Monday, September 16, 2019

SHOWBIZ SANDBOX #462:

Here it is! The latest Showbiz Sandbox podcast hot off the press and ready for your ears! 


Though the Cannes Film Festival avoids programming movies from streamers like Netflix and Amazon, internationally renowned festivals in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York embrace them. And no wonder. As Anne Thompson of Indiewire tells us, the streamers used the fall film festival circuit to premiere some of the year’s most award-worthy movies.



Just back from Toronto and Telluride (and on her way to the New York Film Festival), Thompson fills us in on what new releases movie lovers should look forward to as we kick off awards season. She explains how making a big splash at such festivals can turn a middling movie into a hit collecting both big box office and plenty of kudos. Yes, we’re looking at you, Hustlers.

Meanwhile, with the imminent launch of their own streaming service, Disney wants to rewrite the rules -- or at least the contracts -- on how the profits from hit television shows gets shared, or as the company would prefer it, not shared. If successful, other networks and studios are sure to follow Disney’s lead.

Of course we also cover the week’s top entertainment headlines including why YouTube is revamping its music charts, Apple announcing the price for its streaming service and “Saturday Night Live” stumbling in a casting move. 

Hear it here! Or grab it from iTunes, your iPhone podcast app and wherever awesome podcasts are available!

Saturday, September 14, 2019

MOVIES: The Scarily Good Combination Of Hitchcock and Herrmann on "Psycho"

THE ART OF THE SCORE: NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC
PSYCHO (1960) **** out of ****

I love film scores and movie music. My first story in a national publication was about jazz-inspired film scores that ran in Premiere magazine. I reviewed film scores and soundtracks for the now-defunct CD Review, including this comprehensive round-up of Oscar-winning soundtracks. Heck, I used that clip to pitch an entire book -- a sort of Rolling Stone Record Guide devoted solely to soundtracks. Who better than me to write about everything from Max Steiner's ground-breaking score for 1933's King Kong to the pop songs on Footloose? It wasn't meant to be, but my passion for movie music remains. I've listened to soundtracks. I've watched movies intently with the score and use of music uppermost in my mind. And I've screened films with just the audio track featuring music turned up while everything else is turned off, so I can see the images of the film and hear only the music.

Guess what? None of that is as illuminating and fun as watching a movie projected on a big screen while the New York Philharmonic performs the score. You're watching and enjoying the film, but because the music is being performed live it is always uppermost in your mind. For seven seasons, The Art Of The Score has proven this again and again. You notice music cues more acutely, you appreciate when the score is NOT underlining a scene and you always get to hear the music in context. Listening to a score on its own can be a treat. Performing a score orchestrated into a symphonic piece can be enlightening. But nothing beats hearing a score with the movie it was composed for.

That proved the case with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind this week. It's the most austere and unsettling of scores by John Williams. And the famous, instantly recognizable five note cue that is the heart of the climactic scene isn't just a string of notes played over and over. It's a full orchestral conversation bursting with humanity and humor, both human and otherwise.

I may never recover from missing their performance of Amadeus last season, an audacious and challenging enterprise to be sure. If you can, catch Psycho on Saturday September 14 at Lincoln Center. Or book now for the Christmas treat of Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone December 11-14, another John Williams score and an event sure to challenge Star Wars for the number of audience members showing up in costume (or at least wand in hand). Even better, the Spring Gala on May 20 will feature Singin' In The Rain. That's followed immediately by Mary Poppins from May 21-23, which I scandalously consider a better musical (yes) and the peak work of the Sherman Brothers. Seeing that in concert will surely prove how much terrific music is in that classic even when songs aren't being sung. (Follow the links to buy tickets.)

But first, we have Psycho. Alec Baldwin introduced the film with an amusing story about a father who wrote to director Alfred Hitchcock. His daughter saw 1955's Diabolique and was so freaked out by a bathtub scene that she insisted on taking only showers. Of course, then she saw Psycho and refused to take a shower either. Hitchcock wrote back: "Send her to the dry cleaners." Conductor Richard Kaufman cheekily pointed out this performance was taking place on Friday the 13th, (cheers and laughter from the audience), it was a full moon (more applause and laughter) and now they were all about to watch Psycho. Hitch would have approved.

