Christine but that she’d carelessly discarded upon finding her new beau. The Phantom then picks it up as he sings a mournful reprise, only to rip it to pieces.
Now, for all my melancholy, I don’t actually cry very often; very rarely does a work of art move me to tears. But the first time I beheld this moment, I actually started to sob. For all its spectacle, Phantom of The Opera is still plenty capable of touching our hearts.
The show doesn’t need to be a particularly nuanced one to communicate raw emotion with this kind of visual shorthand; all I needed was the image and the sweeping score to be instantly taken back to all the times I’ve found myself on the outside looking in. Feel free to roll your eyes at the crashing chandelier, but under all Erik’s bizarre, theatrical overcompensations, his brokenness is all too real.
But let’s turn our attentions for the moment to the conspicuously unmasked madman who’s been running around the White House these days. Now, having already compared Donald Trump to the literal lord of the underworld as well as to Hitler, I’m reluctant to make yet another comparison to the Phantom… as that would be an insult to Erik.
But Trump’s kind of brought it on himself by playing songs from Phantom of The Opera at his campaign rallies. In some ways, it’s an odd choice; in others, a fitting one. Trump, after all, won over America almost entirely with spectacle. To quote my aforementioned Trump/Hitler piece, written for Musée Magazine’s 19th issue in early 2019:
Our nation elected Trump in part because we were taken in by the false aura of splendor his wealth and seeming self-assurance granted him, because of the solid nature his grandiosity and self-importance lent to his speeches, speeches with actual content so bizarre and incoherent that his candidacy should have been a joke. But instead of laughing, we handed him the keys to our kingdom. A close look at the president’s behavior, or even a casual scroll through his twitter feed, reveals his self-preoccupation and an outsized ego he would do anything to protect. If we continue to trust in Trump’s bravado and the surface glimmer of his crafted persona while ignoring the damaging and problematic messages he conveys, we risk making the same deadly mistake as did the Germans who were hypnotized by Hitler’s own manufactured ease.
All this, of course, is even truer now. Though Trump’s mistakes have gotten bigger and his ideas have gotten ever stranger (Lysol, anyone?), his ego, improbably, remains intact. Trump’s obsession with his own image is the reason why he prioritized resurrecting his “great economy” over saving actual human lives and gassed peaceful protesters for a photo op. It’s also the reason that he has continuously downplayed the importance of masks and still refuses to be seen wearing one, not wanting to give reporters “the satisfaction.”
Which brings us quite seamlessly to Phantom of The Opera’s final moments, the “point of no return.” The Phantom’s unrequited love for Christine has long festered into a toxic madness, and, in front of an entire audience, she has pulled off his mask. We can see for the first time, not his sleek, suave surface but his hysterical desperation, along with his limp, thinning hair, and pathetic, naked face. In reaction, the Phantom has trapped Raoul in his lair and given Christine an ultimatum: he will free her lover if and only if she pledges to marry him.
Now, someone given only the above scene could well come away with the idea that, “people who look like monsters are monsters.” But those whom have the benefit of the whole story can clearly see that what is actually being conveyed is that, “people who we treat like monsters often become them.” Or that, “a lifetime of marginalization can drive people to actions that can seem, at first glance, incomprehensible.”
Then, instead of making a choice, Christine steps forward and kisses the Phantom—the only expression of love he has ever known. And then Erik realizes—that he has to let her go. Knowing, certainly, that she isn’t coming back. As the reunited Raoul and Christine make their way to safety and cruelly begin to reprise their timeless lover’s duet, Erik does the only thing left to do with his seething, bottomless rage; he turns it back on himself, towards his image. With bare fists, he can only shatter his mirror.
Note that the first time I beheld this scene, having never properly stopped crying after All I Ask Of You‘s reprise, I was practically inconsolable. Despite years of hiding his very face in a futile effort to seek acceptance, the Phantom finds it in himself to show some damn humanity and sacrifice a future with his only love for the sake of her happiness. Meanwhile, Donald Trump doesn’t even have the humanity to put on a damn mask when doing so could’ve made him a powerful role model for the American people, and thus could almost certainly have saved lives.
Which, um, sort of begs the question:
WHY IS A FICTIONAL SOCIOPATH A BETTER ROLE MODEL THAN THE PRESIDENT?
“If you’re in a mask, that means you’re afraid.”
News flash: with over 100,000 Americans dead and new cases at over 50,000 new cases a day…WE FUCKING SHOULD BE.
Maybe we would look better or even feel safer without masks… but in truth, we would be in far greater danger. No mask can be worn forever; and no “masking” of the coronavirus pandemic is actually going to make it go away. Even the recent instances of horrifying police brutality that kicked the Black Lives Matter movement into high gear fall under the broader category of mistaking “seems” for “is,” and while I’m not going to try to simplify the matter to a platitude like “don’t judge a book by its cover,” also, like, DON’T?
This is no time to let ourselves be swayed by surfaces and spectacle but the time to choose discomfort over delusion, reality over denial; coronavirus will be hard enough to beat without us refusing to acknowledge that it even exists. And though, for now, our mouths and noses must stay covered, we should make sure our eyes are open wider than ever before.
Now, as I’ve proclaimed, is the time for vision, a time when the smallest shortsightedness could be deadly; masks, after all, do less to protect ourselves than the people around us. So this is the time to, for once, look at something other than our damn reflections and care about something beyond appearances, to truly see why we should continue to make a simple, selfless choice.
And if you happen to be reading this, Mr. President… I doubt there’s any face covering in the world that could possibly make you look any stupider than you already do.
Now, all of that being said, I do, eventually, plan on finishing this little Isolating Age series, and next up is Sunday In The Park With George by good old Stephen Sondheim, whose characters are some of the most solitary—and most twisted— folks around. Is anyone surprised that he’s my all-time favorite composer?
In the meantime, while obviously-not-working-on-this-post-for-nearly-a-month, I’ve been busying myself writing a few new short plays, finishing a one act, occasionally attempting to start or revise longer works, protesting for police reform (more on that eventually), and participating in the creation of a super-queer musical that takes place mostly in outer space (more on that in… I don’t know, a week?)
Meanwhile, happy mask-wearing, and happy weirdest July 4th in the world! I’ll be out (in all black) trying to fix America!
Though it’s been one of my favorite musicals for over a decade, I don’t think I was actually mature enough to absorb the full emotional impact and nuance of Rent until late this March, when I decided to revisit the musical for the first time in several years.
This blast-from-the-past wasn’t just a whim. Though the COVID-19 pandemic differs from the HIV/AIDS pandemic in countless ways, it is also one of the only events remotely comparable in our recent cultural memory. Other writers who have lived through both have also already made the comparison, so I’m assuming this logical leap isn’t totally out of line for someone who wasn’t there to make.
It seems after all, that there was a time when AIDS was as mysterious and frightening an illness as COVID is today, and a time when, at least for those in disproportionately affected communities, life was as disorienting and grim as it is now.
As writer Kristoffer Diaz put it in a Twitter reflection about his experience of that time and Rent’s profound impact on him during its early days:
“Think about feeling alone, even surrounded by millions of others feeling that same way. Think about watching your community in peril. Think about terror and uncertainty and fear and fear and sorrow and fear.”
