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June 08, 2008

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Mike B.

In The Heights has benefited, as Broadway musicals do every few years, from being the kind of show people want to like in a year notable for little other achievement. In a week everyone's going to have to go on TV, shit-eating grins at the ready, and talk in front of a national audience of a few hundred people about how great the year was. It would be nice if there were some genuine enthusiasm over one of the entries (the others are two enjoyable novelties and...something else). And it doesn't hurt that it's got a fairy-tale backstory.

But you can tell from the original off-Broadway reviews and the box office, both tepid, that it's a put-on. An unspoken pact to make the best of an unfortunate situation. The pressures that caused it are not the same in Chicago.

Ryan

Chicago kicked New York's ass in theater and politics this year. I'm enjoying it quite a bit.

As for where to set the plays, does it matter really? You can set it up in rural Oklahoma, or an old gas station in Chicago, or in New Orleans near a streetcar line. If the characters and story are strong enough the story can play out where ever.

I think playwrights want their plays to be produced more than once. I think most have that goal. If for nothing less, it will keep them out of temp work. That being said, the cliche dictates that you write what you know. And playwrights in Chicago know the places and people where the grew up, and the places and people in Chicago they've been exposed to or care to explore.

Don Hall

A good play can play anywhere regardless of its regional specificity.

I had a similar thought about Gas for Less (that it might not play so well outside of Chicago) but then realized that if it were a more engaging play, with action that took place onstage rather than off (or on a television we couldn't see), among other things, the regional specificity wouldn't get in the way.

I believe there is a bit of a (not so) hidden code being thrown out in these cases. "...a regional sitcom..." is code for "not good enough for New Yawk" by those critics; "...might work better in a storefront setting..." is code for "not good enough for a Loop stage". It exhibits a built in prejudice that Chicago theater isn't as good as New York theater (which is crap) and that storefront theater isn't as good as Loop District (which is likewise crap).

Ed

That article you link to was patronizing even for the New Yorker. "pulled onto the Broadway stage too soon for his own good?" He's in his f**king forties! It's not just tourists from the Midwest that are keeping that play profitable at present- New Yorkers are seeing it and raving about it. Movie stars are dropping by. Yet the themes and characters are still somehow too gauche for Hilton Als? Maybe I'm misunderstanding him.
I think this is a dissonance that is shared by far too many people- that somehow a theatre piece can either be really entertaining, or really good art, but not both. Or to go even further, that if a theatre piece is really entertaining, then that automatically means that it *isn't* good art. Shaw knew how to do it- make the audience laugh, *then* stab them in the guts! In a good way.
Other random thoughts- I walk by that closed gas station lot at Berteau and Lincoln all the time to get to the grocery store. I think I shop at the Jewel referenced in "Gas for Less" (I think I heard it mentioned in a clip played from the show on NPR). I've wondered what the story was there, and it's kind of cool that there's a play about it. Not sure I want to pay Goodman prices to see a play about it, but that has more to do with my tastes than whether the play should be at the Goodman or not. And yay Rian Jiarell! I'd wondered what happened to him- really enjoyed his work in "The Kentucky Cycle" when Infamous Commonwealth did it.
Personally as an artist, recognition does matter to me. But frankly being appreciated by my peers in the community in which I work is far more important to me than external accolades- especially from some other city I'm not particularly fond of. That said, would I turn down a Tony? Or a Jeff (of any union designation)? Hell no.

MBS

It has not been a strong year for new Broadway musicals. Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway are a different story, but Mike B is right: we ARE making the best of a mediocre year. IN THE HEIGHTS is not a dazzling theater experience, but it does have a particular energy (similiar to last year's winner SPRING AWAKENING) that is infectious. It also has a point-of-view and a musical language all its own (as does PASSING STRANGE). However, and I think this speaks to your thoughts, it manages to be very specific and defined (under the guise of a coming-of-age central story) while highlighting universal themes that makes it audience-friendly. And while I'm sure there will be a lot of "shit-eating grins" on display Sunday night, I think the enthusiasm in the audience (which you won't see on TV) for IN THE HEIGHTS will be a bit hallow. I'm rooting for XANADU to pull of an upset.

Since I haven't seen Neveu's play I really can't comment on it, but from what I gather from what I've read, perhaps it is too narrow in its scope and vision (focusing entirely on the specific world that is that gas station) for it to reach people outside of Chicagoans who know and recognize that world. Nearly every person I've spoken to who has seen AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY here in New York have seen themselves/their families/their lives in that family. Tracy has touched on a universal truth and then chose to dramatize it in a world that was uber-strange and idosyncratic and specific to who he is and how he sees the world. That's the key to the PLAY's acclaim. The PRODUCTION's success has all to do with those actors from that theater in that town, coming to New York and showing us a thing or two. Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing how the show plays with some of the replacement cast (including Estelle Parsons!!).

