Saturday, 24 March 2012

Judas Iscariot, Superstar ? - A TheatreBooks Exclusive Interview with Josh Young

   Posted last Thursday, 22/3/12, just before midnight on the prestigious New York Times' website, were the following comments by theatre critic Charles Isherwood. It is a star-making quote within a mixed review. It is arguably one of the best, if not the greatest notice a Stratford performer has ever received from the Times in a Festival production on Broadway.

   " The standout performance comes from Josh Young as a vocally lustrous and charismatic Judas Iscariot, well known for betraying his onetime mentor with a fatal kiss. In Mr. McAnuff's production that kiss is particularly fraught, since the show trains a subtle focus on the tense triangle among its three central characters - jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene.

   " Mr. Young's Judas sings repeatedly of his disappointment at Jesus' betrayal of his ideals. But the hungry looks Judas repeatedly casts suggest that sexual jealousy plays no small role in his decision to turn the object of his agonized affection over to the Roman rulers, to whom this " King of the Jews" is a prickly thorn in the side."

   Back in the 20th Century, actors could only dream of waking up to such a rave in the Times. In the 21st Century cyber fantasia we live in, Mr. Young learned of it when a friend excitedly brought Isherwood's rapturous report to him at the post opening night party at the Hilton Hotel. " Thank God", an exhausted Young sighed in relief, who having missed some previews, was still fighting a respiratory virus.

   It's a miracle he got through the performance at all and to his great credit, was able to conquer the extraordinary, taxing musical demands the role of Judas imposes on any full-bodied, healthy singer/actor. Andrew Lloyd Webber's unyielding score is not a walk in Central Park !

 " I respect Mr. Isherwood very much and am much indebted to him and the few others who caught my performance and spoke well of me," Young said the afternoon after his breakout performance.

     Isherwood’s “Hosannas” were reminiscent of the outstanding reviews Brent Carver, Young’s veteran Stratford colleague, received in 1993 for his Tony Award-winning breakout performance as Molina in the Livent production of Kiss of the Spider Woman, the Kander and Ebb musical directed by Harold Prince.  Carver appeared as Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate alongside Young in the world premiere engagement of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Stratford Festival, but chose not to join the company for its subsequent engagements in La Jolla and now on Broadway. 

