Thursday, May 28, 2009

Adding Machine: A musical

Elmer Rice's 1923 play "Adding Machine" seems dated at first glance. A man who has worked at a company for 25 years is laid off and replaced by an adding machine. (My grandma has one of those). An adding machine-a lost technology you barely see in the era of computers and...well, calculators! But stop and think-how often have you called a customer service number and gotten a recorded voice? How often have you had trouble getting ahold of an actual human being? It's the same concept-machines doing work and people losing jobs. This rings true specifically in the haphazard economy of 2009.

Of course, in "Adding Machine", Mr. Zero, the man who is fired, doesn't react very well. He kills his boss. And he is then sent to trial and executed for his crime. But in the afterlife he finds redemption and a second chance at romance.

"Adding Machine" premiered in 2007 at the Next Theatre Company in Chicago. The show was met with great acclaim and moved off-Broadway in 2008 with the lead actors from Chicago still in tact. New York embraced the show vigorously and was the winner of 4 Lucille Lortel Awards and 2 Outer Critics Circle Awards. Time Out New York declared it "The Best new musical of 2008".

So what makes this musical such a gem? The unique aspect of it cannot be denied. While musical theatre is no stranger to dark subject matter, particularly in recent years. But Adding Machine, according to Christopher Isherwood's New York Times review, is beyond is "impossibly bleak", yet "improbably brilliant". It seems that the beauty of Adding Machine is its straightforwardness, its refusal to sugar coat anything.

I must note that I have not seen Adding Machine but I have heard the music and am quite intrigued by it-sort of a combination of Sondheim and Phillip Glass. Straightforward, dull rhythms combined with unsettling synthesized melodies, with a bit of a throwback to the era in which the play is set, the 1920s. The music beautifully reflects the subject matter it addresses. The eight minute "Zero's Confession", which is probably my favorite song in the show, is quite repetitive and yet keeps the listener on the edge of his or her seat. THe repetitive nature does not deter from the plot, and it does not sound as though the composers ran out of ideas. It reinforces the disturbing idea that Mr. Zero feels no remorse for his crime.

I would love to see more regional incarnations of Adding Machine. This is not one that everyone can handle though-even communities that might embrace "Assassins" and the like may have a problem with this one. The specific audience that "Adding Machine" caters to is definitely one with an open mind as to the purpose of musical theatre, one that is open to the idea that it's more than entertainment. I look forward to continuing to explore this great show.

Adding Machine official site

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fela! to appear on Broadway...maybe's story on this is a little unclear: It says that the new musical FELA!, which played off-broadway at 37 Arts in 2008, will be moving to the Eugene O'Neill theatre on Broadway to begin previews. Then under that it states that a Broadway run has not been officially announced. I'd say announcing that you're moving into a Broadway theatre kind of qualifies. But I digress.

FELA! is the story of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a groundbreaking African composer and activist. It won multiple Lortel Awards including Best new musical.

The question is, can Broadway handle such an offbeat musical? In an era of economic turmoil I hope the move doesn't knock them down while they're ahead. Broadway is a tourist's market more and more (Jersey Boys, The Lion King, Wicked, West Side Story and Billy Elliot are currently grossing the most) and often the musicals like this that make the move and don't survive very long.

FELA! Official website

Randy Newman's Faust

We all know the Faust story. It has appeared in numerous variations since its first publication in 1587. The basic story, which has been adapted and altered, tells the story of a man who desires superior knowledge and thus makes a pact with the devil in order to obtain it. It has inspired operas, plays, poetry, paintings, ballet, contemporary and classical music and, as luck would have it, musicals.

A very familiar Faustian story is from a popular 1955 musical (made into a dreadful but still popular 1957 film) DAMN YANKEES. This was a modern (for the time anyway) look at a man who sells his soul to the devil so he can become young again and play for his favorite baseball team, the fictional Washington Senators, to help them win the World Series. The show was a star vehicle for quirky dancer Gwen Verdon and her life long love Bob Fosse, who choreographed (and danced alongside her in the movie). As a musical it is plagued with problems, most of which present themselves in the second act. Nonetheless it ran 1019 performances on Broadway in its original run and has since been revived often regionally and once on Broadway in 1994. Toe tapping songs, the irresistable Lola and the dry humor make it one of my favorite shows-flawed though it may be.

Which is what draws me to Randy Newman's Faust, a newer adaptation of the story. In 1993 Newman recorded a concept album of the show, featuring such talents as Linda Rondstadt, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Elton John as well as Newman himself. Here is musical theatre expert Scott Miller's description from the New Line Theatre website:

Randy Newman's pop/rock musical updating of the Faust legend is nasty, smart, sexy, and completely irreverent, painting God as a smug egotist, the Devil as just a hard-working guy who can't catch a break, and Faust as a slacker college kid who beats his girlfriend. The all-star concept album features James Taylor as God, Randy Newman as the Devil, Don Henley as Faust, plus a supporting cast including Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, and Elton John. This show was put on stage a few years ago and it flopped because it was dumbed down and made "palatable." If they'd put the bite back in, it could be a masterpiece.

The above mentioned La Jolla playhouse production was followed by a production at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. The reception it seemed was rather positive because the songs were just so darn good. However, Ben Brantley's review of the Goodman Theatre production reveals that those who took this concept album and put it on stage took the easy way out: They went for a spectacle and glossed over the cynicism of Newman's piece in an effort to make it more marketable. While there was talk of a Broadway production, it never came about. Rights are not available to perform this show and it seems to have hit a bit of a wall.

