The meanings of theatre in general and of musical theatre in particular—as everyone in this business knows—never really stop emerging. As I wrote not long ago in the New York Times, perhaps we are only now grasping what My Fair Lady or Camelot are about—the latter not being a show about Guenevere’s “adultery” but about a woman audacious enough to love twice in a way that her time can’t support.
An actor developing a musical—often over years, as workshop follows workshop and out-of-town productions reveal new angles—can return to it and, almost magically, suddenly discover what the show had been about all along. Just a couple of years ago, I created one-woman show Sing the Silence, featuring songs about silence and occasioned by an introspective period of time I spent on vocal rest. I talked about my family history (a grandmother forbidden to sing in public, her silent movie actor sister, and my own mother’s ventriloquism) in relation to my early career. I talked about longings, losses, and the demands of motherhood. Only after I had performed a first draft of the piece for two nights at the Public Theater did I begin to understand how much my own experience seemed to mysteriously and profoundly intersect with the experience of so many other women, for whom being silent and being silenced seemed like a powerful metaphor for their lives. More recently the #metoo movement deepened the meanings of my very personal play even further. My show had not dealt with the topic of sexual abuse at all, but it was 90 minutes about various ways women are hidden and encouraged to stay hiding. Two years since I conceived the show, everyone was talking about the female voice. I knew more what my own developing show was about—and have returned to revise it—after the world around it changed.
Something like this happened to me while immersed in the recent concert version of Our Table, a musical about a family restaurant that Adam Gopnik and David Shire have been working on for almost a decade. I had been developing the show with Adam and David for the past five years, from a typical early exploratory workshop to a one-of-a-kind workshop exploring only the first ten minutes of the show, a singular idea occasioned by Adam asking Stephen Sondheim why musicals are so confoundingly hard. Rather than a metaphysical answer, Steve had a practical one. “It’s the first ten minutes,” he said. “They determine the rules of the game. Get those right and everything else can work.” (Adam reported that he was impertinent enough to then ask why a masterpiece like Follies worked, given its famously knotty first ten minutes. “Follies,” Steve snapped right back, “has never returned a penny to its investors.”)
All that work produced a fine first production of Our Table at the Long Wharf Theater under Gordon Edelstein’s direction, where the wonderful Anastasia Barzee took on the role I had been developing, that of Claire, the maître’ d and mother of the restaurant family, showing me in the process so much about who she was. (It’s always illuminating to watch a role you have played, especially when you find yourself caught up in the story.)
But as the writers returned to the idea of doing a highly simplified, straight concert version of the show at Feinstein’s/54 Below, we were all struggling to define for ourselves what the show was about—what was its unmissable theme? Trimming a show to a concert format demands the unfolding story be told more economically than ever, and musical theatre is already a highly economical form. Our Table had always been a musical about a restaurant under financial pressure fighting to stay alive against predatory real-estate development in Union Square. It had also been, like The Baker’s Wife, a musical about a woman making a choice for her own spirit, for her own survival. But we always sensed there was still more to it.
An answer came to me early in the rehearsal process this January as I stood on the corner of 15th Street and Union Square West. I walked past Union Square’s Coffee Shop, one of my longtime favorite restaurants where I sat decade after decade, always finding an oasis of good food, a vibrant and chic place to talk with friends, a spot I felt was sort of mine… and saw it had closed.
I posted on Facebook immediately and started seeing how urgently topical the essential plot of Our Table was, with not only Coffee Shop but the neighboring Blue Water Grill also closed. Our Table is actually set on the same street corner as those restaurants. Online, the Blue Water Instagram page was filled with of stories and video reminiscences about the friendships formed by staff, the innumerable proposals that happened there, and the bonds between owner and guests. The actual words of the musical, in many cases, were being spoken in real life—and on the same street corner.
That got me thinking about the show from yet another angle. I suddenly saw that Our Table wasn’t just about food, love, and family—though it involved those things—it was about New York now. New York was a character in the play, and I hadn’t noticed that as vividly until I stood that afternoon on 15th Street.
Our Table is about why we love New York, and why so many of us have had to leave it—me included; I now live out of town, raising three kids not far, but far enough—and about the wisdom the city itself offers even as it may bash us around. Urban pressures become personal pressures; the cracks in the sidewalk become cracks in our lives. The strain and weariness in the relationship between Claire and David in Our Table are the very same stresses inherent in the city of New York.
While I became more sure of the deep underside of the musical, I was thrilled to see the audience delight in the charms of Our Table at our recent concert. As Richard Maltby Jr, our director, told the cast after the 85 minutes flew by: “The audience was with you.” The Shire music is beautiful—one of his light-footed, jazz-inflected scores—and the lyrics are full of charm and wit, with an almost impossibly brilliant love of language. I know the goal of many theatre writers is to write in the common vernacular of modern people, but Adam Gopnik on many occasions puts his dexterous and gymnastic ability with the English language into the libretto. My character, a former ballerina, sings: “Balanchine’s rejected/ for the ball and chain of family romance/ Now I look for any little chance to entrance with the everyday dance.” It’s not every Manhattan mom that can speak like that, but I would imagine it’s an unusual nightclub singer on a 1930s ocean liner who would say things such as ,“You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss/ You’re a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet/ You’re Mickey Mouse,” as Cole Porter had Reno Sweeney do in Anything Goes.
Thankfully, Our Table at its climax is more soulful than smart—I won’t give away the ending of this urban story, but it made my mind jump to the sunlit country of another musical we are revisiting these days: Oklahoma!. To quote Aunt Eller, “We have to be hearty.” David, similarly, says a wonderful line about the transience of tomatoes, at the end of Act Two: “When tomato season is over tomatoes are over, and that is one of the best things about tomatoes. If they went on into winter, we wouldn’t have known what summer tastes like.” The metaphor is from nature, the lesson is from New York. We all have to accept the city’s changing, liquid nature, and find a way to armor our hearts against it.
The concert was a joy to do this winter, and who knows when this project will come to life next. But now I have an idea of what summer tastes like. With musicals, we have to trust a good story will always have more beneath it, and the work of excavating is how we build.