Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Catching a buzz during theater week

Notes and more from this week’s League of American Theatres and Producers annual spring conference in New York City

You gotta love theater conferences. Where else would you break at noon on Wednesday to make sure people had time to get to matinees? And there’s a lot of buzz right now because the Tony nominations will be announced next week. The Tonys are Broadway’s Grail. Wait, that was last year’s Best Musical.

Attended by 500 touring Broadway producers, presenters and press agents, The League conference is a mix of the practical (“Data Mining in the Information Age”) and the productions; it’s not unusual for attendees to see seven shows in five days. There also are star sightings (Tommy Tune, Frankie Valli) and even some in-depth conversations.

On Tuesday, director John Doyle interviewed the two stars from his acclaimed new production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” the demon barber of Fleet Street, now playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

In his first Broadway production, Doyle had the notion to have everyone in his cast act, sing and play instruments on stage. Down from the original 1979 cast and orchestra count of 54, the 10 multi-talented cast members play tubas, violins and other instruments – trading off instruments like relay race runners. It started in England in small houses, but then Sondheim caught wind of it. He blessed the new production, and even wrote some new music.

Eavesdropping on director Doyle, Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris:

  • Michael: It was the first Broadway show I ever saw. I saw it seven times in the next year and a half. I’ve come to think that Sweeney is the Hamlet of musical theater. It takes everything you have and asks for a little more.
  • Patti: You just have to be pliable in the hands of your director.
  • Michael: I’ve come to realize that the best thing is, just show up bring your bag of tools.
  • Patti: I don’t know what I looked like to you, but I felt sexy.
  • Michael: The first thing you had me do is lie down in the coffin and I thought, ah, this is how it’s going to be. (on joining the cast a week late with Patti) I was gobsmacked by the musicianship and skill of the company. We felt like the dumb kids in class trying to catch up.
  • Patti: It was the best experience I have ever had. Ever. It was civilized and that’s not a word you hear in the theater.
  • Michael: Steve’s intimidating because you make him intimidating.
  • Patti (on Sondheim watching rehearsals): This is history. This is living history. Audiences are desperate for an emotional connection.
  • Michael: Theater sometimes thinks it has to compete with the movies.
  • John: We are storytellers. That’s what we got into this d--- business in the first place. (hearing that Sondheim was coming to English to see the show) I’ll have to sell my house. He’ll sue me because of what I’ve done to his musical.”
“The Wedding Singer,” based on the Adam Sandler movie of the same name, name checks (and sometimes face checks) symbols of the 1980s like Pong, Mr. T, Tina Turner, greed, “Flashdance,” cell phones, mullets, aerobics and Van Halen. Two-time Tony nominee Laura Benanti plays the title character’s love interest Julia.

At a “Jersey Boys” party Tuesday night, the four Broadway cast members of the hit show sang “Rag Doll” a capella in front of original members Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio. Not too intimidating.

– Michael K.

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