Gratitude for the LA Theater Community

10 05 2011

I have been less present on the theater reviewing scene in the past few months – for several reasons. My family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker opens this weekend at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre. I have had a slight addiction to CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera, which inspired repeat viewings and multiple posts on the same show. But even more significantly, I have been in the midst of PhD qualifying exams. I have been studying theories of corporeality, integration, and temporality for at least 8 months. (A little theater here and there, too.) Writtens were just before Easter, my final oral exam was today – and I passed! I am now a PhD candidate with “only” the dissertation to go. 🙂

Academia was an obvious choice for me after undergrad. I have an insatiable passion for knowledge, and I am genuinely excited to get started on the dissertation now that I have advanced to candidacy. I am so fortunate to have 4 brilliant, supportive scholars on my dissertation committee. Today’s exam was more like a conversation than an intense questioning. A lot more enjoyable and less stressful than I expected!

Of course, one reason why the exam was less stressful is that I had “rehearsed” my answers. I didn’t know the questions going into the exam today. But for the past 8 months, I have been an avid theatergoer, a fan, a critic, a composer, a music director – and this nebulous thing called the LA Theater Community has continually engaged me in conversations about theater and performance studies. For that, I feel incredibly blessed and grateful.

One reason I decided on a PhD program in Theater and Performance Studies (rather than English, which I was also considering) was the collaborative aspect of theater. While I was at Duke, theater – and specifically musicals – became an important mode of mediating my social relationships and shaping my cultural world. As much as I enjoy academia, it can be a lonely and isolating pursuit – even in the realm of Theater and Performance Studies. The past 8 months consisted of studying my bibliographies, writing and rewriting my prospectus, organizing and reorganizing my plan for the dissertation; I was mainly holed up in my apartment amidst stacks of articles and books. Meetings with my professors were always welcome conversations, but scholarship is still often an isolated, mental pursuit. Writing stages imaginary conversations among theorists and texts.

Enter the “LA Theater Community.” Amidst all this potentially isolating intellectual work, the idea of a theater as a mode of relation has been central to my life in the past few months. Music directing (Is There Life After High School, Happy End, Gone Missing, Thank You, Mr. Falker, and sporadic concerts and benefits with friends) has been a space of rehearsing my theories about the musical, of actively engaging with my thoughts in practice, of seeing both the ideals – and the contradictions and conflicts – within any community. Thank you to all with whom I worked creatively over the past few months – directors Gary Gardner, Hunter Bird, and Lane Williamson, choreographer Christopher Albrecht, all the stage managers and casts and crews. You were the vibrant musical numbers to my academic narrative; you gave me a renewing respite from my academic work each and every day, not to mention a space to actively discuss and engage in embodied practice of the musical, which I view as invaluable to my scholarship.

What more can I write about CYCLOPS? (Perhaps you should ask me again when I start my dissertation.) This rock opera was simultaneously an ecstatic, Dionysian release from my academic work – and a theatrical experience that actively engaged my scholarship. Psittacus Productions could not be a more brilliant or welcoming company; the sense of communitas among their ensemble palpably extends to the audience. And, by the way, I wrote most of this post before closing night … which Colin Mitchell can attest was a pretty ridiculous and unforgettable experience in my superfandom. (Yes, that was my imaginary overture of Jayson Landon Marcus’ and Benjamin Sherman’s incredible music playing at closing.) Once in a while, shows like Venice and Cyclops come along, reassuring me that theater (and specifically musical theater) can be layered, political, generous, and endlessly entertaining.

I feel blessed to be in a position in the LA theater community where I can advocate for such exceptional new work, in my own small way. But my position in the critical community would not be possible without a great deal of support from readers and fellow critics. I started blogging about a year and a half ago. Colin Mitchell at Bitter Lemons picked up on my work first, for which I am endlessly grateful; he has been one of my greatest supporters and has brought attention to my random, start-up blog in a way that I never imagined possible. In the early months of my blog, I had some fun debates about styles of theater criticism with Trevor Thomas – who is now my fantastic editor at EDGE Los Angeles. And I recently signed on to write for Stage & Cinema, as well. A theatergoing habit has turned into a reviewing practice and, hopefully, can one day become a core part of my career.