Here's a six minute short featuring the droll Mr. Hitchcock (self) promoting his new movie Psycho.


Psycho is a low-budget, black and white flick shot down and dirty in 30 days with a crew used to working fast and cheap for TV. Since it followed Hitchcock's lavish color spectacle North By Northwest, critics were thrown for a loop. But audiences loved it all over the world, making Psycho the biggest hit of his career. Now recognized as a masterpiece, it may not have been the first of its kind, but it surely inspired countless lesser slasher flicks and an obsession with serial killers. The performances by Janet Leigh, Martin Balsam and especially Anthony Perkins are so good it's remarkable to read that Hitchcock watched a rough cut and thought the film was a failure. He considered cutting it down to one hour for his TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents and writing off this experiment as a loss.

Composer Bernard Herrmann insisted on at least writing the music. Needless to say, after seeing the film with a score, Hitchcock changed his mind about how well the movie worked. If even a master like Hitchcock (who famously mapped out his movies before he shot a single frame) can reappraise a film dramatically like that, then you know just how powerful a score can be.

Of course, you're waiting for the shower scene, but the entire evening is a treat. Herrmann was on a tight budget and made do with a smaller orchestra composed only of strings. And as so often happens when artists face limitations, they use those restrictions to inspire creativity. The strings snap like percussion, they swoon like woodwinds, they wail like horns, they dance. Whenever someone is walking up the stairs of the Bates home, the music darts and dives around their feet (and even more so if the character is soon falling back down).

When Norman Bates (Perkins) and Marion Crane (Leigh) are chatting over a late night snack, the music is notably absent. Their talk is musing, confiding, even charming. And then Marion wonders if Norman might just put his seemingly abusive mother...somewhere. Norman leans forward, filling the screen (Hitchcock frames it so this seems very menacing) and Herrmann's music steps in and suddenly you feel very, very uncomfortable and perhaps this is the unconscious moment he decides to kill her. Put his mother in a madhouse? Never. "What do you know about caring?" asks Norman and all one can think is, "Run!"

A few scenes later, Norman is chatting with a private investigator and leans over as the man is checking out the hotel registry. The camera catches Norman at the strangest angle, sitting just under his chin and neck as Norman chews on some candy and chats away. You might not think about it or even clock how odd a choice it is at the time.  But the idea that Norman is simply not like other boys -- might be more creature than human, chomping away with unthinking abandon -- is all in that shot. No music is playing, but I was conscious of the choice not to include it here and how that allows this subtly effective moment to inform the audience without calling attention to itself. (You can't help note when music isn't used because dozens of people are on stage but not playing. Indeed, when the conductor stands up, you are doubly aware a new musical cue is about to begin. It's just one more reason these performances are so valuable for appreciating a film's score.)

Yes, even when the score isn't playing, composer and "conductor" (ok, director) are working in tandem. And of course the scenes where they are both present strike you all the more. Whether it's the shower scene with the brief glimpses of a bare stomach and the squealing, frightening violins or the scenes of Marion driving down the highway to the rushed, anxious feeling that the law (or a guilty conscience) is dogging her every move or the finality of the last burst of music in the last shot of the movie as a submerged coffin of a car is dredged up from a swamp, you appreciate two masters perfectly in sync.

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

MOVIES: A "Close Encounter" With A Steven Spielberg/John Williams Classic

THE ART OF THE SCORE: NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND *** 1/2
CONDUCTOR: RICHARD KAUFMAN
DAVID GEFFEN HALL AT LINCOLN CENTER

Including the upcoming remake of West Side Story, director Steven Spielberg has made about 32 feature films. But one of them is unique. 1977's Close Encounters of The Third Kind is the only film solely written and directed by Spielberg and Spielberg alone. And if he'd made it after he was married and had kids, Spielberg says he would never have ended it quite the way he did.

