From: The Inman Review Volume 4: Winter 2012

 

Arts & Culture

 

Notes From Exile

Theater in Cambridge

 

by Jahn Sood
To my beloved Inmanians,

I miss you. I’ve gone away. I write from exile.

As wholeheartedly as I love Inman Square, pouring your coffee and editing your magazine, I have left the proverbial wheel in the hands of my friends and coeditors and traveled to another land—a short trip on the Fung Wah Bus away—New York City.

I know. I’m sorry. It’s shameful, but fear not. I will return, baseball allegiances intact and I promise the betrayal of my homeland was not in vain. I came for grad school. I’m studying musical theater writing. You gasp, you sigh, you might cry a little, but it’s true. It is possible to go to grad school for musical theater writing and that’s why I’m here.

So now I write as a Cantabrigian transplanted in New York in a community of aspiring musical theater librettists and composers palpitating with the strange task of creating something truthful, something that subverts our expectations of a tired genre, something that looks the audience directly in the eye and sends lightning down its collective spine. Can it be done with words and music? I’m sure as hell gonna try.

 

In the mean time, I thought I’d write home with a few words about Cambridge in the perspective I get from looking back from this particular planet.

Before Zach and I founded this magazine in 2009, I foolishly assumed that I was in isolation as a prose writer in Cambridge. I quickly discovered that with a few phone calls, a Facebook page and a flyer or two, a thriving creative community could be rallied and united to a common cause. Cambridge has a deeply ambitious and creative literary scene.

Similarly, when I lived in Cambridge I found myself to be in relative isolation as a musical theater writer.   It was of course my mistake—something I’m starting to see as a general personality flaw. I have a tendency to wallow in my loneliness in total denial about the fact that I wouldn’t be alone if I picked up the phone.

As a musical theater writer I was so (perversely) set on isolation that I wasn’t willing to admit that I was writing musicals at all.

It was one director friend who happened to become aware of the real nature of my midnight writing expeditions that convinced me they were theatrical and that we should try putting them on stage. That friend was Brendan Shea. (Check out his work if you can. He continues to be an Inman resident and brilliant playwright, director and dramaturg.)

Brendan read some of my first musicals and convinced me that theater was meant to live on stage and that characters could be directed and performed. He also must have realized that I was a nearly blank slate and that he could give me my first introductions to what it meant for music and theater to interact.

He gave me Bertold Brecht. Before Brecht I knew a random collection of classic dramatists: a little Ibsen, Checkov and Shaw. I’d read Hamlet too many times. I’d seen Brendan’s production of Brüchner’s Woycek featuring an incidental score by Tom Waits that I dreamed about for months after, and strangely enough, I performed in a college production of Peter Pan, cast only because I play the banjo.

At the time I thought that this was the entire universe of theater that related to me. I also thought I hated musicals. I thought they all sounded the same. I thought they were nostalgic for a bygone era and that Broadway was a vapid commercial trap. I certainly didn’t think I was writing them.

Somehow through all the admittedly uninformed judgment, I was writing stories to be told by actors on stage in which the drama is entirely dependent on song. I was writing musicals.

 

When Brendan suggested I start reading Brecht, I had a similar awakening to when I first realized we had an inbox full of submissions for the Inman Review: I AM NOT ALONE.

Brecht was certainly the writer that justified putting the kinds of songs I write on stage. He valued the folk song and the folk play, but more importantly, his choice of subject showed that he shared my core values about what makes great art.

He wrote Three Penny Opera—a musical play forcefully about corruption in capitalist society written and produced in Berlin at the time when the spread of fascism was impending.

He wrote Mother Courage & Her Children, a show that comments directly on the horrors of war and war profiteering, written in exile from Germany when the entire world was ramping up to the height of WWII.

While in his essays he claims he favors intellect over emotion, Mother Courage depicts one of the more vulnerable moments of human suffering I have felt in theater: when the protagonist has to deny that she has met her own child after seeing him dead. His shows are personal and societal at the same time and hit me at the viscera.

 

I’d like to think my value system as a musical theater writer is derivative of the same impulse that led me to be part of the creation of this magazine. If you have been following the Inman Review, you know we care about three things—honesty, personal connection between writer and audience and awareness of the community. These criteria lead to art that exists in a certain place for a reason.

These are our criteria for selecting work for the magazine and the reason we have remained adamant that the Inman Review be a print publication. When you buy a copy at 1369 or Harvard Bookstore, you look directly in the eye of someone who knows all the writers and editors of the magazine.

In an era in which it is easy for writers to send their work out into the infinite blogosphere and reach a wide audience of strangers, writers for this publication choose to know the people they are writing for. We are holding on to the idea that conversations can still be had eye-to-eye.

The voices of Cambridge echoing through this volume itself underline these values.

Check out E.F. Tecosky’s “Advice for a Self Portrait” (page 14):

“Artists should live with a steel-wool honesty. / If the mouth is lined, two dark folds / from the tip of the nose, draw what you see.”

Or Annabel Gill’s praise of novelist Clarice Lispector (page 5):

“Often I didn’t know exactly what Lispector was getting at; but on another level I could see it, smell it, taste it, or sense it in the pit of my stomach.”

