Saturday, June 28, 2008

Kerry Butler

I first noticed Kerry Butler in the crazy Off-Broadway musical Bat Boy. She stood out there just as she has in all the shows I’ve seen her in since -- Prodigal, Hairspray and Little Shop of Horrors. For the last year she’s had a starring role on Broadway (and earned a Tony nomination) playing Kira/Clio in the zany musical Xanadu, and she’s every bit as winning as ever. (She also plays Reese on NBC's "Lipstick Jungle," which I’ve never seen.)

In May Ms. Butler released her debut solo recording, Faith, Trust & Pixie Dust, featuring 12 songs from the Disney canon. I didn’t know most of these selections because they are from movies that came out well past my days of going to Disney movies. The thought of an album of that kind of music wasn’t too appealing to me, but because I like the singer so much I gave it a try. While it’s not the kind of music I’d want to listen to often, I really enjoyed most of the selections, thanks to Ms. Butler’s interpretations. She provides a country spin to some and gives others a quirky playfulness.

In her liner notes she explains why she chose this brand of songs. “In thinking of songs that made me smile, or had a theme of hope or optimism that I felt was so important, I kept coming back to songs that were Disney-related. I love so many of the Disney themes -- when I’m sad or stressed, I know I need a dose of Disney.”

She studied hundreds of Disney songs and chose some standards, like “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which is my favorite on the CD because I like that song and love the jaunty arrangement with tuba, strings and ukulele. She picked others for personal reasons -- “Baby Mine” because she sings it to Segi, the daughter she adopted from Ethiopia in 2006, when she puts her to sleep. There’s even the first Disney song ever, “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo,” written by Walt Disney himself. The accompanying musicians and orchestration for all the songs are terrific.

She premieres two Alan Menken songs, “This Only Happens in the Movies,” written for an aborted prequel to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Call Me a Princess,” written for an early version of “Aladdin.” The “Princess” song is so funny, especially with Ms. Butler’s impish spin. The refrain is “princesses get their way” and is all about princesses refusing to cook, “that’s not relaxing,” so they “make reservations.” They don’t bother to study, other than to study how to get money out of their fathers, and I loved “other girls work on a law degree, some scrub floors on their hands and knees, I’d rather have a facial, please.” It’s a great spoof of the prima donna mindset.

While I laughed at “Princess,” I was moved by her prayerful singing of "God Help the Outcasts" from "Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was suggested by several fans after Ms. Butler invited them to help pick one song for the recording.

The CD’s title comes from a lyric in Jonathan Brooke’s “I’ll Try,” a song from "Return to Neverland" about losing faith. “To believe in good, even when you see evil in the world, is something I struggle with,” Ms. Butler writes. “That’s what I love about ‘I’ll Try’ -- and about so much of the Disney catalog. It recognizes that it’s hard to have faith, it’s hard sometimes to ‘believe,’ and all you can do is make a choice to try.”

It is my great hope that Kerry Butler will sing for us one day at Broadway Blessing. I asked her for this year, but was told she already had plans for Sept. 8. As for next year, I’ll try.

Friday, June 27, 2008


It does not seem humanly possible what these people do in scene after scene. If my grandfather had been in the audience he would have said: “No rheumatism there.” These performers not only don’t have rheumatism, they can’t have bones either -- they must have limbs and spines made of rubber. The woman next to me kept clasping her hands to her face in awe. It’s definitely an amazing show, but amazing can be involving for only so long. With no plot to speak of or character development, and missing the animals of a regular circus, I began to feel I was watching a competition, but without the excitement of the outcome, such as a gold medal.

Cirques productions rely on acrobatic and other feats of the human body rather than animal acts. Created and directed by Neil Goldberg, CIRQUE DREAMS JUNGLE FANTASY features an international cast of 25 soaring aerialists, spine-bending contortionists, acrobats, jugglers and musicians, plus a wonderfully colorful fantastical jungle set, props and more than 150 costumes.

The show has toured the country extensively and now for some reason landed on Broadway. The performers come from Russia, Ukraine, Mongolia and Bulgaria, as well as the United States and Canada. They are the best in the world, chosen from more than 100 audition videos screened each month.

I enjoyed the show -- it’s definitely spectacular and visually stimulating -- but I think it would be more appropriate for Madison Square Garden than the Broadway Theatre, home until recently to The Color Purple. It’s a show to be appreciated by the eyes, but the heart is left empty.

Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy is scheduled for a 10-week run, with a planned closing date of Aug. 24. For more information, visit

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Hired Man CD

59E59 Theaters has announced that following positive New York notices for the New Perspectives production of The Hired Man at Brits Off Broadway, 1,000 copies of the new original cast recording were rushed to New York due to overwhelming audience demand. The CD is available for purchase for $25 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison Avenues). 
The new CD, recorded as-live in studio, was intended for a soft launch in London later this month. The date has been brought forward following the enthusiastic audience response to the show in New York. 
The Hired Man is in a limited run through June 29 at the 2008 Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters.  I saw it recently and really liked it (review posted June 12).

