Michael Portantiere chats amiably with tick, tick...BOOM! director David Saint and Hairspray star Kathy Brier before venting his feelings about the Fiddler on the Roof revival.
The late Jonathan Larson's tick, tick...BOOM! had an all-too-brief Off-Broadway run in 2001, for reasons that had nothing to do with the show's quality. Rather, the main reason for the brevity of the run was the emotional and economic fallout from the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. You see, the musical was playing at the Jane Street Theater, quite close to the site of the tragedy -- and that location would have spelled demise for any show, let alone one with such a title. (I'll never forget that the release party for the cast recording was to have taken place on the evening of 9/11/01. Needless to say, the event was canceled.)
Happily, tick, tick...BOOM! continues to have a life in regional theater and on tour. It can currently be seen at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey through Sunday, April 18. And the thing that makes this production so noteworthy is the fact that it was directed by David Saint, who helped Larson develop the piece when it was a one-man rock monologue.
"We worked on it for about a year," Saint tells me. "Then we did a production of it at Second Stage and then we worked on it some more, but the problem then was that Jon was also starting to work on Rent." According to Saint, the title of the piece kept changing as Larson kept refining it: "Originally, it was called 30/90, and then it became Boho Days when it was done at Second Stage. Jon also did two or three different presentations at places like The Bottom Line, and the name was changed back to 30/90. It went back and forth between those two titles. Then, finally, he changed it to tick, tick...BOOM!."
Does Saint feel that Larson would have been happy to see his highly personal rock monologue turned into a theater piece for three actors? "I think so," the director says after a pause, "because Jon wanted to have his work heard more than anything. The thing that was tricky was the idea of someone else playing him. I guess anybody would be sensitive if he had written a piece about his life and performed it, and then had to consider the thought of someone else performing it. You know, [Jonathan's father] Al Larson and his wife Nan were very hesitant about tick, tick...BOOM! being done at all after Jon's death; initially, they were nervous that Jon would be misrepresented. Al told me that he wanted me to do the show because of my relationship with Jon. He said, "You knew him, so I can trust that anything you do will be true to what Jon intended."
The George Street production stars Colin Hanlon as Jonathan, Stephen Bienskie as his friend Michael (and other roles), and Sarah Litzsinger as his girlfriend Susan (and other roles). According to Saint, the Susan character is something of a composite but "Michael is pretty straightforward, although the man's name in real life is Matthew." Jonathan's agent in the show, a woman named "Rosa Stevens," represents Larson's actual agent, Flora Roberts. "Ironically," notes Saint, "Jon left Flora shortly after the workshop of his musical Superbia. It was sort of a mutual parting. He thought, 'Well, what difference does it make if she's one of the most powerful agents in the world? If she's not really behind me and doesn't understand my work, then I might as well not be with her.'"
It's impossible to say what greatness Larson might have achieved had he not died of an aortic aneurysm in 1996, just before Rent was set to begin previews at the New York Theatre Workshop, but David Saint knows one thing for sure: "Jon really did love the Broadway musical. What he objected to was what he used to call the dehumanization of Broadway. I think that's definitely changing now. People are saying, 'Give us something with characters we can care about -- not just spectacle.'" And that's why tick, tick...BOOM! is beginning to be recognized as a modern-day classic of the American musical theater.
TRACY, TELL ME TRUE!
Kathy Brier has been playing the indomitable Tracy Turnblad in the smash-hit Broadway production of Hairspray for about eight months now. After much rumination, she recently decided to leave the show on May 2 along with Harvey Fierstein, who won a Tony Award for his performance as Tracy's mother Edna in the Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman-Mark O'Donnell-Thomas Meehan musical based on one of John Waters's best loved films. If you can possibly get to the show during the next few weeks, do so, because the Brier/Fierstein chemistry is potent and the production is still in tip-top shape.
Brier has received much publicity for the fact that she's been doing double-duty during her run in the show, continuing in her role of Marcie Walsh on the daytime TV drama One Life to Live. As if that wasn't enough to keep her busy, she also provides the voice of a character called "Babalulu" for the Playhouse Disney TV series Jo Jo's Circus.
I was happily surprised to learn that Brier and I have something in common in that we both attended Wagner College on Staten Island -- though she was there many years after me! "When I first got out of college -- even while I was still in college -- I did lots of regional and summer stock stuff," she tells me. "I played every major role that I could, even stuff that was out of my range; I played Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, Rizzo in Grease, Fräulein Kost in Cabaret. I even did Consuela in West Side Story and I danced the show in three-inch heels! Here in New York, I auditioned constantly for all of the major casting directors. I did tons of Off-Off-Off-Broadway stuff. And then I finally managed to land Bat Boy, which was my first big break in the city."
When I ran into Brier at an event several weeks ago, I couldn't help remarking that she had noticeably slimmed down. During our subsequent interview, I asked if this was an issue with the powers-that-be at Hairspray, given that Tracy Turnblad's full-figuredness is pivotal to the show. "It's not in my contract that I have to stay at a certain weight," she replied. "However, I did lose about 12 pounds and they did freak out! I was trying to keep my weight up; I thought, "Oh well, I have to be chubby on stage so I can eat whatever I want." I started to eat tons of pasta and ice cream and fried foods -- and what happened was, I got such bad acid reflux that I couldn't sing. My cords were so swollen that I basically lost my voice. So I went to a sports nutritionist and we sat down and we figured out how I could eat correctly."
