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Acting with Animals: Watch Celebrities at Broadway Barks Dish Their Furry Co-Stars

Actors don’t realize how hard it is to work with animals, observes animal trainer William Berloni in the video below, during the 2017 Broadway Barks animal adoption event at Shubert Alley. Backstage at the Booth Theater, actors tell tales, both hilarious and horrid, that prove Berloni’s point.
“Animals don’t enjoy working,” Janeanne Garofalo says. “If you have a soft spot for animals, don’t work with them, because You’re going to feel terrible about watching them work so hard.”
On the other hand, several actors use their own pets to help develop their characters.

The 19th annual Broadway Barks was a tribute to its co-founder Mary Tyler Moore, who died in January of this year at age 80. Her friend and fellow animal lover Bernadette Peters led off this year’s event with the theme song for the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

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Lin-Manuel Miranda Surprise Q & A at BroadwayCon: “Astounded by the ripples”

Lin-Manuel Miranda Bring It On

Lin-Manuel Miranda appeared at BroadwayCon 2017, via FaceTime from London.

Do you have any advice for people pursuing theatre in college?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: The answer is this: Study all the things that you don’t want to go into in theatre. Study lighting. Do all the things. For my theatre major, I did makeup, I ran lights, I did sound design, I sewed costumes, and that stuff comes in incredibly handy when you work with other people. Theatre is all about collaboration, so you have to actually understand a bit of the job your collaborators are doing, so that you can speak to them fluently. And then the other thing is take, like, whatever you’re interested in—I promise it will come in handy. Tommy Kail was an American History major; it came in pretty handy when we had this idea. So that’s my advice. Do what you’re passionate about.

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What are you up to next?
I’m here in London through June, shooting this movie. It’s a long shoot. It’s going to be a big ole movie! And then I have no idea. I think I have to start writing the next thing. That’s all I got.

Is there any tap dancing in Mary Poppins, and would you like to do a tap-off if there is?
Can my answer be yes and no? I don’t have any tap dancing in this movie, but I have a lot of dancing in this movie. I am dancing for days, which is exciting and terrifying, but it’s really fun. Think of the first Mary Poppins; I’m doing that much dancing.

Being in London and putting on Hamilton in the West End, how can that be different from here because it’s not their history? They’re the enemy.
I guess we will find out!
I wanted to know what your favorite part of Hamilton is—putting it together, what has your favorite part been?
Right now, my favorite part is seeing the ripples across the pond. It’s seeing people in costume, it’s seeing Hamilton quotes at the Women’s March last weekend, it’s people [embracing] immigrants this weekend. It’s the way that people have taken this thing into their hearts and used it to reflect their lives. That’s what part of it is supposed to do, and I keep getting astounded by the ripples that come back and am humbled by them.… Whether that’s the aforementioned things or seeing Pippa [Soo], Jas [Cephas Jones], and Renée [Elise Goldsberry] sing at the Super Bowl. I just started planting seeds with artists for Volume Two of the Mixtape. Some crazy things are gonna happen. [Laughs.] That’s all I can say because nothing is really in stone yet, but we’ve got some really exciting artists lined up, who are just—again—inspired by the thing at making their own things. That’s all you can hope for.

If you could play a different role in Hamilton, would you, and what would it be?
I would play Angelica. I don’t know that I could do it eight times a week.

What parts in Hamilton or In the Heights do you think could be played by the opposite gender?
That’s a great question. The challenge is always keys and making it singable, depending on where your voice is, but I think that we’re going to see anything and everything, and I think that’s great. That’s going to be the fun of watching the show evolve over the course of many years. It’s exciting. We’re at the beginning of Hamilton, you guys. It’s just starting. That’s what’s crazy about the life of a show. I went to see one of the first high school productions of Les Miz. My buddy had a little brother in the show. It was near D.C., and I will never forget one of the parents saying, “My daughter is the third prostitute from the left.” It was amazing to see. That was the first Broadway show I ever saw, and then to see these kids take ownership, it was like the most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen. It takes on a whole other level when it’s your own show, and I think we’re going to see lots of permutations in years to come, so have at it!

Watch Tony Kushner, Stephen Schwartz et al talk about their work

Below, ten major theater artists are interviewed by their peers as part of the Dramatist Guild Fund’s Legacy Project

TONY KUSHNER Interviewed By Michael Friedman

GRETCHEN CRYER & NANCY FORD Interviewed By Georgia Stitt

MICKI GRANT Interviewed By Charlayne Woodard

LARRY KRAMER Interviewed By George C. Wolfe

JAMES LAPINE Interviewed By Lisa Kron

ALAN MENKEN Interviewed By Kristen Anderson-Lopez

STEPHEN SCHWARTZ Interviewed By Jeanine Tesori
Released later this month

JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY Interviewed By Stephen Adly Guirgis

JOHN WEIDMAN Interviewed By J.T. Rogers

Growing Up on Avenue Q

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Today, Bobby Lopez turns 41, which seems as good a time as any to resurrect this article I wrote about him and Jeff Marx on September 10, 2009, just as their hit Tony-winning musical Avenue Q was about to close on Broadway after six years. Much has happened since then: Rather than closing, the musical moved Off-Broadway to New World Stages, where it’s still playing six and a half years later.  Then, one of the shows Lopez was working on that he mentions almost in passing in the interview below, became the enormous Broadway hit, The Book of Mormon.  After that came the collaboration with his wife Kristin Anderson Lopez.– which he doesn’t even mention below — on a show called “Frozen,” the most successful animated film of all time. The hit song from that film, “Let It Go,” led to Bobby Lopez’s winning his EGOT — only the 12th person in history to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony in competitive categories. The Lopezes are part of the team that is currently adapting “Frozen”  for Broadway. This will be his third show on Broadway.