My place in this virtual community of theater critics is amplified and enhanced when I have the great pleasure of spotting a fellow critic at the theater: Steven Leigh Morris at Crack Whore Galore, Tony Frankel after Three Sisters or Perestroika, Colin Mitchell at CYCLOPS (twice!). My life is literally structured around theater dates with friends. I cherish the conversations that surround the theater experience as much as, if not more, than the theatrical experience itself.

I recently accompanied a group of UCLA musical theater undergraduates at a Center Theatre Group benefit in Palos Verdes Estates. Over dinner, one of the donors asked me what my “dream role” would be. I explained that I’m not really an actor, but my dream role is actually what I’m doing right now: composing, music directing, reviewing, and engaging in academia. The LA theater community allows me to negotiate multiple roles and to continually push myself into new fields. I never thought I’d find my “dream role” in Los Angeles; I was certain to be NYC-bound after undergrad. And yet here I am after 3 years, honored to be a part of it all and even beginning to call LA “home.”

With so many upcoming theater conferences in LA, we are continually attempting to define this nebulous thing called Los Angeles theater. Yet its excitement, perhaps, is its dynamism and continually shifting shape. We all play multiple roles, as artists and audiences. LA theater is multifaceted, decentralized, vibrant, and mutually supportive. The sense of community is palpable and has been so important to me lately. Thank you all for your continuing support. See you at the theater!

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[title of show]: A Personal Chronicle

4 09 2010

My long history of creative inspiration from [title of show] is really inseparable from any review I may write of its production. A delightfully self-referential musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical, [title of show] has made its way from the NY Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) to off-Broadway, to a popular blog and YouTube series, to Broadway – and now, to its LA premiere at Celebration Theatre. I suspect I am not the only one who has traced her creative path through the work of Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics), Hunter Bell (book), Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell.

I first saw this endearingly scrappy little musical at the Vineyard Theatre in fall 2006; I was participating in the Duke in NY Arts program at the time, interning at the NY Musical Theatre Festival and just beginning to navigate my way through the (admittedly intimidating, but thrilling) city and world of musical theater. As we waited to enter the Vineyard one night, my friend Julia Robertson and I decided to write a musical for our study away program’s open-ended final project. [title of show] was quirky, inspirational, and just the impetus we needed to start. The Duke in NY group met and chatted with the cast afterwards (Heidi is a fellow Blue Devil), and Julia and I left the Vineyard eager to write that original musical!

Flash forward to winter 2008: Intern the Musical premiered at Duke University as Julia’s and my senior distinction project. The thrill of putting up an original musical comedy was intoxicating. Our advisors John Clum and Anthony Kelley brought down Anthony Lyn, resident director of Broadway’s Mary Poppins, to see the show in the last week of rehearsal; he offered incredibly valuable feedback to the creative team and worked with our actors to polish the show for our premiere. Three days before opening, I penned a new finale: “A Hope That Lets You Soar,” which quickly became one of my favorite compositions and summed up the collaborative ensemble experience of Intern. Family and friends trekked to Duke for the opening, and my life mentor Manny Azenberg even flew in from NYC for our little show. Intern played to a packed house every night that weekend, and some friends came multiple times to see our work. If there was any doubt in my mind about whether I’d venture into a PhD program in English or Theater after graduation, Intern the Musical sealed the deal: I needed to keep up this creative and collaborative aspect of my life.

That summer after Julia and I graduated from Duke, Intern the Musical made it way to NYC for a little reading through NYMF’s Arts and Business Council internship program. (How fun to be a former NYMF intern myself, sharing a musical loosely inspired by Julia’s and my own theater internship experiences with a host of new interns!) Throughout college, I had kept up with [title of show] via the cast’s blog and YouTube series – and through the sheer force of imagination, talent, and drive to be part of it all, [tos] had just opened on Broadway. In a strange way, [title of show]‘s success felt like a personal success. Julia and I reunited at the Lyceum to see this little show that had been such a part of our personal inspiration to write Intern. And yes, we waited at the stage door to say hello afterwards and pass off a cast recording of our own musical. How could we not?