Yes, well, that sounds familiar….
As I briefly mentioned in my intro post, Rent was my theatrical gateway drug. Even Rent’s somewhat imperfect movie version had me utterly entranced—during the height of my ardor, I watched it almost nightly.
Over the next few years, Rent would become not only the first show I saw on Broadway but the work of theatre that I’ve seen live the most times period; so many times, in fact, that I’ve lost the specific count! A touring production here, a chance trip to TKTS there, that one time at the Lake Worth Playhouse…
In hindsight, though, I’m not sure just what it was about Rent that inspired me to such a frenzy. That it was my first exposure to a truly modern musical? The appealing and accessible themes of living life to the fullest? The hint of rebellion I enjoyed in obsessing over a show that explored “taboo” topics like drug use and homosexuality so openly? Perhaps I just thought the songs were pretty or that Idina Menzel was hot?
Or maybe it’s just the fact that Rent is, among other things, a musical about outsiders. Between my Aspergian social difficulties (again, refer to my intro post) and my 7th grade status as a dorky ugly duckling, 12 year old me certainly wasn’t winning any popularity contests. So perhaps a show focusing on quirky underdogs and that enthusiastically toasts to “going against the grain” and to “anyone out of the mainstream” was a welcome respite from my all-too-conformist peers.
The show’s art-comes-first attitude may also have played a part in luring me towards a creative lifestyle; whatever the precise mechanisms, I can trace a direct line from Rent to my interest in acting and then to theatre more generally, and thus to one of the defining passions of my life.
But the story of how Rent became a Broadway sensation notable enough to cross my path in the first place is inextricable from the morbidly fascinating life story of its author, Jonathan Larson. After growing up in suburban White Plains, Larson spent most of his post-college life in NYC’s East Village, making a meagre living as a waiter and devoting the rest of his time to the “the most single-minded pursuit of an artistic vision” some theatre historians have ever seen.
This vision was of a new breed of American musical — Larson sought to merge traditional musical theatre sound with contemporary rock and pop, and in doing so, to inspire a new generation to give Broadway a chance. “I’m the future of musical theatre,” he would introduce himself to strangers, unironically.
When Larson failed to secure a full production of Superbia despite some encouraging feedback, he channeled his frustration into a one-man rock monologue called Tick Tick… Boom!, which was later reworked into a three person show that has played off-Broadway, on national tour, and on the West End.
And then there was Rent. Though Rent was loosely based on the 19th century opera La Bohème, it was more substantially shaped by Larson’s own East Village experiences, including losing some of his closest friends to HIV.
A full seven years into Rent’s development, the musical was at long last slated for an off-Broadway production at the New York Theatre Workshop, and Larson was finally poised for his big break. But instead of becoming a star, the 35-year-old Larson died of a freak aortic aneurysm on the very night before Rent’s first scheduled preview.
Now, while there was no way that even the visionary Larson could have foreseen his own untimely death, Rent’s weighty subject matter of HIV/AIDS had already imbued the show with a prescient focus on mortality.
For instance: early in Act One, an HIV positive ex-junkie named Roger sings One Song Glory about his burning desire to make a mark on the world before he leaves it: “one song before I go…glory…one song to leave behind…”
Then, repeated throughout the score are imperatives to seize the day and to continue to strive for love and connection even in the face of pain and tragedy, encapsulated in memorable refrains like “forget regret or life is yours to miss,” and “no day but today”—advice that seemed even more poignant coming from beyond the grave.
Press were drawn to these eerie coincidences and to Larson’s tragic tale like vultures to carrion, and audiences soon followed their lead. It’s impossible to tell whether Rent would have been such a huge sensation had Larson’s death not attracted so much attention, but the boost certainly didn’t hurt. As it is, Rent ended up becoming, more or less, the Hamilton of its day.
Rent’s off-Broadway run sold out almost immediately, and the musicalwent on to become the 11th longest running show on Broadway, playing for a full 12 years. Rent also won four Tony Awards and even became one of only nine musicals to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
And as for Larson’s fated mission to change the face of theatre and to make the art form newly appealing to his generational cohorts? Most theatre afficionados would say he succeeded.
Rent’s acclaim paved the way for future rock musical hits from Spring Awakening to Hadestown, and the show attracted scores of young devotees. These “Rentheads,” would return to see Rent as often as their wallet allowed and would even sleep on the street for a chance at discount tickets. Larson’s work is also known to have personally influenced artists ranging from Lin Manuel Miranda to… well, I guess we’re back to me.
Despite the charms of Rent’s movie version, I believe that Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway is a far better representation of the show as it is meant to be seen. In preserving much of the musical’s innovative theatricality and offering us intimate close ups it would be impossible to see from a theatre seat, it gives us a kind of “best of both worlds.”
Since apparently there are no rules here anymore and this essay is already over four thousand words long, I’m not going to busy myself with much discussion of the performances. Like, everyone was just fucking great.
The entirety of Rent’s Act One takes place on “one single magic night,” a Christmas Eve in the late 1980s. As the show begins, Roger (our HIV positive ex-junkie, if you recall), plays guitar while his roommate Mark films the proceedings, working on a passion-project documentary about their tumultuous lives. Then, a sudden power outage incites Rent’s title number.
Now, many people assume that Rent’s title refers solely to the most frequently used definition of the word rent, “a tenant’s regular payment to a landlord for the use of property or land.” But as Jonathan Larson reportedly emphasized, rent is also the past tense of rend, which means: “to separate into parts with force or violence; to tear apart, split, or divide.”
And though the song’s chorus repetition of “How we gonna pay last year’s rent” makes meaning one of the word rent obvious in the song “Rent,” other verses suggest that meaning two is also at play.
For example, the company wonders:
How do you leave the past behind
When it keeps finding ways to get to your heart
It reaches way down deep and tears you inside out
‘Til you’re torn apart
How can you connect in an age
Where strangers, landlords, lovers
Your own blood cells betray
What binds the fabric together
When the raging, shifting winds of change
Keep ripping away?
And so, quite likely, the song’s closing line “everything is rent” doesn’t mean that everything is “a tenant’s regular payment to a landlord for the use of property or land.” No: what it means is that everything is torn, everything’s in tatters, everything is fucked.
Yes, well, that sounds familiar….
There are, though, certain situations in which “everything is a tenant’s regular payment to a landlord for the use of property or land” would actually be a fairly reasonable thing to say. For instance… when YOU CAN’T FUCKING PAY YOUR RENT. Like, you know, tens of thousands of American citizens these days?
While Mark and Roger’s refusal to pay their rent is often taken as a sign of their immaturity, it’s also possible to interpret the characters’ impassioned declaration that “We’re not gonna pay rent because everything is rent” less as a senseless rebellion against adult responsibilities and more as an acknowledgement that nobody should have to pay rent because this whole fucking system is FUCKED. In the wake of today’s emerging wave of rent strikes, I’m tempted to say that they— and, again, Larson— were simply ahead of their time.
Rent’s plot kicks into gear when Benny, the pals’ former Boho friend turned uptight landlord, offers to forgive Mark and Roger’s debts and offer them rent-free residence from then on.
