Playwright Joe Bologna's comment, "all theatre is transformation," served as the key phrase for a panel that kicked off the American Theatre Critics Association's annual New York mini-meeting, May 2. Held at Broadway's Plymouth Theatre, the ATCA discussion was chaired by Florida critic Christine Dolen and watched by dozens of critics from around the country who'd flown into New York for the weekend gathering.
Answering the question, "How Do Shows Metamorphose On Their Way To New York?" were Tony-nominated actor Robert Cuccioli, director Robin Phillips, composer Frank Wildhorn and lyricist/librettist Leslie Bricusse (all from Jekyll & Hyde); choreographer Mercedes Ellington and Tony-nominated actress Tonya Pinkins (Play On!); Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna, actor/authors of The Bermuda Avenue Triangle); and playwrights Alfred Uhry (The Last Night Of Ballyhoo) and Wendy Wasserstein (An American Daughter).
Cuccioli began the discussion by saying that for him, the hardest part of the 11-year journey to Broadway was in refining "the line between good and evil. You need to separate Jekyll and Hyde, but they both have to be human characters. Especially with the doctor, he's now more passionate, arrogant and prone to anger."
Wildhorn traced the musical's origins back to 1986, saying the show continued his efforts to bridge the world of pop music (especially rhythm & blues) and musical theatre. Librettist Bricusse then joked about his own contribution to the gothic musical: "The actor Roger Moore came to a Broadway preview and asked what I did. I told him I wrote the book. He put his arm on my shoulder and said, `I think you've got a big hit there, Mr. Stevenson.'"
Bricusse did say the process of bringing a musical to Broadway just gets longer, more arduous and more expensive. "It was ten weeks from when I started writing Stop The World, I Want To Get Off to when the show opened in London. And it took only 6,000 pounds to produce; that's how we used to do it. And before the War, the greats used to do three shows a year." For Bricusse, the hardest part of writing a musical is the book, because "songs are structured and defined, but the book has to be more flexible. As far as I know, Kiss Me Kate was the only musical ever frozen right after the first performance." Robin Phillips added that he's seen librettists be too quick to cut dialogue. "A song will go in and the writer will say, `okay, I can cut that, and cut that,' without realizing texture can be lost." Play On! has had a similar experience to that of J&H, in that it's been exceptionally well received on the road, only to fight for attention and respect on Broadway (neither work received a Best Musical Tony nomination). "We started at the Old Globe," Ellington told the crowd, "with no intention of coming to New York. But we broke box office records there, and it was a nourishing experience."
One significant difference between the regional and Broadway staging of Play On! is that the current production is actually smaller. "The Globe stage has huge size and depth that we lost in New York. The Brooks Atkinson Theatre has almost no wing space. So whereas we had four permanent towers at the Old Globe, here we have two permanent and two towers that move." The shortage of available rehearsal space in midtown New York turned into a positive for the company -- they rehearsed in a studio in Harlem, where the action of the musical occurs.
Tonya Pinkins, starring as Lady Liv in Play On!, had two major obstacles during try-outs: making her character, a "petulant terror," more empathetic; and trying to dance while being nine months pregnant. "Of course, the choreography was changed for awhile; they just had me standing there, watching the big number. The comedy was stronger when I was pregnant because I was bigger, more formidable. In New York, the character is sexier." For Pinkins, the sad part of Play On!'s journey has been the loss of strong material in Cheryl L. West's book. "Early on we had no clear lead, so the piece was then focused on two characters. But in doing so, we lost reams of book, much of it about relationships. We're still working to have these moments that used to be there in the script, and thank God we have veteran actors who can do it."
(In an ATCA luncheon the following day, Jekyll & Hyde's Linda Eder told the assembled she cried on opening night because she looked into the audience and saw so many people who were either with the show from the beginning, or were once but no longer part of the company, driving home just how long and emotional the show's journey had been.)
Another big difference for Pinkins is the way New York audiences are reacting to the show's depiction of African-American characters. "Things are so politically correct here. California audiences had no problem, but we were attacked in New York for stereotyping. Out there people know there's prejudice and that's that. Here people pretend to like things they don't, and they're just so afraid."
On a more comic note, Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna -- often finishing each other's sentences! -- told of their comedy's move from Florida to the Promenade Theatre, where Bermuda Avenue Triangle opens Mother's Day, May 11. "At Coconut Grove," said Taylor, "because of financial constraints, we took the daughters out of the play. That was a mistake, and we shouldn't have listened, because you need the daughters to show the audience what it means for these widowed mothers to be abandoned." Taylor told the crowd her character is based strongly on her own mother, who was "an unforgettable, bananas character. She cried at everything. You asked her why she was crying, she'd say, `I'm crying because I'm happy;' `I'm crying because I'm sad.' And I learned there are a hundred different ways to say, `Oy.'"
Husband Bologna added that the play, which stars himself, Taylor and Nanette Fabray, was initially supposed to star Lainie Kazan and Harry Guardino. "They were at the first reading at the Mark Taper Forum, but Harry's performance was kind of flat and out of it. He was sick, and just couldn't do it because of the cancer that eventually killed him. So faced with this, my actor-ego kicked in and I stepped into the role. For me, doing a role and adding character details is all about, `Who do I know like that?'"
Asked if writing and acting together presented its challenges to a married couple, Taylor replied, "I don't know how people work together who aren't married. When Lovers And Other Strangers first opened out of town, we got a review on the radio saying, `It's a good thing they've got each other...' Hey, we used to count the number of audience members leaving during the performance. We were thrilled one night when we got it down to only eight walk-outs!"
Wasserstein has been blessed with the Midas touch on every play she's penned, but that doesn't make conception any easier. "Back when we first did a reading of An American Daughter -- with Meryl Streep, Whoopi Goldberg, Phoebe Cates, Len Cariou -- the heart of the play was with the Lynn Thigpen character. I knew I needed to focus much more on Lyssa. Fortunately, I have a home in Seattle, which is where I wrote the TV interview scene."
Both Wasserstein and Uhry, whose Tony-nominated Last Night Of Ballyhoo was on the Pulitzer short-list this year, agreed that audience laughter isn't always an honest indicator. Wasserstein said part of being a playwright is knowing, "When to stop the comedy. We cut thirty minutes during previews." "It isn't always the writing of a punchline that gets the laugh," said Uhry. "It can be two or three paces before in the set-up. When we first did Ballyhoo in Atlanta on a commission for the Olympics, the audiences were laughing, but there were too many laughs in the wrong place."
Uhry also called being on commission a terrific way to cure writers' block. "There were times I'd get stuck. But then I'd turn on the TV and hear, `107 days till the Olympics,' and the inspiration just kicked in."
--By David Lefkowitz