The story below is as it was written in 2009 for a now-defunct online newspaper.  

Bobby Lopez was a recent college graduate and Jeff Marx was a recent law school graduate when they first wondered what it would be like if the Muppet characters with whom they grew up had become adults along with them, and were now themselves recent graduates trying to find love, a job, and an apartment – way out on Avenue Q, the only street where they could afford a place.

“When we thought of it, I was 24 and living with my parents, and a freelancer for children’s musicals,” Lopez says to me now.

“I was 29, living in a studio in the East Village, and working as an intern trying to start a law practice</a> with theatrical clients,” Marx says.

Ten years later, with “Avenue Q” coming to an end on Broadway, Bobby Lopez is 34, married, the father of two daughters – one four years old, one four months old – and living in Park Slope, Brooklyn. As for a job? “I still freelance, I guess.”

Jeff Marx, who turns 39 today, lives with his boyfriend in a 17-room house near the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles — “Ian and I are getting married as soon as California overturns Prop 8” — and “I’m in-between my last musical and my next musical.”

September 13th will mark the last Broadway performance of “Avenue Q,” though certainly not the last time anyone will sing along with such songs as “It Sucks To Be Me” and such lyrics as “I can’t pay the bills yet ‘Cause I have no skills yet The world is a big scary place,” >and watch while adorably fuzzy little puppets swear, whine, have sex, look at Internet porn, come out, argue over racism, and delight in the suffering of other puppets:

Watching a vegetarian being told she just ate chicken

Or watching a frat boy realize just what he put his dick in!

Being on an elevator when somebody shouts “hold the door”

No! Schadenfreude! Fuck you lady, that’s what stairs are for

Now that the show is ending on Broadway (in a run that lasted longer than all but 19 other shows in Broadway history),  community and amateur theaters – and colleges — will reportedly soon be able to start putting it on.

I was the first person to interview Bobby Lopez and his songwriting partner Jeff Marx for the New York Times six and a half years ago, when Avenue Q was about to open Off-Broadway. There in the seats of the Vineyard Theater on East 15th Street, in-between a preview matinee and a preview evening performance, Marx, who was 32, and Lopez, who was 28, explained their show. Marx: ”We figured out that people our age had actually grown up on musicals — in the form of Muppet movies and ‘Sesame Street. ” Lopez: ”There’s something about our generation that resists actors bursting into song on the stage. But when puppets do it, we believe it.’

And how! “Avenue Q” moved to Broadway four months later, and went on to win three 2004 Tony Awards, for Best Score, Best Book of a Musical, and – the theatrical surprise of the year — for Best Musical. “We’re not exactly sure how this happened,” said the successful songwriting team of  Lopez and Marx in a joint interview with Gothamist at the time. “…suddenly we turn around and add it all up and we’re in tuxes, on the stage of Radio City Music Hall accepting a Tony from Carol Channing and L.L. Cool J!”

Versions of the show were launched in Las Vegas, in London, on national tour, and all over the globe, including Sweden, Finland, Australia, Mexico, Israel, the Philippines, and Italy. “Avenue Q” grossed some $117 million ON BROADWAY ALONE.

Has “Avenue Q” itself helped changed the attitude towards musicals from ten years ago – as evidenced by the popularity of such musicals as “Spring Awakening” and the revival of “Hair” among 20-somethings and younger?

Lopez: “I do think people are more musical-friendly now. I’d like to think that maybe we had a little something to do with that.”

Marx: “I still think that traditional singing musicals have limited appeal for younger people, and that we have to find exciting new ways to make musicals work.”

And how have their own lives changed since the success of “Avenue Q”? In 2003, they explained how much of the show was a result of what was happening to them personally: Lopez: ”I had a relationship with a girlfriend, which led to ‘There’s a fine, fine line between love/ And a waste of time,’ ” a lyric from the show. ‘We’re still together.” Marx: ”And I had a relationship with a boyfriend, which led to ‘The more you love someone/ The more you want to kill ’em’, ” another lyric. ”We broke up.”

The night that the New York Times gave the Off-Broadway production a rave review, Lopez says, he thought it a good time to propose to that girlfriend, Kristen Anderson. She accepted.

So now, no longer 20-somethings, what are their new concerns…and will they be writing musicals about them?