Thank God he wasn't a dad yet. CET3K is disturbing, obsessive, mildly bewildering, very adult and startlingly spare and abrupt. It's also awe-inspiring and very convincing in delivering the close encounter with aliens the title promises. This movie is far less of a thrill ride than Raiders and not remotely the heart-tugger of E.T.  It's longer than you remember, stranger than you think, more upsetting than you expect and not nearly so joyous as you want. In it, a man goes nearly insane, destroys his home life and then knowingly and intentionally abandons his family, probably forever. Yet in 1977 it saved Columbia Pictures and became that studio's biggest hit of all time.

I have a friend who was traumatized by it when her parents took her to the film at a far-too-young age. In many ways, Jaws is a lot less scary. In Jaws, the danger is a monster you can understand -- a beast of the deep just doing what it was made to do: swim and eat. In CET3K, the monster is within: it's the madness in your brain, the once-loving father in your home. It is Spielberg's most personal film.

And in the same year composer John Williams revived the film score with the all-time blockbuster, Wagnerian triumph that was the music of Star Wars (an even bigger hit at the box office), he also delivered astringent eerie work for CET3K. It contains one of his most famous, iconic and widely parodied themes (the five note "doorbell" that serves as a hello between humanity and aliens) and yet it's also one of his least appreciated scores.

That ends now thanks to the New York premiere of the full score conducted by Richard Kaufman, performed by the New York Philharmonic and the Musica Sacra chorus, all accompanying a print of Spielberg's preferred cut of the film. If you're lucky enough to be in the city, head to Lincoln Center and snap up any remaining tickets for Thursday, September 12. Even better, grab tickets as well for The Art Of The Score's performance of Bernard Herrmann's innovative, all-strings work on Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Those performances take place September 13th and 14th.

It's great to see the diverse audience attending these performances. Many are clearly fans of the movie while some are regular attendees of the Philharmonic season venturing into less familiar territory. To make a case for the music of John Williams, you might be tempted to just deliver a pops concert of one of his scores arranged anew. And why not? But just as rock lyrics aren't poetry, a film score isn't a symphony. Yes, you can read Bob Dylan's lyrics on their own but to fully appreciate them, you must listen to the songs. The music of John Williams can be complex and challenging and certainly as satisfying as any symphony unafraid to be tuneful. But a score is best heard and appreciated in context: with a projection of the film. And The Art Of The Score series allows you to do that in an ideal setting, with the film beautifully projected but the score invariably dominating your attention thanks to a live performance.



Close Encounters of the Third Kind is curiously overlooked in Spielberg's career. Jaws looms large as his first breakthrough and of course E.T. and Raiders are all time entertainments alongside it. His "mature" films, the award bait that allowed Hollywood to take Spielberg seriously, began with The Color Purple, flourished with Empire of the Sun and achieved the desired dream via the Oscar-winning Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg was all grown up and rarely made a great film again (except when he forgot himself and delivered pure entertainment with Catch Me If You Can, the last movie worthy of him). Yet way back towards the start, when Jaws was a monster hit that let Spielberg write his own ticket, he wrote and directed CET3K, a harrowing look at the disintegration of a family that makes no apologies and doesn't even pretend to comfort at the end.

The film's dramatic weight struck me when seeing the film in theaters during its 30th anniversary release. Now with the essential Art Of The Score series, for the first time I appreciated that John Williams is just as bold as the director. In Star Wars, he delivers rousing themes by the yard. In this film, he jolts you at the start and then gets under your skin with skittering cues that don't resolve themselves. They tantalize, they tease, but they never quite say be scared or be excited or be worried. They unsettle you. The choral work of Musica Sacra was especially striking since I barely realized there WAS any vocal work in the score the previous five or ten times I've seen the film.

Heck, I barely remembered anything about the score except for the climactic scene where first contact is initiated with a five note "hello" played by humans and repeated by alien craft. That back-and-forth game of Simon Says was captured to perfection by the electronic toy Simon (introduced in 1978). In my mind, the entire finale was probably just a synth-fest of some sort.

Far from it. The philharmonic had long passages throughout the first half of the film where they were at rest. CET3K isn't the marathon that Star Wars proved in their triumphant rendition of that score. When intermission ended and they stretched out with some full-bodied themes before the film proper started up again, I thought it a welcome chance to let them strut their stuff since the score was more discreet than usual for Williams. Well, it turns out the beautifully paced climactic scene features the full orchestra. My memory of a synth-fest in fact begins with a woodwind (I think!) duetting with a tuba. The small voice of humanity and the booming sound of aliens are actually playful and warm and soon more and more instruments join in. It's positively delightful and a release to hear the melody hinted at throughout the film receiving its due.