The catch is that the agreement only stands if they can convince their performance artist pal Maureen to cancel her upcoming protest, which aims to deter Benny from taking over an empty lot on which many of the area’s homeless have set up camp. On principle, Mark and Roger refuse. Way not to take advantage of your privilege, ya’ll!
Yet though Rent’s political conscience is also hinted at by mentions of activism in “La Vie Boheme,” on the whole the show is less focused on civic struggles than emotional and interpersonal ones.
For instance, Roger is “just coming back from half a year of withdrawal” and has been making every effort to shut out the world since, in Mark’s words:
“His girlfriend April
Left a note saying “We’ve got AIDS”
Before slitting her wrists in the bathroom.
Yet Roger is jolted out of his long emotional slump when sultry stripper and current junkie Mimi (who is also HIV positive, though we don’t learn this until the end of Act One) appears at his door, asking him to light her candle amidst the continuing power outage. The two begin a flirtation, and though Roger is obviously intrigued, he is not yet ready to let down his guard.
Meanwhile, anarchist philosopher Collins is rescued from a mugging by the appropriately named drag queen Angel. The two, both of whom are HIV positive, quickly strike up a passionate romance. Later in the act, they attend a group called “Life Support” to commune with others who share their diagnosis and join in a number called “Will I,” which encapsulates the terror of a terminal illness in a simple three-line refrain:
Will I lose my dignity?
Will someone care?
Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?
As much as I’ve always loved this song, listening to it has never been so gutting as it’s been lately. I suppose because I’ve never really thought about how it might feel to contract a potentially fatal virus until… I don’t know, late this March?
After Maureen’s protest, our motley crew heads to the Life Café to celebrate with the aforementioned “La Vie Boheme” a raucous ode to the Bohemian lifestyle. In the midst of the revel, Roger and Mimi reconnect in the duet “I Should Tell You” and finally share a “small lovely kiss” at the end of Act One.
But as we embark into Act Two, which moves at a much-accelerated pace and covers the entirety of the following year, things can’t stay so peaceful. Though Mimi appears to dive wholeheartedly into her relationship with Roger, she can do so only while continuing to use substances to keep everyone at an arm’s length. And Roger, all too conscious of Mimi’s fragile health and wary of getting hurt again, makes plans to leave town before anything between them gets too real.
Even bleaker, the show’s most stable and perhaps most affecting relationship, that between Collins and Angel, is permanently shattered by Angel’s death. Afterward, in the raw “Goodbye Love,” Mark confronts Roger about his disregard for Mimi. Roger fires back by suggesting that though Mark “pretends” to “create and observe” from behind his camera, he is really using his obsessive film-making to “detach from feeling alive.”
It’s not entirely clear from the script whether Mark’s primary motivation is to make art or to numb out—but as someone who employs similar coping mechanisms, my best guess would be a bit of both.
I started writing about COVID almost immediately after the crisis started, and haven’t stopped for long since. This, I think, is partially an attempt to process what may well prove unprocessable, and partially, a paradoxical escape. Ironically, I can sometimes lose myself so deeply in the mechanics of crafting a scene or essay that I can in a sense forget what I’m even writing about.
In typical perfectionist fashion, I’ve also been driving myself rather (completely) crazy regarding whether I’m producing “enough” material quickly “enough,” given all the “free” time I supposedly have.
Gradually, though, I’ve been getting it through my thick head that I may need to cut myself a little slack considering how thoroughly everything is fucked rent right now.
In 1996, Jonathan Larson asked, through Mark:
How do you document real life
When real life’s getting more
Like fiction each day?
Blow my mind…
24 years later, I ask: how do you document real life when the “facts” are changing every second? How do you document real life when your leader is a clown, the officials are his flunkies, and nobody seems to know what to believe?
How do you do document real life amidst economic ruin, constant crises, rising death tolls, flaming riots, flagging hope? How do you document real life when the headlines are practically guaranteed not only to blow your mind but to frequently leave you on the verge of tears?
In 1996, Larson asked:
How can you connect in an age
Where strangers, landlords, lovers
Your own blood cells betray?
But now the question is: how do you connect in an age when it’s a risk to even leave the goddamn house?
Though I admit to having a notable tendency to “social distance” since long before it was cool, even I’m not immune to the emotional fallout of continually existing at this level of seclusion. Strangely, I feel not so much more disconnected than I was before the pandemic but like I can now see clearly how disconnected I already was.
Before, I’d created the perfect system of errands, escapism, and busywork to drown out the subtle but unmistakable chords of loneliness; now, often, the silence speaks too loud. I’ve even wondered fleetingly whether this matter of “social distancing” is some exceedingly cruel externalization of my own ~intimacy issues~ or even a broader cultural punishment for all the ways our world —and our country — were already tearing apart.
For years now, Americans on the whole have been retreating to our iPhones and our Netflix screens instead of fully and openly engaging with each other, pursuing our individual advancement at the expense of our values, resting on the laurels of our privilege, and dividing sharply along political, religious, and racial lines.
Such a shrewd landscape is aptly invoked by Larson in the Rent song What You Own. As Roger retreats to Santa Fe and Mark slaves away at an unsatisfying “sell-out” job, their voices join in a distanced duet.
Dive into work
Drive the other way
That drip of hurt
That pint of shame
Just play the game
You’re living in America
At the end of the millennium
You’re living in America
Leave your conscience at the tone.
And when you’re living in America
At the end of the millennium
You’re what you own
Roger and Mark then think back wistfully to the show’s first act, to a night when they’d been able to find connection even in this “isolating age” — though I bet even Larson never imagined an age quite this “isolating,” where the order of the day is “six feet apart.”
Yet then, somehow: clarity. Suddenly, Roger hears it; his song. And Mark sees it; his film. The world may still be in shambles, but their creative vision is still holding strong. So, the chorus morphs:
Dying in America
At the end of the millenium
We’re dying in America
To come into our own
And when you’re dying in America
At the end of the millenium
You’re not alone
As living shifts to “dying,” the two are no longer suppressing their pain but openly admitting their vulnerability, and in doing so, find themselves finally able to plug back in. The heartening “you’re not alone,” takes the place of “what you own” as the potential for connection returns. In Rent’s stage version, Roger and Mark don’t physically unite until the next scene, but the film version memorably ends with their embrace.
It’s straight on from “What You Own” into Rent’s similarly optimistic final scene. Exactly a year from Act One, the bohemians gather for their Christmas Eve festivities and a screening of Mark’s new film. But the celebration is stopped when Maureen and her partner Joanne appear carrying Mimi, who has been “living in the park” in thrall to her drug habit and is now on the verge of death.
The group gathers at her bedside as Mimi struggles to maintain consciousness, while Roger plays her his long sought-after song: “Your Eyes.” For a moment, she appears deceased; but then, an intake of breath as she is “brought back to life” by Roger’s song.
This conclusion is another frequent sticking point with Rent critics; the moment is chastised as being too unbelievable, too saccharine. As a perennial pessimist, you’d think I’d be on their side. Except….in the middle of a pandemic, be it caused by HIV or anything else, who wants another “realistic” story of doom and gloom when there are plenty of those in the headlines?
