Bathtubs over Broadway

There’s a new documentary on Netflix. It’s called Bathtubs over Broadway and it was written by one of the head writers of the David Letterman Show, Steve Young. The documentary was premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and it has garnered several awards since then. Mr. Young was tasked with discovering unique, oddly funny, recordings for a Letterman segment called “Dave’s Record Collection.” What he unearthed was the hidden world of the industrial musical, a world that has become his obsession for more than a decade.

Industrial musicals were, and still are to some extent, musicals produced by corporations for their salespeople, clients, CEOS, and shareholders to boost morale and increase interest in selling a said product. General Motors, Coca Cola, General Electric, and Westinghouse among many others produced hundreds of industrial musicals between the 1950s and 1980s when new trends in hiring, and employer/employee loyalty signaled a decline in interest. These musicals often had larger budgets than contemporary Broadway shows and were never intended for public consumption. However, LPs were often made and given to corporate staff as souvenirs, and from these albums comes much of what we know about this fascinating subset of Musical Theatre.

In the documentary, stars such as Chita Rivera, Florence Henderson, and Martin Short discuss their time in industrials, alongside notable composer/lyricists like Sheldon Harnick and Sid Siegel. The film features many excerpted videos and recordings of performances from such “notable” musicals as Diesel Dazzle and The Bathtubs are Coming. Mr. Young and co-author, Mike “Sport” Murphy, are credited with writing in 2013 the first history book on the industrial musical called, “Everything’s Coming Up Profits,” upon which the film is based. I don’t own the book…yet.

It’s hard for me to say that the subject matter, the industrial musical, is a particularly important subject upon which to spend too much time and effort. Given the breadth and scope of the history of Theatre, let alone Musical Theatre, the history of the industrial musical is probably deservedly a footnote or a passing mention at best. But with that said, every field of study has fun, crazy, anecdotal fringes that are more than worthy of the attention of a select few devotees. And Steve Young’s passion, here directed and translated to film by Dava Whisenant, is fun, informative, surprising, and at times moving, as we get to know the very talented people who plied their trade in a largely hidden and forgotten theatrical landscape. And if that doesn’t snag you, the movie is only 90 minutes long and features a brand new closing musical sequence featuring many of the stars of the form.

What have you got to lose, but 90 minutes?

Break a leg,

Jason

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The poster of Bathtubs over Broadway

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My Once and Future Passion?

I don’t think any of us really know where it is we’re going to wind up in life, but it’s certainly not where we think we will. When I was 18 I was sure I would be working on Broadway by the age of 25. Then I graduated. And again and again and again. Got married, had a child, moved several times, started various jobs, and…you get the idea. I never got to Broadway. At least not yet.

My relationship with Broadway has been a love/hate one over the years. When I was performing more, had more money to see shows, felt in some way connected to the NY theatre scene, I’ve taken more of an interest in its “doings.’ When I felt dispirited, broke, sick, or just plain didn’t like what I was finding, I would put my interest unconsciously away, just forgetting that it even existed for years at a time.

In 2014, after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with my Theatre MFA, I was full of excitement and hope about my prospects in the business. It didn’t last long. The job market wasn’t great (is it ever for the arts?) and I didn’t find my place in academia (again, at least not yet). I lost interest in Theatre, perhaps due to its lack of immediate interest in me, put my scripts and cast albums away, and turned my attention to my son, my family, my stable church gig, and the education of my students. Through all that time, I’ve felt incomplete somehow, but it somehow seemed in my best interest to turn my attention elsewhere. Cue the last few weeks…

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The 1961 movie of Flower Drum Song

For the last few weeks I’ve had a renewed interest in my old love, Broadway, especially musical theatre. I don’t know why it came on. It just did. It started with me deciding to watch Flower Drum Song, the last of the big Rodgers and Hammerstein successes that I was mostly unfamiliar with. That led me to listen to both its cast albums, and then turn my attention to the other lesser known scores of R and H: Allegro, Pipe Dream, and Me and Juliet. I’m currently reading the script for Pipe Dream and I’m sure the other two aren’t far behind. They’re in the pipe line so to speak.