Marx: “I guess my primary concern these days is how to get up in the morning and be creative when you’re no longer motivated by hunger.” Marx long ago gave up the idea of a law practice and has been writing for TV and the movies. “I’m co-writing a film about losing your ‘other’ virginity (the one with the other gender, the one you’re not attracted to) for the producers of ‘American Pie,’ I’m writing a brand new made-for-TV musical movie for The Muppets, and I’m co-writing a new Broadway musical based on the movie ‘Airplane.'”

Lopez: “My concerns now are with how to manage my time — to squeeze in time for all my projects, plus spending time with my wife and kids, and once in a while having a teeny little bit of a social life.” Lopez admits to having “a lot fewer worries about money than I used to,” but still worries (and yes it’s true “money does not equal happiness.”) “I guess part of growing up is learning that you’ll always have problems of one sort or another, and to learn to calm yourself.”

As for musicals, Lopez says, “I have been working constantly since ‘Avenue Q’ opened…and I do write about my life.”

With his wife, who is also a songwriter, he wrote ‘Finding Nemo, The Musical,’ which has been playing at Disney World since 2006. “We definitely poured our feelings about being new parents into it.

“Now I’m writing another show with Kristen that draws from our life — we’ve been developing it on commission from the Roundabout Theatre and Robyn Goodman. It’s very autobiographical and it’s basically a romantic comedy with a very cool theatrical twist…called “Up Here.”

He is also collaborating on a musical called “The Book of Mormon” with the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. “It’s really about religion, one of my favorite subjects.” He considered himself a “moderately religious” Catholic as a child, but “then ended up singing in Episcopal church choirs in college to help pay bills (Episcopals pay the best). I lost touch with religion but I’m still spiritual and think about the issue a lot — it’s certainly one of the great universal themes to write about. Not to mention I developed a real liking for sacred music over the years.” And he also gets to work with the South Park people; the South Park musical helped inspire Avenue Q, “though we wanted to give our show more heart than ‘South Park’ had.”

Lopez also won an Emmy last year for music he wrote for a TV show on Nick Jr. called Wonder Pets. “I got involved because a) I loved the show and b) I knew my kids would love it. My wife writes for the show occasionally and now my brother is its head writer. Even my daughter Katie has done voiceover work for it!

“Avenue Q led to all this work. In the end that is what I’m most grateful for, I think,” Lopez says. “I’ve wanted to have a career writing musical theater since I was eleven. Now I have one, and it feels like it might not go away! I thank the universe every day.”

Jeff Marx is grateful too. When “Avenue Q” was about to open Off-Broadway, he told me “We have learned how to kiss and schmooze people we don’t like.” Now he says: “I’m older and successful and don’t have to kiss ass anymore.”

Noah Robbins on Grease Live, His First Musical Since High School

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‘When the New York Times published a photograph of the cast of Grease Live this week, Noah Robbins posted it on his Facebook page and noted: “I’m on the far right, apparently practicing my stand-up act while everyone was busy performing the show.” At least he’s in the picture.

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Robbins, who made his Broadway debut straight out of high school as the lead in a Neil Simon revival directed by the much-praised David Cromer, will now be making his live television debut in the revival of the 1972 Broadway musical, which Fox will broadcast this Sunday,  January 31, directed by the much-praised Tommy Kail, best-known for his direction of Hamilton. In a cast that includes Aaron Tveit as bad boy Danny Zuko, Julianne Hough as good girl Sandy, as well as Vanessa Hudgens, Carly Rae Jepson, Mario Lopez, even BoyzIIMen and DNCE, which is fronted by Joe Jonas, Robbins portrays a minor character, the nerd Eugene Florczyk.

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Noah Robbins (rear right) with Aaron Tveit, Elle McLemore and Vanessa Hudgens

In the six years in-between his starring role in Brighton Beach Memoirs on Broadway and his forthcoming performance on Grease Live on Fox, (besides getting a B.A. in Philosophy from Columbia) Robbins has established himself mainly in two ways:

  1. as a serious New York stage actor, performing in plays by such noted playwrights as Tom Stoppard.

2.as what Lin-Manuel Miranda recently called a “National Twitter treasure.” Robbins has elevated Tweets into a kind of surreal performance art.

Other examples:

As a writer I think the question I’m most interested in exploring is “how am I so poor”

I don’t generally like to get political on Twitter but I think season two of The West Wing is my favorite.

My hope is that there will soon be so many young British movie stars that they all drown in an ocean of each other.

Your struggles are so unique you HAVE to make a web series

My New Year’s resolution is to work “so I says to the guy I says” into at least one conversation.

My New Year’s resolution is to set the bar higher for myself and also light the bar on fire because they still don’t believe I’m over 21.

Recently, he’s understandably been focusing on Grease:

Been in LA for 20 minutes and I’ve already had a conversation about traffic.

Today Channing Tatum showed up on set but the far bigger story is that I ate four granola bars and have no reservations about eating more.

I’m getting nervous, which is oddly my favorite feeling.

I had five Gogurts at craft services today. Showbiz is everything I dreamed it would be.

Q: You made your Broadway debut at age 19. Now, six years later, you’re making your live television debut. How are the experiences similar, and how are they different?

