A critically-acclaimed international dance production, choreographed by ABC-TVs Emmy-nominated Louis van Amstel of “Dancing With the Stars”, has taken the inevitable next step and is hitting The Buell Theatre stage.
Ballroom with a Twist stars “Dancing With The Stars” celebrity pros Jonathan Roberts and Anna Trebunskaya, Tristan MacManus and Chelsie Hightower; finalists from TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance” Randi Lynn Strong, Legacy and Jonathan Platero, and “American Idol” finalist Gina Glocksen and Von Smith.
This evening of pure entertainment for the entire family pushes the boundaries of ballroom dance, infusing it with the intensity of the latest contemporary and “hip-hop” styles. It also is crowned by stunning costumes, magnificent music and breathtaking performances. What’s not to like…?
by Sylvie Drake
With the release of the film made of the musical based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and considering that musical’s 33-year record run on stage, one has to ask: Why? Why does this show never seem to lose its luster? Is it the pathos? The action drama? The deep well of sentiment (as opposed to sentimentality) on which it draws? The pervasive heroics and genuine heroism of the piece?
The answer is all of the above, as well as producers—chiefly Cameron Mackintosh—who are good at keeping the production strong and fresh.
But hang on to that word heroism.
In this second decade of the 21st century there is a hunger within for genuine heroes or, as Maya Angelou so wisely put it, she-roes. Les Miz has more than one of each, whereas our modern world is pretty much devoid of larger-than-life characters. It is a world where the late Joseph Campbell found “every last vestige of the ancient human heritage of ritual, morality and art… in full decay.”
Strong condemnation, but it is true that we have lost our dragon-slayers. We re-invent them in comic strips, on You Tube, film and television—or substitute a cult of celebrity in their stead. Thin gruel by comparison.
The English language classifies hero as masculine, but Angelou was more than half-right. The word is in fact derived from a woman’s name: Hero, the legendary Aphrodite who threw herself into the sea when her lover Leander drowned swimming the Hellespont just to be with her. Granted, that was more of an emotional than a moral response, and not all of Webster’s definitions of heroism are particularly exalted. The one that comes closest to paydirt is this: “Bravery, nobility, fearlessness, valor.”
Apply these words to Les Miz and you feel the richness—in Jean Valjean’s innate nobility and valor; in that half-pint Gavroche’s fearlessness; in Fantine’s bravery in the face of overwhelming odds or Eponine’s readiness to take a bullet if it can save Marius for whom she has an unrequited love—and even in the final act of Inspector Javert who can no longer bear to live with what he has become.
In the end, it is the totality of Hugo’s massive canvas that works—the contradictions of its operatic scope and its intimate humanity in a marriage of social, political and emotional upheaval with intensely personal stories of private pain and struggle.
And what stories they are. Not content to spin strictly subjective tales, Hugo wanted his entire world to reverberate through his writing. He said he wanted to be the écho sonore or “loud echo” of his day. Although he ostensibly belonged to no church, a religious thread frequently ran through his work. He claimed Les Miz as “religious.” But it is an eloquent compassion, wedded to innate wisdom and a sense of balance that are at the core of the grandeur of his prose.
Les Misérables was a very long book, full of plots and subplots, and took years to complete, but it was only following the accidental death by drowning of his grown daughter Léopoldine—a terrible blow—that he immersed himself in earnest into the writing of it. Memories of his daughter probably informed the character of Cosette, just as memories of his own student days informed that of Marius. Aside from his phenomenal agility with language, Hugo’s genius was a transcending talent for getting to the universal through the particular, weaving the smaller human tales into the sociopolitical fabric of his day.
Les Misérables was published in 1862 and took France and all Europe by storm. It was immediately translated into several languages. The author was astounded by the novel’s success. Even if people rarely plough through its almost 2,000 pages any more, it remains his best-known work, largely because its popularity has been re-ignited by the musical’s charismatic appeal.
Toward the end of the novel, Hugo writes this: “The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details…a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life, from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God…”
So much for the lofty ambitions of the book. But one cannot discount the contributions of the team that created the musical, from bookwriter Alain Boublil’s ability to condense and adapt such a massive epic for the stage, to Herbert Kretzmer’s superlative English translation of the original French, to the stirring anthems by Claude-Michel Schönberg who created a score that seems drawn from the novel’s rib.
More than 150 years after the novel’s publication, we still thrill to this account of an escaped convict’s struggle for a chance at redemption because its sensibility is true to any age. Hugo’s gift for evoking an ambience of mystery, his operatic characters, the quest for justice where none exists, the depiction of a people in revolt, all contribute to this modern attraction. Jean Valjean may have all the earmarks of a hero but he goes them one better: he is a flawed, deeply injured and profoundly moral man who, in his vulnerability and compassion, becomes the idealized model of a person with whom we all want to identify.
French playwright Paul Claudel called Hugo’s vision his “panic contemplation” of the universe. Writer Léon Fargue called him “un poéte d’avenir” or a poet of the future. That future is now and Hugo’s masterwork remains as fresh, provocative and rousing as ever.
Whether it’s a carryon, a suitcase, a traveling trunk or — as in the case of Mary Poppins which flies into Denver’s Buell Theatre May 1-5 — a carpetbag, it takes a little organizational magic to pack when you are constantly on the road. So we turned to Madeline Trumble, who plays everyone’s favorite nanny to get some helpful, handy tips.
1. How many markets will you travel to during your run as Mary?
Oh my goodness, I think I’ve traveled to about forty different cities, in three different countries. And we still have a few stops left!
2. Do you get to go back home between any of the engagements?
I took a week’s vacation and so I got to go back home a few months ago. But I didn’t get to go home home, because someone’s staying in my apartment while I’m away. BUT I got to go back to New York, where my home and heart is. And next week, we play San Francisco, so I get to return to where I grew up (Berkeley, CA). I can’t wait to see my mom and perform for my community!