Since moving to LA to start a PhD in Theater, I have kept composing, and [tos] has remained an important touchstone for my work. The show – and its creators – keep popping into my life when I most need a little creative encouragement and inspiration. I ran into Hunter Bell at the Mark Taper’s production of Parade last fall, just as I was gearing up to compose a new family musical for the Morgan-Wixson in Santa Monica. Then last night, my friend Christopher Albrecht and I made our way to Celebration Theatre for the LA premiere of [title of show]. And who should we spot in the audience, but Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell? What a serendipitous encounter!

The LA production of [title of show] comes at the end of a whirlwind summer for me, which included summer dissertation research as well as premiering a 15-minute musical off-off-Broadway (Rat Poison Love in the West Village Musical Theatre Festival) and workshopping a new family musical (Thank You, Mr. Falker at the Morgan-Wixson). It also comes at a juncture in my life with an almost overwhelming number of scholarly and creative opportunities in store. Scary and exciting. (Die vampire, die.)

This “little musical that could” is at once like and unlike any other, continually interwoven with my personal creative journey these past four years – and yet I know that my story is not unique. I am not the only one who can trace her creative path through [title of show] – and this makes [tos] all the more special. I look forward to seeing how Jeff, Hunter, Heidi, Susan, and their creations continue to inspire my ongoing journey – and others – in the years to come.





Rat Poison Love: Wings Theatre, 6/10/10

21 06 2010

What happens when you have one month to skype collaborate on a new musical with a bookwriter/lyricist whom you have never met?  A zany 15-minute piece called Rat Poison Love.

I had my off-off-Broadway premiere June 10-13 at the Wings Theatre as part of the first annual West Village Musical Theatre Festival.  Teamed up with bookwriter/lyricist Melanie Weinstein, I crafted Rat Poison Love via skype, email, phone chats, and even the occasional text message lyric-writing session.  For me, the final product was uneven and highly awkward in places … to be incredibly self-critical … but somehow, it didn’t matter.  The show served its purpose as a showcase of my musical composition skills in NYC; hopefully it will be the first of many creative projects there!  But moreover, I flew into NYC on the first day of tech and was welcomed by a wonderfully enthusiastic production team.  They had been working tirelessly for the past several weeks to put this show together. It was lovely putting faces to the names I had been in e-mail correspondence with for so long, enjoying walks on the pier and happy hours with this dedicated and passionate team.  When the show actually opened, it brought together dozens of my friends – from childhood to college friends, Duke professors to life mentors like Manny Azenberg.  I don’t necessarily see a future for Rat Poison Love, but I do see a future for all the wonderful friends I reconnected with and the new friendships I established through the Festival.  And that makes the entire effort worthwhile.

Not to mention, we probably rocked the catchiest song of the entire Festival:

RAT POISON LOVE

Based on a True Story: In this high energy, rock and roll dark comedy, a man is unconsciously trying to kill his wife and daughter.  As the murder attempts escalate, their teen daughter is forced to take action and stop the madness. Can she cut through her parents’ thick cloud of denial and save her family?

Book and lyrics by Melanie Weinstein
Music and lyrics by Sarah Taylor Ellis

Director: Stanley Ralph III
Music Director: Jonathan Brenner
Cast: Lindsay Aster, David Perlman, and Colleen Slattery

Highlights on YouTube:
http://www.youtube.com/user/staylorellis#g/c/0AF55B9F6F2456CE





Spring Hiatus

17 04 2010

After kicking off my theater blog this January, I will be taking a short hiatus from reviewing shows until about mid-June. I hated making this decision, but I have a busy spring in store! In addition to finishing my PhD coursework and fulfilling my grad student research position, I am co-chairing the 2nd national grad student conference in performance studies, assistant music directing the UCLA Theater Department’s spring production of Cabaret, and … the most recent news … writing a short musical for the West Village Musical Theatre Festival!

I was just accepted as a composer for the Festival.  I will be teamed up with a bookwriter / lyricist (TBA) to collaborate on a 10-15 minute musical in the next two months.  It looks like I will be going directly from the final performance of Cabaret (on Saturday, June 5) to NYC for tech rehearsals beginning on Monday, June 7.  The new musicals will premiere from June 10 – 13 at Wings Theatre in NYC’s West Village!