Earlier in the movie, a little boy is abducted by aliens. (It's the scene you see in the trailer where the child is opening a door while a fiery but enticing red light comes bursting in. Spielberg says that may be the defining image of his career and I'd agree.) It's scary but because the little boy isn't really frightened at any point, we instinctively know the aliens won't intentionally hurt us. Little children and puppies are invariably good predictors of danger: if they growl or look nervous, you should be too.

In the same way, the score that unnerves us throughout, the five note melody that pops up here and there but never gets resolved in a musical fashion finally bursts out at the finale. The orchestral interplay during that triumphant meeting of humanity and alien life is overwhelming and heart-stopping. But because it's told through the voice of the orchestra rather than synthesizers (as I always imagined) the audience knows this is a conversation, a dialogue. The tuba makes you smile. Yes, the interplay is frantic and a little confusing, but it's messy and human (or should I say humane?), a meeting of minds rather than a clashing of cultures. And Williams told us all that with his score alone.

At the end, conductor Richard Kaufman pointed out individual musicians and sections of the philharmonic one by one, calling on them to take a bow. But of course it was John Williams who stood tallest. He wrote and experimented with hundreds of different five note themes, searching for the perfect combination that would satisfy Spielberg and allow Williams to undergird two hours of film with music that never called undue attention to itself. He succeeded. Again. The result is one of his most innovative and least appreciated scores, just as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is one of Spielberg's most mature, least appreciated major films.


Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

THEATER: "Betrayal" And The (Permanent?) Success of Plays On Broadway

BETRAYAL *** 1/2 out of ****
BERNARD B. JACOBS THEATRE 

Two things I believe. One, plays are arriving on Broadway like nothing we've seen in generations. They come in all shapes and sizes: open-ended runs, limited engagement starry productions, revivals, new works, you name it. And this isn't a one-off, fluke of a thing. It's been building for years and hopefully remains true for years to come. Two, you can thank the star-studded limited engagement for helping to make this happen.

You can track the rise of plays (both revivals and originals) over the past decade, ranging from "sure-fire" classics to new works like Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2. The Tony winner for Best Play during the past decade is especially revealing. Ten shows, ten hits both with critics and audiences. Red, War Horse, Clybourne Park, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, All The Way, The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, The Humans, Oslo, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Ferryman. With the caveat that Red may not have been a commercial hit, the rest are unquestionably good to great shows reaching a wide audience all over the world.

Look at this fall alone. Two revivals are on tap: Marisa Tomei in the Tennessee Williams play The Rose Tattoo. And Campbell Scott stars in a new mounting of the holiday perennial A Christmas Carol, which worked like gangbusters in London. I'm especially interested in the latter, despite the threat of audience participation via the singing of carols. And I've just seen the sterling revival of Harold Pinter's Betrayal.

Broadway is a huge gamble financially but new plays outnumber revivals by a mile. Jake Gyllenhall made Sea Wall/ A Life possible. Playwright Florian Zeller is practically a "name above the title" selling point in his own right. But his latest drama The Height Of The Storm packs the star power of  Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce. Part two of the LBJ bio-play stars Brian Cox instead of the presumably exhausted Bryan Cranston (who just finished in Network). Beyond Cox (enjoying his own TV moment thanks to Succession on HBO), The Great Society has a cast big enough for an opera at the Met. Am I ready? I just finished all four volumes of Robert A. Caro's biography of the troubled President, so yes, I am. Slave Play marks the Broadway debut of Jeremy O. Harris, one of the most hyped new talents around. The Sound Inside marks the overdue Broadway debut of Adam Rapp, one of Off Broadway's most dependable talents for years. (It stars Mary-Louise Parker, which is reason enough to show up.) And then there's The Inheritance, an epic drama that received raves in London and is getting the biggest build-up for an original play in many, many years. And that's just the fall!

