To date, Tony Kushner has been very much the Teflon playwright: Nothing really personal sticks to his plays. From the two-part, Tony-winning Angels in America on Broadway to the recent, controversial Homebody/Kabul at New York Theatre Workshop, Kushner's writing remains resolutely high-flown and far-out, seemingly more from the head than the heart. But that could change with Caroline, or Change. This is a musical piece with a score by Jeanine Tesori and a libretto by Kushner, all about a young Jewish boy in the Louisiana of 1963 and his relationships with his new stepmother and the African-American maid in the house.
Though Kushner was born in New York City, he grew up in Lake Charles, LA, a rustic setting not too dissimilar from that of C, or C.) "Tony is writing from a place of truth because he knows that area and those emotions," says Tesori. "He thinks like no one else of our generation. He's constantly thinking politically, psychologically, emotionally, intellectually. His challenge is more of what not to include at any one moment. He has a fantastic musicality of language; his words are self-setting sometimes because he has such an ear for the music; his parents were musicians, and he has inherited that ear. He's really well versed in just what music can and cannot do."
The first half of the show was presented last summer at The Public, where it will most likely return for a run. Right now, Kushner is at The Public making a different debut--as a director. He's helming Helen, a play written by the actress who was his original Broadway angel in Angels in America, Ellen McLaughlin. A modern take on the Trojan War, Helen stars a high-gloss Donna Murphy as the troublemaker from Troy. Tesori also has a hot iron in the fire--her debut as a Broadway tunesmith comes via Thoroughly Modern Millie, goes into its opening night Charleston on April 18 at the Marquis Theatre. Meanwhile, with lyricist Alexa Junge, she is finishing up the songs for Disney's upcoming animated feature Mulan II. The Tony-winning Miss Saigon, Lea Salonga, is expected back for that sequel, and so is Donnie Osmond as her love interest.
Homebody/Kabul completed its sold-out, extra-innings run at New York Theatre Workshop last month. The play's running time down there was four hours, but it is now moving into regional theater territory at a somewhat shorter length--about three hours and 40 minutes. That's how it weighed in at Rhode Island's Trinity Rep. Next up: California's Berkeley Rep. Declan Donnellan, who directed the NYTW production, will repeat the chore in June in London. That version will star Kika Markham, for whom Kushner wrote the 48-minute monologue that began the play; a much-cheered Linda Emond ran that marathon here.
Without getting the bends, Dylan Baker has gone from the high-toned complexity of the Kabul part of the aforementioned Homebody/Kabul to the lowbrow buffoonery of television comedy: The folks who gave you The Simpsons have tapped him to play a sitcom dad in The Pitts. The pilot is being put together on the West Coast, and the gist of the joke is that there is a curse upon a typical American family: In the pilot's opening shot, a dark cloud hovers over a home with a picket fence.
Joe Pitt, the married bisexual in Tony Kushner's aforementioned Angels in America, is currently being committed to film by Patrick Wilson for Mike Nichols' HBO movie version. When not in a sexual tug-of-war between Mary-Louise Parker and Ben Shenkman for the cameras, Wilson is at the Gershwin, forming another triangle (with Josefina Gabrielle's Laurey and Shuler Hensley's Jud Fry) as the courtin' cowpoke Curly in Oklahoma!.
THROUGH THE YEARS
One of the great treats New Yorkers get to gobble, four times a season, is Scott Siegel's "Broadway by the Year" series at Town Hall. The thing has really taken off--who knew?--and musical theater fans (some 1,000 subscribers plus) have been dancing and leaping and generally disgracing themselves in the aisles ever since, reveling in the music of a specific bygone year at each concert. Next up, on April 15, is 1940--a year in which there was much to sing about, what with Rodgers and Hart's groundbreaking Pal Joey, Irving Berlin's Louisiana Purchase, Vernon Duke's Cabin In the Sky, and Cole Porter's Panama Hattie. Ditties comic and melancholy from this banner year will be warbled by the talented likes of Rob Evan, Natalie Douglas, Bryan Batt, and Julie Reyburn. I could write a book, I'm so bewitched, bothered, and bewildered...
BROADWAY BABES GO CABARET
How nice to find the well-bred Tracy Lord lording elegantly over the Café Carlyle crowd. No, not Katharine Hepburn or Grace Kelly. It's Melissa Errico, who was game enough to follow those legends into the Lord role in High Society, the Broadway musical retelling of The Philadelphia Story. In beautiful voice and mien, Errico proved a little green around the gills in her between-song patter during the opening week of New Standards, her cabaret debut show at the Carlyle, but she seemed eager and ready to learn. She's currently in her third week there, so she should be wonderful now. There's a stylish assist from pianist-conductor Lee Musiker and shrewd coaching from director Lee Roy Reams. Generally, the show features a smart choice of songs--albeit some, like "Do You Miss New York?" she'll have to grow into.
Light years away from the Lord above is the woman who won a Tony as a 42nd Street 'ho' in The Life--Lillias White, who happily has other cards in her hand for her show at Feinstein's (through April 20). She also has James Williams, Phil Hamilton, Ron Carter, and Grady Tate, so it's a pretty happy campsite. As structured as the set is--it's called From Shubert Alley to Jazz Alley, which pretty much covers it--there is an improvisatory air to the proceedings, with additions and subtractions according to whatever Madame's mood may be at the moment. Vocally, she's in smashing good form, with that odd mixture of jazz, Broadway, and blues that's so much her own.
And Jana Robbins will leaf lightly through the Cy Coleman songbook one last time on Sunday night at Danny's Skylight Room. That's when her show One Hell of a Ride comes to a halt and she returns to the day job that she does at night: standing by for Valerie Harper and Michele Lee in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. At the evening performance on April 20 and the matinee on the 21st, she will go on for Lee, and she's terrific in the part.