  Young’s achievement was all the more stunning because he was sick.  On opening night, he was still battling the tail end of a respiratory infection that had totally knocked him out of the last few preview performances, including press nights.  So, many reviewers missed him, but saw his understudy, Jeremy Kushnier, instead.   Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune, who had seen Young’s performance last summer at Stratford,  called Kushnier’s Judas “formidably intense, rich and complex for the work of an understudy, (but it) does not come with the same Goth intensity as Young's more sensual Judas, pushing the disloyal Apostle more toward personal panic than besotted manipulation.”
          Young called upon every ounce of “Dr. Greasepaint” to get through Thursday’s opening night.  No question.  For him the show absolutely had to go on.  Now, his remarkable success is more than a personal vindication.  It’s a testament to his grit and fortitude, the same attitude immortalized in 42nd Street (which Stratford just happens to be presenting this season):  “Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”  Now, there’s an attitude about as catching as Young’s infection.
          Having his family there also helped him make it through, giving him added inspiration and energy:  It means the world to me and even more to them I imagine,” Young told Theatre Books by e-mail.  (He preferred communicating electronically because he still was resting his throat.)
           “It was a very hard show in that I was under the weather.  But having an audience who was so supportive meant the world.
          “(Also), I’m so completely humbled by the lovely notices I’ve received on my work as Judas,” he continued.  And (for you to) mention (me) in the same line as Brent is a great joy as I have learned much from watching that man work during his stint as Pilate in Stratford,” he continued.
          When asked what he feels about his prospects for winning a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical as Brent Carver did, he said “I would be delighted to get any positive attention that would help this truly deserving show have the long run and (attract the) international audience it should have.”
          Isherwood pointed out a specific aspect of Young’s performance that added a rarely considered motivation for Judas’ betrayal of Christ:  “sexual jealousy.” “The hungry looks Judas repeatedly casts (at Jesus) suggest that sexual jealousy plays no small role in his decision to turn the object of his agonized affection over to the Roman rulers, to whom this “King of the Jews” is a prickly thorn in the side,” he opined.
           The idea that Christ may have been a homosexual—and, by association, Judas and maybe even all of the apostles-- is a hot potato, to say the least, that authors and playwrights have explored for centuries from Shakespeare’s Elizabethan contemporary Christopher Marlowe (who was persecuted by the church for this “heresy”) to contemporary playwright Terrence McNally who addressed the issue to great controversy in his 1997/1989 play Corpus Christi.
          This aspect of Young’s performance, his jealousy of Mary Magdalene (as played by the vastly talented Chilina Kennedy), did not seem readily apparent in his Stratford performance.  Was this issue “too darn hot” for Stratford?  Young vigorously denies Stratford audiences were too prudish, saying “whatever is seen is something that organically evolved and there was never anything we felt would be “too hot" for Stratford.
          I believe there has always been a sense of jealousy in terms of the mutual affection and attention Mary and Jesus give to each other,” he continued. “We may have delved a bit deeper as our characters have developed over the past few months, but I believe lots of people will see different things. I'm happy about that.
          “I love that audience members interpret what they're seeing in their own way. Judas' sexuality is something that was completely left up to me and I think I'm going to keep the audience guessing and making their own opinions based on what they're feeling from their seat.”
          After being cast as the greatest ratfink of all time, Young set out to discover and learn everything he could about Judas so he could make his character as complex and real as any human being.  There is not much written about Judas’ life before he became an apostle, so Young developed a “back story” about an Israelite activist obsessed about being oppressed by the occupying Roman army.
          One source Young readily admits he missed was New York playwright Stephen Adly-Guirgis' outstanding and provocative play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.  In it, the writer imagines the trial of Judas in purgatory.  The play causes audiences to re-think Judas’ role in helping Christ fulfill his destiny as the Messiah, mankind’s saviour.  Guirgis’ play argues Judas could be considered sympathetic, that he was a patsy, a fall guy unjustly punished for helping Jesus bring God's will to pass.
          “Hard to believe, but no, I've not seen the play,” Young confesses. “I would love to have the chance as it sounds just fascinating. But yes, the idea that Judas (acted the way he did) to fulfill a divine covenant is not one that has passed us by."
          “ Many other ancient texts suggest the same, and (the lyrics of) one of my songs (`Damned For All Time/ Blood Money’) led me to believe this is the message Lord Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice intended: "…and further more I know that Jesus thinks so too, Jesus wouldn't mind that I was here with you."
          “This occurs just prior to Judas telling the priests where they can find Jesus. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I don't think Judas knew by telling them where to find Jesus that he was condemning him to death.  I absolutely consider Judas sympathetic in every aspect.”
          Young arrived at Stratford in 2010 to play another Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice character, the anti-hero in the high-flying adored production of Evita, opposite his Magdalene, Chilina Kennedy who portrayed the scheming wife of Argentine dictator Juan Peron.  (Serendipitously, a new Broadway revival starring Ricky Martin as Che, is now his neighbor, just a few blocks away.)  Playing Che, and now Judas, had an unexpected perq.  He got to meet his idol, arguably the greatest musical theatre tenor of our time, Colm Wilkinson.
          The Irish-born Wilkinson is now a Canadian citizen who makes his home in Toronto’s Rosedale.  (I always wondered what you would get if you blended Irish whiskey with maple syrup.)  A friend and associate of Stratford music director’s Rick Fox, Colm made his debut as Judas in London’s West End and, as C.T. Wilkinson, created the role of Che on the original white Evita concept album opposite the great Julie Covington who portrayed the title character.
           Colm made the drive down Highways 401 and 8 to catch Young’s performances in both Evita  andJesus Christ, Superstar. Young was beside himself with excitement and vividly remembers the original Valjean and Phantom of the Opera’s generosity, encouragement and friendship.
          “He was the loveliest and most complimentary man I've ever met,” Young recalled. “I told him how much his work has impacted my life and he told me I'm now his role model and how much my work affected him. (It was) tongue in cheek I'm sure, but it still made me feel elated. We had very much the same interaction after the opening of JCS in Stratford.”
          When asked whether he would like to star in Wilkinson’s upcoming directorial debut, the Theatre 20 Canadian musical Bloodlines, Young gushed “I would love to work with Colm in any capacity. He is a hero of mine, for sure.”
        Yet, Young has no plans to leave Jerusalem Boys soon.  He plans to stay with the show “as long as NYC will have us,” he confides, proudly.  “Similarly, I would LOVE to return to Stratford in a season not too far away. My affinity for the Stratford Festival is beyond words at this point. What roles are on my bucket list? … Billy Bigelow in Carousel, Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, and (the title character) in (Sondheim’s) Sunday in The Park with George.”
          For now, this American-born, newly minted Broadway super nova is rootless, confessing he “doesn’t know here to consider home.”  “Obviously, I'm living in NYC right now,” he continued, “but I would like to start a family eventually and I would like that family to be raised in Canada, I believe.
          “That said, I would love to continue to work in both countries. I love what people like Brent Carver, Colm Wilkinson, Colm Fiore (and) Christopher Plummer have been able to do as bi-national actors. I'd love to join them in that category.”
          Before he had to dash away to put on his makeup and don his costume for Friday night’s show, he described what it’s like for an entire Stratford company to travel en masse to Broadway and…for him and many of his colleagues… to make their debuts on the Great White Way in a hit production:  “It's surreal. It's unreal. I'm just trying to take it all in and hope it leads us all into great rewarding careers in the theatre.”
          Finally, he sends a message back to Canada, to Stratford and beyond:  “Folks back home?  Come see my show!! I’m only an hour-and-a-half away! Folks in Stratford?  I miss you and want to come back soon.”
Dennis Kucherawy