Noah Robbins: One similarity is that my character in Brighton Beach Memoirs and my character in Grease Live are both named Eugene.  But more generally, I feel like in both cases I was simultaneously totally out of my comfort zone, and right at home.  When I did Brighton Beach Memoirs my previous credit was playing Max Bialystock in my high school production of The Producers; in other words, there was a bit of a learning curve.  In a similar vein, I have never done anything remotely like a live TV special.  But at the end of the day, both productions were, and are, made up of extremely passionate, kind, hardworking people trying to create something special, and walking into an environment like that always feels seamless.

So that’s how they’re similar. How are they different? How specifically do the Eugenes differ?

Well, the main goal during rehearsals for Brighton Beach Memoirs was always to make Eugene a real person, to avoid being too jokey.  The director of that show, David Cromer, was incredible at getting me to the point where even the funniest punchline felt like it was coming from a very human place.  I think at the beginning of Grease Live rehearsals, I was still very much in that frame of mind, in that I was trying to play this Eugene as an equally real person.  There was a note that Tommy Kail gave me one day that was a huge help.  (By the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to Tommy–he’s a friend and a genius and hilarious and 100% the reason I got this part.)  He told me that Eugene is not so much a real person as he is the idea of a real person.  And I knew exactly what he meant.  Because it’s Grease, there needs to be a certain fun larger-than-life energy to all of the characters, an energy that you probably wouldn’t see walking down the street.  So in a sense, I’ve approached the characters from totally opposite directions.

But even if Brighton Beach Memoir is more realistic, it’s still a Neil Simon comedy. The plays you’ve been in Off-Broadway that I’ve seen, most notably Punk Rock, and your performances on television before this — such as Virginia Johnson’s son in Masters of Sex — have been serious roles. What’s the difference between your comic and your serious roles? Can you think of a specific example to help us understand how you’re able to pull off what I call a Jack Lemmon.

Wow, it’s extremely flattering to be compared to Jack Lemmon!  He’s one of my favorite actors.

It’s funny that you bring up the fact that I’ve mostly done serious roles, because I’ve always felt more at home doing comedy.  In high school I did comedies, in college I was in an improv group, and I always strive to make at least two jokes per minute in my daily life.  So the fact that I’ve done a lot of drama surprises me.  I guess, ultimately, I don’t think of the two as that different.  The best comedy, to me, is the completely naturalistic kind.  Steve Carell is another hero of mine.  When he delivers a joke, it’s hilarious but it doesn’t sound like a zinger, it just sounds like a statement, even with his perfect comic timing.  I think that’s why he’s able to shift so flawlessly between drama and comedy.  I am IN NO WAY comparing myself to Steve Carell, but I try my best to go for the same thing.  Whether it’s serious or funny, the job is to make it seem like it’s really happening.

Is this the first time you’ve been in a musical since high school?

This is indeed, so I figured I’d do it in front of millions of people.  It’s actually been a huge learning experience.  Even though I don’t have any singing solos or crazy dance numbers, it’s been really fun to learn how to embody that energy that’s required when you’re in a musical, or at least a musical like Grease.  And I think it’s made me a more well-rounded actor.

I was one of the few people who actually saw you in Brighton Beach Memoirs, which closed a week after it opened. At least Grease is supposed to last only one performance. (For the record, I thought you and Santino Fontana were terrific.) That must have been terribly disappointing. Were you in shock? How do you look back at that experience now?

I’m glad you got to see it.  That was definitely a shocking and hugely disappointing experience, but I’m absolutely certain that it made me a much better and smarter and more mature person.  Prior to that happening, I knew basically nothing about how hard being an actor could be, since I got that part right out of high school.  So I think I almost needed that experience, or something like it, to teach me about the realities of show business, and how lucky you are just to be working.  I think I have much healthier and more realistic expectations about acting as a result.  It’s made me thankful for any and every opportunity that comes my way, so when something as rare and insanely enjoyable as Grease Live comes along, I really know to count my lucky stars.

What’s it been like on the set of Grease?

My first day of rehearsal was actually three weeks after the lead cast had started rehearsing, and I was a little nervous that I’d feel like an outsider.  That night after rehearsal, we all went to Julianne [Hough}’s house and watched The Apartment (with Jack Lemmon!).  (For the record, I had already seen it.)  Just hanging out with everyone that night, I felt instantly at home, and by the next day, it felt like I had known them for weeks.  It’s a remarkably cohesive and kindhearted group of people, really unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.  In a cast this big, it’s kind of miraculous that everyone, without exception, is as loving and supportive of each other as they are

 

Bowie, Bogosian and Bobby Moreno

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Early Monday morning, January 11th, on the day that the cast of “Lazarus” was due to record David Bowie’s songs for an album, Bobby Moreno, who performs in the show, got a text on his smart phone from a friend: “I saw the show last night. Condolences to the cast and crew.”

“He must mean congratulations,” Moreno said to himself. But then he heard the news: just a few hours earlier, David Bowie had died.