Besides, maybe the moment just ought to be read a little more metaphorically. While a literal resurrection-by-guitar is a pretty improbable, art of all kinds can certainly empower, revitalize, and even heal.
Art including Rent itself. As it was put in documentary No Day But Today, Rent’s optimism was one primary reason so many audience members came back to the show time and time again; so they could leave the theatre bursting with hope.
Some stories gain their power by reflecting life, but others are strongest where they differ. If Mimi’s revival can inspire and encourage at times when this hope is scant, why shouldn’t she survive the show? Now, if only a more benevolent “writer” in the clouds had been calling the shots for Larson himself…
As recounted in a memoir by Anthony Rapp, who originated the role of Mark: it was a dreary day off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop on the night of Rent’s first preview. Though Larson was gone, his parents had insisted that the show had to go on, in the form of an unstaged concert version to be performed for Larson’s family and friends.
But by the time the cast reached “La Vie Boheme,” the energy of the material was irresistible; Rapp couldn’t resist the urge to jump up on a table and dance it out. The rest of the cast followed, launching into their choreography as well. The company proceeded to perform Act Two full out despite the exceedingly painful resonances, realizing the Jonathan had essentially “written his own funeral.”
In Rapp’s words, once the show was over:
No one moved, no one spoke. They all just sat, some staring straight
ahead, others sitting with their heads in their hands, still
others sitting huddled together. Afraid to move myself, afraid
to disrupt this moment, I walked across the stage as quietly
as I could and found a group of actors from the studio pro-
duction and sat with them, looking down at my hands, feeling
the crushing, enormous silence of over one hundred fifty
people bearing down on me. I have no idea how long we all
sat together saying absolutely nothing, but it felt like forever.
Finally, a male voice from the back of the theatre called out,
“Thank you, Jonathan Larson,” and with that utterance the
spell was broken, and the group began to move and breathe
– Without You, Anthony Rapp
So I guess now’s the time to confess: once a Renthead, always a Renthead, and thus I did not stop at one Rent viewing. I watched the entire show a full three times, and have pulled up a song or two quite a few more. Sometimes it was “for research…” and sometimes it was most decidedly not.
The deeper I’ve delved into Larson’s story, the more I’ve found myself inspired by the composer himself as well as his works: by his fervor, his earnestness, his devotion to his craft.
How terribly bittersweet it all is: how much Rent mattered, how its creator will never know; how much has changed in 24 years, and how little; how I find myself turning to a musical about a moment of disease-driven chaos in the middle of another plague entirely.
So, I’ll say, once more, and 24 years later: thank you, Jonathan Larson. For that.
In Rent’s final scene, sorrow still looms as large as ever, but the show’s core group of Bohemians now stands united and reinvigorated, ready to face it head-on. Though life’s fabric may still have been torn, you’d be hard pressed to see a group tighter-knit.
After Mimi’s scare, the show finishes off with a joyful “Finale B,” a song which a group of former Rent cast members recently sang as a tribute to all the frontline workers who are confronting COVID up close on a daily basis.
And yes; I do think that this hopeful reprise is appropriate. As broken as these times may be, they are not without their small mercies, unexpected blessings, hints of light.
We can focus our attention, for instance, on the ways in which COVID-19 has fostered a weirdly enhanced sense of community. Whatever our backgrounds, viewpoints, or walks of life, we are all now sharing the experience of social distancing, of the threats to our health and to the health of our loved ones, the sheer absurdity of our drastically changed lives.
Like it or not, we’re all stuck in the mess that is 2020 together. 2020; a year, that, at least according to the pun-savvy, was supposed to be a year of improved “vision” for us all.
The implied optimism of early “2020 vision” proclamations is now, of course, viewed as ironic; but maybe not so fast. Maybe 2020 is still the year to lean into our individual visions, and maybe as much because of the pandemic as in spite of it.
Already, creatively: artists have harnessed the power of the digital to develop innovative new work, strangers have banded together to collaborate on projects, and voices separated by miles have joined in song.
And politically: while Trump is far from defeated, his reelection is becoming more and more improbable as his callousness and incompetence is further exposed. As the Black Lives Matter movement grows stronger and more radical, the potential is emerging for a real dismantling of America’s racist underpinnings. And the war of the rent (meaning 1) is just getting started.
And, of course, an artistic renaissance and a political one don’t have to be at odds; in fact, they can fuel each other quite naturally. For one last time, in Larson’s words:
Now, all that (finally) being said: provided I don’t get distracted by anything else shiny, I plan to follow the vibe of this new “isolating age” by making this the first post in a distinct COVID/quarantine inspired series. Next up is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom Of the Opera, and if you’re actually bored enough to follow along, I’ll specifically be referencing the 2004 movie version. If you’re still bored or curious what else I’ve been working on you can check out a scene I wrote towards the end of this video of a recent live reading of new work by Artserve and New City Players!
Meanwhile, pals, happy quarantining, happy creating, and lmk if anyone needs my help overthrowing the government or anything…
While the coronavirus has stopped South Florida theatre artists and aficionados from physically convening, it cannot stop us from creating or connecting. As we adapt to our newly distant lives, we are slowly discovering how to bring our beloved craft to the digital realm, with increasingly exciting results. As artists, it is our duty to bring joy even to landscapes of tragedy, to wring order from chaos and conjure hope from despair.
Also, quite frankly, a lot of us just really need money.
Due to COVID-19’s financial impact, both companies and individuals have turned to the digital world as a means of fundraising as well as of art-making. Most of the promising virtual performances and events listed below are accessible on a “free but donations encouraged” basis, so I wholeheartedly encourage patrons to support whichever organizations or individuals you can and wish to if you’re lucky enough to have the means to do so. Note that I’d also like to keep this blog as neutral as possible, so just don’t ask me to take sides!
Therefore, in entirely random order:
Theatre Arts Productions, a fledging Lake Worth theatre company otherwise known as TAP, is presenting the first in a series of film and television success stories at 5 pm today (Wednesday April 15th), this one featuring acclaimed actor Lee Wilkof. You can also catch “Spreading Light Into The World,” a showcase featuring uplifting performances by some of TAP’s talented students, at 7 pm this Saturday the 18th on Zoom/Facebook live.
New City Players is drawing attention to the South Florida Theatre League relief fund in a particularly innovative fashion with their Instagram Live “Late Late Show.” Host Tim Davis goes “live” with a different South Florida theatre artist every night to discuss the state of theatre, or the state of the world, or Taco Bell, or Star Wars, or…whatever else comes up. At the very least, you can expect dependably amusing (and slightly inebriated) conversation, but you should also come prepared for anything from impulsive duets to sock puppets. Check it out at 9 pm nightly @newcityplayers on Instagram!
Fort Lauderdale company Measure for Measure is back in business with a reading of Angels in America featuring a stellar cast of experienced South Florida actors. This 2-part Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tony Kushner focusing on the mid-1980s AIDS crisis happens to be devastatingly timely today. The reading will be divided into six Facebook Live sessions, with Part 1 to be presented on Friday April 17th Saturdays from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Another virtual reading to be had is a Zoom iteration of playwright Chris Gacinski’s The Mortal Drama, a story of two artists whose devotion to each other and to their craft is only rivaled by their devotion to heroin. Catch it at 8 pm this Thursday (April 16)!