Friday, 2 September 2011

David Hare Receives Presitigious PEN/Pinter Prize

In just two-and-a-half weeks, before his latest film Page Eight closes this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, British playwright/film director David Hare has received one of literature’s most coveted awards – the PEN/Pinter prize. 
English PEN announced the news less than a week ago on August 26th.  The organization will present Hare with the award at a public event scheduled to be held at the British library on October 10th.  Hare will make a speech that will be published by Faber and Faber.  The British archive is the home of Harold Pinter’s archive.

“In the course of his long, distinguished career, David Hare has never failed to speak out fearlessly on the subject of politics in the broadest sense; this courage, combined with his rich creative talent, makes him a worthy winner of the PEN/Pinter Prize,” said author Lady Antonia Fraser.  English PEN established the prize in 2009 in memory of Fraser’s husband, the Nobel-winning playwright Harold Pinter.  Her memoirs of their life together, “Must You Go,” were published earlier this year.

The Prize is awarded annually “to a British writer or a writer resident in Britain of outstanding literary merit who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel speech, casts an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze upon the world, and shows a “fierce intellectual determination…to define the real truth of our lives and our societies.”
Hare, who was knighted in 1998, has many acclaimed stage plays to his credit.  Among them are Plenty, The Absence of War, The Blue Room, Amy’s View and Stuff Happens.  His films include Wetherby, Strapless and Paris By Night. 
He is a winner of numerous awards including a BAFTA, a Golden Bear and an Olivier Award.  He received an Academy Award nomination in 2008 for his adaptation of the novel The Reader.  The film itself received five Oscar nominations and a Best Actress Oscar for Kate Winslet.

Page Eight, the closing night gala film of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival on September 17th at Roy Thomson Hall, is the first film he has directed and written in 10 years.  This political thriller stars Michael Gambon, Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes and Judy Davis.
The judges of this year’s PEN/Pinter prize were Hanif Kureishi (author of My Beautiful Laundrette among others), Lady Antonia Fraser, Gillian Slovo, Claire Tomalin and London Guardian critic Michael Billington.
David Hare will share the 2011 prize with “an imprisoned writer of courage” selected by English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee in association with Mr. Hare.  This half of the prize is awarded to someone who has been persecuted for speaking out about his or her beliefs.  The winner will be announced at the October 10th event and will accept the prize alongside David Hare.
David Hare is a co-founder of the Portable Theatre Company.  His first play Slag was produced in London at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1970.  He was a resident dramatist at the Royal Court Theatre, London and later at the Nottinghham Playhouse.  In 1975 he co-founded the Joint Stock Theatre Company.  He began writing for the National Theatre in 1978.  He became an associate director of the National Theatre in 1984.

--Dennis Kucherawy

Friday, 5 August 2011

Some Thoughts on Praxis Theatre and The Original Norwegian’s production of “You Should Have Stayed Home” at the Summerworks Festival
Aug. 4 - 14

Full disclosure: I should say right up front that I, like Tommy Taylor, the writer and performer of You Should Have Stayed Home (YSHSH), spent nearly 24 hours in the makeshift detention centre on Eastern Avenue during last summer’s G20. My experience inside was very similar to his. I can assure anyone that has doubts that nothing in Tommy’s retelling is exaggerated or fabricated. If anything, Tommy and I likely had a milder experience inside the detention centre than many others. 