3. Assuming that you have to pack once in preparation for several national stops before returning home, how do you start? Do you even bother checking the weather forecast? Take a look at the local Convention & Visitors Bureau site to see what to expect? Pick up a copy of the most recent Farmer’s Almanac?
I had to pack for ten months of tour from the get go. So, I had to pack for all weathers. We pretty much travel every single Monday. We RARELY get any sort of a break. So, I have everything from sandals and summer dresses, to boots and coats. I am a self proclaimed fashionista (I have an enormous collection of vintage clothing) so it was really tough to scale down for the road. We’re allowed two suitcases, a carryon and a trunk, which is about the size of a third suitcase. NOT ENOUGH ROOM! And also- you do a lot of shopping on the road. I’ve probably doubled my wardrobe. I’m constantly sending boxes back home to California to make more room in my suitcases for new clothes!
4. Once you’ve determined what to take — we hope you are planning for layers in Denver — what’s next? Is there “a place for everything and everything in its place”? Are you the organized, straight as a pin folder? The never-wrinkled roller? Or the helter skelter toss-and-go type?
Everyone has their own system. I kind of have one junk suitcase- I keep a lot of odds and ends in there, along with my toiletries. And then I have a big suitcase full of a bag of dresses, two different bags for shirts, bag for skirts, bag for underwear, bag for socks, bag for socks, bag for sunglasses, etc. But everything has it’s place because my suitcases are exactly 49 lbs each!
5. Knowing that, as with most Broadway tours, you pack a larger trunk and then have a carryon, what type of carryon do you recommend? Do you — a la Mary Poppins — have a carpetbag? Maybe a lightweight canvas bag on wheels? Or one of those impenetrable hard cases?
Oh No. I need as much room as possible, so I have a carryon with four wheels! I love those spinner suitcases! It lets me push and pull all three of my bags at once. I also have a great lululemon bag with a hundred pockets to take with me on the plane. It can hold anything.
6. Now every proper nanny out there, and your average Jill too, wants to know what’s in your carryon. What is so important that you can’t trust it in your trunk? Your makeup bag? The latest Cosmo? Your laptop? Or maybe even one of P.L. Traver’s eight books about that “practically perfect in every way” nanny who arrives by umbrella and befriends charming chimney sweeps?
I always have my makeup bag, my wallet, and my diabetes kit (I have Type 1, or Juvenile Diabetes). And I have a cool DSLR camera I don’t trust anywhere else but by my side. I also have a book and a magazine on me at all times. And my iphone. Always my iphone. Though that’s usually in my hand and not in my bag.
7. What’s your trick to making the most of the monotony of airports? Have you ever arrived to the airport unprepared — missing your ID, forgetting a bag, leaving your cell phone in a cab?
Absolutely not! I’ve been touring for about a year. I know what I’m doing! I’ve had pretty good luck!
8. Tell us something funny or unusual that’s happened while out on the road. How did you react? How would Mary react?
I’ve led a pretty boring life out here on the road. I’ve gotten to really see the country and meet its people. That’s been the most exciting part. Meeting people all over the country who love theatre and love Mary Poppins- it’s been really amazing to see so many different kinds of people reacting in the same way to our show.
9. What would Mary’s advice be for the average traveler looking to pack for a trip? A spoonful of sugar may be a bit suspicious in your carryon.
Less is more! Which is definitely ironic coming from the girl with the heaviest luggage, but if I could do it all over again, I would pack a lot less. Think in outfits, not in individual pieces. And- one coat is enough. You don’t need five.
Matt Goldman, Chris Wink and Phil Stanton are entrepreneurs who created and oversee a global enterprise that has brought joy to more than 17 million people. They are also innovators, educators, artists, and contemporary comedians, known collectively as the founders and originators of Blue Man Group. That these three bald and blue characters would become a cultural phenomenon is an idea that was all but unimaginable when these inscrutable beings first emerged, walking the streets of New York.
“We weren’t really goal-oriented,” says Stanton. “When we started walking around the city, we did it because we wanted to see how people reacted. And being bald and blue was our social life. We didn’t want to go to bars and be part of a singles scene, a drinking scene. We wanted our social life to be somehow creative, and this was a lot of fun. We knew we would eventually do some kind of performance, but we never envisioned a commercial theater run.”
The show is an absurd and wondrous blend of music, painting, science and technology, as the Blue Men silently engage in a variety of set pieces that run the gamut from primitive and childlike to witty and sophisticated.
“It’s all about creativity and innovation,” says Puck Quinn, creative director of character development and appearances. “If someone asks, ‘What does Blue Man Group do?,’ my answer is simple: ‘We innovate.’”
Everything begins with the Blue Man, and although he’s been around for more than two decades, his founders still can’t entirely explain where he came from. Like the character himself, his origin is enigmatic.
“There really isn’t an explanation,” says Goldman. “Chris dug up a picture that he drew when he was five years old, and it had three blue men in it. And I had a thing in my wallet for years with a blue tribe in South America. I don’t know why it was there; I never put pictures in my wallet. We think the Blue Man has always been here. The best answer is that we found each other.”
The impulse for going bald and blue emerged, in part, when the three longtime friends observed a clash of cultures on a New York sidewalk that no one else noticed.
“We saw three punk rockers – giant Mohawks, safety pins in the cheekbone area, leather and chains – walk between three other gentlemen who were dressed in Armani suits and carrying alligator briefcases,” says Goldman. “These six guys didn’t even blink, and the people around them didn’t even blink. And we turned to each other and said, ‘If that scene didn’t even get one iota of consciousness put to it, what human imagery possibly could?”
Eventually, an image began to emerge.