I wondered if the show would be recorded because the music, by Howard Goodall, is good and deserved to be captured and shared. I was singing it in my head as I left the theatre and the man in front of me was singing it out loud. My friend Mary said some theatregoers were singing it on a nearby corner as they waited for the light to change and she joined in. And my friend Dudley read my review and sent me an e-mail saying he saw the show years ago and always remembered how powerful the music was.

This certainly isn’t always the case. So many musicals plod along with really limp music. I receive quite a few cast recordings each spring as a Drama Desk voter and donate most of them to the Performing Arts Library because they aren’t worth taking up space on my music shelves. If the producers send me this one, however, I definitely won’t be giving it away. I’ll be listening!

At the Start of Your Day

Dear Lord, thank You for the night’s rest You gave
me. I am grateful for the renewed energy and
enthusiasm it has brought. Accept my gratitude for
bringing me to the beginning of this new day. I accept
it as a precious gift from You. May I use it minute by
minute to do Your will. Guide me in every problem I
face, every decision I make this day. Help me to treat
everyone kindly, fairly and thoughtfully. If I should
forget you during this day, please do not forget me.

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice
and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)

The above prayer is excerpted from Guideposts’ E-booklet, A Prayer for Every Need. For this and other prayers, download A Prayer for Every Need.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Price of War

Every gun that is made,
every warship launched,
every rocket fired signifies,
in the final sense,
a theft from those who hunger and are not fed,
those who are cold and are not clothed.
The world in arms is not spending money
it is spending the sweat of its laborers,
the genius of its scientists,
the hopes of its children.
This is not a way of life at all in any true sense.
Under the clouds of war
it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.

-- Dwight D. Eisenhower

Monday, June 23, 2008

Legally Blonde: The Musical (cast recording)

If listening to this doesn’t lift your spirits, I don’t know what will. This CD is a better energy booster than the Red Bull drink Elle Woods lives off of in this oh-so-fabulous Broadway musical.

The lively opening number, “Omigod You Guys,” sets the story in motion as Elle’s sorority sisters exalt in what they think will be the night her longtime boyfriend, Warner, proposes. Instead he dumps her, and Elle embarks on a journey that lets the world -- and herself -- see just what she can be -- “So Much Better.” This is a true can-do musical in the classic sense and the music is an upbeat reflection of that spirit.

You don’t have to have seen the show to appreciate the CD, especially if you’ve seen the movie with Reese Witherspoon and know the story. I’ve been collecting show music since I was in elementary school and known whole scores long before I ever saw the shows. In fact, I’ve been singing the songs to Hair for four decades and still haven’t seen it, although that will change this summer when the Public Theater presents a revival in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater.

Legally Blonde is about self-discovery and empowerment, and these songs celebrate that big time. I love listening to this CD. Check it out. It’s one any musical theatre lover should have.

God will guide you

"The Lord will give you the water for which you thirst.
No longer will your Teacher hide himself,
but with your own eyes you shall see your Teacher,
While from hehind, a voice shall sound in your ears:
'This is the way; walk in it,'
when you would turn to the right or to the left."

-- Isaiah 30: 20-21

Sunday, June 22, 2008

When Your Struggles Seem Too Much to Bear

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials... — 1 Peter 1:6

An old violin maker was once seen struggling up a mountainside.

"Where are you going?" a friend asked.

"To the timberline," he answered. "I need some wood for a violin."

"But you have fine trees all around you. Why must you go so far to get wood?"

"Ah," said the violin maker, "because the wood up there is the most resonant of all. The trees on the timberline have struggled all their lives, fighting a never-ending battle with the winds. As a result, they are of rare quality, strong and full of character. Violins made of their wood produce the most beautiful music in the world."

When you face some difficult task, ask God for strength to meet the test. Out of wind-whipped souls comes some of the most beautiful music in the world.

Father give me strength to meet the tests that come my way so that my life can be music to other wind-whipped souls.

This essay by Fred Bauer appeared in Guideposts Magazine.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ashes Transformed

This book, subtitled Healing from Trauma, by therapist and Christian healer Tilda Norberg is a blessing, whether your damage has come from large-scale public horror like the destruction of the World Trade Center or is from the personal pain of childhood neglect or abuse. Here are some of her comments:

“Genuine healing from trauma involves every part of us: body, emotions and spirit. Opening the cyst of emotions and memories requires willingness to revisit the trauma as many times as needed. Allowing ourselves to go back and relive what previously was too frightening and overwhelming is hard work. However, we can take it in small doses; the cyst can drain slowly. The trauma needn’t overwhelm us again. We can go back in time and experience some of our feelings and physical reactions and return to the present when we want.

“When emotional and physical release can occur in the context of recognizing God’s faithful, healing presence, the process tends to be much easier and faster. For this reason a spiritual director can greatly enhance the healing process as well. The knowledge that your loving God is with you can enable you to face the monsters inside. . . . Willingness to invite Jesus to accompany you to the scene of your living nightmare can open the door to marvelous healing that enlarges and reframes old memories to include the presence of the Lord.