I wanted to like (YSHSH). I wanted it to be the marriage of politics and theatre, ideas and art, that I struggle to create. I was expecting that Tommy, along with the amazing artists at Praxis Theatre and The Original Norwegian, would achieve something quite special. Yet I left sorely disappointed, a little angry, but most of all, confused. I was confused as to what this show was supposed to be, and why this group of intelligent, passionate and talented artists felt that this was a story that needed telling. 

Now, I don’t like the term “political theatre”. I think all theatre is political. By deciding what stories we tell we are making a political statement. What then, is the political statement being made with YSHSH? Well, what’s the story? It’s the story of a charming young man, in love with his girlfriend, who has a fairly traumatic experience during the G20 and ends up safe, healthy, and still in love with his girlfriend. There is no sense of political growth; there is nothing in the story that would suggest any understanding of the events that unfolded. In the show Tommy very proudly says that he returned to Queen’s Park a few days after the G20, for another protest, but this time a changed man; Whereas he had previously been a casual observer, a curious bystander, now he was an “activist”.... he was speaking to the crowd. I remember that speech. It was passionate, and articulate and enthusiastic, but it was about himself. It was about his experience. And that was fine. I totally understand the need that Tommy felt to tell his story. I felt it too! In fact, much of YSHSH sounds just like the conversation I had over drinks with most of my friends in the weeks and months after the G20; conversations with those who weren’t there, those who didn’t understand, and those who just saw the flaming cop cars on the news. 

But this is a year later. I expected there to be some semblance of growth in Tommy. I was expecting, or maybe just hoping, that there would be some recognition of the fact that what happened to Tommy and me and over a thousand others is the daily reality for people in our city. In my mind there is still an important reason to tell stories of the detention centre, but not simply because it happened. It is important because it took 1,000 mostly middle class white people getting arrested for the media to pay attention, while most of us are blind to the never ending violent and arbitrary detention of young men from Jane and Finch, those seeking refugee status, the homeless, and so on. But there is none of this in Tommy’s story. It is still just about him.
For me the most troubling thing about the play, and I realize I’ll find few allies on this one, is the lack of interest in understanding, in any way the actions of the black block on the Saturday of the conference. Tommy refers to them as “vandal assholes”, and refers to their actions as “the violence”. I think that if you talk about “the violence” on the weekend of the G20, and you’re referring to broken windows, you’re missing the point entirely. The violence that occurred that weekend was the rampant beatings and arbitrary detainment meted out by the police. The violence was the social violence of the austerity measures being put in place by the representatives of the G20 countries. In the play, Tommy describes the crowd that was waiting for him when he got out of the detention centre, those that cheered for him, those that fed him and gave him water. These people were likely some of the same “vandal assholes” he so callously derides earlier in the play. Now, it is likely Tommy didn’t know that, but I don’t believe that he made any attempt to find out.  The community organizers who worked tirelessly to make possible the outbursts of love and resistance and community that occurred during the G20 all agreed that there must be respect for a diversity of tactics. That means that even if someone chooses tactics that are different from yours, that you disagree with, you still support them. This is essential to movement building and solidarity, and Tommy has, wilfully or not, completely ignored it. Furthermore, in the program notes Praxis thanks the outstanding hip hop duo Test Their Logik. I imagine they would be disgusted to be associated in any way with a production that refers to the black bloc as “vandal assholes”. So much for solidarity.

One of the main criticisms of black bloc tactics is the fact that it somehow takes away from the so-called “legitimate” protestors. In truth, i think that, a year later, focusing on the detention centre, does more to drown out the message and the causes that people were fighting for than the black bloc ever could. While people continue to suffer with increasing intensity the effects of austerity measures, is this where our focus should be? While the police who arrested us, and kettled us continue to murder youth on our streets, are the actions during the G20 what we should still be angry about?

Maybe it’s a mistake for me to be looking for any kind of valid political message in YSHSH. Because in truth, at its heart, this is a purely personal story. This is Tommy telling Tommy’s story, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. And the production, although lacking much actual theatricality, is quite effective in its sparse, simplistic staging. I think there could be much more use of the cast of extras playing detainees (why use recorded voice-over when you have some of the most talented young actresses in the city on stage with you???), but when they are used it is striking. It would be nice if Tommy were fully off book, unless this is a workshop production, in which case that should be noted. Yet this show is being sold as a political, controversial piece of theatre. I think that is the mistake. As a simple, honest personal story, this is a fairly successful piece of theatre. As a relevant, social justice minded production it is wrought with problems, and possibly even offensive.