New Line Theatre Company has listed the show on their website under possible future shows. Calling themselves "The bad boy of musical theatre", New Line is a St. Louis theatre company producing edgy and thought provoking musical theatre. This company is never afraid to take risks, and artistic director Scott Miller provides some of the most intelligent insights into musical theatre that I have ever encountered. If they could somehow acquire permission to perform the piece and find a way to embrace the edginess of Newman's original concept album it seems this could be a darkly comedic cult hit for alternative theatre companies regionally. It is certainly worth exploring.

New Line Theatre Company

A short essay on the show link to the concept album

Ben Brantley on the Goodman Theatre Production

A list of the many works based on the Faust legend

Monday, May 25, 2009

Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story

My theatre company in Madison Wisconsin is producing this musical gem this June 19-26. It will be the state premiere.

THRILL ME: THE LEOPOLD AND LOEB STORY has book, music and lyrics written by Stephen Dolginoff. It was staged at the Midtown Theatre Festival in 2003, directed by Martin Charnin. In 2005, it was scheduled for a limited engagement at the York Theatre Company in New York City. After garnering many positive reviews (see below), the show was extended. Since then, there have been 31 companies of the musical world wide, including in Seattle, Buffalo, New Orleans, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles (where it won five Ovation Awards), and overseas in Seoul, South Korea, Athens Greece, Melbourne Australia and soon in both Canada and Japan! Upcoming US productions include ours in Madison as well as one in Charleston, SC.

THRILL ME is a different look at the legendary thrill killers Leopold and Loeb, who murdered a young man in Chicago in 1924 simply to see if they could get away with it...or so we thought. The story has been treated in numerous adaptations: Alfred Hitchcock's ROPE, the book and movie COMPULSION, and Joshua Logan's NEVER THE SINNER. But these adaptations focused on the trial and the crime, where Dolginoff's adaptation goes behind closed doors and develops a hypothesis for why the two young men REALLY committed the crime. It was proven, but often pushed into the background, that Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were lovers. The two had a contract between them: Loeb would satisfy Leopold sexually if Leopold would assist him in petty crimes. Dolginoff elaborates on this idea, painting Leopold as love struck and desperate for Loeb's attention. It certainly provides an explanation for the crime that so many people were fascinated by simply because it seemed to be random and pointless.

What attracted me to THRILL ME was its ability to surprise me. When I first listened to "Nothing Like a Fire" I thought, "Okay. This is a nice song. Pretty, whatever." Then I read the synopsis. Turns out, the beautiful, romantic fire the two boys are singing about in the song is actually one that they had set in a warehouse. The beauty of the piece against a backdrop of such a terrible situation made me want to explore it.

The show is written for only two actors and a piano. But somehow it managed to take New York by storm in the era of Jersey Boys, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Wedding Singer and Grey Gardens (it was nominated for Drama Desk awards alongside all of these hit shows). And it has been picked up with great enthusiasm internationally, which is rare for a show of this size and notoriety. I believe that it is going to become one of those shows you see quite a bit in edgier theatres and cities: a more structured "Assassins". The piano accompaniment, played beautifully on the cast recording by Eugene Gwozdz, is enough to satisfy anyone's need for a grand orchestra-the piano is a third character, embellishing the story with carefully planned flourishes and haunting underscoring.

Dolginoff stresses flow in this production in his author's notes. There are to be no applause breaks and no blackouts, and there is to be as little moving of scenery as possible. I am so excited to get our production on its feet (our actors are just wonderful) and to see how the audience reacts to it. It is a wonderful reminder that musical theatre grows and changes constantly, and that at this point in its development almost nothing is off limits.

Critics quotes: "Stephen Dolginoff's pocket musical about the Leopold and Loeb murder case lands like a well-placed punch, arresting and a bit breathtaking. Others have told the tale in plays and films, but there is something brazenly satisfying about Mr. Dolginoff's rendition. It's a reminder that evil often looks and sounds beautiful. Credit the lean approach to the storytelling." —NY Times. "Startling...Provocative...I can't get enough of this...Will keep you spellbound…THRILL ME freezes the blood and keeps you wanting more!" —NY Observer. "Stylish! With a noir attitude, THRILL ME is a two-character slice of pulp fact-fiction by intriguing storyteller Stephen Dolginoff." —NY Newsday. "A soaringly intense, propulsively melodic musical. Chillingly well-told, in all of its dark complexity." —Gannet Newspapers. "Dangerously attractive...Powerful...Dolginoff is a smart craftsman with a knack for forging arresting tunes. The robust score is feverishly crafted." —Star-Ledger. "A taut, compelling two-character musical. Stripping the event of the psychobabble that has surrounded it over the years, Dolginoff gets at the heart of it. The story sizzles." —BackStage. "Dolginoff shows that unlikely musical subject matter can be mastered if the approach is strong enough. You will be intrigued." — "A brilliant, unforgettable musical...Sends chills down the spine. Uncompromising and intoxicating." —Talkin' Broadway.

THRILL ME official site (Buy the cast recording and vocal selections here)

THRILL ME on the Drama Desk awards with Doug Kreeger as Richard and Stephen Dolginoff as Nathan.

Music Theatre of Madison production

Dramatists Play Service License (Listen to song clips)