“I know that painful experiences, no matter how catastrophic, can be healed through a combination of inner work and prayer. . . . God works to bring you to the particular wholeness God wills for you.

“God can turn our worst pain into the source of our giftedness.

“Theologians have long tried to figure out why a loving God would allow terrible things to happen. They reason that the gift of free will allows humans the freedom to make disastrous and cruel choices. Or that God created good physical laws to insure that the world is dependable, but these laws sometimes hurt people who inadvertently get in the way. Or that evil exists, and the world is imperfect because of it. Or that evil wins some battles, but the ultimate victory is God’s. All of these explanations are true, yet none really answers the ‘why?’ question with finality, and in the end, most conclude that trying to explain why God allows suffering is an impossible task. Humans are simply too limited to fully understand, and the answer lies in the mystery of God’s being.

“Wanting to know why is natural. Demanding to know why can delay healing for years, even decades. . . can be tantamount to staying stuck in the crisis.

“I believe God wants to answer your most troubling questions, not with the airtight, logical discourse you may want but in a way that satisfies your heart. Understanding will probably come gradually as you keep the questions open, letting them gently simmer on the back burner. . . An important part of your healing journey will be to discover your own heart’s answer to ‘why?’ When you ask the Holy Spirit to teach you heart answers, that prayer invites healing grace.

“First, you can surrender to God your idea of how your healing must happen. When you surrender as best you can, you create space for what God might want to do. . . reframe your question to ask ‘what?’ or ‘how?’ instead of ‘why?’ . . . What is God doing now? How am I being healed? How is the Holy Spirit inviting me to grow during this time? . . prayerful exploration of ‘what?’ often gives shape to God’s response to your ‘why?’ . . Sometimes it is possible to hold the question ‘why?’ much more loosely because your healing becomes more important than insisting on an answer to the question.

“The basis of faith imagination is the belief that God sincerely wants to communicate with you and tries to get through your defenses in order to bring you wholeness. . . invite God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit . . . to work through your imagination so that you can better perceive and cooperate with God’s healing work in you. . . Faith-imagination prayer that specifically invites Jesus into the hurtful memories of trauma can invite a flood of healing grace.

“In your imagination pay attention to Jesus’ reaction to the situation, trusting your perceptions for the time being and expressing whatever you feel. You might let yourself cry or speak aloud words of anger.

“Faith imagination does not require you to see pictures in your mind, although you might. . . You might sense Jesus wiping away your tears or leading you out of that room. . . Faith imagination does not attempt to reason what Jesus would probably do. Instead it invites the participant to an unpredictable encounter with the living God.

“The perceptions that emerge during faith imagination create a ‘healing icon’ of God’s work in you, one you can return to again and again until you assimilate its message. . . healing icons can begin to overshadow the horrific images and perceptions created by the terrible experience.

“I believe that God wants to pour grace on you as you open your heart and mind to Love itself. . . God wants to heal you in some way (though not necessarily in the way you have in mind) and to lead you toward your own particular wholeness. God wants to show you personally how you can best love others and serve the world.

“If you don’t know what matter to bring to God for healing, ask the Holy Spirit to surface in your mind and heart whatever God wants to heal in you now. . . . Remember, emotional and spiritual growth is a lifelong process, sometimes difficult but always wonderfully rich and nuanced.”

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A contemplation to obtain the love of God

“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will.
All I have and call my own.
Whatever I have or hold, you have given me.
I restore it all to you and surrender it wholly
to be governed by your will.
Give me only your love and your grace
and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.”

-- St. Ignatius of Loyola

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


What a piece of work is this? Director Oskar Eustis has put together such a hodgepodge of set, costumes, sound and time periods that I began wondering what show he was doing. To leave, or not to leave at intermission, that was the question. My friend Carolyn favored leaving; I thought the production would improve. It didn’t.

Before the show even begins things look strange in the state of Denmark. The set is a huge ship. Why? I don’t know, other than to guess it’s some comment on the ship of state. Despite this being Shakespeare’s most produced play, I had never seen it, but I’ve read it several times and I kept trying to remember what sailing had to do with Hamlet. I never did find out, but the theme continued, with several actors in sailors suits who look as if they had wandered over from South Pacific, which is playing nearby.

Speaking of costumes, designer Ann Hould-Ward gives us an array of styles from which to choose. Besides the World War II Navy uniforms, she offers courtiers who look right off the set of "Masterpiece Theatre" and a Hamlet (Michael Stuhlbarg, in photo) who, in the opening scene, resembles a 19th century country preacher. Gertrude’s (Margaret Colin) look is 21st century Wall Street executive at a cocktail party and Ophelia (Lauren Ambrose), in her madness, would have been a perfect 1980s London punk rocker. The time is, indeed, out of joint.