Still, I say, don’t stay home. Go see this play and join the conversation.

-Jonah Hundert

Saturday, 11 June 2011

The Sunshine Boys Present the Tony-nominated The Scottsboro Boys

When Neil Simon was working on his comedy The Sunshine Boys, he should have hung out with the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb.  He would not have needed to write anything, just take dictation.

That thought came to mind when I recalled, as publicist for the Toronto engagement of The World Goes ‘Round, escorting these two musical theatre giants for a day of interviews.  It was just like a scene out of Doc Simon’s tale of two reunited irascible vaudevillians.

 “The people, they need to adore me, so Christian Dior me, from my head to my toes,” nattered Fred, as he got into the car quoting Evita lyrics penned by Tim Rice  “What kind of lyric is that?”  “You remembered it,” John calmly replied. 

It’s now a bittersweet memory as Fred passed away in 2004.  But for me he will be alive once again this Sunday night, June 12th, when Kander and Ebb’s last musical, The Scottsboro Boys, will be honored at the 65th annual Tony Awards.  With 14 Tony nominations and the intense hype surrounding The Book of Mormon, it’s unlikely that SB will win Best Musical.  Its strongest possibilities are the indelible Susan Stroman for Best Director and Best Choreography and John and Fred for Best Score.

They’ve been in a similar position before, back in 1975 when their production of Chicago, directed by Bob Fosse and starring Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon, was swamped by that dancing tsunami, A Chorus Line.  However, John and Fred got the last laugh. The revival of Chicago opened in 1996 and is still running 15 years later, long after the 2006 Revival of A Chorus Line closed.  It is their greatest hit.  Living well is the best revenge after all.

In 1975, Chicago was ahead of its time, telling the story of a lurid murder trial in an entertaining vaudeville that predicted our era’s fascination with celebrity trials such as that of O.J. Simpson.

During Kiss of the Spiderwoman rehearsals, Fred often said “we have to be brave.”  That was his mantra and arguably, bravery is one of the characteristics of their choice of material.  They chose the most unusual and risky stories to adapt into musicals.  Cabaret’s story unfolds during the rise of Nazi Germany and anti-semitism. Kiss is set in Argentina during the rule of the military right-wing juntas and the era of los desaparecidos (the disappeared ones,)

The Scottsboro Boys continues that tradition.  I regret not having seen it, but friends and acquaintances who did, all said it was a thrilling and original piece of musical theatre.  As they did throughout their career, John and Fred-- the “Sunshine Boys” --embraced risk and challenge once more.

Five-time Tony Award-winning Susan Stroman directed and choreographed while David Thompson, author of the script for Chicago’s record-breaking 1996 revival, wrote the book.  Following a sold-out run off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre and a run in Minneapolis during the summer of 2010, the musical moved to Broadway.

Set in racist Alabama of the 1930s, the musical tells the shocking and ultimately inspiring story of the Afro-American Scottsboro Boys who were unjustly accused of raping two runaway girls.  However, Kander and Ebb decided to frame the story of this notorious case within a minstrel show, a collection of skits and songs historically performed by white people in black-face.  Performing a minstrel show in 2010 America was playing with fire.  With their trademark wit, they brilliantly used the minstrel genre as a way of evoking America’s racist past and crying out against the injustice that whites inflicted upon the blacks. Their team’s creativity and innovative staging was exhilarating while also entertaining.

Despite critical acclaim and its innovative dramatic depiction of this struggle for human rights and equality,  the musical closed after a short Broadway run last autumn. Ironically, during the administration of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, it never found an audience.  Few Tony voters saw it.  It’s a stinging indictment that a musical that takes such an original and brave social stand could not attract Broadway theatergoers.  Instead, the award for best musical will probably go to a show that makes fun of Mormons, written, in part, by the creators of South Park.  Now, I enjoy a good laugh as much as anybody.  But as musical theatre talent, their skill and achievement, cannot compare. 

I  believe Susan Stroman will receive Tony Awards for direction and choreography.  But the sad fact is Kander and Ebb are the last of a great Broadway creative tradition as the Great White Way enters a new era of ever increasing “juke-box musicals” and Hollywood star-driven attractions.  There are increasingly few new musicals with a terrific book, a great story and characters to which you can relate.  A great musical also needs fabulous songs and lyrics, sensational staging and choreography, and dazzling scenery and lights.  The latter is nothing without the former.  Kander and Ebb’s greatest achievement, in the spirit of Hammerstein—working with both Kern and Rodgers--, and Sondheim, is they successfully took risks and elevated the musical to bold and thrilling new highs.