As of this writing, Spotify has become my best friend. I’ve listened to cast albums that I’d never heard before from Brigadoon, The King and I, Pipe Dream, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. And I’ve turned my attention further back to the operettas that were never part of my education, but should have been: Babes in Toyland, The Student Prince, and The Desert Song. I’m learning a lot, and hearing a lot I’d never heard before. It’s frankly, thrilling.

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City Center Encores sings Pipe Dream

I don’t know what brought it on. I don’t know where it’s going or where it will end. But for this moment, this “brief, shining moment” (now I have to listen to Camelot) it’s nice to be in a mental place where I can appreciate the music I once and always loved; the music of my childhood; the music my father and I especially shared. It’s like hearing from an old friend you’ve been mad at but can’t remember why.

Now please excuse me, I’ve got listening to do.

Musically Yours,

Jason

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Kelli O’Hara as Fiona in Brigadoon

Hi Ho the Glamorous Life (Celebrating 40 “Happy” Years in the Theatre)

This weekend, as I sat in rehearsal for Shrek, the musical that I am currently music directing for Christian Youth Theatre of Fredericksburg, it occurred to me that, with the opening of this production, I will be celebrating forty years of involvement in show business. My first play was at the age of six around Christmastime. I played Santa Claus, and the play revolved around Santa considering putting jet packs on his sleigh to replace the reindeer. I remember almost nothing of the experience, save for the fact that it ended with me (pack over back) walking off the stage, stage left, to the cafeteria door and uttering before I exited, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” A star was born. Oh, well, that and throwing up all over my beard once, due to only having eaten a mayonnaise sandwich for lunch before rehearsal.

Me as Santa

Me as Santa, with Karen Zimmerman as Mrs. Claus, in our first-grade play.

Forty years later, I’m on “the opposite side of the table,” just as much as acting, i.e. directing, music directing, composing, and the like, but after forty years I can honestly say that I still love the grand old pursuit or the Fabulous Invalid, but it goes without saying that there are lengthy periods where I hate the business just as much, wish I’d never gotten involved in the first place, and, without question, strongly dislike many of the negative and narcissistic personality types the business attracts. But with that aside, I want to focus on the good times, the special memories, and the unique experiences that being involved in Theatre has given me.

So in celebration of forty years of memories, here are a few of the most…uh…memorable. Almost every one of the following anecdotes is a blog post unto itself, but needless to say, after a forty year run, I’ve seen a few things. Here are a few selected highlights from the long strange trip, all good. I’ll save the not so good, bad, and bitchy memories for another day.