And then there’s the mishmash of sound, with the roar of helicopter blades calling to mind a Vietnam-era movie, while the bombardment in the battles sounds like an invasion of Nazi Germany. The occasional chamber music is lovely and made me think of Sunday brunch.

All thoughts of brunch were vanished in the final scene, which is so bloody I thought I had ended up back at the recent Broadway revival of Macbeth, which I hated. When Claudius (André Braugher) gets his just desserts, the sword is so far from his throat that when he suddenly begins spouting blood the audience laughed. Fight choreographer Thomas Schall needs to put in more time with this cast. Poor Horatio (Kevin Carroll) gets his brains blown out by a handgun, splattering his blood over the white metal wall of the ship and calling to mind a Mafia movie. Since when does Horatio die at the end of Hamlet?

This production reflects Hamlet’s state of mind -- profoundly confused.

Then there’s the acting, which also is uneven. The actors do a nice job of articulating, but as for expressing emotion or connection to one another, that is pretty much missing. I felt Friday as if I were watching an early rehearsal, instead of a final preview. Sam Waterston as Polonius is the exception, giving the best performance of the evening. Incidentally, Mr. Waterston played Hamlet in the Public’s 1975 production.

The show runs until 11:30 -- so much for brevity being the soul of wit -- but people had begun slipping out way before that. It might have been the power of suggestion prompted by Hamlet’s “To sleep! perchance to dream.”

I did find hope at one point. When Hamlet delivers his “what a piece of work” soliloquy the song of that name from Hair popped into my head. That late 60s musical is the next offering at the Delacorte. Singing it in my head gave me something to look forward as life in Elsinore dragged on.



Tickets Available Only At Delacorte Theater or Via New Virtual Line On Public Theater Website

This year, free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park are only being distributed at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park or via a new virtual line opportunity at HYPERLINK ""  The Public Theater is not distributing tickets downtown at 425 Lafayette St. due to ongoing construction on the exterior of the building.

The Public Theater has launched a virtual line initiative this summer to increase accessibility to Park shows.  While the majority of the tickets are still given out at the line in Central Park, a limited number of tickets will be available each show day online.  The virtual line allows people who are registered at the Public Theater website to log-on the day of a show (starting at midnight) to submit a request for up to two tickets.  At 1 p.m., they can log-on to the theater website again to see if they have received tickets for that evening’s performance.  The tickets are held at the box office and a valid photo ID will be required.  The selection process is completely random and is not determined by what time of day a person submits a request for tickets.

As in the past, tickets will be available on the day of the performance (two per person) at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park beginning at 1 p.m. (We got in line at 9:30 a.m. and had no trouble getting tickets, but we’ve gotten there at that time in the past and barely gotten in.) The closest entrances to the Delacorte are at 81st Street and Central Park West or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue.

For additional information about Shakespeare in the Park, call (212) 539-8750 or visit The Public Theater website at HYPERLINK ""

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Invest Your Time

Recently, a friend passed along the following message to me: “Imagine that you have received notification that your bank is going to deposit $86,400 in your account today. But there’s one caveat. If you don’t find some way to either spend or invest every single cent by midnight, the money will be lost to you forever.” The message goes on to say that each of us actually receives such a gift each and every day. Every morning we are credited with 86,400 seconds, and by the end of the day we either use them or lose them forever.

Now, I’m in the investment business; I spend a lot of time searching for the best ways to invest my clients’ money, so that message really hit home. Am I investing my time as wisely as I should? I wondered. The next day’s lunch was open, so I called my old friend and mentor George Allen. Afterward, I realized there was no better way I could have spent that hour.

Later that week there was a lull after lunch. I picked up the phone and called my grandmother. She was happy to hear from me, and the sound of her voice gave me new energy for the day.

Then there were those moments I spend sitting in my office between appointments or phone calls. Instead of staring into my computer screen, I tried to invest those moments in the best way possible by talking my business over with God.

When you think about it, we’re all investors. If we fail to use the precious seconds credited to our daily account, they’re lost forever. So I’m going to make an extra effort to spend my hours in positive ways, relying on those timeless investment tips that the Bible so readily offers, such as being kind, generous and thoughtful of others. Give it a shot. It would be a shame to take a loss on those 86,400 seconds!

The above article by Brock Kidd is excerpted from Guidepost Magazine’s OurPrayer Companion.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Christine Ebersole

This is the most romantic CD I’ve heard in a long, long time. No songs of regret or failed relationships, and no cynical Sondheim. Sunday in New York just drips in romance and sophistication, served up in jazz and swing arrangements with Billy Stritch on piano and in accompanying vocals. It’s like a trip back to the 1940s world of glittering nightclubs with pretty “girl” singers. I love every note of it!

Right from the first number, “Haven’t Got a Worry,” I was transported. Then there are the delicious gems about my beloved city, “Sunday in New York” and “Walkin’ in New York,” that are so evocative of the energy and sense of possibility of life in the Apple. “There’s a kind of heart you become part of, walkin' in New York. . . Me and friend just walking and talking, walkin' in New York. . . Stopping for coffee in some cafe, life without a care. You don’t skip a beat when you’re walking the street. Walkin' in New York.” It brings to mind one of those carefree days of strolling around, savoring the richness of time in the city.