Bobby Moreno in Lazarus (far right) with Michael C. Hall and Milioti

Bobby Moreno in Lazarus (far right) with Michael C. Hall and Cristin Milioti

The recording session that day was “full of feeling,” Bobby Moreno says. “The recording was powerful. It was special for all of us to be together that day.”

Moreno didn’t actually have to be there. “I’m the lone non-singer in the cast.” As Zach, the husband of the obsessed Elly (Cristin Miloti),  “my character is sort of the one normal person in that crazy world.”

There are layers of satisfying irony in this. The roles for which the 32-year-old actor is best known are angry and odd. Bobby Moreno was Odysseus Rex in The Year of the Rooster, a young rooster permanently crouched, an angry punk with a knife, calm only when charmed by a genetically over-engineered top-heavy hen. He was a dog-like military veteran in Ethan Lipton’s “Luther”; he was even the angry teenager Timmy in the original production of Robert Askins’s “Hand to God.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

BOGOSIAN

And now he is the angry unnamed character in “Blow Me,” one of Eric Bogosian’s 100 Monologues, the one that says thing like “I hate the taste of fresh-squeezed orange juice, I hate the smell of fresh-ground coffee, I hate the sound of Matt Lauer’s voice. I hate driving to work, I hate standing up, I hate breathing, I hate waiting to die.”

100MonologueswebsiteMoreno says this on an eight-minute video that is one of about 50 videos  posted so far on the 100 Monologues website, a project in progress to tape all 100 Eric Bogosian’s monologues. Other performers include such well-known names as Sam Rockwell,  Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup, Michael Shannon, and Jessica Hecht.

“I have been performing that monologue since I was in college,” says Moreno. He had decided to become an actor way back in junior high school,  when a move with  his mother from Long Island to Austin, Texas abruptly changed his extracurricular activities.  “I never quite fit in with the sports teams there.” So he looked for something else to do, and found it on the stage. “If I had stayed in New York, I don’t know how it would have worked out.”

He was performing Bogosian’s “Blow Me” as part of an acting class being held on a beautiful day outside on the campus of his school, Austin Community College, “and campus security came because somebody reported there was a crazy man ranting and raving.” For years he dined out on that: “I thought I was such a bad-ass: I performed so hard they had to call the cops on me.”

ericbogosianposter

poster for 2013 performance by Eric Bogosian himself

When some dozen years later, he heard about the 100 Monologues project, he got himself invited to a benefit event where he knew Bogosian would be, and nervously approached him. “I didn’t want to bother him so I spoke quickly, I told him ‘I’m a huge fan. That monologue was an important part of my life. I don’t know how this would work. But I would love to be considered.”

Bogosian turned to him. “Yeah, I saw you in the Year of the Rooster; you’re in.”

His rehearsal with Bogosian a few months later was something of a repeat of his experience in Austin. “Calm down,” Bogosian told him, “somebody is going to get nervous about what’s going on in this apartment.”

When the monologue was finally taped – with a crew of 10, three cameras, and seven takes in a row — “I was working on raw instinct, and I went back to that place where I was before I had a grasp of craft.”

BOWIE

When Bobby Moreno was first cast in “Lazarus,” he says. “I was just like any theatergoer, feeling awash in a sea of sensation – song, visuals, language, characters. That took me the better part of two months to parse” — the full run of the show. Not that this disturbed him: “Any great art should have an air of mystery to it.”

He met David Bowie at their first run-through of the musical about two weeks into the three week-long rehearsal period. “It was a thrill just to watch him experiencing the show. He was leaning forward — it looked like he wanted to jump up and be in it.

“He came up to the guy’s dressing room after the first preview. He said ‘Guys, that was….’ And then he wiggled his glasses like they do in the old cartoons. He was just brimming with enthusiasm. I remember that face.”

To prepare for his role, Moreno talked not to Bowie but to Bowie’s co-writer Enda Walsh (the book writer for Once), discussing “the idea of the emasculated man. Physically I tried to embody that – somebody who doesn’t assert himself.”

It helped that “I was an outsider in this world of musicals.” Yes, he’s been a rapper since the age of 17, and yes he’s currently in a rock band called the U.S. Open (and no he’s not a tennis player), but he’s the guitarist. “I would love to be a great singer, but that’s not in my wheel-house.”

He used that outsider feeling to his advantage. “Zach is an outsider because he sees Elly sliding into this world. He doesn’t know how to process her attachment to that world.

“I thought the play as a whole was elusive when I first read it. But my part was a pretty straightforward through-line for Zach.” His most memorable exchange with his reaction to her having dyed her hair blue:

Zach: You look like a lady Smurf.
Elly: No I don’t.
Zach: A Smurfette! You look like a friggin’ Smurfette!

 

Bobby Moreno and the rest of the cast will be performing “Lazarus” one last time. This is the final day for the musical at the New York Theatre Workshop, where every night, the flowers and other items in tribute pile up underneath the poster for the show.

DavidBowie3After performing in it every night, “I came to understand “Lazarus” as a story of redemption – your hopes, your happiness only come from within, no matter how hard you try to find it through the outside world. That’s why at the end Michael C. Hall sings on the empty stage after all the chaos.” Bowie’s death nine days ago has made the experience of performing in his show “alive in a more powerful way.”

