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.”
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).
A few tips for Monty Python novices and wannabes.
Remember the first time you tried liver? Or asparagus? OK, bad examples. But just like you didn’t have to be Jewish to eat Arnold’s Jewish Rye, you don’t have to be a stuffy, upper-class twit or even a drunken rugby fan to enjoy Spamalot.
“Taste is the enemy of art altogether. I’ve thought about this a lot. People with good taste are constantly worrying about what other people will think. Don’t put that couch over there! It’s the wrong thing to be thinking about because it squashes expression. Of life and vitality of all kinds, and sex – all the funny things!” —Spamalot director, Mike Nichols, New York Magazine
“I haven’t seen the movie so I won’t get the jokes.”
Please note that the Broadway musical Spamalot is only a partial rip-off of the spectacularly low-budget film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This extravagantly over budget musical, on the other hand, features a chorus of hunky men and sexy dancing girls, eye-popping sets, lavish costumes, plenty of new songs and several (extremely tasteful) potshots at theatrical institutions like Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Les Misérables.
“Comedy is about reminding us of the truth of being human: we all have a body and we all must die, and it is okay.” —Eric Idle, BBC News Online
“I can’t take my mom/daughter/sister to Spamalot. It’s really a guy show.”
OK, so your sons and husbands and uncles and grandfathers may know some of the lines by heart already, but Spamalot is so much more than fart jokes and dismembered knights. How about Tony Award-winning direction from Mike Nichols, director of The Birdcage, Working Girl and The Graduate. How about Tony-nominated choreography from Casey Nicholaw of this season’s The Drowsy Chaperone?
“But the Pythons didn’t write good parts for women because they were public schoolboys not used to dealing with ladies.” —The “Seventh Python,” Carol Cleveland, actress in most Python programs/movies/stage shows
…So don’t take our word for it – take theirs!
Those blue guys are not aliens; they’re members of Blue Man Group, bringing their energy and enigma to Denver
It’s 10 minutes to show time at a performance of Blue Man Group, and the noise in the theatre is so loud that the audience seems more like a group of revelers at a party than spectators in a theatre. People are boisterous, anticipation is high, the buzz is electric. By the time the Blue Men appear, the audience is screaming with delight.
It’s a scene repeated most nights in New York, Boston, Chicago, Orlando, Vegas and wherever Blue Man Group is appearing. How often do you see theatre audiences so revved up at the end of most shows, let alone before one has even begun? The decibel level rises as the evening goes on. By the end, the atmosphere is euphoric.
The Blue Man Group experience is unique and not confined to the United States. There are or have been productions in Tokyo, Toronto, and numerous European cities including Berlin, London, and Amsterdam. Millions of people of all ages and nationalities have seen the show, and countless numbers are repeat visitors. Although the off-Broadway production has been around since 1991, the demand for it is still strong and Blue Man Group has heeded the call with this, its first national tour—a tour that features a combination of the Blue Men’s most popular pieces with fresh material created exclusively for this iteration.
Why all the excitement?
It’s impossible to say exactly. Blue Man Group is totally off the grid—a contemporary comedic piece, performed by three silent, bald-and-blue characters who engage in a variety of set pieces ranging from primitive to sophisticated that combine music, comedy, science, technology and mind-boggling creativity. Just as in old-time vaudeville, they have something for everyone.
“We’ve done surveys to figure out who our audience is, and we’ve found that our demographic ranges from eight to 85 years old,” says Puck Quinn, creative director of character development and appearances. “That’s when we know we’re doing something right. A kid can come to the show and just enjoy the rhythm or the mess or the colors or the spectacle. Adults can come and do the exact same thing, but they might also come away with something to think about. When we do our work well, the show succeeds on multiple levels.”
Amid the riot of colors and music, the eating and flying food, are the LED screens displaying sometimes silly, sometimes witty, sometimes thought-provoking messages. There also is a sonorous pre-recorded voice guiding the audience through clever set pieces about a variety of topics such as modern plumbing, technology and choreography.