Christine Ebersole gives new life to classics like “My Favorite Things” and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and creates a new classic with “Will You?” from Grey Gardens, her performance in which earned her her second Tony -- quite deservedly; she was great.

She’s great here too. If you’ve got an anniversary coming up, or just an evening with someone special, order this CD and pump up the mood big time. And if you don’t, order it anyway just for the pure joy of it.

Blessed new day

“THINK a Good Day. To make the day good you have to see it in you mind as good.”

-- Dr. Norman Vincent Peale

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Door of Pardon

But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious...
Psalm 86:15

I was upset, as usual, over things I hadn't done that day: the clothes I was going to take to the thrift shop, the letter I'd meant to write. Another day when my good intentions outpaced my energy. Then I remembered a car trip.

It was a route traveled by millions of people in the Middle Ages. Even by car it was a long day, 900 miles from Paris to the northwest corner of Spain and the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. For the medieval traveler, intent on receiving the blessing vouchsafed to those who reached the goal, it was a journey of months across mountains, swamps and waterless plains.

Almost at the end of the journey—just 75 miles to go—comes the steepest, most difficult stretch of all, the lonely Cantabrian Mountains. The travelers by that time were exhausted, many lame or ill.

As the road began to rise, my husband John and I came to an ancient, almost windowless church in the middle of a weed-grown field, an unimpressive little building but for a weathered wooden door in a side wall. This was Puerta del Perdon, the Door of Pardon. Out of pity for those who could go no farther, this spot had been given a special status. To step through this door was to receive the same blessing as those who made it all the way to Compostela.

Many glorious churches have been built along the pilgrim route, but this squat, barren little chapel is the one I think of most often. A door of pardon — what a boon on the lifelong journey too! “You fell short of your ideals,” it says. “But it’s all right. You’re on the right road. I am blessing you right where you are.”

Lord of the journey, lift my eyes from my failures to the door forever open to Your grace.

The above article by Elizabeth Sherill is excerpted from Guidepost Magazine’s OurPrayer Companion.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


This beautiful work has been attributed to a number of sources. I don’t know which is correct, but I have loved it for decades and would like to share it with you now.

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive God to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams it is still a beautiful world.

Be careful. Strive to be happy.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Release Your Burdens

Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you. -1 Peter 5:7

In a church where I once belonged, a particular stained glass window always drew my attention. It simply portrayed Christ standing with His hands held opened together in front of Him. One Sunday I was sitting in church feeling the heaviness of a problem. My eyes were suddenly drawn to the stained glass window once more. The figure of Christ holding His hands cupped in front of Him seemed to be waiting for someone to drop something into them. I stared at the opened hands. Give it to me, the scene seemed to whisper.

I imagined myself reaching inside me and lifting a heavy stone of worry, placing it into the waiting hands of Christ. And as I did, I felt a sudden lightness...the freedom that comes only from releasing our burdens and trusting them to God.

The above article by Sue Monk Kidd is from Guideposts Magazine’s OurPrayer Companion, a daily devotional on OurPrayer.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Hired Man

What a tender and involving little show. And with a likable and energetic young cast to boot! I never know what to expect from new musicals; last season new musicals represented some of my most miserable experiences in the theatre. Luckily that wasn’t the case with Brits Off Broadway’s new chamber production of THE HIRED MAN at 59E59 Theaters.

Set in rural England in the early part of the 20th century, THE HIRED MAN tells the story of a young married couple, John and Emily (Richard Colvin and Claire Sundin), and their struggle to carve a living from the land -- and later the mines -- just as the rhythms of country life are being interrupted by the gathering storm of war in Europe. 

Melvyn Bragg adapted the musical’s book from his 1969 novel. The show features lovely music and lyrics by Howard Goodall that hooked me right from the rousing opening number, “Song of the Hired Men.” This song was reprised at the end, leaving me singing it in my head as I left and the man in front of me singing it out loud.

The actors have good voices, especially Colvin in the moving song “What Would You Say to Your Son?” in which he anguishes over his son’s desire to join him in the coal mine. The cast also features Lee Foster, Katie Howell, Simon Pontin, David Stothard, Stuart Ward and Andrew Wheaton. 

I did find fault with the actors’ accents. At intermission I asked my friend Mary if the show was supposed to be in Ireland or England. (I hadn’t read the program yet.) She thought Ireland; I thought England. The confusion was because both accents were used, and some even sounded a bit Australian. Juliet Shillingford’s set further confused the matter because it looked like some place in the American Wild West. I thought maybe these people were all a bunch of immigrants who had settled on the prairie. The inconsistency between accents, coupled with the strange set, gave the show an amateur feel that put a dent in the otherwise strong production.