Look at Broadway's weekly grosses. You'll find To Kill A Mockingbird and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child right up there with the mega-musicals, pulling in huge crowds and settling in for runs that hope to challenge Life With Father and Tobacco Road for longevity.

None of this is a weird accident, the way some seasons have a lot of new musicals and others have mostly musical revivals. Nope, it's been building for a while and you can thank those limited-engagement productions bursting with stars. They're not bullet-proof. This season began with the quick collapse of Frankie and Johnny In The Clair de Lune, despite the presence of Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon. Some sneer at them, as if producers are cheating by trying to ensure they don't lose money. Whether it's a revival or a new play, big stars and a short run allow these shows to be seen. If they limit the potential losses a little, they also (usually) limit the upside since hey, that star has a movie or tv show to film in five months so that limited engagement really is limited. They keep classics alive (we see Shakespeare plays constantly so why not Albee and Wilson and so many others as well?), they give new playwrights an unbeatable platform and they keep the Broadway heart beating.


(Here's a Playbill interview with the three stars of Betrayal.)



Case in point? Betrayal. What more is there to say about a production that played in London to rapturous reviews, moved to Broadway with its cast intact and then raked in more hosannas? Heck, Ben Brantley of the New York Times said it's "one of those rare shows I seem destined to think about forever." All I can say is: they're right.

Tom Hiddleston has a Marvel-ous fan base but he's not box office gold at the theater, yet. So the good news -- unlike many shows that are this entertaining and this well-reviewed -- is you can still snag good seats before it ends. And you should. Pinter's play tackles the oft-told story of infidelity, in this case the wife sleeping with her husband's best friend. Betrayals are a constant here, from a husband insisting he's been cheating on his wife for the seven years of their marriage to a parent betraying a child (by not ensuring a stable home life) to a man feeling betrayed that sleeping with his best friend's wife hasn't pissed his pal off more. Why aren't you angrier, he seems to say? And you didn't tell me you knew? How dare you! It's funny, probing, absorbing and all told in reverse.

Well, it's Pinter, isn't it? While the audiences in 1978 were hardly rubes, I do believe thanks to Memento and a thousand tv shows and novels and movies with splintered narratives like it that we're simply far more comfortable with this gambit. But why is it told at the end and working its way back to the beginning? For me, it's enough to know this keeps us enjoyably off balance. We're constantly re-calibrating who knows what, where the story is headed and where it's been. Every question, every sentence is fraught with meaning and when you're cheating on your husband or best friend, you can't help poring over every comment for its hidden meaning. Does he know? Does he suspect? This makes the drama so much fun. It's not "challenging;" it's more like a puzzle you enjoy taking apart and putting back together again scene after scene.

And the impeccable cast makes it crystal clear throughout. Hiddleston is a formidable presence, Zawe Ashton is enticingly hard to read and Charlie Cox of Daredevil and Boardwalk Empire was for me a revelation of sexy guilt and confusion. (Must be his Catholic upbringing.) Every element of director Jamie Lloyd's production is steel-sharp, from the elegantly simple staging (via Soutra Gimour) to the cover of Depeche Mode's "Enjoy The Silence" that proved an ideal palate cleanser. Perhaps, I thought, the turntable at the center which revolved characters around each other was a little too spot-on as they circled around. But it was used modestly and I forgot about it...and then it was used so effectively at one key moment towards the end, I realized they needed that earlier movement to set up this terrific pay-off. Indeed, every element is so well-judged in this spare staging I became mildly obsessed wondering about why Emma doesn't wear any shoes. What does it mean?  It's a show worth obsessing over. And thank goodness star-packed limited engagements allow us to do so. Don't miss it.