But the Blue Man Group show is mostly visual and aural—as opposed to oral. The Men are mute by choice. Language is not an issue, so the show travels well to other countries. Beating paint-covered drums and creating cascades of color has visceral appeal in any culture, and the “feast”—in which a member of the audience joins the Blue Men onstage to dine on… a Twinkie—retains its humor and sweetness wherever it plays.
“I think the reason the show works goes back to our ideas about the character,” says Phil Stanton, co-founder of Blue Man Group with Matt Goldman and Chris Wink all those years ago. “It might sound heady to talk about it this way, but the Blue Man is a kernel of humanity or a kind of Everyman. The blue paint gets rid of race and nationality.”
Adds Quinn: “The show deals with topics and issues that are common to every culture: Communication. Sensory overload. Beating music and heavy rhythm. Dancing. All of that crosses every border. We have things that we want to say, and the message is there if you want to hear it, but we don’t care if you don’t. We just want everyone to have fun.”
The relationship between the Blue Men and the audience is the most intriguing part of this phenomenon. The audience could be considered an additional—and unpredictable—character. It’s not just that a woman from the audience is selected to appear onstage each night to partake in the “feast,” or that a man is chosen to get “Jelloed” (a new verb?) or that viewers in the first few rows are so close to the action that they’re given ponchos to wear in case paint or other stuff lands on them. It’s that the audience response catalyzes the Blue Men. That symbiosis is what fuels the passions of the show’s devoted fans.
“The relationship with the audience is everything,” underscores Matt Goldman, “because at the end of the day, the Blue Man is really just trying to connect. He knows, either intellectually or at gut level, that in order to get to that ecstatic, heightened moment, he must connect with these strangers. That’s why the Blue Man is so respectful [of his viewers]. He wants their trust. It’s all about connection.”
Clearly, Blue Man Group is connecting. Stanton recalls a man who saw the show 70 times (“he wasn’t a weirdo”) and others who’ve seen it 20 or 30 times. “Usually, if people see a play they liked, they’ll tell their friends to go see it,” says Quinn, “but with our show, people want the experience of seeing it with their friends. And that creates energy and intensity from the start…. It’s not a passive experience. It’s more like going to a sporting event.
“I tell people that you don’t really start seeing the layers of the onion peeled back until you see the show for the second or third time. I also think people come back for very specific reasons: they want to really listen to the music or pay attention to a particular moment because they couldn’t quite figure out how it was done. And they come back because they want to see how the show is different from night to night. The other thing is, we change the show. Every couple of years we swap out a whole bunch of material. We want it to be relevant to time and period.”
The national tour should only expand Blue Man Group’s fan base and recidivists will discover a performance quite different from its predecessors.
“We are going to be in large theatres, and that was one of the main impulses for finding another way to deliver a lot of the content,” says Stanton. “We have a new set design, with LED surfaces and LED curtains. It gives the show a completely different look. And we’ve found that we can use the technology to help people focus more.”
The finale—one of Blue Man Group’s most celebrated hallmarks—is now completely new; replacing it, its creators say, took guts.
“We always wanted the show to feel like it was working toward that moment, that ending, when all the things that make us fragmented in the modern world go away and we become one group,” says Stanton. “It’s hinted at in certain places during the show, and that’s what the arc of the evening is about: two cultures encountering each other and realizing by the end that there are no barriers between them….
“There aren’t many places where you can be with strangers and have this shared experience. The new finale has a similar concept, and the same goal: to make the audience look around and encounter other people. Visually, we’re taking it to another level. We hope audiences will find it even more powerful.”
Material for this article is courtesy of the Blue Man Group website.
By Sylvie Drake
For nearly 60 years, he’s usurped Mark Twain’s persona as his mantle and Twain’s perspicacity as his rapier. Both still apply.
Did you know…. that actor Hal Holbrook was a member of the first Lincoln Center Repertory Company (1963), did a whole lot of regional theatre, film and TV, won numerous Emmys, including one for his role as host and narrator of Portrait of America, a five-year cable TV project that garnered the 1984 Peabody?
Of course not.