In a touching program note, Bragg says he based his book on his grandfather’s life. “What I wanted to do in the book was not only present the personal story of the sort of man whose life is so rarely written about, but also to chronicle and bring alive that cavalcade of British history which swept us into a new century and into a war to end all wars.”

He says at first he resisted the idea of turning the book into a film or play, but Goodall’s music changed his mind, “coming, as it does, out of that ancient English choral tradition which has influenced so many of our best 20th century composers. . . The music, though -- apart from its own qualities -- fills out the feelings and completes many strong emotions unspoken in that walk of life.”

THE HIRED MAN was well received in England where The Guardian hailed it as “a wholemeal alternative to sugary musicals and presents a lesson in how to produce an authentically English strain of music theatre, with a harmonic language closer to Delius or Vaughan Williams than Disney and Lloyd Webber.” The Telegraph said, “Howard Goodall’s score has the undulating beauty of the landscape it describes. Not to be missed!” 
 THE HIRED MAN plays for a limited engagement through Sunday, June 29. Tickets are $50 ($35 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to For more information, visit or 

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Letters of Noel Coward

Barry Day has done an amazingly thorough job of collecting what must be every letter Noel Coward ever wrote or received. Coward scholars will find this book a gold mine, as will anyone who really, really loves Mr. Coward. For someone like me, though, who merely likes Coward, this book is an overload of information -- 753 pages worth.

What’s astonishing is that so much correspondence survives, and that up until now most of it had never been published. It seems Coward’s mother, Violet, doted on him -- and vice versa -- and saved everything in print relating to him. He wrote to her at least once a week until the day she died and she hung onto those letters. He also wrote to and heard from an array of the world’s glitterati at the time -- George Bernard Shaw, the Lunts, Marlene Dietrich and Gertrude Lawrence to name a few -- and those missives were saved. That wit of his that created so many plays and songs is woven into these letters.

As Day writes in his introduction, personal letters “say just about as much about the individual relationships as they do about the matters being discussed.” Reading Coward’s letters lets us see “what it was like for him in real time, not as recollections in relative tranquility.” That’s certainly true, and is the great value of an old letter. After awhile, though, I began to prefer Day’s narration and explanations that preface the letters because they moved the work along. The book has just too many letters. Chatty letters are fun to write and receive, but not always of interest to outsiders, even if the correspondents are famous and talented people. Not every thought or feeling they had is worth hanging on to.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Practical Intuition

“As the end of the second millennium draws near, the limitations of logic, rationality and the ‘scientific method’ as sole means of guiding our lives are becoming all too painfully clear. Increasingly our world is turning to modes of perception and understanding that don’t rely on evidence presented to our senses, modes such as intuition and faith.

“Intuition should be an integral part of your life, like exercise or meditation. . . You develop your intuition by applying it consciously through practice . .

“It has been said that each individual’s life boils down to a single question. Your life is the living of that question, the search for its answer and personal significance. . . You do this not by gaining information from empirical sources, but by questioning yourself and unearthing knowledge you didn’t know you possessed. . . The questions lead us to places unfamiliar and then make these places known to us.

“An insightful psychotherapist once said to me, ‘You want answers to questions that only you could think to ask.’ . . The function of intuition is to lead us to these answers. The function of the mind and heart is to formulate the questions.

“. . . you are already intuitive. You access your ‘sixth sense’ unconsciously all the time. . . You have the ability -- right now -- to get useful information instantly on any topic at any time, whether intellectually you know anything about it or not. This book will help you develop your conscious control over this amazing facility.

“. . . intuitive information often ‘does not make sense,’ especially when it involves the future. As a result, we train ourselves to dismiss it. . . So the key to developing your intuition is no mystery. It’s simply a matter of learning how and where to shift your attention.

“It’s crucial that you become aware of how your logical mind tends to censor your intuitive impressions. A common way this happens is for your mind to label them as ‘interference,’ ‘projections’ or ‘just my imagination.’ These labels are judgments. They are the result of your logical mind asserting itself when it’s forced to work without information.

“Intuition is nothing more than a process of gaining information that does not rely on your senses, your memory, your experience, your feelings, or your other thought processes -- though it does rely on these to interpret that information.

“Intuition simply knows. Instantly. Where reason plods, intuition proceeds in flashes. Intuition gets glimpses of reality in bits and pieces, usually as symbols. These symbols must then be interpreted and assembled for a coherent picture to emerge. . . . Intuitive information doesn’t replace ‘hard facts’; it adds new facts by providing information beyond the reach of traditional methods, such as logic. . . when I need to problem-solve and the information eludes me . . . I sit down, take a deep breath and wait for the answer to arrive.”

