Thursday, December 20, 2018

New Book Sheds Light on Stephen Schwartz’s Recent Musicals

Long before Wicked’s composer created songs for characters like Elphaba, Glinda, and the Wizard of Oz, he wrote four shows with religious contexts: Godspell, Bernstein’s Mass, Children of Eden, and the movie The Prince of Egypt that is now being transformed into a stage musical. 
Schwartz biographer Carol de Giere’s newly revised and updated edition of Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked, (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books 2018) adds new stories to this journey. Here are a few questions and answers about the work. 
Life Upon the Sacred Stage: The stage adaptation of The Prince of Egypt film is one of the shows you cover in the second edition of your Schwartz biography. When did the project start? 
Carol de Giere: For many years DreamWorks had received letters from theatre directors wanting to stage a version of the 1998 film The Prince of Egypt. Finally, in 2013, they contacted Stephen about possibilities. Right away he said he’d like the screenwriter for the movie, Philip LaZebnik, to write the book of the musical, even though LaZebnik lives in Denmark and they’d need to do a lot of work remotely.
Sacred Stage: Were you able to get interviews on the musical during its development?
CD: Yes, I was interviewing Stephen anyway for the new edition, and then I met with Philip when he came to New York City for a reading of The Prince of Egypt musical in 2016. I devote eleven pages of the second edition to the show.
Sacred Stage: How do the collaborators begin an adaptation like this?
CD: Musicals for stage or film are usually based on source material like a novel, and in this case the film had been based on a part of the Exodus story. So the writers began by reviewing both the movie and Exodus. The movie focused on the brother story: one was Moses, and the other, in the movie (though unknown historically) was Ramses. 
LaZebnik and Schwartz decided to go further with the story implicit in the movie, that of two brothers who love each other but are forced by character and circumstance to become antagonists. Interestingly enough, the musical Wicked has a similar storyline but for the girls, Elphaba and Glinda. For The Prince of Egypt, LaZebnik and Schwartz have joked that we’re doing “Wicked with boys.”
Sacred Stage: I understand you went to The Prince of Egypt musical world premiere in 2017. Was that helpful for your research?
CD: When TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley staged a full developmental production, I flew out for the opening. It had many powerful moments, including, of course, “When You Believe,” the hit song from the movie. I gathered a group of fans for a discussion with Stephen and Philip the next day. One of the interesting things they talked about is how they always write more than they need. They know they can more easily cut than invent while they are testing something. I look forward to seeing a revised version.
Sacred Stage: Does the second edition of your book also cover Godspell, Bernstein’s Mass, and Children of Eden
CD: All of those shows were vital parts of Stephen Schwartz’s creative career, and so there are stories about how these and others developed from page and piano to stage. Because I wrote another book released in 2014, The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical, I cut back on Godspell in the new edition to make way for newer material. I interviewed Stephen further about his work with Leonard Bernstein on his theatre piece Mass and included that in chapter 6. 
Sacred Stage: What else did you include in the second Edition?
CD: I invited Stephen’s long-time collaborator Alan Menken to write a Foreword. He came up with 10 pages that I was more than happy to include. The book also covers Wicked Worldwide, The Hunchback of Notre Dame stage adaptation, some of Stephen’s newer work in Hollywood, and a catch-all chapter at the end I titled “Always More Magic to Do.” 
For the ending of the book, Stephen let me use the text of a commencement speech he gave in which he explores the necessity of bouncing back after failure and disappointment. That’s inspiration we all can use. 
FOR MORE INFORMATION or to order a copy, visit 

Photo: Stephen Schwartz and Carol de Giere

Monday, December 17, 2018

Kerry Washington is brilliant in 'American Son'

     I felt drained when I left the Booth Theatre after seeing American Son, Christopher Demos-Brown’s emotionally charged drama about race and racism as they play out in relationships, between the police and black male teenagers and between an interracial couple.  I was all in for the intense 85 minutes, directed by Kenny Leon, that present Black Lives Matter themes in the scope of one upper-middle class family in a moment of crisis.