“We thought, ‘What would surprise people?” says Stanton. “‘What’s going to catch someone’s eye and make them think?’ We thought that if we created a bald and blue character, that image would have the ability to surprise and spark some thought for a long time.”
Goldman adds, “The first time we got bald and blue, we knew instantly it was something very special. And it was so freeing, because it wasn’t us. Our own egos were gone.”
The traits of the Blue Man developed gradually.
“There was something about him that seemed timeless, and something that seemed a little bit futuristic,” says Stanton. “He seemed to have the ability to be beautiful and comic at the same time. I’m not even sure we thought about that at first. It was really intuitive. We were trying to create a character that somehow represented humanity, but was able to be outside of humanity and look at it at the same time. We wanted to make a statement about community, about the power of a group, as opposed to the American individualist mentality. We thought the character would express community through something tribal, and drumming seemed the way to go. Chris had trained as a drummer, and I was from a really musical background. We wanted to draw from our own interests and backgrounds, and bring them into some kind of performance. We wanted to express something about the process, or the impulse to create.”
They continued to develop material for three years, performing in downtown clubs and event spaces. Two decades later, Goldman, Stanton and Wink are still tinkering with, refining, and updating the show. Each additional production, including the tour, provides an opportunity for new material.
“Sometimes we just see something that we think is really cool, and we’ll try and see how we can make it theatrical,” says Stanton.
Blue Man Productions, the parent company that oversees all projects, employs several hundred people around the world. Goldman, Stanton, Wink and their staff pay the same attention to the details of their business as they do to the details of their art.
“From the beginning, we valued what went on offstage as much as what went on onstage,” says Stanton. “It’s important to us how people are treated. The creativity that goes into what happens offstage is viewed as part of what ends up onstage. We never separate the two. We always wanted to own our own show, and live with the decisions that we made, rather than hand all of that off to somebody else. We want to be responsible for what happens, and we wanted to make sure it was a life-long journey.”
A musical based on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility?
Makes perfectly sensible sense
By Sylvie Drake
There is an undeniable fascination with the works of Jane Austen that has propelled itself into some strong film and television adaptations of many of her novels. These range from Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice (many versions) to Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Emma and Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel.
Remarkable? Not entirely. There are good reasons. These 19th-century novels resonate in any age because they were the elegantly written soap operas of their day—and we’re all in love with love—at any age and in any age.
Now comes a first: a musical version of Sense and Sensibility. While several stage adaptations of Austen’s works have been attempted, “It’s the first time that a musical of Sense and Sensibility has been done on this scale,” said Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the director of Sense & Sensibility The Musical, adding, “I do try to keep up with everything Jane Austen.”
Milgrom Dodge staged a workshop of this world premiere at last year’s Colorado New Play Summit, where it was greeted with such enthusiasm that the decision was made fairly quickly to give it a full production this year—with the same director and with all the bells and whistles it deserves.
“I fell in love with it the minute I heard it,” Milgrom Dodge acknowledged on the line from her home in New York City a couple of months ago. “I plan to honor the authenticity of the period, but at the same time I am the connection to today, which is sort of my mantra doing theatre,” she said, reaffirming something that was evident in her 2009 Tony®-nominated Broadway revival of the musical Ragtime.
“Why is this show different from all other shows? Why should we be doing it now? What makes it relevant to an audience today? I ask those kinds of searching questions,” she continued. “In this production the goal is to present a beautifully rendered period piece, in that we’re setting it in its own time. But we are not afraid to add some modern sensibilities.”
This importantly includes a chorus of society people serving much the same purpose that a chorus did in ancient Greek theatre. It’s the engine that helps move the story along. Milgrom Dodge sees it as the 1800s equivalent of today’s twitterers on their smart devices.
“No, we’re not pulling out cell phones,” she quickly reassured her listener. “Certainly we’re not doing anything anachronistic in that way, but in terms of the emotional presence that this chorus has in the piece, we want an audience to say, ‘Oh, my gosh, these people are just like twitterers.’ You know what I mean. They have that kind of nosy behavior, that sense of never-ending gossip, that need-to-know-everything that goes on today.
“They had no technology, but they had unbelievable word of mouth. The thing that’s exciting and challenging is that it sometimes took days to get the information from one place to another, whereas now it’s immediate. Everybody hears the same thing. So we’re in Portsmouth, we’re in London, we’re in the environs of England and we want to feel that people know and want to know everything immediately.
“That’s part of the charm of the piece in terms of the use of that ensemble. And,” she added, switching gears, “I’ve brought in an amazing design team for Denver.”
The team includes costume designer Emilio Sosa (known professionally as ESosa, of Broadway’s Porgy and Bess and TV’s “Project Runway”) and Broadway and opera set designer Allen Moyer (Grey Gardens, Twelve Angry Men). While the director does want to remain true to the early 1800s, she wants modern touches to liven up the production. Research at Chawton House, the Jane Austen library in Hampshire, England, showed demure shades of brown to be the rule for party clothes of the time. But…
“ ‘Brown doesn’t sound that exciting,’ I told Emilio,” she said. “He agreed. He has such a beautiful design eye, that we hope to bring in contemporary fabrics in bright colors that may not be truly authentic to the period, but that will add energy and sexuality to the piece.”
That, of course, is what theatre is supposed to do—not betray the truth but heighten it. Milgrom Dodge said she’s avoided watching the spate of Austen-based films in favor of more archeological influences: architectural renderings, drawings, paintings and props of the period. “I don’t want to be a plagiarizer of somebody else’s ideas; we’re creating this out of the historical material.”
As for the set, “We’re not in a proscenium theatre, we’re on a big thrust stage that presents a lot of opportunities as well as challenges. But the line of the script that turns out to offer a bit more of an option is when Edward Ferrars says to Elinor Dashwood how much he loves the country—the wild and the cultivated side by side. We took that as a cue to come up with a design that embraces both of those ideas.”