--Practical Intuition: How to Harness the Power of Your Instinct and Make It Work for You by Laura Day

Monday, June 9, 2008

Kelli O'Hara

This is not at all what I was expecting, and I have to say I’m disappointed. I’ve liked Kelli O’Hara in all her Broadway roles. She always stands out, and she’s absolutely smashing right now as Nellie Forbush in Lincoln Center’s shimmering revival of South Pacific. That star quality is for the most part missing here in her recently released first solo CD. O’Hara sounds more in the tradition of Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez, although without the political undertones. Judging from the CD cover, that’s probably what she had in mind. A close-up shot of her unsmiling face, wearing little make-up and with her blond hair perfectly straight, it’s more reminiscent of a 1960s album cover of Mary Travers than a Broadway superstar.

I’ve never cared much for songs sung too slowly, or at least not many in a row. When Carole King and James Taylor were all the rage, I used to feel their music was too draggy. Let’s just say it’s not my speed.

On Wonder in the World, O’Hara sings nearly every song slowly -- very slowly. She wrote two of the songs, her husband, Greg Naughton, wrote one and Harry Connick Jr. wrote three; he also accompanies her on piano and sings the title track with her.

I liked it when she picked up the pace a bit, or at least went from ultra mellow to sexy and sensuous as she did in two Connick songs, “All You Get is Me” and “Slowly,” my favorite selection, which sounds like an intimate conversation over a candlelit dinner -- or in bed. “Slowly, I’ll love you slowly, and when we’re through, if we have nothing to do, I’ll love you slowly, again.” She also does a sultry “Spooky,” which features a nice jazz arrangement.

If you want a really mellow CD, this one’s for you. If you’d like to hear O’Hara in a livelier form, tune in to the Tony Awards broadcast on June 15. She’s nominated for best actress in a musical and will be performing a number from South Pacific. I’ll be looking forward to that.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Judah Ben-Hur

I just watched the promotional DVD of this new musical by Ellen and David M. Sanborn and am impressed. Their goal is to bring the show to Broadway. They seem to have a worthy product -- and they’ve definitely been paving the way.

An international cast and crew presented the world premiere in Singapore from 2001 to 2002 where one reviewer had this to say: “The musical weaves the thematic threads of Lew Wallace’s novel, Ben-Hur, refreshingly (with) more humor and a lot less angst. Every element is scrupulously conceived and put together . . (with) many beautifully wrought songs . . . Ingeniously designed.”

The track record for this story is strong. The classic novel beat out popular contemporaries such as Les Miserable to become the No. 1 best-selling novel of the 19th century. In 1899, a stage version of Ben-Hur opened on Broadway and toured the country for more than 20 years, becoming the most successful theatrical production in U.S. history. In 1959 the film, starring Charleton Heston, broke box office records and garnered an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards, a record still unsurpassed.

Now the story has been dusted off, made funnier and faster, and turned into a musical comedy. Enhanced by 21st century technology, Judah Ben-Hur delivers timeless romance, the legendary chariot race and a battle between revenge and redemption. Epic stuff -- it should find a place on Broadway.

For more information, visit

Friday, June 6, 2008

My Ship: The U.S.S Intrepid

Raymond Stone just sent me a copy of this memoir. I won’t get the chance to read and review it before Father’s Day, but I want to mention it now because it should make a great present. I met Ray last month at the National Arts Club during our final Dutch Treat Club luncheon of the season. I thought his book sounded fascinating, so he kindly sent me a copy.

“Stoney” was a 18-year-old “hung-over ‘Boot’” who developed into a “battle-tested 20-year-old ‘Old Salt.’’ The book chronicles his life aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid, the Navy’s most frequently hit carrier, from 1943 to 1945. Drawn from his World War II diary, the account captures the drama of history as seen by one who lived it.

One of the Intrepid’s 3,000-man original crew, Stone served as a radar man in the ship’s brain center, the Combat Information Center, where the main responsibility was to detect enemy planes with radar and direct fighter pilots to intercept and shoot them down.

Stone was lucky; he survived without even a scratch from first a torpedo, and then the five kamikaze hits on his ship. Twenty-six of his fellow radar men were among the 69 men killed on the day two kamikazes crashed into the Intrepid while it was supporting the invasion of the Philippines.

A percentage of the profits will be donated by the author to The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and The Intrepid Association of Former Crew members.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Interview with composer and playwright Phil Hall

I wrote this feature for the March 16, 2007 issue of National Catholic Reporter

In the anxiety and excitement of getting a play up and running, the last thing most playwrights want to think about is its closing. Phil Hall is an exception. He had the ending day clearly in mind from the start and then went about finding a theatre that could accommodate. For a play about resurrections, it could close at no other time than Easter.

“It was imperative to have the most dramatic impact,” says Mr. Hall about scheduling Matthew Passion, a new play with music that will be performed off-Broadway at the American Theatre of Actors’ Chernuchin Theatre from March 29 through April 8, 2007.

Advertising itself as a play about “a man who chose to die; a man who should be dead and a boy who never saw it coming,” Matthew Passion parallels three stories thousands of years apart. The central plot surrounds Jim Keenan, a middle-aged actor who was diagnosed five years earlier as being HIV positive. Assuming he was going to die, he allowed his career to fizzle out but now realizes he has to embrace life.