     Kerry Washington gives a powerful performance in every word and gesture as Kendra Ellis-Connor, a mother terrified because it’s 4 a.m. and her 18-year-old son, Jamal, has not returned home and isn’t responding to texts or phone calls.  She’s at a police station in Miami trying to get help from a dim-witted white officer, Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan, in photo with Washington), who reveals his racist feelings in the questions he asks, such as does Jamal have a street name or any visible scars, tattoos or gold teeth.  His image of a black teenager seems to be that of a gang member.  

     Her son goes to a private school where he is one of only three black students.  After she provides Jamal’s physical description she throws in some personality details, such as that he likes Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  Larkin says he likes Emily Dickinson too and quotes, “It is a far, far better thing I do than I’ve ever done . . .”  When Kendra disgustingly tells him that’s Charles Dickens, he’s not sure he believes her.  “I don’t think so,” he says.

     Her son also has a white father, Scott Connor (Brian Avers in the role usually played by Steven Pasquale), who left Kendra four months before for a white woman.  This plays out interestingly as the police respond quite differently to the mother and the father.  But nothing is just black and white in any sense of that term in what both Kendra and Scott come to reveal about how they really think about blackness and their son.  (I was surprised to learn the playwright is white.)

     Besides sending him to a nearly all white school, Kendra, a psychology professor, has been careful to make sure Jamal speaks clear, well-enunciated English.  Her biggest concession to his racial identity is his name, which she accuses Scott of disliking because of its blackness.  Scott refers to his son as J rather than Jamal, defending it as “a male bonding thing.”

     What Kendra doesn’t know is that Larkin is holding out on her, waiting for a senior officer to arrive.  Jamal had been one of three black teens riding in the Lexus his parents gave him, although the registration was in his father’s name. That alone would have been enough to arouse suspicion by the police, but Jamal had recently added a bumpersticker that said SHOOT COPS in large letters and “with your phone whenever they make a bust” in “little bitty font.”  Kendra had seen it as a statement rather than a command.  After all, Scott is an FBI agent.

   Kendra not only allowed him to keep the bumpersticker on, but she also hadn’t bothered to ask who he was going out with that night.  This sparks one of many points of conflict between the parents.  Scott says it would have been all right for Jamal to be in the Lexus with two white teens but not two black teens.  Kendra thinks it shouldn’t mater.  But, of course, it does. 

     It’s not as if she hadn’t had a heightened sense of the dangers of what it is to be a black teenage boy.  She had nixed a motor trip Jamal had planned with some white friends through the Deep South.  Her fear was that he would flirt with a white girl in that territory that isn’t as accepting as Miami, or that the boys might innocently stop at a Klan hangout and Jamal would be a target.

     Unfortunately that protective instinct wasn’t working on this particular night.  All Kendra knows about her missing son is that the police have the car but they won’t answer any of her questions about where Jamal could be.

     That information will be delivered by the senior officer, Lt. John Stokes (Eugene Lee), who is black and who refers to Kendra as “sister,” which makes her furious.  He’s had the answer to her question all along.

     When that question is finally answered for Kendra — and all of us — the impact is as sudden and painful as a gunshot.  It should have been predictable, but the play is so skillfully written and acted that the entire audience seemed to scream out.  In all of my decades of theatergoing I don’t recall ever hearing such a loud and widespread reaction.  Kendra’s shock was our shock and so too was her grief.  

     All the theatrical elements work together to create the mood for this forceful story to unfold.  Peter Kaczorowski’s predawn lighting enhances the blandness of the police station, designed by Derek McLane, complete with steady rain pouring down outside the windows.  I do have to say, though, that unless police stations have changed drastically, this one is far more welcoming than any I ever set foot in during my days as a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun.  In my time I visited all eight of the city’s precincts and I can tell you they were dismal places. 

     Reflecting on this play has been a cathartic experience such as I haven’t had in a long time.  It makes me think of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy: “Tragedy is an imitation of an action, that is at once serious, complete, and of certain magnitude, embellished with every kind of literary device, these devices appearing in various parts of the play, told in action, not narration, through pity and fear causing a catharsis of emotions.”