Reviews will be few and far between this spring quarter as I devote my time to all this exciting work. I recently saw, but haven’t had the time to write, reviews about a charming production of Kiss Me Kate at Glendale Centre Theatre and a playful take on Side by Side by Sondheim at the Attic Theatre.  Both brought a huge smile to my face.  I am seeing an undergrad friend in Nightmare Alley at the Geffen this weekend – and lecturing on it later this quarter!

I may update my blog with occasional creative posts, if readers are interested in the musical-writing process. (Quite honestly, let me know. Other than friends at Bitter Lemons, I don’t know who my regular readers are!) You can expect me reviewing in full force again by the summer!





Studies in Musical Theatre

20 03 2010

I know I seem to be doing a lot of self-promotion lately, but so many exciting things keep popping up that I want to share in the blogosphere! Here is the latest: my first article publication!

Establishing (and re-establishing) a sense of place: musical orientation in The Sound of Music

Jason Fitzgerald, Bryan Vandevender, and I had the pleasure of presenting on the Bruce Kirle Emerging Scholars Panel of the ATHE Music Theater / Dance Focus Group in August 2009.  We then worked with the incredibly generous Stacy Wolf to edit our papers for Studies in Musical Theatre, the first scholarly journal dedicated to the genre.  Many thanks to Michael Meindl, Laura Pollard, and Stacy Wolf for organizing the panel, and to journal editors Dominic Symonds and George Burrows for publishing the papers.  I can’t wait to receive my copy in the mail!





Dissecting In the Heights’ Flow

18 03 2010

Apologies for the lack of posts recently!  It is finals week at UCLA, and I am hard at work finishing two seminar papers and grading 130 undergrad papers.  You can expect reviews of the Morgan-Wixson’s production of Urinetown and Havok Theatre’s Story of My Life soon!

In the meantime, I thought I would share a little segment of my scholarly work.  One of my papers this quarter is on representations of Latinidad in the Broadway musical, with a particular focus on In the Heights – one of my personal favorites.  A section of my paper is about the recent controversial casting of Corbin Bleu in the lead role of Usnavi.  Broadwayworld.com message boards were swarmed with comments on Bleu’s inappropriate ethnicity when the casting announcement was first made.  In my paper, I point out how racial identity is not stable or fixed, but performative, by analyzing my favorite section of Usnavi’s rap in the musical. Enjoy!

Lin-Manuel Miranda took the time to rap a reply to rwu2010’s concerns on broadwayworld.com message boards, noting the complex hybridity and performativity of race – which he initiated by writing his character Usnavi as Dominican, although Miranda is himself Puerto Rican.

Now THIS is sensitive, and I’m hesitant to begin again

But I’m a Puerto Rican-Mexican; I PLAYED Dominican.

And everyone’s from everywhere, we are reppin’ so many things

Andrea [Burns]’s Venezuelan and Jewish, Karen [Olivo]’s like twenty things

So yes, I see your point, but ethnicity’s just a factor

They’ve gotta play the part: in the end, dude is an ACTOR.

(broadwayworld.com)

For Miranda, the most important quality for the character of Usnavi is not “authentic” Latinidad, but performative “flow,” which Adam Krims defines as “the MC’s rhythmic delivery” in Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity (Krims 14).  According to Krims, flow generally falls into one of three styles: sung, percussion-effusive, and speech-effusive.  Lin Manuel Miranda hybridizes the percussive and speech-like effusive styles characteristic of the post-1980s “new school” of rap, often marked by “a tendency to spill over the rhythmic boundaries of the meter [and] the couplet, staggering the syntax and/or the rhymes, [and] creating polyrhythms with four-measure groupings of 4/4 time” (Krims 50).

How does Usnavi perform this “flow”?  In the midst of Vanessa’s dreams to move downtown in “It Won’t Be Long Now,” Usnavi’s younger cousin Sonny pops the question: if Vanessa will go on a date with his cousin, who dances “like a drunk Chita Rivera.”  Vanessa agrees to go out with Usnavi later that night, and Usnavi’s excitement propels him into a memorable section of rhythmic flow:

As detailed in the above diagram, Usnavi’s rap shows a vibrant rhythmic fluidity. Shocked at Vanessa’s response, Usnavi’s sharply-articulated, syncopated “Oh snap!  Who’s that?” surges into a quickened “Don’t touch me I’m too hot!”  After another taken-aback, offbeat exclamation of “Yes!”, Usnavi releases another form of flow: fluidity between Spanish and English.  In accordance with a hybrid identity, “Que pasó?” (What happened?) and “Here I go” parallel in rhythm and rhyme; the final vowel of each word is both accented and elongated, forming a rhythmic contrast to the earlier choppy pulsations and creating a driving bridge from line to line – and from language to language.