On another note entirely, if you’ve always wanted to try improv but always had excuses not to, you are now officially out of alibis! Every Monday, Anthony Francis of Improv U will be hosting 45 minute improv “log-ins” in place of his in-person “drop-ins” until the latter are once again possible. Both experienced improvisers and novices should feel free to Zoom in for improv games and exercises and an evening of guaranteed fun. Note that while the class is free, you do have to register via Zoom in advance! Interested improv fanatics can also check Francis’s Weekly YesAndU Livestreams.
Other improv offerings include a performance by Understated, a duo team featuring Kathleen Kenny and Jeff Quintana that aims to make “magic from the mundane.” Donations will be split evenly between both artist’s home theatres, Quintana’s Speakeasy Theatre and Kenny’s Actor’s Workshop and Repertory Company. For something a little different, Actor’s Rep is also offering incentive to get moving with a weekly Saturday Morning Stretch class led by Emma Sue Harris and featuring “Yoga, Full body stretch sequence, light core exercises and kinesthetic bliss!”
If you’re too busy to commit to anything at specific time, Dramaworks’ In The Wings Interactive is free to be perused whenever with some cool behind-the-scenes content, including Theatre Talks, stories from top theatre professionals like Gary Cadwallader and Elizabeth Dimon, and even a haiku contest!
There’s also no wrong time to lighten the mood musically with #MNMSings, a Youtube series that features the talented members of MNM Theatre Company performing songs from musical theatre favorites like Grease, Company, and Avenue Q.
Finally, last but obviously not least, Theatre Lab is back in the game with round 2 of its Online Original Monologue Festival, which has now acquired the nickname #OOMF. #OOMF2: Heroes will benefit the behind-the-scenes “heroes” of the theatre world, like stage managers, designers, technicians, administrators, and box office employees.
The event will commence in a similar fashion to its predecessor, with filmed versions of last month’s workshops on Parts of A Story and Elements of A Monologue viewable on Theatre Lab’s Facebook page for those who missed them last month. You can also catch a live review of the Elements of A Monologue workshop today (Wednesday April 15th) at 12:30 on Facebook Live and at 7 pm on Instagram Live. Meanwhile, a brand new workshop called “Scene Writing” rumored to feature some exciting special guest playwrights will take place at 12:30 pm on Instagram Live and 7 pm on Facebook Live.
Scenes, stories, and monologues will be accepted via email until 10 am on Monday the 20th, and the festival itself will take place on via Facebook Live at 7:30 and will be available on Youtube the following day. It will utilize the same virtual telethon format as last month’s, with each performer providing the cash-app information of a behind-the scenes-hero. So be sure to bring your wallets. Um, figuratively. Your virtual wallets?
There may well be who-knows-how many other things going on in the South Florida’s cyber-theatre-sphere that I am not aware of. However, as I have no actual responsibility to anyone or authority over anything, hopefully this round-up is a decent start. Also, it’s almost 5 in the morning….
Meanwhile, I remain alive and well and back in good old Lake Worth, if only now checking in with this blog a good month since I claimed that I’d be trying to update regularly. I do have some non-review theatre-related posts in various stages of completion that I’m planning on finishing eventually, but I’ve gotten sidetracked with a lot of other quick-turnaround short writing projects and playing catch-up with longer ones. Also, I kind of had a world pandemic to process, but enough about that. Happy (virtual) theatre-going, folks!
Like anything else, the internet age has its blessing and its perils. On the “blessing” side, it enables instant connection among people who could physically be oceans apart, which has allowed for unprecedent collaboration, communication, and innovation. Recently, it’s also become more important than most of us could have ever predicted as efforts to “flatten the curve” of the current COVID-19 pandemic have precluded nearly all in-person interaction.
However, on the peril side, the web can also foster the “viral” (pun only somewhat intended) spread of misinformation, serve as a convenient platform for hate speech, and give users the false sense that simply writing or sharing a post about a social problem on Facebook constitutes “doing something about it.” When we should be, you know, actually be doing something about it.
Among the many social problems that have emerged thanks to COVID-19 and compulsory social distancing is the cancellation of all impending theatrical events for the semi-foreseeable future. Along with being straight-up depressing, this seriously threatens the livelihood of hundreds of South Florida theatre artists, some of whom have instantly lost tens of thousands in future contracts and some of whom are now left with no source of income whatsoever.
Well, Matt Stabile, artistic director of innovative local company Theatre Lab, did something about it, and in doing so has constructed an opportunity for you, too, to do something about it. He’s established a benefit to aid these unemployed artists in the form of an Online Original Monologue Festival, which also aligns perfectly with the lab’s long-stated mission of fostering the creation of new work and inspiring artists and audience members.
This event will happen almost entirely on the ever-so convenient platform of Facebook (please do not pretend you are not already spending half of your day on Facebook, fellow millennials…) and will begin with two free online workshops adapted from Theatre Lab’s existing educational outreach program.
On Wednesday March 25th , Theatre Lab Director of Education Jill Carr will be presenting a workshop on the “Parts of A Story,” live from Theatre Lab’s Facebook page at 12:00 PM and again at 7:00 PM. On Thursday March 26th, Stabile will be presenting a workshop on the “Elements of A Monologue,” at 12:30 PM and 7:00 PM.
Absolutely anyone is free to join in, and pre-recorded versions of the workshop will also be available for anyone who cannot make the selected times. Those who participate will then have a chance to submit the stories and monologues they generate from these workshops to the festival until Friday March 27th at noon. The prescient theme for these brand-new pieces will be “hope.”
Theatre Lab will then select the best of these submissions and assign them to a gathered cast of area performers. Saturday will serve as a rehearsal period, and the performance will commence, again over Facebook Live, at 5 pm this Sunday March 29th.
On a more practical level, the event will also function as a sort of online telethon. Actors can choose to seek funds for to ensure their own financial safety or to dedicate their performance to another artist in need. While each performer is onstage, viewers will be encouraged to donate to that individual directly via links to their financial sharing platform of choice (Venmo, PayPal, Zelle, Cash App, or Facebook Pay.)
Also, PSA to any non-digital natives reading this: online financial sharing platforms ARE NOT SCARY. If my paranoid boomer parents deem something safe and easy to use, so it must be true.
If you want to know more about the event, Stabile provided further details and answered questions about the event via Facebook Live earlier today and will be doing so again at 7 PM this evening. Feel free to check it out or even to share the broadcast from your own feed and spread the word!
Any other South Florida writers (or non-writers who’ve always wanted to try their hand) should definitely take advantage of the workshops, because:
A: I’m betting you could use the incentive to close that Netflix tab and work on something already
B: It’s an awesome chance to learn new skills and get your work exposed to a large audience of local theatre fans and professionals
C. What else do you have to do in quarantine? You better not be thinking of going to the damn beach…
Meanwhile, anyone who needs some entertainment and a dash of hope in these strange times and/or who would like to help support local artists and ensure the future of South Florida theatre should be sure not to miss Sunday’s performance. Even small donations could add up to a substantial sum if we all do our part and tune-in, though of course anyone in a position to offer up larger amounts is welcome to.