     American Son is just such a play and I can’t imagine anyone bringing it about with such raw power as Washington, whose last Broadway appearance was also her debut, in David Mamet’s Race in 2009.  It will be a tough choice next May when I have to decide between her and Glenn Close as I cast my Drama Desk ballot for Best Actress in a Play because I’m sure both will be nominated.  Both deserve it.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Cher Show

     Another jukebox musical on Broadway.  Ho-hum, I normally would have thought.  I had higher hopes for this latest one, though, because of its subject matter, and I was not disappointed.  I was involved and entertained for the entire two and a half hours of The Cher Show at the Neil Simon Theatre. 

     Three actresses portray Cher at various stages of her life and all are excellent.  Stephanie J. Block plays the mature Cher, referred to in the program as Star; Teal Wicks is Lady, the middle years Cher, and Micaela Diamond is Babe, who begins Cher’s story, playing her as a first grader and on into her teens when she meets Sonny Bono (Jarrod Spector).  

     Jason Moore expertly directs the mingling of the three Chers, sometimes bringing two onto the sidelines to comment on or advise the third, or he has all three sing together.  Mostly, though, he lets each develop Cher at the various stages of her life.

     Book writer Rick Elice is a good storyteller, offering a script that moves quickly yet takes the time to develop the singer’s remarkable rise to fame.  What he leaves out, though, is the dark side of her character, whatever it is.  We all have a shadow side but the only character flaw this Cher seems to have is poor judgment.  (More about that later.)

     I like the way the actresses don’t try to imitate their real life subject, although Block sounds quite a lot like Cher in her speaking parts as well as in her vocals.  Trying to present Rich Little-like impersonations would have been tacky.  And they weren’t needed.  When I left the theatre I felt I had spent an evening with Cher.

     The songs are among my favorites from my youth, starting with the 1960s hits, the most beloved of which is probably “I Got You Babe,” right on through to Cher’s hit after hit as a solo recording artist — “Believe,” “If I Could Turn Back Time,” “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” “Strong Enough.”

     We get all those great songs plus a compelling life story, starting with that little 6-year-old Cherilyn Sarkisian, wearing old shoes kept on with rubber bands, who doesn’t want to go to school because the other children make fun of her dark coloring.  The taunt she hates the most is half-breed, which as we know she later spun into a chart-topping song.  She never knew her father, whom her pretty blond mother, Georgia (Emily Skinner), describes as Armenian.  But she is lucky in that her mother encourages her and promises that one day she will be somebody important.

     Young Cher discovers the key to this prediction when her mother and the beloved stepfather, John (Matthew Hydzik), who has come into her life — briefly — take her to see “Cinderella” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.  She comes out singing every song, word-for-word after only that one hearing, and declares she wants to be a singer.   Her parents stage a mock ceremony on the Hollywood Walk of Fame where she can add her handprints and signature to the greats of showbiz.  She signs her name only as Cher, and thus the one-name diva is born.

     Well, not quite then.  It takes meeting Sonny on the Sunset Strip when she is 16 and he is 27.  He finds her work as a back-up singer on such early 60s hits as “Da Doo Ron Ron.”  That doesn’t last long because Cher’s talent won’t let her stay in the background.  During recording sessions she sings as if she’s the star.  Sonny hears and determines to make her one.  Calling themselves Sonny and Cher, they head for London because, as Sonny says, to make it in America you have to come from England.

     A confident Sonny and a very shy Cher appear on “Top of the Pops,” a British TV talent show singing “I Got You Babe” and are an overnight sensation.  After a couple of years of success across the pond, they return to America where they are beloved, selling 50 million records.  Unfortunately, as Cher’s mother says, they spend as if they have $50 million. They are flat broke just as hard rock comes to prominence and pushes their sweet, youthful music off the charts.

     Sonny promises Cher that in two years they’ll be back to top.  He also finally proposes.  His way of fulfilling his promise is to turn them into a comedy act, but first he has to work hard to convince Cher to give it a go.  

     Finally she says she’ll try comedy if he’ll try singing.  And that’s her first great one-liner in what would become their shtick — Sonny being the affable goofball and Cher ribbing him with cutting putdowns.