As a result of his death after an 18-month battle with cancer that the cast knew nothing about, Bobby Moreno suddenly saw “Lazarus” – the name of the Biblical character who rises from the dead – as Bowie’s “gift to the world. He was saying that his legacy will still be with us. He knew how much that meant to people. I was overwhelmed by his courage and his generosity. He was saying nothing is too scary to stay away from. Here was a man dying, and he shared his last battle.”

Flowers and other items honoring David Bowie outside the New York Theatre Workshop

Flowers and other items honoring David Bowie outside the New York Theatre Workshop

David Lawson, New York Theater Guy, Times Square Flyer Guy

Flyer Guy Picture

Update: Along with everybody else, David Lawson’s show got canceled because of the blizzard. It’s been rescheduled for Friday February 5th at 9pm.

David Lawson is a New York theater person, which is to say he makes his art for the stage, but, like thousands of others, he makes his living doing something else. He hands out flyers in Times Square, working alongside and getting to know The Painted Topless Ladies, and The Naked Cowboy (who says he makes $34,000 — a month) and Racist Elmo (who used to work for the Girl Scouts). Lawson also answers dopey questions from tourists:

“Where’s Times Square”

“You’re in Times Square”

“But where is THE ACTUAL SQUARE.”

Lawson has a B.A. in theater from Emerson College, and studied at the O’Neill National Theater Institute, and yet he stands all day long in the street like a talking billboard, while fathers pass by saying to their sons “You see that guy? That…is why you can’t drop out of school.”

Lawson tells funny stories from his life as a Times Square flyer guy in “Flyer Guy,” which he will be performing at Bunga’s Den in Chelsea on Saturday, January 23rd. This is just the most recent of his one-man shows, which he has performed in cool venues all over the city — The PIT, La MaMa, Dixon Place,The Brick Theater, The Brooklyn Launchpad, Alchemical Theatre Laboratory, Videology, the Secret Theater, Astoria Bookshop, etc. — and in which he makes art out of his personal life for fun and no profit.

Your latest solo show, “Flyer Guy,” delves into one of the hottest issues facing New York theater today — the Elmos in Times Square. What’s your take?
Times_Square_Elmo_The Elmos are indeed a part of the show! While working over the years I would see the man known as Racist Elmo. It took many normal, quiet sightings of him before I saw him deliver one of the rants he is famed for on YouTube — like the one where he gets told “Hey shut up!” by Shrek.  I’m obsessed with Racist Elmo. I know that he has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Oregon, and that he used to work for the Girl Scouts, before he got fired and then bought a $300 Elmo suit — which is furrier than the other Elmo suits in Times Square.
As for a personal opinion on the Elmos, I have no problem with them. I think the city has done enough to combat any bad behavior by the Elmos by putting up signs saying “taking pictures with costumed characters is free, tipping is optional.” The Times Square Alliance wants to make “designated activity zones” for all the many solicitors of Times Square, which I think is an awful idea. I hate the idea of treating something that is slightly annoying for a very limited amount of time like it’s a public menace.
How and why did you start doing solo shows based on your life?
I started doing solo shows about ten years ago. I was a freshman in college and got exposed to performers like Anna Deavere Smith, Tim Miller, and Spalding Gray. One person shows are my favorite thing to do and my favorite thing to see. I think a person alone onstage, talking directly to an audience, elevates the life experience of the people listening in a way no other medium quite can. In such a raw, direct way it stirs up great thoughts like “I never thought of it that way,” or “I think something like that too” or “Something like that happened to me once too.”
Give us a rundown on the shows you’ve done before Flyer Guy.
VCR Love (which is published through Original Works Publishing) is about how porn has changed in the digital age, Insomnia in Space is how I’ve gotten through being an insomniac by becoming obsessed with outer space, No Oddjob is made up of personal stories about video games and how the culture around them represents those in marginalized demographics, Floundering About is made up of stories of wild “orange alert” type of things I experienced post-9/11 but instead of the many New York stories we’ve heard it’s made up of stories from my hometown right outside DC.
 