This event is also one of the first instances I can recall of the South Florida theatre community acting like an actual community instead of a collection of oft-warring factions. Perhaps a more lasting attitude of unity and goodwill between local companies could be an unexpected upside to this worldwide tragedy.
Theatre Lab is also working on establishing a larger Relief Fund to be distributed amongst suddenly struggling artists and does not intend for the upcoming festival to be the last event of its kind. So, be sure to follow their Facebook page if you want to remain in the loop!
Though the online world has long been regarded as a rival to the theatrical one for audiences’ limited attention, it is now becoming an exciting new frontier. While nothing can replace the thrill and immediacy of live performance, the digital arena could prove to be a valuable means of making the theatre more versatile, resilient, and accessible. Until the world’s stages are safe for players once more, virtual theatre is here to keep the spirit of theatre alive and the ghost-lights in our hearts shining bright.
After all the initial panic, I’ll admit that one of my first thoughts on being mostly-entrapped at home for the foreseeable future was: Great! I can finally finish revising my thus-far-singular attempt at a full-length play!
I then proceeded to do just that…. for exactly one day. Since then I’ve only worked on it in brief and fleeting increments despite the fact that and I HAVE LITERALLY been putting this task off for a good THREE YEARS.
(then again, in that three years I did manage to get a master’s degree, complete 2 internships, write a 300-page memoir draft, get my first real-person job, and start a theatre blog…)
Meanwhile, during the past week, instead of revising my play, I’ve:
Gotten drunk (but only twice!)
Done a questionable amount of Youtube yoga
Written a frivolous short play for the Quarantine Bakeoff
Gone to the pool/hot tub an average of twice a day
Written a blog post
Gone to Wendy’s (but only once!)
Edited a draft of my friend’s novel
Binge-watched at least one full season of Nip/Tuck (naturally, while playing copious amounts of Candy Crush)
Started researching/drafting ANOTHER blog post, not even counting this one…
Written a list of and some brainstorms for other potential blog posts, most of which I will not get to for MONTHS
Checked social media incessantly
Paced aimlessly in a somber, melancholic daze
Read Things on the Internet (45 percent coronavirus related, 45 percent theatre related, 10 percent miscellanea)
Finally started reading an actual book (this may or may not be because my eyes were getting sore from all the screen time…)
Contemplated getting a dog
Watched the news (that’s almost responsible, right?)
Gone grocery shopping
Eaten a whole container of Halo Top in one sitting (twice….)
Briefly scrolled Linkedin and Indeed without actually applying to anything or making serious plans to do so
Met with some friends to brainstorm a guerilla online sketch show (I concede that this one may have been slightly idiotic, but we’ve suspended all in-person interaction for the time being)
Gone to Dunkin Donuts (in my defense, it was free donut day…)
Made a list of things I’ve done instead of revising my play
Made a list of Suggested Showtunes for Strange Times (aka life-threatening worldwide epidemics…) and organized them into three sub-categories, possibly because putting things into categories gives me an illusory sense of control in a world in which most of us have no control at all. Also possibly because it was just a lot easier than, you know, ACTUALLY WRITING. Thus…
Suggested Showtunes For the Strange Times
(Obviously biased towards shows I’ve been exposed to /shows I like)
“Lonely Room”- Oklahoma
“Home”-Beauty and the Beast
“Waving through a Window”- Dear Evan Hansen
In My Own Little Corner- Cinderella
“On My Own” and “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables”- Les Misérables
“A Quiet Night At Home”-Bare
“Learn To Be Lonely”- Phantom of the Opera (movie version)
“Alone in the Universe”-Seussical
The World Is Unfair And A Mess Songs:
“If It’s True”-Hadestown
“Will I” –RENT
“Pandemonium”- 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
“Something Just Broke”- Assassins
“Totally Fucked”- Spring Awakening
“Wait For It”- Hamilton
“Back To Before”- Ragtime
“Epiphany”-Sweeney Todd (If you’re as nihilistic as I am….)
“Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life”- Monty Python’s Spamalot (if you still have a sense of humor…)
Optimism Against Despair Songs:
“Light” – Next to Normal
“Finale B” and “Seasons Of Love”- RENT
“Song Of Purple Summer”- Spring Awakening
“Beautiful City”- Godspell
“No One is Alone”-Into the Woods
“You Can’t Stop The Beat”-Hairspray
“The Impossible Dream”- Man of La Mancha
“My Favorite Things”- Sound Of Music
“Happiness”-You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown
“You Learn”-Jagged Little Pill
“The Story Of Tonight”-Hamilton
“Do You Hear The People Sing”-Les Misérables
“Louder than Words”- Tick, Tick, Boom
So, I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do with this blog from now until life resumes, besides that I’ve started another weird crisis-inspired post about my first theatre obsession ever, RENT. However, I have more or less decided that I ought to keep doing something, if only to tether myself to some sort of external reality. Leaning towards more retrospectives on things I’ve seen in the past, recounting of some of my past acting adventures and/or musings on filmed productions. Maybe a Sondheim series? A Shakespeare series? Any requests from the crowd?
When the first wave of coronavirus panic hit, I honestly thought everyone was just being paranoid. The virus, after all, was still states away, and I remained flippantly sure that even if it did come this way, it would not be coming for me—or on the off chance it did, I would emerge unscathed thanks to my freakishly good immune system. My resistance really ought to be toast given my horrendous sleeping and eating habits, but I can’t remember having anything more serious than a cold in years.
I still more or less believe that I am not, personally, in any real danger, but I am now aware, of course, that this is now a pretty big damn deal. By Thursday, my inbox was overflowing with emails from various establishments about new COVID-19 safety guidelines.
By midday Friday, schools and businesses were closing willy-nilly, my boss had halved my (and all of my coworkers’) hours due to low sales and financial concerns, and almost every upcoming event in the area had been cancelled, theatrical events very much included.
As has gradually become clear, coronavirus has indeed made it to Florida, and south Florida at that. So far, cases appear to be most concentrated in Broward County, not much more than a stone’s throw from my current residence in West Palm Beach and even closer to my Boca office.
Now that the gravity of the situation has become clear, I’ve dutifully hopped onto the bandwagon of avoiding all non-essential human activities; which, come to think of it, I’ve actually been doing to one degree or another for most of my life. Well, if all else fails, the internet will never run out of cat videos….
Of course, there’s really not much to talk about theatre-wise now that even Broadway is on a “social distancing” hiatus. Along with all the amazing theatrical work interrupted, what’s so disturbing about a Broadway shutdown is that the institution is known for its very indomitability; even the citywide chaos following the 9/11 attacks only led to a two-day-long closure. When those marquee lights go down, something must really be up.
The last time I made a pilgrimage to Broadway was actually the first week of this year, which I jam-packed with as much theatre as possible. I intended, at the time, to write some kind of reflection on all 5 of the shows I ended up seeing (yes, I realize I have a theatre addiction.) However, as life intervened, that idea fell to the wayside.