THEATER OF 2019

Frankenstein: Under The Radar Fest at the Public ** 1/2
Minor Character: Under The Radar Festival at the Public ***
Ink: Under The Radar  Festival at the Public  ** 1/2
Choir Boy ** 1/2
White Noise ** 1/2
Kiss Me, Kate ***
Ain't No Mo' *** 1/2
Ain't Too Proud **
The Cradle Will Rock * 1/2
Mrs. Murray's Menagerie *** 1/2
Oklahoma! (on Broadway) ** 1/2
Socrates **
The Pain Of My Belligerence *
Burn This **
Hadestown *** 1/2
All My Sons * 1/2
Tootsie ** 1/2
Ink ***
Beetlejuice **
Estado Vegetal ***
Hans Christian Andersen * 1/2
Cirque du Soleil: Luzia ***
BLKS ** 1/2
Moulin Rouge ** 1/2
Bat Out Of Hell **
Unchilding **
Sea Wall/ A Life ** 1/2
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child ***
Betrayal *** 1/2

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.

Monday, September 09, 2019

SHOWBIZ SANDBOX #461: Hollywood's Gender Pay Gap Goes "Crazy"

Here it is! The latest Showbiz Sandbox podcast is up and running and ready for your ears! 

Pay disparity based on gender is not a new thing in the entertainment industry, especially in the movie business. History is rife with examples where leading men got paid multiples more than their leading ladies. However, gender pay gaps behind the camera aren’t often publicized. That wasn’t the case when Adele Lim, the co-writer of “Crazy Rich Asians” found out how much more her male co-writer was being paid for the sequels, she went public.


The good news according to a new study is that in front of the camera Hollywood is becoming more diverse. Women and people of color are being cast more than ever with 39 out of the top 100 films in 2018 featuring a female lead. Last year also marked a 12-year high for minorities being given speaking roles.
Meanwhile, advertisers and television networks are concerning themselves with a different set of numbers; viewership ratings. For the first time ever, Nielsen is counting all the people who watch TV in bars, airports and hotel lounges. Ratings will surely go up for some big categories such as sports. But will ad rates go up too?
Of course we also cover the week’s top entertainment headlines including why author Walter Mosley quit his “Star Trek: Discovery” writers gig, music sales are up for the year and, despite lots of new competition, Netflix looks poised to maintain its dominance of the streaming market.
Check it out now at Showbiz Sandbox, iTunes or wherever!  

Friday, September 06, 2019

MOVIES: HALLELUJAH! A GREAT FILM ABOUT GOSPEL

I've been waiting 36 years to see the documentary film Say Amen, Somebody. It was worth the wait. Check out my review at Book and Film Globe. 

It’s a miracle! In the last six months the Lord has graced  us with not one but two amazing films about gospel music, both of them mentioned with reverence but virtually unseen for decades.


First came the Aretha Franklin concert film Amazing Grace. Director Sydney Pollack filmed it in 1972…and it promptly disappeared down a rabbit hole of technical and legal difficulties. As the music Franklin recorded became the best-selling gospel album of all time, the legend of this long-lost film grew and grew. Surely no movie could match the hype. But it did. Finally released in April, Amazing Grace immediately made a name for itself as one of the great concert films of all time.

And if that didn’t save the soul of some cynical film critics, here comes the 1982 documentary Say Amen, Somebody. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel raved about it on their TV show. Numerous outlets (including Rolling Stone and People) named it one of the best films of the year. Theatrically, it grossed a very impressive $1.1 million in North America (a LOT of money for a documentary film in those days). Then it disappeared....

Thursday, September 05, 2019

THEATER: "HARRY POTTER" ON BROADWAY! FINALLY!!

HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD *** out of ****
THE CIRCLE SERIES AT CIRCLE IN THE SQUARE

It's been on Broadway for 17 months. Friends of mine saw it even earlier in London. The acclaimed original cast has moved on. And now I've FINALLY seen Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. A few shows each year slip through my grasp and this was one of them -- a shame, since I know the books backwards and forwards and have impressed nieces and nephews for years with the fact that I interviewed J.K. Rowling many, many years ago. But times are tight and money is too tight to mention so what could I do? I entered the digital lottery at TodayTix.  And then I entered it the next week. And the next and the next and some 80 or so drawings later, I won!! Here are some thoughts.