Is what you’re doing performance art?
I like to call what I do “solo shows” and “one-man shows.” I love the word “show.” The best way I can answer the “performance art” question is with an example where I used the phrase. There was a part in Insomnia in Space where I did a lucid dream exercise in front of people. It was really abstract. It involved reciting three dreams I’ve had, counting my fingers, saying the time and what you are wearing and repeating “I will have a lucid dream tonight.” I always said that was “the performance arty part of the show.” As opposed to something like when I was making jokes about how former N’Sync member Lance Bass legitimately tried to become an astronaut but ended up just being in Hairspray on Broadway, which didn’t feel “performance arty.”
 So I take it you don’t make a living from these solo shows of yours. Is this why you spent three years hanging out flyers in Times Square?
I still work as a flyer guy! It’s a great job. I like my boss, the pay is good enough and most importantly…I make my own hours. If I have to leave work to take a performing or writing opportunity…I can leave work. That simple. I also work front of house at two theater venues in town (Theatre for a New Audience and Park Avenue Armory).
You’re an educated guy who could surely get a white collar job somewhere. Do you ever find what you’re doing humiliating?
I’ve tried having white collar jobs and they’ve always made me very unhappy. I like weird jobs. As for being humiliating – As I say in the show: When I was younger someone said to me “In showbiz, whoever gets humiliated the most and is still standing wins.” Being a flyer guy has taught me that more than any desk job ever could.
Aren’t people like you vital to the theater community — people who make their art through theater but also make their living by doing the odd jobs of theater?
Absolutely. Unless theater and comedy are going to entirely devolve into a rigged game for only the sons and daughters (mostly sons) of bankers and businesspeople. It’s a reality of life. I know people who have won Obie Awards, had huge New York Times profiles, and who are onstage all the time but they still need survival jobs that allow them the free headspace to write and perform shows.
Of all the theater artists I know, you seem especially plugged into what you can call the indie theater scene in New York. Which artists, companies or theaters in that scene most excite you? 
Thanks for that. I think it’s important to see other people’s shows. It makes you feel you’re a part of something, not just creating work in a vacuum. I’ll give you five recent shows I’ve loved and who did them: Toilet Fire written and performed by Eliza Bent, directed by Kevin Laibson. my lingerie play written and performed by Diana Oh, directed by Leta Tremblay. Hold on to Your Butts written and performed by Recent Cutbacks, directed by Kristin McCarthy Parker. Steve: A Docu-Musical written and performed by Colin Summers, directed by Nessa Norich.  Late with Lance written and performed by Peter Michael Marino.
my lingerie play will be at The Lark on January 26th at 7PM. Toilet Fire is at The Brick on January 16th (7PM). But the other three aren’t playing anytime soon.
Are there any theaters or theater companies that provide continual good theater throughout the year or is it catch as catch can?
 Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre is probably my favorite place that has continual good shows year round. They have great in house productions and happen to have productions by two great companies, The Amoralists and The Women’s Project, coming up very soon. They also make it easy on the pocketbook with ticket options starting at $10.
 
Will you be handing out flyers for your own show?
Nah, not flyering for my own show. Effective for a big corporate museum in Times Square, not so much for a small one man show in Chelsea.

Critic John Lahr on Critics As The Enemy

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John Lahr with his father Bert Lahr

John Lahr with his father Bert Lahr

John Lahr reviewed New York theater for half a century, starting with a now-defunct Manhattan neighborhood weekly and ending as the longest-lasting chief drama critic for The New Yorker magazine.

He is also the son of Bert Lahr, best known as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, but with a long and stellar career on the New York stage. His mother Mildred Schroeder was a Ziegfeld Girl – also a theater person.
So I asked him what his family thought of theater critics.
This was during an interview with Lahr for DC Theatre Scene timed to the publication of his most recent books – “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” his acclaimed biography now out in paperback, and “Joy Ride,” his 20th book, a new selection of his profiles and reviews in the New Yorker.

notesonacowardlylionLahr largely sidestepped the question about his family’s view of theater critics – “Dad was a huge star; he always got good reviews” — although he did say that when he first became a critic, his parents “were worried about me. I was outspoken. They didn’t want me to offend people.”

When I wrote up the interview, I thought it more important to focus on his views of the great theater artists he’s profiled and reviewed — Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Stephen Sondheim, David Mamet, and Sarah Ruhl – all of whom are in the new collection.

I do include some of his comments about critics in the article – for example, how he became a critic in the first place (“I don’t think anybody sets out to be a drama critic”) and how he views the New York Times as the main guilty party in the “corrupt system” of reviewing.

But, while more specialized, his take on critics seems worth further detailing here.

I asked him why theater critics are often seen as the enemy – why there is so much hostility.

“It’s not undeserved,” he replied, because of the way criticism is done, “insofar as the coverage is very shallow; critics are ill-informed, write poorly, have no sense of theater history, just write the plot. Criticism is what the play is saying, and what it says in the context of theater history and the wider culture.” The faulty approach “is not necessarily because of the critics but because of the magazine owners.”

Lahr concedes that “nobody likes to be judged. I don’t like it when I get a bad review. If you hold yourself up, sometimes you get slapped.” But what theater artists don’t like about critics “are the cheap shots. Most of the people who talk in that nasty way have never made anything. If you’ve made anything, your voice has a different tone.
Criticism is a life without risk.”

Lahr says he personally has received no hostility from the people he’s reviewed. “My experience is even if you’re critical of the play, if they feel you’ve engaged with the play, and seen it, even if you can’t embrace it in its entirety — being taken seriously is enough for them.”

His view of critics is partly shaped by having been on the other side of the relationship. When he was literary manager of Lincoln Center, Lahr says, “the first production we did was Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, with Al Pacino.” He felt despondent the night that the critics attended. “I saw it as a totally botched performance. Tennessee arrived drunk. Al Pacino forgot the golden gloves
I wrote in my diary: This is a very sad night.
“7:30 the next morning, I get a call from Julius Irving,” the producing director of Lincoln Center theater. “He read the first paragraph of Clive Barnes’s review – a rave. Julius said: ‘Learn anything?’
“When you’re working in a theater, you get 50 reviews. Hardly any of them interpret the play. They tell you what the play was. They don’t tell you what it meant.”