Now, though, having had my plate temporarily cleared of anything else to cover, I find myself wanting to back-track a bit, at least to the one play of the five I’ve thought the most about afterwards. It also, not-so-coincidentally, happens to be the one I deem most relevant to the utter insanity of the moment at hand.
I am talking, now, about Anaïs Mitchell’s bleak and beautiful Hadestown, a musical which harnesses a stunning folk soundtrack and some prescient plot updates to make the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice newly resonant. Hadestown’s first production was a ten-day ragtag Vermont tour in 2006. A 2010 concept album by Mitchell and several high-profile guest artists followed, as did a few more years of development.
Then came a 2016 off-Broadway production, then finally the currently-running-up-until-two-days-ago 2019 Broadway mounting, which has been both a critical and commercial success. The show’s award winning scenic and lighting design, eye-popping costumes and rousing musical numbers ensure an appeal to the masses, while the poignant anti-capitalist tale underlying the extravaganza proves that a touch of spectacle in no way has to come at the expense of a work’s soul.
Andres De Shields as messenger-god Hermes gets the first word as narrator of the saga, warning us from the start to expect a “sad song.” The plot then kicks off when the supernaturally gifted musician Orpheus, played with an endearing awkwardness by Reeve Carney, meets and immediately falls for Eva Noblezada’s beautiful Eurydice. Her powerful and crystal-clear vocals mix wonderfully with his pleasing falsetto in the first of the pair’s many duets.
Hadestown’s other major plotline sweeps in with the arrival of Persephone; actress Amber Gray’s raspy and sensual vocals and otherworldly dance moves are downright unforgettable. Persephone’s husband, Hades, is here stylized as a ruthless businessman who rules over an underworld reimagined as a factory, and Patrick Page’s deep voice and sinister manner prove perfect for the menacing role.
Hades runs his workers ragged to make foundries, oil wells, automobiles and power grids, a tampering with nature that causes the seasons that Persephone usually keeps in balance to become harsh and unpredictable. This takes quite a toll on the mere mortals aboveground, Orpheus and Eurydice included.
While Orpheus is content to forgo creature comforts as he toils away at a song he believes could heal the world, Eurydice eventually decides she can do longer stand the hunger and cold. So when Hades comes calling and joins her in a duet that feels unsettlingly close to a seduction, she’s taken in by his rhetoric and his charisma, his false promises of a better life. She accepts his offer of employment in his underworld hellhole, even understanding that she would be trapped there forever. He offers her a contract; she signs away her soul.
In case the Trump parallels weren’t obvious enough from Hades’ slick demeanor, dangerous greed, or slimeball tactics, Act 1 closes as the workers join their slave driver in an ominous song called “Why We Build The Wall.” The number remarkably predates Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan by a good 10 years, but could scarcely be more prophetic:
“Who do we call the enemy?
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall.”
If you know anything about Greek mythology, you probably know the basics of what happens next: Orpheus’s attempt to rescue his lover, Hades’ cruel test, that fateful glance.
Yet Hadestown manages to wring a happy, or at least uplifting ending from this famously tragic tale, and its conclusion hinges less on the power of love than on the power of idealism and the power of stories. Hermes pledges to keep telling Orpheus’s sad tale to honor his friend’s vision of “what the world could be,” to keep his dreams alive. Then, spring indeed returns, and Persephone promises to forever toast to Orpheus’s courageousness in spite of all odds.
Luckily, Hadestown’s hit status means that it’s a show almost guaranteed to survive Broadway’s downtime. You should have time to catch it when and if the world ever goes back to normal and you happen to be in New York City, and it’s also slated to begin tour this fall—again, provided that anythingever goes back to normal. In the meantime, feel free to check out the soundtrack!
Today, Hadestown somehow feels even more current than it did a few months ago. As travel bans arise worldwide, talk of walls and implied xenophobia becomes even more chilling. Eurydice’s dilemma calls to mind the impossible choices thousands of Americans must make daily between their personal safety and making a living. Persephone’s long winter now not only mirrors the slow process of climate change, but also the disruption of every aspect of our daily lives by a pandemic’s violent reach.
Finally, much as Orpheus stood up to Hades, we too have a rather demonic figure at whom we can direct our rage. No, I’m not talking about the virus itself—I’m talking about the careless and selfish figure who allowed these germs to infiltrate far further than they otherwise might’ve. I’m a theatre writer, not a political junkie, so you’ll probably have to go elsewhere if you want the nitty gritty details of it all, but what I currently understand to be true is that President Donald Trump:
a. DISMANTLED our country’s pandemic team in 2018.
b. Refused to listen when experts spoke out about the dangers of the coronavirus and the necessity of proper preparedness, and this back in JANUARY.
c. Tried to downplay the danger of the coronavirus to the American public, even calling it a “Democratic hoax.”
d. Failed to institute much-needed testing for the coronavirus as quickly as he could have, worried about the impact a deluge of cases could have on his image and his chances of reelection.
Luckily, unlike Hades, Donald Trump is not in fact a God, his power anything but divine. We elected him, or, more accurately for the 2016 blue crew, failed to prevent his election. We, a societal we, fell for his tricks, his charisma, his slippery rhetoric; we signed away our futures, and are now, quite literally, imprisoned in our own homes as a result.
Meanwhile, we artists have learned the hard way that theatre is a privilege, not a fixture nor a right, and that in any sort of crisis, it may be one of the first things we lose. So, maybe next time: let’s prevent the whole damn crisis. After all, there’s more than one moral to take from any given story; so maybe this isn’t a tragedy quite yet. Maybe, someday, the 2020 coronavirus epidemic will be remembered as an important political turning point: as a time when a catastrophe shocked the American people into greater awareness and greater activism.
Maybe the story will be: the actions of a reckless leader threatened everything that Americans held dear, and we decided to never let that happen again. Maybe this will steer us towards better healthcare, better safeguards, and better PRESIDENTS, and maybe, maybe, maybe this time we’ll remember not to look back.
One last word, though, one last toast; to those whom the coronavirus has already conquered. The mothers, the fathers, the unlucky travelers, the seniors who’d hoped only to enjoy the rest of their golden years before finding themselves instead at an abrupt excruciating end; and to, finally, to healthcare workers who weren’t afraid to put themselves on the front lines of the crisis and then paid the worst imaginable price.
Pigs Do Fly Productions continues its sixth season with Helen On Wheels, a play by Cricket Daniels that was first produced in 2014. The company’s unique mission is to show that characters over 50 can still live their lives in interesting, involved, and exciting ways, and to showcase performers over 50 in the process.
Helen On Wheels certainly fits the bill, starting with central character Helen, who we first meet as she is attempting to break out of jail by way of blowtorch after a bingo debacle. Played by Beverly Blanchette, this 70-something year old woman has lived in in rural Crockett her whole life and hasn’t let her age dim her zest for adventure, her irreverent sense of humor, or her passion for Wild Turkey and the NRA.
Other old-timers onstage include Dave Corey, well-cast as Helen’s dashing and refined gentleman caller Elmer; and Carol Sussman as Zona, Helen’s spunky best friend and the figurative Thelma to her Louise. Rounding out the cast are David A. Hyland as Zona’s son, the inept police officer Seth; and Todd Bruno as Helen’s son, the high-strung lawyer Nelson.