“I made my peace with dying,” he tells his roommate. “Only, the end never came. And now I have to find a way to reinvent myself -- to find meaning in a future I didn’t expect to have.”

The other two stores, that of the passion, crucifixion and death of Jesus and the murder of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming, are portrayed through the play-within-a-play technique as a director casts plays telling their stories. All find their resurrection in the end.

“The grace of these people and the human spirit is that we can go on and heal from these tragic acts, and by not forgetting can impact the world,” said Mr. Hall, 54, during a telephone interview from his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “The message is be all you can be and be comfortable with who you are. There’s no place we go where God’s not there too.”

The inspiration for “Matthew Passion” came from a college-aged woman Mr. Hall saw interviewed on television about Mr. Shepard’s murder. She said people should no longer be beaten up for who they are.

“I was 50 and I thought, ‘she’s the next generation and she gets it,’” Mr. Hall said. “I sensed some sort of cosmic gear shift. It was noteworthy and stuck in my mind’s eye for a long time after. Matthew Shepard was beaten and tied to a fence and that so closely paralleled the crucifixion of Christ. I don’t deify Matthew Shepard, but I do feel both were crucified for who they were on some level.”

He added the third story because he had a friend who was HIV positive and had been expected to die, but instead found himself still living and struggling with understanding why he was infected and how he was to live his life.

The play had a reading two years ago at Marble Collegiate Church, of which Mr. Hall is a member. The performances at Chernuchin Theatre will be the first full production. Although Mr. Hall has extensive experience as a conductor and musical director, having worked in noted venues including Broadway, Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center and written the lyrics to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” this is the first show for which he has written the book as well as the music.

Mr. Hall can foresee criticism from conservative Christians over a scene in which Jesus visits a gay bar and Jim, not realizing he is talking to the real Jesus, tries to pick him up.

“I don’t think that will go down too well,” he said. “It’s preposterous in some sense, but it’s also funny. Jesus is literally and figuratively the straight man.”

Mr. Hall was raised Southern Baptist in Durham, NC, and felt he always had to hide the fact that he was gay.

“The hardest thing is the lack of integration,” he says. “You can’t sit down and talk about having a crush on so and so with your family and friends so you have to split off.” The result, he said, is having part of one’s life with family and straight friends and part with groups made up of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.

“We don’t get to include all of who we are, and we have to be all of who we are if we are to be psychologically healthy.”

Mr. Hall remembers asking his therapist years ago what he should do in a world that wasn’t big enough to include him as he is. The therapist gave him advice he has taken to heart.

“He said, ‘create a world that’s big enough for all of you.’ Writing this play was my coming out spiritually. The last step to integration is coming out spiritually and being comfortable in our own skin.”

Related web sites

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

I will be made well

The gospel reading for Sunday is Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.

When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Meet George Orwell

I did just that, on Saturday night in the parish hall at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. Actor Dudley Stone brought the writer to life in this engaging play by Mark Weston.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me first say Dudley is a friend, but that is not why I’m praising his performance. If I hadn’t felt it was first rate I just wouldn’t be writing anything.

Luckily I can celebrate his portrayal of George Orwell, presented as a staged reading to raise money for Holy Trinity’s soup kitchen renovation. I soon lost awareness of the script Dudley referred to because I was so caught up in the life story he was sharing.

He was blessed with good material to work with in Weston’s play, which has Orwell reflecting on his life from his childhood as a scholarship student shunned in English boarding schools, through the development of his writing career, with touching accounts of his personal life. The setting is a cottage on an island off the west coast of Scotland in 1948, a year and a half before Orwell’s death, at 47, of a neglected lung ailment.

Dudley had us in stitches as he had Orwell recounting his experience as a waiter in Paris, and we were moved by the telling of his wife’s death; several people in the audience gasped at the sadness and unexpectedness of that unfolding. Orwell’s account of visiting a mine in northern England and seeing the deplorable working conditions, the seeds for his socialist philosophy, was vividly recalled. As a writer, I also loved hearing Orwell talk about the inspiration for his works -- Animal Farm and 1984 the most memorable -- and his struggles to get published.

The evening raised more than $1,000 for Holy Trinity’s soup kitchen. The event was produced by Triangle Theatre Company, the parish’s resident company of which Dudley is founder and artistic director.

This 75-minute play, directed Saturday by Lorree True, has been performed to acclaim at the National Arts Club and The English Speaking Union in New York, as well as other locations, including Eton College (Orwell’s school), Trinity College, Oxford and the John Kennedy Memorial Library Theatre in Boston. It’s the first play about the celebrated English novelist and essayist famed for his lucid prose style and, for the most part, is in the writer’s own words. Besides his boarding school days, he reviews his life as an officer in the Royal Imperial Police in Burma, “down and out” days in London and Paris, and his experiences in the Spanish Civil War.

    Meet George Orwell will be performed again on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at 6:30 p.m. at the Mid-Manhattan Library on Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, across from the New York Public Library. A question and answer period will follow.