What's it like to be in a show that receives such a joyfully vocal response from the audience every night? "It's mind-boggling," says Brier. "Hairspray is a dream come true. You know, when I first started doing it, I was pushing a little and they told me, 'Kathy, you don't need to do so much.' The script is so well written that you don't need to do that. Being in the show with Harvey [Fierstein] and Dick [Latessa] has been great because I think my sense of timing has improved tremendously from working with them. I don't even think I'm gonna fully realize how fabulous this experience is until I'm done with it because, right now, there's just not time for me to sit back and reflect. It's incredible."
I could feel my blood boiling as I sat through the current Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. This classic Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Joseph Stein musical is truly immortal but director David Leveaux has done his best to kill it. I hadn't planned on going on record with my feelings about the show but have been prompted to do so by the written and/or spoken comments of certain theater journalists who have labeled criticism of the show "unfair" or "silly."
Though this Fiddler was deservedly deplored by a number of major reviewers, it did receive some very positive notices. "Miracle of miracles! Fiddler is back in all its glory," said WOR-TV's Pat Collins. "The entire show is bathed in magic," wrote New York magazine's John Simon. This is one of those occasions when I have to question whether I saw the same show that these people did -- and I also have to ask if either of them has ever experienced a really good production of this great musical. If so, it's hard to understand how they could find Leveaux's version even remotely acceptable, let alone praise it.
I could write a book about all that's wrong with this Fiddler, but I'll try to be relatively brief. First off, Alfred Molina is giving an inadequate performance in the central role of Tevye, the dairyman. It wouldn't be 100% accurate to say that he's walking through the role, but neither would such a description be far off the mark. This Tevye seems to have what psychologists call a flattened affect; he almost never expresses joy, sadness, anger, or fear about anything, and on the rare occasions when he tries to do so, he's unconvincing. Of course, that's exactly the opposite of how the part should be played. The thing is that Molina has exhibited a full range of emotions in several of his stage and screen roles, so I can only assume that his lack of success as Tevye is largely attributable to non-existent or incompetent direction.
I should also mention that Molina got very few laughs during the performance I attended, and those that he did get were tepid. Such wonderful punch lines as "May the good Lord smite me with it" and "Somewhere, it says something about a chicken" -- lines that have tickled the ribs of audience members in countless school and community theater productions of this show -- are delivered so ineptly that mild titters are the result. This problem is not limited to the star: The normally terrific Nancy Opel is at sea in the normally sure-fire role of Yente, and even the wonderful Randy Graff gets far fewer laughs as Golde than she would if she were playing the part under the guidance of a better director. I ask you: If you're aware that Zero Mostel, Topol, Herschel Bernardi, Maria Karnilova, Beatrice Arthur, et al. got hearty laughs with their line readings in previous incarnations of Fiddler, isn't it perverse to speak those lines in such a way as to guarantee that they WON'T get laughs, just so you can say that you delivered them differently?
Leveaux has come up with tons of ridiculous stage business for this production. In the "Matchmaker" number, Tevye's daughters don't sweep up the floor of their home in preparation for the Sabbath. Instead, they sponge bathe themselves -- and each other -- at the dining table in the common room. (Girl-on-girl action in Fiddler on the Roof -- WOO-HOO!) During the "Dream" sequence, Leveaux has Motel and Tzeitel dangling from the flies; this is sort of amusing for about a minute, but then the director doesn't know what to do with the poor actors or even how to get them down and off stage. And, for some reason, Leveaux has made the formerly tiny role of Nahum the beggar a major player who annoyingly insinuates himself into the action at the worst possible times. It's fine to try to integrate this character more fully into the action in order to make a statement about his place in the community, but to have him pull focus by dancing with the sons in the "Tradition" number and to let him steal the applause of the bottle dancers in the final scene of Act I is just plain idiotic.
What else is wrong with this Fiddler? Here are a few more examples, if you can stand them. The role of the Constable, who's pretty much the villain in the piece, is played by an actor who always reads as gay onstage. (What is this, a Disney movie?) Speaking of gay, the young actor-dancer who's been (mis)cast as the Russian Fyedka looks, sounds, and acts like some Chelsea boy -- and this REALLY doesn't work in terms of the plot. The show's musical director, Kevin Stites, seems to have taken his cue from Leveaux insofar as choosing to do things differently than they're usually done for no good reason; what's the point of all that slowing down, stopping, and re-starting in the "Matchmaker" number? Finally, Leveaux's decision to cover the orchestra pit and bring the stage action further into the audience was another huge mistake. If you're sitting in either of the side sections of the orchestra, you'll frequently find your view of certain actors blocked by others. (I couldn't see Alfred Molina or Randy Graff during most of the dream sequence -- and I had a seat on the aisle, house left!)
This is probably a good place for me to state that I didn't mind Leveaux's direction of the recent Broadway production of the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit musical Nine, but it seems to me that this was a very special case. Nine is based on a film by the famously idiosyncratic director Federico Fellini. For that reason, one could perhaps forgive Leveaux for such outré moves as flooding the stage with water and having late-middle-aged women climb on top of chairs. But Nine is not Fiddler on the Roof.