THE LYRIC IS GORGEOUS -- Once a barn of a theater, the Lyric was the home of Spiderman-Man: Turn Off The Dark. That felt more like a circus show than a musical and the cavernous space felt appropriate. But it's been completely renovated for this show. The back wall has been moved forward to make it somewhat more intimate. (It now seats some 1,600 people, rather than 1,866 seats at its peak.) And literally every detail is thoughtful and handsome, from the "H" stitched into the carpeting to the two levels of box seats on the side a la the opera and just...everything. It's so handsome that one weeps to think they may have to un-renovate it for landmark reasons when the show leaves. On the bright side, that won't happen for years and years.

THE PLAY WORKS FOR MUGGLES -- Like I said, I know the books quite well and saw all the films and even took the test at Pottermore to determine I belong in House Ravenclaw if and when I get a scholarship to Hogwarts. I also read the script for the play when it was published and thought, Gee, this won't make a lick of sense to anyone who HASN'T read the books or seen the movies. Not quite. My guest had read the first book and seen a few of the early movies. So he wasn't a novice exactly but he certainly isn't steeped in Rowling. The show worked a charm for him. After each act, he did tend to have a brief question or two about a reference made by this or that character. I happily expounded at geeky length. Undoubtedly, the play will be far more powerful for those who do love the books. But arrive five minutes early and read the summaries of the books (or just Book 8) and you'll be fine.

NO BUTTER BEER? -- The merchandise was copious and good-looking. (I was tempted by the all-black coffee mugs.) But I was astonished not to see Butter Beer unavailable at the bar. Or some of the Potter-centric candies at the snack bar. (Perhaps I missed some, but I don't think so.) Ah well, sometimes Muggle contracts preclude obvious tie-ins -- the Willie Wonka show didn't include the Wonka bar, did it? I'll gladly settle for the golden ticket I got when winning the lottery.




BUT HOW WERE THE SEATS? -- Oh, I knew not to expect much. I won tickets through a lottery. A single ticket to one part cost just $20, so I paid $80 total for two seats to the entire, two-part epic. Wonderful! But surely my seats would be in the top tier behind a pole or something. Well, my heart did sink a bit when I saw them. I had tickets in the second level (the dress circle) in row G all the way to the side in seats 9 and 11. Only three rows behind me and the wall. And ALL the way to the side. This is a play, not a musical. And even if I was seeing the tap-dance extravaganza 42nd Street again, I'd much rather be in the orchestra than high up. Then I actually went to the theater and took my seats. The sight lines were impeccable and while Harry Potter has a lot of intimate, quiet scenes, it's certainly a big show with a lot of spectacle. I would happily buy those seats again and for more money. Frankly, I don't think any seat in dress circle would have been bad. Only a few people in the boxes and way along the side in row A might have missed a tiny moment or two of action in one or two scenes.

FINE, BUT THE SHOW? HOW WAS THE BLOODY SHOW? -- Great fun. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child read a little roughly for me. (But I'm not very good about reading plays or film scripts and imagining what can be done with them.) I loved the set-up. The sons of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy head to Hogwarts and positively HATE it. And when they become friends, their parents positively hate THAT. Then things get complicated. On the page, it seemed like the need to get the band back together (i.e. make Harry, Ron and Hermione the center of things) took precedence over a fresh new story. On the stage, it felt a lot more cohesive, with the stories of the parents and children intertwining from the start. The smartest decision they made was to evoke a classic, Victorian-style of stage craft. No video or projections here. This show in many ways could have been staged as-is a hundred years ago. And the movement/choreography of Steven Hoggett deservedly made this the rare drama to be nominated for Best Choreograpy. (It should have won, actually.) He and director John Tiffany create real magic in a thousand little ways, alongside the rest of the crack technical team. It's a genuine treat to watch. Heck, even before the show begins, the stage just LOOKS gorgeous. And while most of the effects are dead simple (and doubly effective for being so), I haven't a clue how they make the entire stage seem to waver and shimmy and shake when time travel comes into play.

The original cast was acclaimed to high heavens and while I can't single out anyone in the new cast, I don't see any huge weaknesses, either. They are capable and strong, even if the action by the second half of part two gets tense and the show's idea of drama is for the actors to get a bit shouty. "My son is missing!" shouts one character. "SO IS MINE!" shouts another. Somehow, the melodrama adds to the fun.