She demurred on offering more details. “I want people to be surprised, and yet I want them to feel that the choices [we made] are inevitable. Those ‘Aha!’ moments are what I hope for in the theatre. Powerful emotional responses. Of course they have to be there in the first place and this is the perfect show for them.”
The dancing in the production will be more or less book-ended by a country dance and a more formal high society harvest ball in London. But there is more. The ensemble/chorus, for instance, has specific movement.
“As a choreographer/director, I always approach my shows from a strong sense of behavior, gesture, movement,” Milgrom Dodge explained. “I like to say that you could come to my production and understand the story if the sound went out. I try to create a very strong physical core. It’s not artificial and not over-stylized; it’s as truthful as I can discover with each character.
“It also helps the transitions. We have a lot of places to go to, a lot of locations. The scenery will have to move…”
In late February, well before coming to Denver for the start of rehearsals, the creative team—consisting of bookwriter and lyricist Jeffrey Haddow, composer Neal Hampton, music supervisor David Loud and conductor Paul Masse—was putting in long hours in the studio going over the music and transitions. The real work had begun and Milgrom Dodge was feeling very good about it.
“I have information now; I now know what the physical production will be. Neal is working hard at creating musical transitions that may not have existed before. We had not factored in costume and set changes. Over the course of the last few days I’ve learned about new craft, new scenic gestures I want, new music that helps emphasize the arrival of scenic events.
“David Loud is an extraordinary, wise, beautiful, experienced music supervisor. I love this part of the work. Everyone involved is very flexible, very respectful of the work; the criticism is said with love and received with love. We feel strongly that we’re going into rehearsal with an extremely tight script. It’s all about tweaking now—adding new orchestrations, staying open. We’ll have a few preview performances and audiences will tell us what else needs to be done.”
It’s never easy to take a sprawling novel and reduce it to its essentials. Some of the Austen characters aren’t in the musical, yet their absence takes nothing away from the central story.
“It is Sense & Sensibility The Musical, not Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility,” Milgrom Dodge reminded us. “Neal’s music lets you feel that we’re in another time and place, but there are beautiful harmonics in the piece, certain chords that tug at my heart.
I believe,” she added almost wistfully, “that the best stories are the ones that are so specific to their time and place that they transcend it and become universal. Everybody loves love, everybody wants love and everybody feels bereft without it.”
By Rob Weinert-Kendt
The playwright Jon Robin Baitz walks healthily among the living, but in some ways his articulate, carefully constructed plays feel like throwbacks to a more literate, less cynical age. Plays such as The Substance of Fire, Three Hotels and The Paris Letter, map out internecine battles of love and loyalty among family, friends and lovers with a comic clarity that evokes Shaw, and a fraught psychological texture, thick with explosive secrets and lies, that recalls Ibsen.
Given those antecedents, it’s surprising that his career until last year was bookended by two formative West Coast experiences that would seem to belie his plays’ well-made classicism.
A native of Los Angeles, Baitz got his first playwriting education from the now-defunct Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, where mavericks like John Steppling, and Maria Irene Fornes pushed the form to its extremes. Then, after success as a New York-based playwright, Baitz went back West in 2006 to create the hit ABC-TV drama “Brothers & Sisters,” only to be fired after the show’s first season in a welter of mutual recrimination. It left him reeling and, as he admits now, “half-mad.”
From the ashes of that defeat came a phoenix called Other Desert Cities, another play about smart, funny people with deadly serious problems. It opened to acclaim off-Broadway in early 2011 and transferred to Broadway that fall, constituting Baitz’s long-overdue main stem debut as a proper playwright. (His adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler came to Broadway in 2001.) Though the play isn’t autobiographical, Baitz says he wrote much of his own fired-from-TV frustration into Brooke Wyeth, a nervy novelist who returns to her parents’ Palm Springs home for the holidays bearing a tell-all memoir that could rattle every last skeleton in their closet.
Backed up in part by her barely-sober aunt Silda, Brooke challenges the complacency of her formidable parents—an avuncular film actor, Lyman, and a whipsmart former screenwriter, Polly, Hollywood Republicans who were once close with the Reagans.
In a not-coincidental overlay, the family’s political differences are exacerbated by the timing: The play is set in 2004—one month after President George W. Bush was re-elected and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stretched ahead seemingly indefinitely.
Baitz sat down late last fall in New York to talk about the play’s genesis, his arm’s-length love for his hometown, and other pertinent matters.
Rob Weinert-Kendt: A lot of the play’s energy derives from an East Coast/West Coast divide. Brooke’s parents moved West, remade themselves and raised their kids there. But she rejected that and moved back to New York.
Jon Robin Baitz: It’s interesting because my brother and I have both done the same thing. He’s a composer and I’m a playwright, and we both sort of rejected some idea of being comfortable in LA.
I could not in fact have written the play from LA. I had to be in exile. It’s very much a play about exile. The Wyeths have placed themselves, for various reasons, in this scorching, stultifying desert, where everything is sort of in amber, from 1972 to 1980-something, the Annenberg/Reagan years. I think I’ll probably keep coming back to LA as a subject. Or the West.
RWK:Right, Palm Springs isn’t LA; it’s a whole other state of mind.
JRB: It is. Palm Springs is about the suspension of all but the mirage. It has a kind of eternally beautiful-and-damned quality about it that I find compelling. Tremendous beauty, tremendous exhaustion. Retirement in all senses.
RWK: When you said “mirage,” I thought Las Vegas, but that feels more transient. Folks really plant themselves in Palm Springs.
JRB: Completely. After my dad retired from Carnation, my parents bought a house in Palm Springs, behind gates, with some tennis courts, a little community. They would go back and forth between LA, their little condo off Burton Way, and their little house in Palm Springs. I understand the desire to separate yourself from the forces of nature because the forces of nature in modern urban living are pretty ugly. It’s precisely the refusal to admit those forces that makes the place so compelling.