  1. Thanks to the now defunct American Family Theatre, I had the chance to tour parts of our grand country four times. I was to New Orleans before and after Mardi Gras in 1999, put my feet in the Gulf of Mexico, saw Addams Family in Chicago, visited lots of the southern Midwest, and went up and down the East Coast numerous times. With several cast mates from these tours I’m celebrating almost twenty years of friendship. How time flies.
  1. I have performed alongside or worked with a few Broadway veterans, some as acquaintances, others as friends. I have been blessed to work with Sally Struthers, Jonathan Groff, James Lane, Forrest McClendon, Milton Craig Nealy, and Celeste Holm, as well as a few lesser known luminaries. All have taught me something, and I couldn’t be prouder of my time spent with them. And I promise no more name-dropping.
  1. During my high school’s rehearsal period and run of Oklahoma! in 1986, both myself (playing Curly), and the boy playing Jud carried real guns to school in our backpacks, loaded with blanks made in our basement by our parents. The principal knew, and trusted us, and it was a non-issue. My how times have changed.
  1. I have played a Jewish father (Tevye in Fiddler), a woman (Edna in Hairspray), several priests, a movie mogul, a major-general, and lots of “loud-mouthed little guys.” I have been in not one but two productions of Dreamgirls, The Wiz, and Purlie, all with amazingly talented African-American casts. I was the youngest pit conductor to ever make his debut at the Fulton Opera House in Lancaster, PA and once had a production of Annie I directed reviewed favorably by Greenwich Village’s newspaper, The Village Voice.
  1. I choked once on stage while drinking and stopped the show for nearly five minutes while I recovered my voice. Another time, while shooting trap onstage the gun fell apart in my hands. On another occasion my cast of pranksters Vaseline-d all my props so that I couldn’t pick any of them up. Theatre is unpredictable.
  1. When my father played in the onstage pit for Cabaret, a pit done entirely in drag, I had to take him shopping! I can still remember his ugly black sack dress, old lady earrings, and gray wig, all worn while playing his sax. Somewhere there’s a picture. Someday I’ll find it and post it.
  1. I have been in productions where “showmances” escalated into both on and offstage public displays of affection that skirted the boundaries of propriety and decency. And that said, I’m not telling you about any of them, but at the time they were scandalous and fun.
  1. I’ve had a song I wrote sung back to me with affection ten years later by an actor who didn’t realize I was the composer of the song he was singing. That led to my contributing songs to a New York fringe festival musical.
  1. I can name all the Signers of the Declaration of Independence thanks to my love of the musical 1776, and I know the names of more passengers on the Titanic than most people. My general knowledge of world history, cultures and customs, dates and events, has been greatly enhanced by all the plays and theatre history I’ve had to read over many years.
  1. Lastly, and most importantly, my wife Nancy and I met in an acting class at Villanova University. We were paired up for a scene from David Mamet’s Oleanna. I threw a chair at her, and said some horrible things I would never otherwise say to anyone…and she fell in love with me! Life is funny and wonderful that way.

So for all the above reasons and more I say, “Thanks, World of Theatre, for forty wonderful, terrible, illuminating, frustrating years. Here’s to many more together.”

Namaste,

Jason

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The next project – come see it!

I’m so glad we Met: Celebrating 10 Years (Almost) Together

Yesterday, April 30th, enjoying the briefest of breaks from our son, John Adams, who is visiting with his lovably zany grandparents in PA, my wife and I went to the opera. Specifically, Nancy and I went to the high definition live performance broadcast of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’s one-act opera Elektra. For the better part of two hours (this was a comparably short offering with no intermission) we were swept up in the grandeur and glamour of the NYC opera scene from the comfort of our local Regal Cinema. Introduced by soprano Renée Fleming and prefaced by a short interview with Elektra herself – soprano Nina Stemme – by General Manager Peter Gelb, this performance was the last one in their 10th Anniversary season; that is to say, for ten years the Met has been piping live performances into movie theatres around the world to critical acclaim and financial success. Nancy and I have been fortunate enough to have been partaking in the experience for the last nine years.

MetOpera Live in HD made its debut broadcast on Dec. 30, 2006,with celebrated Broadway director Julie Taymor’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Season 1 consisted of six operas, none of which Nancy or I saw. By season 2, the Met had expanded its offerings by two, making that eight separate broadcasts, and we, in a fit of what must have been newfound glee, took in three operas – Macbeth, Manon Lescaut, and Peter Grimes – back to back in the spring of 2008. While we have never rivaled that consecutive track record since then, our selective opera going has been consistent and mostly memorable.

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Nina Stemme in Turandot

Over the last nine years we have been fortunate to take in Anna Netrebko in Lucia di Lammermoor, the late director Anthony Minghella’s visually stunning Madama Butterfly, the newly imagined entire Ring Cycle of Wagner, Puccini’s Turandot, Verdi’s Aida and Rigoletto, and many more.