  Too bad, The Scottsboro Boys could not be recognized with a special award for outstanding musical theatre achievement.
Plans are underway for a new touring production of the show, opening in April, 2012 at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, then moving to the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco that June.  Discussions are underway for engagements in Seattle, Chicago and Boston.  There is no word yet about a Toronto engagement.

Who knows?  Maybe The Scottsboro Boys’ it will be revived in 20 years.  Maybe it will then repeat the record-breaking and success of Chicago, which is still playing after it opened 15 years ago.

--Dennis Kucherawy

Friday, 3 June 2011

I Bless You: More Truth

Angels in America established that (Tony) Kushner is a great playwright.”
Ben Brantley, “New York Times,” May 5, 2011

“(Headline) `Overhyped playwright seeks Israel’s destruction. Details at six.”
 David Frum, “National Post,” May 14, 2011

            Just over a week after Tony Kushner’s latest play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures opened off-Broadway at the Public Theatre, “National Post” columnist David Frum weighed in on the controversy regarding the City University of New York’s (CUNY) decision to rescind an honorary degree they had granted to Kushner, an action precipitated by CUNY Trustee Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld.  This investment adviser, who was appointed to the Board by former Republican New York Governor George Pataki, bitterly denounced Kushner as “a self-hating, Jewish anti-Semite.”
I consider the CUNY debacle to be a modern day example of “tin-pot” McCarthyism.  It’s amazing that Weisenfeld, also an aide to former New York Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato, fails to see the absurdity that Kushner may be accomplished enough to receive a Pulitzer, but not worthy of an honorary degree from CUNY.
 The details of this contretemps are available on the net, including Kushner’s brilliant and eloquent letter to the CUNY board that led them to reverse their decision and grant him the degree after all.
A former speechwriter for Republican U.S. President George W. Bush, Frum is credited by some for coining the phrase “axis of evil” that Bush used in the 2002 State of theUnion address.  He resigned as a speechwriter that February after only about two years on the job, an event that was debated whether or not he left of his own accord, according to London’s “Guardian” newspaper.
In his column, Frum smugly and arrogantly denounced Kushner, a Pulitzer-Prize laureate (as previously mentioned) and recipient of two Tony Awards, three Obie Awards, an Emmy Award and 2005 Oscar nomination as co-writer (with Eric Roth, Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button) of Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed Munich.
He described Angels in America as “a seven-hour-long play that combined ideas of gay liberation with ideas leftover from 1950s-vintage Communist fellow travelling, (whatever that means).  “The play gained immense praise in the 1980s,” he admitted,…”but I will note…that in a quarter-century of spending a lot of time with literary types, I have never heard anybody quote a memorable line from the play or spontaneously mention the names of any of its characters…”  Frum missed the fact that Angels continues to receive praise, even in the “New York Times” as recently as a fortnight before the “National Post” published his own diatribe.
Back in 1993 when the play premiered, Frank Rich of the “New York Times”  called it “an astonishing theatrical landscape,” concluding that Kushner “has written the most thrilling American play in years.
            Perhaps Frum’s memory problems--and his vain attempt at cultural revisionism—stems from the fact that many of the characters, especially the villains, are prominent  Republicans.  Frum, you see, was a volunteer for the Reagan presidential campaign back in 1980.  The two parts of AngelsMillennium Approaches and Perestroika—are set during the Reagan administration of the mid-1980s.  The plays eviscerate him, especially how he ignored the onset of the devastating HIV-AIDS plague and blithely ignored the deaths of thousands.
            The villain of the sub-plot is Roy Cohn, prominent Republican lawyer and key adviser to Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, who headed the infamous communist-seeking “witch-hunts” of the 1950s.  Cohn is notorious for sending the Rosenbergs to the electric chair.  Ironic, isn’t it, how Cohn’s and Weisenfeld’s bullying tactics are so similar and how Kushner himself is now the victim of a witch-hunt that would, in effect, ostracize him from his own community?  The difference is, Cohn called his enemies “communists” while Weisenfeld labels those who dispute his world view “anti-Semites.” 