     They develop a small act, take it to Vegas where they’re a hit and soon they’re headlining on the Strip.  The 1970s hit “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” follows.  Money rolls in, but Sonny has turned into a tyrant.  The TV show isn’t enough for him.  He has Cher doing two shows on Saturday and two on Sunday in Las Vegas.  

     “I know you never got to be a teenager, but you can’t be one now,” he snarls when she protests.  “You’ve got a job to do, so do it."

     Cher’s exhausted, and longing to spend more time with their child, who in the Broadway musical is called Chaz and is referred to in the genderless “my child.”  

     As anyone old enough to have watched “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” knows, their only child, Chastity, used to appear with them from time to time when she was a toddler.  Sonny held her while he and Cher sang, then the three of them would walk off holding hands, exiting through those orange panels covered with the images of hippie Sonny and Cher in bubbles (sets by Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis).  

     I loved when Chastity was on, but I felt uneasy for her.  I didn’t know the term exploited, but that’s the feeling I had because the child usually looked sad and a bit frightened.  I also wondered if she’d grow up one day to hate her parents for naming her Chastity.  I don’t know if she hated them, but as an adult she not only changed her name, she transitioned her gender as well and now goes by Chaz.  Probably because Cher is one of the producers, there’s no cute little blond girl in the musical, just an unseen Chaz.  And there’s no mention that in real life Cher had a great deal of trouble accepting this transition. 

     The strain of all that work and Sonny’s domineering control push Cher to the point of wanting a divorce, but she’s afraid their fans will never forgive her for walking out on the partnership.  She turns to Lucille Ball (Skinner) for advice because Lucy knows a thing or two about working on a popular TV show with a mean, manipulative husband.  Lucy tells her to dumped the creep and go solo.  Star Cher tells us “my hand to God” this conversation really took place.

     When Cher files for divorce she learns that Cher Enterprises is owned 95 percent by Sonny and 5 percent by their lawyer.  She has nothing from all those years of working.  See what I mean about poor judgment?  She never thought to check the finances.

     Bouncing back temporarily with “The Cher Show” on TV, she falls for one of her guests, the rocker Gregg Allman (Hydzik), a druggie who more often than not is high.  When Cher finds out she’s pregnant, she marries him.  Poor judgment again.  Sonny hates the guy and calls him Rapunzel, a reference to Gregg’s long blond hair.

     When “The Cher Show” fails, Sonny and Cher try to resurrect their old show — as a threesome with Gregg.  This example of poor judgment has their show canceled in half a season.  Her second marriage is over quickly too, ended after three years and one child, Elijah Blue. 

     But Cher has other worlds to conquer.  It’s on to Hollywood where she earns an Oscar nomination for her first role, in “Silkwood” with Meryl Streep.  She goes on to win one of those statuettes for “Moonstruck.”  If her life were a fictional musical I doubt anyone would find it credible.

     Aside from all of her undeniable talent, Cher is also known for something else over-the-top — her clothes, all those colorful and exotic creations made for her by designer Bob Mackie (Michael Berresse), who also designed the musical’s costumes.  In this I was disappointed.  I love lots of bold colors and her clothes on the TV show were awash in them, but on Broadway the Chers wear mostly black.  Exotic, yes, but I missed the color.  This was a major letdown for me.

     The dances, choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, were also a weak spot.  For the most part they seemed unconnected to the show and looked more like a challenging aerobics class. 

     Overall, though, the musical is an engaging bio-musical of a woman who has been part of my consciousness for most of my life.  Other than eating dinner together, watching “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” was the only thing we did as a family.  I have no memory of how that came about.  My father never watched TV and my mother only followed “Perry Mason” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.”  I used to fall asleep hearing those themes.  During the summer I was out playing with the neighborhood children until after dark so I wasn’t much of a TV watcher either.  For some reason, though, the three of us sat down together every week to watch Sonny and Cher.  A nice memory.  Glad the Broadway show didn’t spoil it.

Jarrod Spector and Teal Wicks in photo by Joan Marcus