You and the world inevitably think of Hal Holbrook primarily as Mark Twain, thanks to his irrepressible solo performance in Mark Twain Tonight!, a now legendary characterization of the 19th century humorist and writer that grew out of a post-World War II honors project at Ohio’s Denison University.
That should give you some idea of how long Holbrook’s been spreading Twain’s gospel to an ever-renewing public eager to listen.
To hear Holbrook tell it, this was all an accident. Born in Cleveland in 1925 where his first role in the theatre was in The Man Who Came to Dinner at Cleveland’s Cain Park Theatre, he grew up in Massachusetts. He and his two sisters were reared there by their grandparents (and assorted boarding schools) after their mother, a dancer in vaudeville and musical comedy, disappeared when her children were little, and their father did a similar vanishing act soon after.
By the time Holbrook left Denison, he was married and he and his first wife, Ruby Johnson, had developed a two-person show consisting of characters from Shakespeare to (yes) Mark Twain. They took it on the road, touring the 8am school assembly circuit in a freezing Southwest, doing 307 shows in 30 weeks, and racking up 30,000 miles on their station wagon, with costumes that often had to be defrosted before they could be worn.
The Twain characterization might have perished right there, but Holbrook was cast in a soap opera in New York and became sufficiently bored with it that he began to expand his repertoire of Twain material in sheer self-defense. When TV’s Ed Sullivan saw the polished oneman piece in a small New York theatre and offered Holbrook national exposure on his hugely popular variety show, there was no turning back.
The down side of that success was that young Hal was being offered mostly old-man roles. The up side, though he didn’t know it at the time, was that Mark Twain Tonight! would become the singular, solo creation that he’s played all over the country (including Broadway, where it earned him a 1966 Tony® Award) that would keep rewarding him—artistically, emotionally, financially—for the rest of his life. It is a lasting achievement without equal.
This turn of events threatened, but was not allowed to impede a much richer and fuller career. On stage he tackled everything—from comedy to drama, musicals to Chekhov, Miller to Shakespeare, careening from Hotspur and Shylock to the vaulting King Lear, without flinching at the sheer magnitude and range of his undertakings.
“I was introduced to acting that way, playing everything” he told this writer in 1996, when he came through Denver in the title role of Death of a Salesman. (His most recent film achievement is playing Francis Preston Blair in Spielberg’s Lincoln.)
“I dove into the theatre to get behind disguises,” he confessed. “As a kid, I’d scare the neighborhood as the Hunchback of Notre Dame. If I’d learned just to play myself I might have become some kind of movie star, but I thwarted that by taking on roles that allowed me to get at the heart of a character.
“In the theatre, when you deal with the literature, you learn to inhabit those amazing characters.”
Yet the most amazing of those characters remains his portrayal of the pugnacious, cigar-chomping Mark Twain, a wit and writer Holbrook deeply admires and with whom he is on very intimate terms after almost 60 years of being him on stage. Not only does he find Twain’s perceptions brilliant, but also extremely modern. He has taken Twain’s writings—paragraphs, lines and sentences—to create an ever-changing, revolving-door script. By changing the words he chooses to say from one performance to the next, Holbrook enlivens the event and keeps it fresh.
When we met on a wintry Los Angeles afternoon in his home library recently, Holbrook was fired up. On cue, eyes, energy and indignation blazing, he expounded not only on the astonishing career he has made out of playing one of America’s greatest citizen-philosophers (a journey now chronicled in his 2011 autobiography, Harold, the Boy Who Became Mark Twain), but also on his boundless admiration for what he sees as Twain’s prophetic vision of this country’s often rogue and difficult trajectory and uncertain future.
“He was the first tremendously successful author in this country,” he said. “In the 1870s, after the Civil War, his career took off, he came east, and the country took off. The Industrial Revolution began, fed by Mr. Lincoln saying go ahead, put down the transcontinental railroad. Mark Twain, still in his thirties, became the confidant of Andrew Carnegie, of Mr. Vanderbilt—he sailed on his yacht—of young John Rockefeller, of every single one of these people: [Jay] Gould, J.P. Morgan.