I saw little to criticize in the rustic and realistic set by Ardean Landhuis but found most of the cast adequate rather than outstanding. Blanchette occasionally seemed to be overdoing it with gestures and facial expressions while also failing to capture the larger than life charisma that made Helen the toast of her town—though it’s also quite possible that her broad portrayal would have played better in a larger theatre.
Meanwhile, the supporting actors occasionally seemed a little flat and stilted, not fully comfortable with their lines or in their roles. A notable exception was Bruno, who brought plenty of personality to his part.
Yet these imperfections did little to dampen this delightful play’s plentiful laughs. Daniel’s snappy dialogue and zingy one-liners make the most of the characters’ farce-style antics. Particularly memorable scenes include the jam-packed Act One closer and the relatable familial arguments between Nelson and Helen.
On the other hand, the show’s comedy sometimes veered into shticky or sitcom-ish territory, and its humor occasionally seemed to be at the expense of less sophisticated “country folk.” I wasn’t always sure whether we were meant to be laughing with Helen and Zona or at them.
However, in Act II, the story pulls back on some of its shenanigans and goes a little deeper, shifting its focus to Helen’s reluctance to move past the death of Wyatt, her husband of several decades. Yet even this element still has its idiosyncratic twists — in a unique depiction of grief, Helen believes that Wyatt is still communicating with her by causing her microwave to beep. This storyline adds weight to Helen’s family and relationship struggles, thus making the play’s optimistic ending feel far more poignant and earned.
Before we continue, I’d like to establish that Beauty and The Beast may be another one of those plays I cannot be entirely objective about. Exhibit A:
As a child, I was downright obsessed with the movie version of Beauty and The Beast. Belle, bookish and principled, was my favorite among Disney’s princesses, and I never got tired of the story’s affecting plot, visual splendor, and dazzling tunes.
The musical version of Beauty and The Beast is based on this movie, which is itself based on a fable that has persevered in one iteration or another since it was first published in the 1740s, though some close predecessors of the story may be as much as 4,000 years old—talk about a tale as old as time!
Despite a few modern feminists pointing out the problematic Stockholm Syndrome-like aspects of Belle and the Beast’s relationship, I’m still more inclined to read Beauty And The Beast as representing instead a truth about what the best love can offer us: a chance for both parties to become greater than they are.
Not to say that it’s an easy journey for either. Beauty and The Beast actually contains some surprisingly dark themes for a children’s story, which is perhaps why it remains appealing and relatable even to many adults. After all, most everyone has, on occasion, felt themselves freakish and unlovable, or isolated and frightened in a strange new “home.”
It may also be worth nothing that Howard Ashman penned the lyrics to the film version’s songs as he was dying of AIDS, which was still highly stigmatized at the time. He passed away only four days after its first screening.
Though this subtext is never made obvious in either movie or musical, it’s hard to miss the heartbreaking emotional undertones to the Beast’s predicament once you’re aware of their real-life roots.
All eight songs from the original movie, plus “Human Again” from its deleted scenes, are present in the stage version of Beauty and The Beast. There are also six new songs, written by film composer Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice. These additions, however, were largely forgettable—or at least I managed to pretty much forget them, and this after having seen a different production of Beauty and the Beast that included them less than two years ago!
The one major exception to my amnesia was the Beast’s devastating “If I Can’t Love Her,” an intense and gorgeous song of self-loathing and doomed longing which I assume is placed before intermission so we will leave our seats awash in memories of our own romantic failures and in exactly the mood for a drink. (Or is that just me? That may just be me….)
Something, though, is lost as well as gained in the transition from film to stage. What can feasibly be done in the real world can occasionally pale in comparison to the physics-defying feats made possible by the magic of animation.
However, theatrical magic is a pretty great substitute. While Be Our Guest on stage is not quite the psychedelic extravaganza it is on film, there’s still plenty of fun to be had with lively dancing dishes, utensils, and even salt and pepper shakers.
Inventive costumes by John P. White certainly provide some interesting physical challenges for the show’s actors: Shannon Connolly must spend nearly the whole show with her arm permanently held in the shape of a handle as Mrs. Potts, while Frank Hughes’s Cogsworth must amble around the stage in, essentially, a giant cardboard box.
Later, the fact that the Beast’s transformation takes place as he is obscured by dancers and smoke rather than raised on a propeller as in the original Broadway production or mysteriously lifted as in the film does nothing to detract from the poignant and cathartic moment of his return to his former self.
Though I found no noticeable bad apples among the cast, standouts include Colleen Pagano, who reaches operatic heights in the relatively small role of Madame Le Grand Bouche; a vocally talented James Arthur Douglas as the brooding Beast; and Rebecca René Kelley, who practically disappeared into the skin of spunky princess Belle.
The ensemble was also at the top of its game, dancing up a storm even in the guise of cutlery and offering us easy-to-miss gems from their places in the background— for instance, when a Silly Girls stuffs her bra with chicken feathers during the song “Belle.”
This winning production of Beauty and The Beast is unlikely to disappoint fans of the original, and likely to win over a few new converts. Meanwhile, I’ll be out looking for my Beast!
Instead, this fast-paced romp tells the much darker but still surprisingly funny tale of struggling comedian Karla (Shelley Keelor) and millionaire entrepreneur Don (Seth Trucks), who form an unexpected connection while their hospital-roommate mothers fight cancer at the location mentioned in the title.
Along with Karla and Don’s budding connection, which follows a more or less typical rom-com trajectory, the show explores the more poignant story of Karla’s attempts to repair her relationship with her mother Marcie (Jerri Iaia), which had become strained due to a family tragedy.
Don, meanwhile, is dealing with a recent divorce and his teenage son’s rebellious behavior while struggling to accept that his own mother, Geena (Linda Bernhard), is unlikely to recover from her illness.
The play’s dialogue is peppered with plenty of razor-sharp and daring black comedy, as well as some memorable physical gags. A good old glass of water to the face never goes out of style, and turns out a handicapped bathroom can be a pretty convenient place for some hanky-panky!
However, though Don’s sensitivity and complexity made him a far more engaging character than the obnoxious Karla, who casually makes rape jokes in front of her sleeping mother, spent a good portion of her young adulthood in a drug-fueled haze, and can scarcely think of anything but herself.
Perhaps Karla’s immaturity would have been more forgivable if the character had come off as a little younger; though Karla’s self-absorption does not go unremarked upon by the play’s other characters, it still made her somewhat hard to root for despite her trying family circumstances.
Thanks in large part to Keelor and Truck’s chemistry, their courtship was still easy to root for, as was Laia’s feisty Marcie. Bernhard has far less to do as Geena, but delivers her few lines excellently, managing to remain engaged and engaging through subtle movements even when her character is unconscious and clinging to life.
Finally, Dustin Hamilton’s realistic set should be unfortunately familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a hospital, complete with nurses doing their rounds during scene changes.
Running an intermission-less 75 minutes, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City definitely doesn’t overstay its welcome, and manages to impart a few moving insights about grief, healing, and forgiveness along with its irreverent jabs. If only we could all spend less time denying our own mortality and more time laughing in its face!