What makes Cohn additionally loathsome was his opposition to make new AZT drugs widely available to members of the public suffering from HIV/AIDS even though he was a closeted gay man himself.  He died in 1986 of complications due to the illness.  To the end, he alleged that his malady was liver cancer. Cohn was a scoundrel to the end.  His absolute goal was “to die completely broke and owing millions to the IRS,” said Republican political consultant Roger Stone who considered him to be a role model.  Cohn “succeeded in that,” Stone said.
Frum further claims that neither he nor his “literary type” friends are able to remember any of the lines from the Angels. I have to admit, I’m hard-pressed—as are the hipsters in my literary crowd—to remember any lines from Bush’s biography Decision Points or even Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue.  (Wait a minute, I do remember one:  “You betcha!”)  One of my favorites of Kushner’s in Angels is a witty observation about the American disaffected spoken by the sassy Belize, the black, gay nurse.  He opines:  “I hate America, Louis.  I hate this country.  Nothing but a bunch of big ideas and stories and people dying….The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what he was doing.  He set the word free to a note so high nobody could reach it.   That was deliberate.”
Today, twenty years since I saw Perestroika on Broadway, I still remember the extraordinary, chilling scene in which the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg visits the emaciated Roy Cohn as he lays dying.  She helps a living character, Louis, say Kaddish for her executioner.  It’s a remarkable scene of humanity, of forgiveness, as Louis repeats/recites her words from beyond, even though she comically concludes by saying “You son of a bitch!”
And, of course, there’s the hero Prior Walter’s moving benediction at the finale:  “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all.  And the dead will be commemorated and we will struggle on with the living.  And we are not going away.  We won’t die secret deaths anymore.  The world only spins forward.  We will be citizens.  The time has come.  Bye now.  You are fabulous creatures, and I bless you: more life.  The great work begins.”
We will be citizens; a simple phrase that resonates so greatly in our troubled times.
I remember sitting in New York’s Walter Kerr theatre and chatting with the great actor James Earl Jones who just happened to be sitting behind my wife and me.  I asked him his opinion.  With his eyes wide in astonishment, he confided, in his basso profundo, “I haven’t seen anything this epic on Broadway since we did The Great White Hope.”
Last month in his review of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide etc., Ben Brantley of the “New York Times” called Kushner “perhaps the most intellectually far-reaching of all major mainstream American playwrights…No play by (him) is going to be only a love story or a family drama.  His masterwork, Angels in America, is so remarkable precisely because it places vibrantly individual characters in a really, really big context, one that’s historical, political, even cosmic.  And yet it holds onto those characters’ autonomous individuality.
“Though Guide is more naturalistic than Angels, which visited heaven and Antarctica, it shares the same central concern:  How do we live when the old systems of belief and morality that gave form to our existence have fallen apart or proved empty?”
New Yorker critic, John Lahr, has written:  (Kushner) takes an almost carnal glee in tackling the most difficult subjects in contemporary history—among them AIDS and the conservative counter-revolution…He gives voice to characters who have been rendered powerless by the forces of circumstances…and his attempt to see all sides of their predicament has a sly subversiveness.  He forces the audience to identify with the marginalized—a humanizing act of the imagination.”
As for Frum, during his recent appearance on HBO’s “Real Time,” claiming that Obama’s successful elimination of bin Laden was due to preparatory work done by George Bush, panelist Jeremy Schahill, national security correspondent for “The Nation,” derided Frum, saying he had “a doctorate in political revisionism.”  Considering Frum’s recent comments about Kushner in his Post column, perhaps he’s trying for the same distinction with his attempt at cultural revisionism.
Next month, the 20th anniversary edition of Angels in America is scheduled to be published, just in time for Kushner’s visit to Ontario.  Guide is inspired, in part, by an essay written by that other “:overhyped” hack, George Bernard Shaw,  titled The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.  So, it’s only fitting and timely that he participate in a theatre forum at the Shaw Festival.  It’s called
 “The Speed of Ideas.”
 Let’s hope, for his sake, that David Frum isn’t left at the starting gate.
n  Dennis Kucherawy

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures is scheduled to be published this December.  The play is still running off-Broadway at New York’s Public Theatre.

June is Bustin’ Out All Over!