“In those days, no TV, so they all belonged to clubs, the Players Club, the Lotus Club. They all knew each other, had lunches, made fun of each other, had fun with each other. Twain watched them, looked at them, went home and wrote about them. He saw the great turn that had happened in this country, from an agrarian to an industrialized nation, which became, in a period of 30 or 40 years, an industrial giant.
“I am putting in a new piece of material,” he announced with unconcealed fanfare. “This is a quote: ‘We can’t get out of it now. No mistake. We are the kind of world power that a prairie-dog village is, and our government must stand sentinel on top of our little world-power mound and, with lifted nose, solemn face and curved paws, look out over the vast prairie. And if we see anything that doesn’t look right, because we’re a world power and our civilization is wonderful in many spectacular ways…’ ”
The rest of this quote throws down a gauntlet to an America Twain presciently saw as having lost its way. “ ‘It’s a civilization,’ ” the quote sums up, that “ ‘has destroyed the simplicity and repose of life, its poetry, its soft romantic dreams and visions, and replaced them with a money fever, shorted ideals, vulgar ambitions and a sleep that does not refresh.’ ” No wonder Holbrook stands in awe.
“You could start the American Dream with Abraham Lincoln as the epitome of the Great American Story,” he said. “You go from Lincoln to Twain and the disintegration that he began to write about in The Gilded Age and other late works, and you know he was beginning to see the erosion of the purity of our values.
“If you think that Mark Twain was just becoming a road exercise for me, think again,” he added. “It’s the only way that I am able to get rid of my anger and frustration. I can get out there and say something that means something to me and, I believe, to the American public that may not even understand the magnitude of what is going on. It’s become my sword. We all need to think a little bit about what we are doing to ourselves, to our children and especially to our country.”
The words will be Twain’s. The passion? All Holbrook.
This article originally appeared in Applause magazine.
Frank Abagnale Jr. is an expert on fraud, scams, deception and beating the system. Between the ages of 16 and 21, he forged and cashed $2.5 million worth of bad checks in the United
States and 26 other countries, while successfully passing himself off as an airline pilot for Pan Am, a doctor, a college professor and a lawyer. He was ultimately caught, as he always knew he would be, and served time in French, Swedish and American prisons.
Abagnale’s adventures were immortalized, and somewhat fictionalized, in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, with Leonardo DiCaprio starring as the young con man and Tom Hanks playing the FBI agent who pursued him. The movie, based on a ghost-written autobiography, inspired a 2011 Broadway musical of the same name – score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, book by Terrence McNally, direction by Jack O’Brien and choreography by Jerry Mitchell – which is now touring the country.
It’s easy to understand why great storytellers have been attracted to this period in Abagnale’s life. His capers were colorful, improbable, glamorous, ingenious and exciting. With each chase, with each con, there also was the element of suspense: Would he get away with it? How would he get away with it? It’s a tale that practically begged to be told on screen and on stage.
Abagnale’s life on the lam is the most entertaining part of his story – but it’s not the best part of his story. It may not even be the most remarkable part of his story. What Abagnale has done since leaving behind his life of crime is both mind-boggling and inspiring. He has used his knowledge as a counterfeiter and scam artist to stop criminals and protect law-abiding citizens, initially working with the FBI – which was part of his parole agreement – and then by developing a host of fraud prevention programs that are used by more than 14,000 financial institutions, corporations and law enforcement agencies. “Those are the amazing things to me about my life,” he says, “not what I did so many years ago.”
He didn’t set out to be a con artist when he ran away from home to New York City following his parents’ divorce. “It started out as survival,” he says. “I was 16 and tried to get jobs working in a store, like a delivery boy, and I realized they weren’t going to pay me anything. I knew I looked older, and I thought that if I lied about my age, if people thought I was ten years older, they’d pay me more.”
But as the film and musical indicate, Abagnale was resourceful and very smart, and he began to figure out ways – none of them legal – to make great sums of money, more than he ever dreamed. “I’ve always said that the two reasons for my success were that I was very creative and very observant,” he says. “I saw things that no one paid attention to. I was able to look at things and figure out ways around them. I think I got away with a lot of things because I was an adolescent; I had no fear of being caught. And like most adolescents, I wasn’t thinking about the consequences.”