The word “flow” points not only to a rhythmic quality of the vocals, however, but to a characteristic of Usnavi’s accompanying embodied performance – as well as a fluidity or performativity of identity.  In Black Noise, Tricia Rose reclaims hip hop as more than a mass commercialized product; this cultural form continually negotiates “marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression within the cultural imperatives of African-American and Caribbean history, identity, and community,” she argues (Rose 21).  While Krims focuses on close musical analysis, Rose draws vital connections among breaking, graffiti style, rapping, and musical construction, using the connective tissue of “flow, layering, and rupture in lines” to understand hip hop’s performative engagement with postmodern – and particularly racialized – identities (Rose 38).

In this rhythmic flow of “It Won’t Be Long Now,” Lin Manuel Miranda’s body plays off the rhythms of the words.  While the stilled Usnavi tries to mentally process what just happened, Sonny bounces in excitement on the first line, then bounds forward to embrace his cousin.  His chest crashes into Usnavi on “Don’t touch me, I’m too hot!”  Movement flows from Sonny to Usnavi, who reels sideways from the push – hopping aside on his left leg until he regains balance on “Yes!”  Shoulders hunched forward, Usnavi’s body pulses on the downbeats of “Que pasó?” and he elevates his left leg on “Here I go,” which propels a turn to address his cousin on the next line: “So dope! Y tu lo sabes!”  (And you know it!)  Small hand punctuations of each beat turn into exaggerated pointing in Sonny’s face on the accented “tu” and “sa” (of sabes).  This braggadocio is playful, though; Usnavi would have never secured a date without Sonny’s brashness, and Usnavi affectionately wraps his right arm around his cousin’s back at the same time.  Despite the emphasis on pulse and accent in this short sequence, Usnavi also maintains a notable fluidity of motion.  In pop and lock, for instance, Rose illustrates how the body’s joints snap into angular positions – “and, yet, these snapping movements take place one joint after the previous one – creating a semiliquid [or wavelike] effect” (Rose 38).  The continual flow between Usnavi’s accented movements, as well as the flow and interplay between Sonny’s and Usnavi’s bodies, characterizes this section of rap as much as the vocal flow.

With a slightly lower timbre, Corbin Bleu maintains the musical flow of Usnavi’s rap: the continual rhythmic push and pull of the lyrics, as well as the fluid movement between Spanish and English. “We’d NEVER cast someone unless they proved that they could spit it,” Lin Manuel Miranda assured rwu2010 on the message boards (broadwayworld.com). Although slightly more choreographed, the flow of Blue’s body maintains a similarly playful fluidity with and against the vocals.  Rather than hopping aside to regain his balance, Bleu’s Usnavi scuffles backwards with his arms extended forward to avert Sonny’s embrace on “Don’t touch me,” then he collects himself by moving to a stalwart, standing position on “I’m too hot!”  The following exclamation of “Yes!” propels him into a (rather obviously choreographed) sauté.  His right leg in passé flows from the jump to into second position; Usnavi then swings his hips as if he’s already hitting the clubs with Vanessa.  A goofy, endearing grin spreads across his face as he turns to tap Sonny’s chest in appreciation of snagging him this date.  Usnavi is ultimately characterized less by his racial make-up (skin tone), and more by this vocal and embodied “flow.”





Scholarly / Creative News

13 03 2010

It’s my blog, after all!  Why not share a little personal excitement amidst the theater reviews?

Scholarly News:

My paper “‘No Day But Today’: Queer Temporality in the American Musical” has been accepted to the music theatre working group of IFTR (International Federation for Theatre Research).  If I can find the funding, I will present at the summer 2010 conference in Munich. The article is also being considered for publication in the upcoming book series Music Theatre: Experience, Performance, Emergences.

Creative News:

I will be assistant music directing the UCLA Theater Department’s spring production of Cabaret!  Look forward to working with some incredibly talented faculty and undergrads over the next quarter.