RWK: The play was written during the Bush era, but do you think its politics still resonate in the age of Obama and will continue to be relevant?
JRB: I think they will, given the identity confusion within conservative American politics, which is so much a part of the play and of my own area of interest—how a party shifts on its axis and becomes something else, while there are these marriages going on between unlikely bedfellows who seem to marry their ideas together in a kind of odd nexus of government interfering in certain parts of your life and not in others.
RWK: But the brand of moderate Republican represented by Polly and Lyman seems absent from the national political stage.
JRB: Well, because they have been silenced and kicked out and replaced by Tea Party politicians—and usually, with all possible respect, somewhat illiterate Tea Party politicians who have no sense of macro- or micro-economics, no sense of American history or who misread it endlessly. So the people in this play are virtually extinct, and they’re in the desert near those dinosaurs at Cabazon.
RWK: Polly and Silda are very entertaining, acidly witty characters. Did they ever threaten to run away with the play?
JRB: Yes. There are places where Silda occasionally hijacked the play; I’d write pages and pages and you’d just see the play vanishing in the distance, and Silda doing “The Silda Hour.” That’s why one does drafts. I certainly heard them very clearly, Silda and Polly. Restraint is everything, of course, and to let them go unfettered would actually become sort of monotonal.
RWK: Do you calibrate funny vs. not funny as you write?
JRB: It’s all in the service of the narrative. A joke is only useful if it does a lot of other work.
RWK: Brooke is there to dump cold water on everything. She has a lot of fine qualities, but you’re not easy on her.
JRB: She’s had a lot of trouble. She’s capable of being funny, but she’s got a lot of scar tissue. My characters tell me what they are. And a lot of the way Brooke feels is the way I’ve felt at various times in my life when I’ve been in extremis. She’s a portrait of the artist in despair. And when you’re decompensating, humor is very hard to find, unfortunately.
RWK: Your despair came after your “Brothers & Sisters” breakup?
JRB: Totally. The Brooke despair was my trying to make sense of having left LA the way I did, in personal misery, professional misery—with this kind of hysterical, half-crazy, incredibly self-destructive faux-truth-telling. Telling the truth is perhaps my expensive hobby, you know? For some people it’s horses.
RWK: Brooke may represent the artist speaking her truth, but you let the other characters speak a lot of opposing truths back to her.
JRB: Listen, I think there’s a danger in being outraged and having self-righteousness to the extent that she does. The certitude is troubling, the sense of entitlement on some level is really very dangerous—the lack of humility, the notion that you can appropriate without consequences, that your moral center is so much more beautiful than everyone else’s. And people lie to themselves, even a recovering depressive who’s just finding her way back. I think sometimes the fear of depression is much worse than the depression, and Brooke is in that state; she’s running as fast as she can away from another episode, and she’ll do anything she can.
Brooke has the same disease that her mother has—this sort of absolutism. In her mother’s case, it’s sort of wonderful, because she’ll sort of fight to the death for this family, this cause of hers.
RWK: Until that fight doesn’t have any love in it anymore.
JRB: Well, love is not necessarily a soft and pleasant thing. I’ve been loved very hard by people. I’m very conservative when it comes to things like decency, just basic decency. And I guess the play is so simple, on some fundamental level: It argues for humility in the face of what you don’t know and compassion in the face of what you do know.
Rob Weinert-Kendt is associate editor at American Theatre, and has written about theatre and the arts for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Variety, The Guardian and The San Francisco Chronicle. A slightly different version of this piece ran in the December 2012 issue of Performances magazine.
Bruno Louchouarn’s compositions range from the cantina music heard in the film Total Recall, to works for orchestra, ballet, theatre and multimedia performance pieces. After graduate studies in Paris, he earned a Ph.D. in music composition at UCLA. Currently, Louchouarn teaches music, multimedia, and cognitive science at Occidental College. His work has been widely performed, including at Redcat in Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, UCLA’s Royce Hall, Zipper Hall, the Getty Villa, the Getty Center, the Pasadena Playhouse, the San Diego Rep, Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena, La MaMa in New York City, and the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival, as well as many university venues. He also created the musical score for Herbert Siguenza’s A Weekend with Pablo Picasso and talked with PROLOGUE about that experience.
PROLOGUE: First, how do you pronounce your last name?
Bruno Louchouarn: Loo-SHWARN. It’s an old Celtic family name from Brittany—my heritage is both Breton and Mexican.
P: Can you tell me how you approached your musical score for A Weekend with Pablo Picasso?
BL: The story follows the 78-year-old Picasso over the period of three days in 1957 when he’s rushing to start—and finish—a commission for six paintings and two vases on deadline. It’s both a memory play and a performance piece. The play celebrates Picasso’s incredible energy, humor, joie de vivre and creative genius as he plows through this incredible weekend. So the score had to be very buoyant, animated, colorful, descriptive and add just the right soundscape for this amazing artist.
P: Sounds like a dream assignment. Did you start with the period, the art or the music of that time?
BL: It was a tall order. I needed to be familiar with the European art of the early to middle 20th century—which I already was, to a certain extent. I had studied in Paris for a few years and had spent lots of time in the Louvre, one of the world’s great art museums. From that background, I created a theme for this show that changes shape during the performance, much like Picasso’s paintings transform throughout the process of creation.
P: Had you researched the music of the period and place?
BL: Oh, yes. I explored the popular and folk musical styles of France and Spain during this period. Classical music of this period was also incredibly innovative. My score uses clarinet, double bass, guitar, percussion, accordion and piano to underscore and color Picasso’s journey in creating these six paintings. The instruments I chose are so versatile—I can get endless colors and feelings by combining and recombining them.