He didn’t have nearly as much fun as the Frank Abagnale of stage and screen. “It’s a very lonely life,” he says. “Everyone you meet thinks you’re somebody else. I couldn’t confide in anybody. I was this teenage boy out on his own, and I cried myself to sleep many nights. Everyone I associated with thought I was their peer, but they were ten years older than I. So I was constantly having to act like an adult.
“I was also being chased, and I knew I had to stay one step ahead,” he continues. “At one point it became a game between me and the FBI agent as to who was going to outsmart who. But you grow up and mature and you realize you don’t want to live the rest of your life like that. I always knew I’d get caught: I didn’t have it in me to give myself up, but I knew it was a matter of time before they would catch up with me. And there’s great relief when you’re caught because it’s over. When I look back on my life, even knowing where it has brought me, I would never want to have to live that over again.”
Abagnale was 21 years old and living under an assumed name in France when the French police caught him and imprisoned him for six months under horrific conditions. He then spent six months in a Swedish jail, and was subsequently deported to the United States. Before American authorities could take him into custody he ran away again, escaping through the service area of the plane – not by disemboweling a plane’s toilet, as in the movie. “I was desperate, but not that desperate,” he says. He was desperate because he was terrified. “I thought I might go to prison for 20 years or for the rest of my life. Having experienced prison, I got very scared, and that’s why I tried to escape. I had no idea whether American prisons were like French prisons.”
He was eventually caught and sentenced to 12 years in jail. But after four years he was paroled, on the condition that he would use his expertise teaching and working undercover for the FBI. “I didn’t come out of prison saying, ‘I’m a changed person, I will never do this again,’” he says. “The truth is that this was a way to get my freedom. I didn’t know what I would do, or whether I would go straight.”
It was during one of his undercover assignments that Abagnale met Kelly, the woman who would become his wife. “She was working on her master’s degree, writing a paper and doing an internship at this institution where I was undercover,” he says. “I met her under this phony name, and started dating her. On my last day, I took her to the park and said, ‘I would really like to continue to see you, but I have to explain that I’m not this person, this is not what I do for a living. I work for the government and I’ve been here on assignment.’ I broke protocol, which you’re never supposed to do. But she listened to me, and she literally changed my life. She believed in me, she had faith in me, and she married me against the wishes of her parents, who eventually came to love me. She saw something in me that other people probably never saw. She gave me three beautiful children. I am who I am and I am and where I am because of the love of a woman, and the respect three sons have for their father. “
With Kelly in his life, Abagnale’s redemption truly began. When his obligation to the FBI was completed, he was asked to remain on. “I didn’t want to stay on as an employee of the government, because there were things I wanted to do that I’d be restricted from doing, like writing books and educating people about crime,” he says. “I also had a lot of technology ideas that I wanted to develop, but I knew that if I did them while working for the government, the technology would become government property.” So he became a contract employee, working as a consultant and teaching at the FBI Academy – where one of his students was his oldest son, now an FBI agent.
Abagnale works with the FBI to this day, and became lifelong friends with the agent who relentlessly pursued him, Joseph Shea – known as Carl Hanratty in the movie and the musical – who died in 2005. He has his own business, Abagnale & Associates, a security consulting firm, and is considered to be a leading authority in the field. He is a dynamic, much sought-after lecturer, and a self-made millionaire – legitimately. Just as surprising, he serves on the advisory board of Wild Wings International, the philanthropic organization of former Pan Am flight attendants. “Who would have dreamed that?” he says. “Only in America could something like this happen.”
Yet he lives with his past everyday. And although three presidents have offered to pardon him, he has turned them down. “I respectfully declined,” he says, “because I truly believe that a piece of paper cannot excuse my actions. I don’t think it works that way. I made some mistakes in my life and I have to live with them. I know people are fascinated by what I did between the ages of 16 and 21. But what amazes me is where my life went when I came out of prison. I try to do the right thing, and I hope that in the end I’ll be judged for that.”
Catch Me if You Can plays Denver’s Buell Theatre Feb 26-March 10. Tickets: 303.893.4100.