The hostility to critics, he says, is specific to America. “In other theater cultures, the critic is seen as an essential part of the process. If you make a play or a book, you think you’ve done something, but a lot of writers I know don’t quite know what they’ve made. Critics are a bit like biofeedback. You need the eyes.”

Read:

Critic John Lahr’s theatrical joy ride

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Watch: Matt Shingledecker on Spring Awakening, West Side Story, Rent and Wicked

Instead of looking back at my life in years since I graduated from college, I look at them in terms of those four shows,” Matt Shingledecker says in the video below, recorded after he performed at the Broadway in Bryant Park lunchtime concert, in the role he currently plays on Broadway, Fiyero in Wicked.

Below,Shingledecker and Caroline Bowman as Elphaba sing “As Long As You’re Mine” from Wicked:

The Nether Playwright Jennifer Haley: Merging Online With On Stage

JenHaleyJennifer Haley did not set out to become the first major playwright of the digital age, but that is what has happened.

The Nether,” which imagines a future where people lose themselves in a virtual world, will close a successful run Off-Broadway March 29th; the play has won for her all sorts of attention and awards, such as four Olivier Award nominations (including best new play) for the West End production, seven Ovation Awards (including playwriting) for the West Coast production, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and the Francesca Primus Prize, which she received this week at the ATCA conference in New Orleans. “The Nether” is just one of her plays to explore the blurring line between cyberreality and reality. An earlier play that debuted at the Humana Festival in 2008, “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom,” she describes as “a horror story about suburban video game addiction.” She is developing “Froggy,” about a woman who travels through a video-game universe looking for her boyfriend — which she calls a noir thriller inspired by graphic novels,  and featuring interactive video design.

Haley’s own blurring line between two worlds — online and on stage – began inauspiciously. “I was working at a small theatre in Austin in the mid-90’s when I became aware of the Internet,” she told me. “I had a distant friend who was already getting into web design, and I actually remember thinking she was foolish for jumping onto a fad!”

Ben Rosenfield, Sophia Anne Caruso  and Merritt Wever in The Nether

Ben Rosenfield, Sophia Anne Caruso and Merritt Wever in The Nether

Haley began writing plays in college. “I was a Liberal Arts and Drama major at the University of Texas at Austin, and was generally frustrated with the roles I was getting — the female roles didn’t seem half so interesting as the male roles — so I decided to write cool stuff for myself and my friends. I kept acting and writing for several years, then figured I’d rather be really good at one of them than pretty good at both. I chose writing because I still loved being on the generative end of the process.” She eventually studied playwriting with Paula Vogel at Brown’s MFA program. (“I went to graduate school with talent; I came out with talent plus craft.”)

TheNether6RosenfieldandCarusoFour years after first learning about the Internet, Haley was working in a theater in Seattle, “and I got to be a part of a program that trained artists and employees of arts non-profits in web design. I learned HTML and Photoshop, and continued working part time with the company while I built up my business as a freelance designer. That work was my bread and butter for thirteen years while I was trying to turn writing into a career.”

“There was no direct connection between becoming a web designer and a playwright. After years of doing both, they simply started to merge…”

JenniferHaleybShe came up with the idea for “The Nether” in 2010, when she recalled one of the major lessons she learned from Paula Vogel five years earlier: “write what you hate.” Haley hated television police procedurals, so she imagined a detective interviewing a suspect who had committed crimes online. The crimes are pedophilia and child murder, but the crimes are virtual — the “child” is an avatar; the real person behind the man is a 65-year-old man. In the play, though, the child is meant to be portrayed by a child actress. “I spent a month trying to decide if I should rewrite that part,” she told the critics in New Orleans. She understood that it was shocking, even though the young actress does nothing more graphic than lift up her dress over her head (the dress is just the outer layer of a multi-layered Victorian garment.) Haley decided to keep it as is — “Having a child in the play made the play warmer” — and she was surprised and gratified that “people are willing to produce it, people willing to watch it, and people willing to talk about it.

The Nether at  the Duke of York's Theatre in London.

The Nether at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London.

“The hardest thing to learn is that a piece of work usually takes its own time. But the Nether was a quickie; from the time I started it to the time it was produced was three years.”

“The Nether,” which premiered at L.A.’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2013, is slated for yet another production at the Wooly Mammoth in D.C. in April, 2016.

She doesn’t want her plays to be seen as anti-tech, but rather as explorations about how we use technology to “play out our own neuroses.” As she has said, “the danger lies in spending so much time online that you neglect having a life and relationships in the real world.”

The cast of the MCC production of The Nether: Merritt Wever, Peter Friedman, Sophia Anne Caruso, Ben Rosenfield, Frank Wood

The cast of the MCC production of The Nether: Merritt Wever, Peter Friedman, Sophia Anne Caruso, Ben Rosenfield, Frank Wood