P: Would you classify the music as pastiche—trying to exactly re-create the musical styles of the 1950s in Europe?
BL: No, not at all, although I try to suggest the musical flavors of the period—the French post-war popular music, as well as Picasso’s Spanish roots, and memory music of Picasso’s early years. A lot of the score, though, is more about emotion, mood, action, and in that way it is more like a movie soundtrack: musical flavor, musical commentary, musical exploration. [It] intertwines four themes: Picasso’s Spanish identity, his self-exile to France, Modernism, and the politics of an era clouded by war and Fascism.
P: Tell me more about your musical choices, for instance in creating a soundscape to underscore the concept of Cubism.
BL: Well, for one thing, I used what we call a “prepared piano”—I put thumb tacks, paper clips and other kinds of hardware onto the hammers of the piano, to get a kind of angular, edgy, metallic sound. I also crawled under the lid of the piano and played the strings with drumsticks, kind of like a zither or hammered dulcimer. I also encouraged my musicians to experiment with unexpected sounds and textures. Think of 20th Century composers like Conlon Nancarrow or Harry Partch who not only composed but invented musical instruments to suit their needs.
P: How do you work with your musicians while rehearsing and recording?
BL: I like to involve the musicians in creating a piece. I enjoy more the rehearsal process than the finished product. Rehearsal for me is pure joy. One of those joys is response and feedback from the musicians. Part of the learning experience is humility, you know. Master musicians can teach you more than a thing or two. You learn what works, what doesn’t, and it becomes part of your language.
P: Can you tell me about working with Herbert Siguenza, the author and performer of Picasso, in creating this piece?
BL: We worked together right from the beginning. Herbert knew my music from my concerts and performances in Los Angeles and approached me when his project was still in the infant stages. We sat together and watched film of Picasso actually painting; we discussed his career, his unique personality, his approach to painting and art, his impact on modern art—and Herbert’s theatrical style, developed in part through his work with L.A.’s Culture Clash.
I started creating musical themes, and sketching the musical score, bringing in musicians, often one at a time, to rehearse and record. At the same time, Herbert was working on drafts and workshops of his script. I built the musical underscoring so it could be flexible enough to stretch or shrink, as required by how the play developed.
P: Did you also contribute to the sound design of the show?
BL: I did. In addition to a sort of café orchestra feel, I also used modern instrumental effects such as sirens and explosions to create an aural context for Picasso’s Guernica, his iconic work on the bombing of the town in Spain’s Basque region during the Spanish Civil War. That era teemed with orchestral invention. I’ve always been fascinated with the Modernist movement in 20th-century music.
P: I understand that Herbert’s play gets into not only Picasso’s art and creative process, but also the political realities of the periods he lived through—and his reactions to them.
BL: Keeping in mind Picasso’s own statement, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” Herbert tackles the role of this legendary artist as he actually paints on stage—and also how he reacts to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Picasso clearly had patriotic feelings for Spain, but he was always absorbed first and foremost by his art. Many think that Guernica, commissioned for the 1937 Paris Exhibition, was his crowning achievement.
P: Herbert features a lot of Picasso’s quotable quotes in the show, along with an almost Cirque du Soleil exuberance, full of movement, painting and color. Creating music and sounds for this show must have been thrilling.
BL: This is such rich material for a composer. There’s so much going on. Herbert showcases Picasso’s proclamations about children, war, ambition, God, love, hate, beauty, friendship, patriotism, eternity—and art as an agent of social change.
P: He plays Picasso and actually paints on stage during the show. The work of the musical score must in part be to reinforce and lift Herbert’s dynamic performance as Picasso the painter.
BL: Yes. Music can do so much to expand the emotional life of a performance. My goal was to musically echo the childlike joy—and hard work—of creation, and also the sense of the clock ticking both as Picasso rushes to finish these six paintings (and two vases) over three days on France’s south coast—and as the man confronts his advancing age. The audience is always delighted and rapt. I hope the music supports and buoys the spirit of the scenes.
Spamalot uses 30 wireless microphones and consumes more than 2000 AAA batteries per month and runs over 1 mile of cable.
Among the props is a cow that weighs 45 pounds and it takes two stagehands to catapult it over the castle.
Spamalot uses approximately 40 coconuts per month, supplied by the Coconut King in Florida.
The set utilizes 25 line sets, 20 chain motors, and more than 10,000 pounds of stage weight.
It takes more than 60 people on stage and off to run each performance.
The Electrics Department uses 6 tanks of liquid carbon dioxide per week to create the low-ground fog effect and uses 8 fire extinguishers per week for the Feet of God “blast off” effect.
The orchestra uses a Spama-horn, an instrument specially developed for and used only in Spamalot.
There are more than 75 wigs (including facial hair) in the show, all hand-tied and made of human hair, yak hair, and synthetics supplied from New York, California, and London.
The mud make-up is a formula specially designed for Spamalot.
The poorest peasants’ costumes in the show are actually made of raw silk.
3 feet of “blood” has to be ironed prior to each performance.
There are over 100 undergarments in the show, including 30 pairs of men’s fishnets and 56 cod pieces.
The Lady of the Lake’s costumes are all comprised of hand-strung glass beads.
The costumes are not only made of a wide variety of fabrics, but many are made of molded ABS plastics, and even nuts and bolts. You are as likely to see a costumer with power tools as you are a sewing machine.
It’s a guarantee that one knight will lose their head every night.
by Michael Lassell
Like Mary Poppins, the character she created, P.L. Travers did not believe in explaining. She did, however, believe in self-mythologizing, leaving those intent on biographical criticism so confused in her wake that even her obituaries had the facts wrong (according to Valerie Lawson, author of Out of the Sky She Came, the definitive Travers biography).