Opera is not for everyone and not all operas are for everybody. But since the beginning each broadcast has included the opera itself, interviews with cast and/or artistic staff, intermission backstage camera work where one gets to watch the mind-boggling scenery shifting between acts as orchestrated by the army of Met stage hands, previews of other operas, and of course the creature comforts of popcorn, soda, and not having to go to NYC or pay in-person prices. This last outing cost us $27/ticket plus popcorn and soda, but the experience of seeing these professionals at the top of their game is worth far more than that.

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The Rainbow Bridge in Wagner’s Das Rheingold

As I said, opera might not be for everyone, but the Met and Peter Gelb have been trying to bring it to a whole new generation of enthusiasts for a decade now and their results have been impressive to say the least. The new season for 2016-2017 has been recently announced. Here’s the link to check it out, see clips of past performances, and plan your opera going year:

http://www.metopera.org/Season/In-Cinemas/?

Here’s hoping we see you in the aisle seat next season.

Bravo! Bravissimo!

Namaste,

Jason

P.S. What did I think of Elektra? Honestly, not my favorite opera. But Stemme’s performance was thrilling, electric, emotionally exhausting. There’s always something worth your time.


 

Could August Be August Time?

Fans of the plays of August Wilson rejoice! Playbill announced recently that on April 22 production began on the long-awaited film version of Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning play Fences. Fueled by the recent Oscar controversy over diversity in nominations, and armed with his own A-list celebrity status, actor Denzel Washington was able to get the project green lit by Hollywood after languishing for decades. Denzel is slated to both act in and direct the film, drawing upon the success of his 2010 Broadway revival in which he starred as the play’s central male figure, Troy Maxson, a frustrated husband and father, and former baseball player in the Negro leagues.

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The show poster from the 2010 Broadway Revival

Fences, set mostly in Pittsburgh of 1957, tells the story of the Maxson family: husband Troy, wife Rose, their athletically promising son Cory, Troy’s mentally impaired brother Gabriel, and their extended family. Its major themes of bitterness over lost opportunities and how, who, and where we choose to invest our love are timeless. Of all the ten plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh or Century Cycle, Fences is perhaps the most universally relatable and deserves to be produced first. And therein lays the big question.

In 2015, HBO announced that they had cut a deal with August Wilson’s widow (he died in 2005) to produce all ten plays in the cycle, a deal that Denzel Washington was also implicated in. However, this production of Fences seems to be outside the boundaries of that contract, being produced through other sources with no connection to HBO. Could it be that this Fences, which is attempting to be released in 2016, could be the first of two versions of Fences to be released over the next several years? Time will only tell. One thing’s for sure with Wilson’s work: one version is never enough to mine the richness of his lyrical writing.

In part, the decades long delay in bringing August Wilson’s work to the screen (with the sole exception of a gorgeous adaptation of The Piano Lesson, directed by Lloyd Richards for The Hallmark Channel back in 1995) was of his own making. Wilson refused to have any of his work brought to the screen unless it was helmed by an African-American director, and Hollywood in the 1990s and 2000s – with the sole exception of director Spike Lee – had no faith in African-American directors’ abilities to open a film successfully and across racial lines. Wilson wasn’t interested in having Lee direct, so every attempt languished…until now.

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August Wilson

Whatever your feelings on Hollywood’s or Wilson’s stances, that bridge has now been crossed, and this independent Fences is shaping up to be the first in a line of highly anticipated screen adaptations  – both big and small – that may finally bring this genius playwright’s work to a broader audience. I, myself, have been a fan of his work since the early 1990s, and my wife and I have traveled far and wide to catch the right play with the right cast and the right director on more than one occasion. We were proudly there on Opening Night on Broadway of Radio Golf (the 1990s play in the cycle), and we were there for the final preview of Denzel’s Broadway production of Fences, and I have no doubt that when this film debuts in the fall we will be amongst the first in line to see it. His plays and his legacy are just that good.

Won’t you join us?

Namaste,

Jason

The Playbill article upon which this blog post is based can be viewed here:

http://www.playbill.com/article/denzel-washington-39-s-fences-film-begins-shooting-today-com-382902