Writing plays is about taking personal stories, finding the kernel of universal truth in those small journeys, and using theatricality to magnify them for an audience. If the playwright accomplishes this, the play will endure - no matter where it comes from.

Ed

I agree with MBS- I'm really rooting for Xanadu myself. The entire opening number was bootlegged onto youtube for approximatley five seconds a few months ago, and I died laughing. Let's just say that Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa especially are really earning their keep in that show. And Douglas Carter Beane does some genius parody of the choral intoning of Greek tragedy in the interactions between the muses. I really can't wait to see this when it comes to Chicago.
Speaking of Xanadu and the Tony's, has anyone else been following their viral marketing campaign? Their home base is cubbybernstein.com- the basic premise is that they've hired this little kid to run their Tony campaign. All of the episodes have fun little cameos from people like Julie White and Beth Leavel. Some of the webisodes are kind of lame, but the latest (episode 6) has a guest cameo from Nathan Lane and is hysterical. Also, in episode 2 there's a priceless exchange between the little kid and the Xanadu producers (it ends with ..."so you *are* producers.")
I don't know that the campaign is actually going to do anything for their Tony chances, but it sure puts a smile on my face.
On the other hand, "In the Heights" seems like a pretty fun show as well (at least from all the way over here in Chicago it does)- I could live with that winning as well.

Patrick Hudson

Chuck Smith told the story of him watching "Proof" for the first time in New York, and realizing that he was the only one laughing at many of the Chicago-centric jokes (such as "you would actually live in Evanston?!"). Obviously, "Proof" does just fine outside of its Chicago setting, although Chicago audiences will understand more of the references than others. Its about the writing, not the setting.

Too small-minded for the Goodman? I doubt the Goodman artistic staff (or Steppenwolf's, or Court Theatre's, or anyone) use that as a measurement in deciding what they will produce. I was under the impression that all theatres try to choose the best work to produce for their audiences. If there is a theatre here that specializes in "small-minded", I would love to know about it. Considering that many consider the Goodman too big, I find it amusing that some are basically saying that the Goodman shouldn't be producing a show that would work very well in a storefront space.

ilannoyed

UM - In the Heights is a MUSICAL, Hello. I don't know how critics would have felt about the show if it was a straight play like Gas for Less. People will watch shows about almost anything if it's set to music, like umm XANADU for example (ok, i've heard it's actually a very entertaining show)

but it's like comparing apples and toasters - musical are a different animal than straight plays. Let's take a straight play that is similar to "In the Heights" - "Our Lady of 121st St". It is a play about a New York neighborhood, but it didn't take the theater world by storm. It's had some nice productions and it's had some nice reviews - but that doesn't make one question whether it's a problem with being to New York Centric.

this whole "second city" thing is stupid. I haven't seen "Gas for Less", I'm sure it's a lovely show - but I'm sure part of the complaints about it being too small are from those who are used to seeing the Goodman spend a fortune on all the bells and whistles. It just doesn't seem to fit the usual Goodman aesthetic. But I doubt the problem is not that it is "too Chicago". That seems like a lame excuse at best.

MBS

Some follow-up comments/parting shots:

XANADU's ad campaign is all the buzz right now in the city (the kid playing Cubby Bernstein is already cast as the young Shrek in the upcoming musical) and the campaign reminds me of AVENUE Q's - which pulled off an upset win over WICKED. The Tony Awards are more about marketing these days than artistic merit: both XANADU and IN THE HEIGHTS are both shows that could/should (?) tour the country; that's where most of the real money is made by producers. Touring/franchise opportunities play a MAJOR part in what wins the Tony. And not just musicals - though AUGUST doesn't need it, there's already a National Tour being put together. DOUBT also went on tour after winning the Tony and the Pulitzer.

I would rather see quality writing/acting/directing on a Goodman stage (or any other regional theater) than a crappy show with a great design trying to distract me. It's why I always loved the storefront work in Chicago and why I try to seek it out here - even when the space doesn't have air-conditioning.

Mark Jeffries

There is a rumor afoot that if "Shout!" tanks at Drury Lane Water Tower, a sit-down of "Xanadu" will go in. I'll wait until "Shout!" actually tanks (despite its crappy reviews and the non-Equity actress controversy, it is scheduled to run through the middle of July) before I personally believe it, but there the rumor is.

Mark Jeffries

"Shout!" tanked. It closes June 29.

Ed

And, re "Shout," I'm happy to say the dancing on the casket over at Theater Loop has been remarkable restrained so far. I know and like some of the ladies involved, and even if my issues with the producers (a non-union show at Water Tower?!) made me disinclined to like the production (well, that and those awful, awful wigs...), I'm sorry to see them out of work again so quickly.

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