PLT, as she was sometimes called, did not even take credit for “creating” Poppins. Instead, she insisted, the nanny with the upturned nose just came to her one day, much as she blows in on the East Wind in the opening chapter of Mary Poppins (1934). But whether Travers created the “Practically Perfect” Poppins—while convalescing from pleurisy in her Sussex, England, cottage—or merely channeled her, the world is in her debt.
Despite the obfuscation, many facts of the author’s life are indisputable. Pamela Lyndon Travers, as she was fully known in her adult life, was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia, in 1899 (although the dust jacket of one of her own books claims it was 1906). She took her professional name—Travers was her father’s first name—during a brief stint as a dancer and actor. In 1924, she left Australia permanently after which she lived principally in England, with periods in Ireland and the U.S. (for a time with the Navajo).
PLT’s early life was fairly idyllic, until her father died when she was only seven. The eldest of three girls, she was remarkably imaginative, given to pretending she was a hen, spending hours brooding on an imaginary nest of eggs. She loved reading and ingested the Brothers Grimm (especially the gory bits). For a time in her childhood she thought “grim” was another word for story. “Tell me a grim,” she would say.
This child fantasist grew up to become quite self-sufficient, very much an “independent woman,” and years ahead of her time. To quote from Caitlin Flanagan’s 2005 New Yorker piece, “Travers was a woman who never married, wore trousers when she felt like it … [and as] she approached 40, she decided that she wanted a child… .[So she adopted] an infant, one of a pair of twins, and raised him as a single mother.”
After leaving Australia, where she had supported herself as a journalist, Travers matured into a poet, critic and essayist, and “a serious writer” of fiction and nonfiction books. Her circle of acquaintances included William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot, and her personal interests ran to mythology and mysticism (she was a longtime disciple of guru G.I. Gurdjieff). PLT reduced her alias to its initials to disguise her gender, hoping to escape the dismissive stereotype of the lightweight authoress.
The great success of Mary Poppins was immediately followed by Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935). Mary Poppins Opens the Door appeared in 1944, followed eight years later by Mary Poppins in the Park (1952). These four books—collections of stories with recurring characters rather than novels—are the core of the nanny’s canon. The last of the Poppins tales, Mary Poppins and the House Next Door, materialized in 1989.
Travers would not seem like the kind of person to be wooed by Walt Disney, but pursue her he did—or at least the film rights to Mary Poppins, a favorite of his daughters. It took Disney 20 years to convince the strong-willed and proprietary Travers to approve a script and sign on the dotted line, and it cost Disney five percent of the Mary Poppins gross. (Adjusted for inflation, the movie ranks as #23 on the list of all-time box-office earners.)
It took producer Cameron Mackintosh nearly as long to wrangle the stage rights. By the time he knew her, he says, “she was a frail old lady. But you could see that she had a steel rod going down her spine… She asked me lots of questions about her characters and what kind of musical I wanted to do on stage. When I started to dig for information I felt very much like Michael and Jane Banks waiting to be told, ‘You’ll do.’”
When Mackintosh finally acquired the theatrical rights, he met with Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions, to talk about the possibility of a joint production. He gave Schumacher the treatment he had worked up for the stage musical and Schumacher gave Mackintosh an armful of documents from the Disney vault.
“It was amazing,” recalls Schumacher, “that Cameron had focused on many of the characters and episodes from the books that Travers wanted to include in the Mary Poppins film sequel that was never made.”
As is frequently the case with people who do not like to talk about their personal lives, that of Travers seems unusually freighted with frustration and conflict—especially in her relationships, both requited and not. Even her 50-year collaboration with illustrator Mary Shepard—herself the daughter of Ernest H. Shepard, who first drew Winnie the Pooh—was not always placid. Perhaps Julie Andrews described Travers best: “I liked her,” said the Oscar-winning Andrews. “She was an eccentric and rather tough old girl but a good-hearted one, I felt.”
Countless details from PLT’s life found their way into her books. After her father’s death, Travers found herself living with her Great Aunt Helen (known as Aunt Ellie), for whom PLT was named. Ellie was an irascible and sometimes bitter spinster, described as variously peremptory and humane, given to sniffing disapprovingly and to quoting every bromide in the book of child rearing. She seems clearly to have been, at least in part, the life model for Mary Poppins. Not coincidentally, she made a habit of carrying a carpetbag. Physically, Mary Poppins is described as resembling a Dutch doll that was one of PLT’s playthings as a girl.
Travers assigned her own father’s occupation—bank manager—to Mary Poppins’ employer, George Banks, along with her father’s money troubles. Two of the Banks children, as Lawson points out in her book, are named after two of PLT’s relatives in Australia. Even the Royal Doulton bowl that figures so prominently in “Bad Wednesday” from Mary Poppins Comes Back was an artifact from PLT’s childhood. And her childhood nurse sported an umbrella with a carved parrot head for a handle.
That Mary Poppins is so widely considered a loving caregiver is one of the central mysteries of the books. Jane and Michael Banks are simultaneously devoted to her and terrified of displeasing her. Far from rosy-cheeked and flirtatious, as she seems from the film, the literary Poppins is described as strict, stern, remote and rigid—and she can stop a child in its muddy tracks with her blue-eyed glare.
Aside from the frequent dreamlike adventures that take her charges out of the ordinary world, the Poppins program of parenting is not the kind of rearing you would expect children to enjoy—not today; not in Depression-era London, where the books are set; not in 1910, the period of the film.
What is unique about Mary Poppins is her ability to impose order to the chaotic Banks household and a modicum of normalcy (between episodes of sorcery). Is Mary a magical fairy godmother, a disapproving authority figure or a satisfying bit of both?
