Peter Filichia and Matthew Murray
Peter Filichia and Matthew Murray
I lost sleep over it -- and when I did finally get to sleep, I actually had nightmares. What would happen at "Bitch or Brag About Broadway?" As faithful readers know, my esteemed TheaterMania colleague Matthew Murray and I were to take the stage of the 45th Street Theatre on Tuesday, October 12. Our plan was to coerce people from the audience to come on stage with us. We would converse with these visitors who wanted to bitch or brag -- or both -- about Broadway.

My loss of sleep and nightmares came from a titanic fear that no one in the audience would want to come on stage. After all, many a survey has shown that what people fear most -- more than wild animals, money woes, astronomical heights, or even disease and death -- is speaking before a group. So I kept worrying that Matthew and I would be waving our arms wildly, begging the crowd, "Oh, come on! Don't be shy! You can do it! Please, come up!" I was petrified that everyone in the house would view that third seat on stage as if it were Jonas Candide's electric chair in Fields of Ambrosia.

Well, I needn't have worried. What actually happened on October 12 is that we had to end before we could call on everyone who raised a hand to volunteer. Part of that happened because everyone who did come on stage was so wonderfully articulate: Steve, who bitched about revivals; Karen, who condemned automatic standing ovations; Doug, who complained about amplification. All held stage for a good deal of time and showed that they really knew about Broadway, cared about it, and yet just had to vent.

Matthew and I vented, too. He took aim at the Shuberts for changing the name of the Royale to the Jacobs and the Plymouth to the Schoenfeld. (He's still getting over the Martin Beck being renamed for Al Hirschfeld. Nothing against Hirschfeld, mind you; Matthew just believes that if you build a theater, it should sport your name forever. And, after all, neither Schoenfeld nor Jacobs erected the houses that will trumpet their names. Wish I'd thought to mention that Schoenfeld probably felt the Plymouth should be renamed because it's also the name of a Chrysler Corporation car and he's already in bed with General Motors, makers of the Cadillac of Winter Garden fame.

Arthur Laurents
Arthur Laurents
I bitched about Hallelujah, Baby! -- which may seem as if I'm holding quite a grudge, given that the show hasn't been on Broadway since 1968. But it's currently at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, where original librettist Arthur Laurents has revised it to little or no avail. He wanted to show that blacks experienced a slow but definite progress in the 20th century, but instead of creating different characters as each decade passes, he retained the same ones. Thus, Georgina, daughter of a maid, never gets a whit older than 25. Also staying their same ages are her Momma, her black boyfriend Clem, and her white would-be lover Harvey. Only the events around them change.

The problem is that this makes the characters symbols rather than people and keeps audiences from becoming emotionally involved with them. Maybe Laurents should have kept the idea of using one actress as the daughter and one as the mother but changed one aspect of the show: Call the younger actress Althea in the first scene but have her be Beneatha in the second, where Momma is the grown-up Althea. Keep going through Clarissa, Dorothea, Eulalie as the years continue, with the Momma being the grown-up daughter we'd previously met. This would at least make each character more of a person. And isn't it true that a child often becomes like his parents as the years go on? Let's see the younger character with great dreams learn how to settle for what she gets.

I also bitched that Hallelujah, Baby! says that the ultimate success a black woman can have is as an entertainer. Once, yes, but not now -- and Laurents' new version does take the show to the present day. Given that Momma keeps telling her daughter to forget her dreams and get "back in the kitchen," let's have the kid become a Martha Stewart-like domestic diva -- before the conviction, of course -- and have a wildly successful TV show called Back in the Kitchen.

Matthew bragged about The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen, by Ethan Mordden, and about Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time, by Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik. I bragged about Avenue Q, the opening song of which is now being used to promote Channel 2 here in New York, which calls itself Avenue 2 to music.

As for our visitors: Our original plan was to keep everyone up there for five minutes, and if we thought s/he was good enough, we'd renew his/her option for five more minutes. If someone stayed up for 15 minutes, he'd get his $10 admission fee back. Well, that didn't quite work out the way we'd anticipated. I had gone searching high and low for egg-timers that work in five-minute intervals but all I could find was the three-minute variety. (I should have anticipated this; I mean, we've all heard of three-minute eggs but not five-minute eggs.) And while I do have a wristwatch with a stopwatch feature, our visitors were so interesting that I didn't want to consult my watch, for that would have suggested I was bored by them. Maybe we should have hired a Hinesy who could time everything down to the last second, but instead we decided that anyone who got up there would receive a recently released CD. (Imagine my surprise and humiliation the next day when Doug contacted me to say that the jewel box I'd given him contained nothing in it. I'm atoning by giving him a replacement CD and by taking him to lunch.)

We also brought with us a Booby Prize, which Matthew and I decided we'd give to anyone who said something with which we both violently disagreed -- such as, "Doncha think Mamma Mia! will be a classic that will be performed centuries from now?" But what could possibly be the punishment that would fit that kind of crime? Finally I remembered something that had come to the Star-Ledger a few years ago, an item I'd taken it home as Exhibit A on how popular music in America has declined. It's a cassette by a group called The Impotent Sea Snakes, who open with a song called "Chicks with Dicks" and, midway through the second side, give us what must be an equally memorable tune: "Fistfucking Your Mother." (Well, I guess when you're impotent, you've got to find other ways to sexually satisfy yourself.) Also included on the tape is a song titled "I Love You." (Ah, The Impotent Sea Snakes in a mellow mood!) But Steve, Karen, and Doug were much too smart to be punished with this atrocity. So when we next do the show, if you want to come up and defend Brooklyn as a misunderstood masterpiece, The Impotent Sea Snakes can move to your house from mine.

Matthew and I had agreed in advance we'd also give out compact discs if people in the audience could answer trivia questions that each of us would devise. But we got so caught up in what we were doing that we both forgot to ask the question we'd each prepared. So I'm at least going to give mine here. The first one to answer via e-mail (see the link below) will get a compact disc from me -- and I'll pay for the postage. What do these five songs have in common? (1) "Buddy's Blues" (2) "He's a Genius" (3) "No Lover" (4) "I'm on My Way" (5) "Six Months out of Every Year." No bitching from anyone who thinks this question is too hard -- but, certainly, anyone who can figure it out deserves to brag for a good long time.

Meanwhile, Matthew and I will offer our second "Bitch or Brag About Broadway" program on Tuesday, October 26 at 6pm at the 45th Street Theatre (354 West 45th, between Eighth and Ninth avenues). See you there!

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]