And it IS fun. I haven't enjoyed an audience's reaction to a show this much since seeing The Lion King. That musical flips the audience out right at the start with the brilliant "Circle Of Life" number, a show-stopper to end all show-stoppers. Little kids stood on their seats and looked all around them positively wide-eyed with wonder. Heck, I did the same thing. And at Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? People (not just kids) positively gasped at various revelations. They shivered in fear. They smiled with fondness over a shared memory voiced by someone on stage. When one character ventured down the center aisle of the theater, virtually everyone in the dress circle craned their neck or just stood up -- they were desperate not to miss a moment. When one character walked quietly on stage for the first time, the reaction was so visceral and shocked my guest was beside himself with desire to ask me who it was. And that's not all. At the end of the first intermission and again at the end of Part One (surely the only time a stage play has ever stopped with the words "to be continued" flashed onto the curtain) and again at the intermission of Part Two, the creators stage both a visual spectacle and introduce a head-spinning plot twist that left the audience positively gobsmacked and bursting with chatter.

It's a beautifully crafted production of a pretty good play, catnip for Potter fans and fun enough to send newbies to the books to see what all the fuss is about. The stagecraft is impeccable and a joy to watch. While JK Rowling only worked on the story (the script is by Jack Thorne), it shows yet again how wisely she has made use of her fame. Rather than thinning out the pleasure of those seven books by writing more, Rowling uses her imagination and commercial power to explore new worlds. The website Pottermore is very innovative. The theme park rides are top-notch. The prequel movies dubbed Fantastic Beasts are at least commercially successful and Rowling is improving as a screenwriter. And now this stage show is a triumph that will surely be many children's introduction to the pleasures of theater for years to come. All in all, that's pretty magical.

THE CIRCLE SERIES AT CIRCLE IN THE SQUARE

But you don't need to win the lottery to enjoy the pleasure of live theater, even in New York City. Al over the city, you'll find staged readings and semi-staged productions of little-known musicals and cabaret shows presenting songs for a musical someone would like to make someday. And it's all far more accessible and inexpensive than a ticket to most Broadway hits.

Adding to the fun is Circle In The Square's recently launched Circle Series. Throughout the summer and fall, they offer readings of new and classic works, asking only a suggested donation of $20 for adults and $10 for seniors and students (meaning you won't be shamed if you can only chip in say $5). All proceeds benefit the Circle In The Square Theatre School, which makes sense since students and alumni will often people the casts. It's presented in partnership with Pigasus Institute.

I recently attended a reading of The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry and it was quite fun. Cocktails start at 6 pm and the reading starts at 7 pm. The film starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart is an all-time favorite of mine, but the play is slightly different and I'd never read it or seen it done. I think the film made smart choices and improved on the play, so if anyone is going to stage it again, they should start with the film script. And indeed they should stage it again because the story works like a charm.

The Circle Series does exactly what you want it to do. It lets you enjoy some performances for a very modest price, spot some new talent you'll want to keep an eye on and maybe introduce you to a new playwright of worth. Three more shows are on tap this season, with Ladies In Waiting by Elizabeth Canavan on tap September 9, Bewilderness by Zachary Fine on September 16 and Pluto by Steve Yockey on September 23. For more info, head here.



THEATER OF 2019

Frankenstein: Under The Radar Fest at the Public ** 1/2
Minor Character: Under The Radar Festival at the Public ***
Ink: Under The Radar  Festival at the Public  ** 1/2
Choir Boy ** 1/2
White Noise ** 1/2
Kiss Me, Kate ***
Ain't No Mo' *** 1/2
Ain't Too Proud **
The Cradle Will Rock * 1/2
Mrs. Murray's Menagerie *** 1/2
Oklahoma! (on Broadway) ** 1/2
Socrates **
The Pain Of My Belligerence *
Burn This **
Hadestown *** 1/2
All My Sons * 1/2
Tootsie ** 1/2
Ink ***
Beetlejuice **
Estado Vegetal ***
Hans Christian Andersen * 1/2
Cirque du Soleil: Luzia ***
BLKS ** 1/2
Moulin Rouge ** 1/2
Bat Out Of Hell **
Unchilding **
Sea Wall/ A Life ** 1/2
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child ***

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.