          Michael Burgess, John Alcorn, David Warrack and Bruce Dow are just several of Canada’s leading and rising talent that will star in Lower Ossington Theatre’s new Green Door Cabaret series.  It takes place Fridays and Saturdays throughout June at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.
            The month-long series kicks off this Friday, June 3rd at 8 p.m. with a performance by Michael Burgess, renowned for his performance as Jean Valjean in the first Canadian company of the hit musical, Les Miserables.  Upcoming operatic singer Charlene Santoni will follow at 10:30 p.m.
            The following Friday (June 10), Bruce Dow takes time away from appearing as Herod in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar to perform at 8 p.m.
            Other performers will include the piano wizard David Warrack, veteran cabaret performers John Alcorn and Judith Lander, acclaimed cabaret/jazz artists FreePlay Duo, Adi Braun and Koller Michaels.  A special performance will be a tribute to noted Canadian composer Healey Willan.
            This new cabaret space is located at 100A Ossington Avenue in the heart of Toronto’s new restaurant district.  With an intimate seating capacity of 100, the Green Door serves alcohol.  Tickets are $25 per show, HST included.
            For details, visit or call 416-915-6747.
n  Dennis Kucherawy

Monday, 30 May 2011

Sing Out Louise

Canadian musical theatre star Louise PItre is likely the only singer who has the distinction of portraying the doomed Fantine in Les Miserables in both English and French in Canada as well as Paris.  In her concert at Toronto’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) last month, she recalled that after singing I Dreamed a Dream and then dying in the first act, she did not get the rest of the night off.  Instead, she had to dress up as a boy and take to the barricades in the 1832 student uprising.
            Performances of the Montreal engagement each week alternated between French and English.  During one performance in French, the inevitable happened.  As the bodies of the dead revolutionaries, including Louise, sprawled across the barricade, their leader, Enjolras, sang out one of his final lines…in English!   His “dead” comrades were shocked and, needless to say, stunned as they struggled to stay still and not laugh.  Luckily the day was saved when the next singer had the presence of mind to sing in French and put the feckless gars back on track.  From that show on, signs were posted in the wings and in the orchestra pit to remind the cast which language was being sung at each performance.
            As laughter from the April audience died down, Louise asked the people whether they would like her to sing the anthemic I Dreamed a Dream in English or French.  “Both!” was the reply.  “Oh, I love Canada!” she muttered good-naturedly and then delivered a powerfully soul-wrenching rendition that showed why she is considered to be Canada’s first lady of the musical theatre.
            That sensational concert was a run- through of her performance this Wednesday night at the St. Lawrence Centre titled La Vie En Rouge that is being videotaped and recorded live for a future CD.  Her accompanists are Diane Leah on piano, George Koller on bass and Tom Jestadt on drums.
            Her latest CD, titled La Vie En Rouge – The Piaf Sessions, is entirely in French.  No release date has yet been set, but some copies will be available at her concert.
            The songs on the CD, mostly taken from the great Piaf’s repertoire, are:
·         La Vie, L’Amour (Chauvigny, M. Rivgauche)
·         La Foule (Michel Rigauche, Angel Cobral)
·         Ne Me Quitte Pas (Jacques Brel)
·         Milord (Marguerite Monnot, Georges Moustaki)
·         Mon Manege A Moi (J.Constantin, Norbert Glanzberg)
·         Et Maintenant (“What Now My Love”) (Gilbert Becaud)
·         La Vie En Rose (Edith Piaf, Louiguy)
·         Hymne A L’Amour (Edith Piaf, Marguerite Monnot)
·         Mon Dieu (Michel Vaucaire, Charles Dumont)
·         Mon Pays (Gilles Vigneault)
Pitre’s live recording of her St. Lawrence Concert, subtitled “songs from a red-hot heart from Piaf to Pitre by way of Broadway,” should be released this fall.  The working title is Louise Pitre Live.
It’s been said that Pitre, a 2002 Tony Award nominee, four-time Dora Award winner and—with Colm Wilkinson and Brent Carver—a founding member of the exciting Theatre 20 company, would be a house-hold name if she lived in the USA.  That’s likely true.  But only in Canada would she likely be able to flourish easily in both English and her native French, moving from Piaf, Brel and Vigneault to Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim. 
She has performed this concert in the USA and in Canada.  Next winter, she plans to perform in the Maritimes, British Columbia and again in the USA.  No musicals are lined up in the near future, but there is one particular show she is dying to do--“Gypsy.”  At MCC, before launching into her thrilling rendition of Some People, she confessed that she wanted a producer—perhaps one in the audience—to hire her to play the classic harridan and stage mother Mama Rose. The time may be right.  “Gypsy” is in the news again as a film adaptation starring Barbara Streisand is in negotiation.  However, Pitre’s passion is unyielding:  “I’d like to say `Sing Out, Louise’ instead of everybody else saying it to me,” she jokes.

-Dennis Kucherawy