That generations of readers have loved Mary Poppins, and grieved at her successive departures from 17 Cherry Tree Lane, may be the biggest mystery of the conjuring nanny’s hold on our collective hearts. Maybe it is the unexpected complexity that makes us cherish both Poppins and Travers. They don’t offer us an easy life, just a fascinating one. If their enchanted rose gardens come with thorns, the flowers bloom in colors we have never before seen.
Pamela Travers died in 1996, four months short of her 97th birthday.
Michael Lassell is the author of Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida: The Making of the Broadway Musical, Tarzan: The Broadway Adventure and, with Brian Sibley, the forthcoming book on bringing Mary Poppins to the stage (all from Disney Editions).
When Herbert Siguenza performed his A Weekend With Pablo Picasso at Houston’s Alley Theatre last year, he had a few things to say to The Alley’s Mark Bly about why he paints and why he took on the perilous task of not only impersonating an iconic artist on stage, but also of creating an actual painting on stage.
Mark Bly: What inspired you to write A Weekend With Pablo Picasso?
Herbert Siguenza: I was born with the mysterious gift of being able to draw. Since I was a young boy, I would press crayons against paper and create imaginary worlds and characters. In fact, when I was in second grade, my teacher, Mrs. Sharp, would pull me out of the reading circle and have me draw on giant rolls of butcher paper instead. She kept everything I drew.
Later that semester, we went on a field trip to downtown San Francisco to visit City Hall and the Board of Education building. To my great surprise, there was an exhibit of all my work hanging in the halls! My fellow students were very impressed, and I was immensely proud as well.
That first exhibit made it clear to me that I would grow up to become an artist.
That same year, my mother took me to the dentist. While we waited in the reception area, I picked up a photo book by Douglas Duncan called The Private Life of Picasso. The beautiful black and white photos showed a shirtless old man who painted and played like a child. He also had doves, several dogs and a goat. I turned and said to my mom, “When I grow up I want to be that old man.”
“That’s Pablo Picasso,” she said. “Es loco” [“You’re crazy”]. My dear mother did not discourage me; I knew better. The old man Columbus was not crazy but rather unconventional and free, which inspired me profoundly to later live my own life in that manner. I eventually went to the California College of Arts in Oakland were I got a BFA in printmaking and taught for two years. I also worked for ten years at La Raza Silkscreen Center producing posters for cultural and political events.
All these experiences have contributed to my personal and artistic growth. I see this play as a result of everything I have ever learned in regard to the visual and theatrical arts. It is a perfect and natural marriage for me. A play that I was born to perform starting now. It is a culmination of everything I’ve known since I was a curious child. And yes, I still don’t read very well. Thank you, Mrs. Sharp!
MB: Would you talk about your process as an actor and playwright in creating the play? Where does the painter-artist Herbert Siguenza figure into this stage equation?
HS: I don’t have a formal education in theatre but rather, as I said, a degree in art. To a certain extent that has been very liberating, because I never overthink or analyze what I do. I simply act on a real instinctive level, free from academic philosophies. I just do. My character of Picasso is not an imitation of Picasso because that would be false or impossible. My character of Picasso is me as a rich, old man who paints and lives in southern France. It’s simple and direct.
After 30 years of performing comedy and drama on stage, I feel ready to take on the challenge of portraying an icon. I could never have portrayed him ten years ago, you know? I wasn’t ready to take on such a giant character. He is Falstaff or Big Papa from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Now on the script, I took all the quotes Picasso said during his lifetime and constructed an imaginary weekend in 1957 in his studio, Le Californie. I wanted to recreate the sights and sounds of the pictures I saw in Duncan’s wonderful photographs. My only goal as a playwright was for the audience to experience and feel like they are spending an intimate weekend with a master, a genius but also a Spanish man in exile.
Picasso said that viewing art is a kind of voyeurism. I think viewing theatre is even more voyeuristic, because we are seeing people in their most private moments. In my play I want no separation between performer and audience. The audience is a participant and the reason for the play. There are only a few moments where the audience “is not there” and watches Picasso at his most private and most vulnerable. As a painter I am also vulnerable, I paint and create in front of the audience. No safety net, no gimmicks—just magic and truth in action. Like my acting, I just do it without thinking. I think Picasso would be proud of me.
MB: Picasso’s relationship with 20th century political movements was complex and you explore that struggle in your play. Can you characterize that epic “tug and pull” between art and politics that manifested itself in Picasso’s work?
HS: Picasso’s long-time friend Jaime Sabartes said that, “Picasso is the most apolitical person I know.” I think to a certain degree it was true. Even though Picasso was a member of the French Communist Party and contributed to many leftist causes, he wasn’t politically or physically involved. He was sort of a Communist from afar. As long as he could paint what he wanted in freedom, he was content being in the Party for idealistic reasons.
He was an artist first and foremost and an activist second. I have struggled with that “tug and pull” in my own life as a Chicano/Latino actor-activist. At one point you have to decide what you were meant to do in this life, you know? Are you an artist or a politician?
Picasso remained free and true to his style, he never succumbed to the pressures of the party to paint in a social realist manner. I believe theatre that is didactic and pounds you over the head is the worst kind of theatre and does not accomplish what it wants to do in the first place: make people think. If art does the thinking for you, what’s the use? That’s why Guernica
is so amazingly powerful and eternal. It’s politically charged but aesthetically transcendental.
During the Cold War, Picasso did not fan the fire of nuclear destruction but rather was a global peace campaigner and contributed art and financial donations to many peace organizations and social causes. In fact, the iconography of the Peace Movement—the doves, flowers, children that are used today—was first created by Picasso in the late ’50s.
Picasso was a Humanist who just happened to be a Communist. We are lucky because Guernica, the peace dove, the hands holding flowers were created as if a child had drawn them, and that is why it has lasted so long because it connects with our inner child full of joy, happiness and hope.
This interview originally appeared in the Alley Theatre’s program for A Weekend With Pablo Picasso. Reprinted with permission.