As a community, I think we value art that is direct, local, personal. Art that shouts: do not forget who you are, do not forget the world around you, and with whatever capacity you have left, feel something!

Reading Brecht gave me hope that musical theater could operate with a similar ethic. Brecht’s shows were written genuinely. They allowed actors themselves to look the audience in the eye, to include and implicate the audience in the stories told. And they were absolutely written with a community in mind and written to comment on what it means to be part of that community.

In his 1949 Short Organum for the Theater, Brecht writes:

“Our representations of human social life are designed for river-dwellers, fruit farmers, builders of vehicles and upturners of society, whom we invite into our theatres and beg not to forget their cheerful occupations while we hand the world over to their minds and hearts, for them to change as they think fit.”

Rather than transport his audience to a fantastic place or a cathartic theatrical world, he wanted to write for people who continue to be aware of themselves as working members of a community and proclaimed, “The events in this play couldn’t happen without you.”

While the task of writing a letter home—to Cambridge—has made me nostalgic for those days with my old friends, the personal anecdotes in this essay and my reference to the magazine itself are by no means tangential to my point. Writing, theater, all creative work takes place somewhere. Understanding the community that provides the audience, colleagues and collaborators for a particular artist is essential to understanding that artist’s work and perspective.

 

It is no coincidence that at the time Brendan was recommending my first Brecht he was studying dramaturgy at the American Repertory Theater during the first years Diane Paulus was the artistic director.

Since I came to New York and started cluing myself in to what else is going on in theater, I have discovered a few things about what that means.

First: Dramaturgy is not a type of theatrical fowl that tastes great with cranberry sauce.

Second: There is something very special happening at the ART that I think reflects the artistic needs of the Cambridge community.

In New York there are enough plays produced that I could see something different every night and never run out of options and never see an over arching trend in the meaning of new theater. Theater here is vast and diverse.

In Cambridge, there is one major theater-making institution and it’s led by a person with a very specific creative vision. Lo and behold it is that theater in my old neighborhood that seems to embody the principles I set forth for what makes great art more consistently than any theater making institution I have discovered in New York.

For a start, with Ms. Paulus’ guidance the ART has reinvented the space they use to make theater. The second stage on Arrow Street has been converted into Oberon, a room with two stages, two bars, several moving set pieces that slide through the audience and a balcony that is part of the playing space and surrounds the entire theater.

Part of the impetus in converting the space may have been to appeal to new theatergoers—maybe from my generation—people who think they are more likely to have a transformative experience in a place like the Middle East than a fancy old proscenium theater. Remember my attitude towards musical theater before Brecht—I was skeptical of the form itself. And I was writing it.

Oberon is somewhere between a theater and a rock club and yes, it appeals to a new generation, but young or old, all audience members get a theater experience that envelops.

While the Brechtian conceit of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ allowed actors to look the audience directly in the eye and speak to them as if they are collectively a character in the play, at Oberon, the audience is unavoidably inside the set. The actors can not only break the fourth wall, but tap you on the shoulder, whisper in your ear, wave their hands in your face.

For those who remember the Zero Arrow space and subscribers to the main stage ART shows, this theater experience is surprising and new. It is a total contrast to standard repertory productions that take place elsewhere.

The directing choices made in the Oberon space and other productions during the current era of the ART amplify the feeling that the audience is included and implicated.

One notable recent ART production is Sleep No More, the British transfer adaptation of Macbeth that theatergoers across the board have reported is stunning, mesmerizing and mind altering. The piece shows little resemblance to the adapted material and doesn’t necessarily make sense, but it doesn’t matter. We can be taken into the work, make choices and affect the outcome. It is certainly a “sense it in the pit of my stomach” production.

There is also The Donkey Show, which Paulus developed in New York and eventually brought with her to the ART.

Ok. I loathe disco too, and I’m not that charmed by the idea of making a good time out of something as demeaning as “donkey shows” without comment of some kind, but I was inspired by the use of the space, the physicality and stamina of the performers and the overwhelming spectacle of the show. And spectacle is what it boasts of… not writing. Again, theatergoers are consumed by theater.

It is also to be noted that the target audience of The Donkey Show comes to the theater knowing all the lyrics. It is unabashedly a “jukebox musical,” a musical constructed using popular songs out of their original context. The story is built around the songs.

Usually when uttered amongst theater writers the ‘jukebox’ label has a layer of vitriol. These shows are by definition written without dramatic composers and lyricists whose entire creative energy is geared towards crafting songs specific to character and dramatic moment.

While I understand this perspective, I don’t feel threatened by the existence of jukebox shows. I see the jukebox musical as a transition drug for theaters to get used to producing work with different sounds while good new musicals with original songs are created.

Musical theater did come into its last golden age after an era when the musical reviews of Irving Berlin and his contemporaries were vital. These variety shows were also a bunch of good songs strung together with a relatively simple book that helped develop the sound of the old guard of American musical theater.

As a folk songwriter, I am very interested in the ways that songs can be part of national consciousness. I love thinking about songs that you know because your mom used to sing them, songs that are inside you in a deeper way than something you’ve heard a few times on the radio or because they’ve been marketed to you. These are folk songs.   At the same time, I believe that character driven songs written intentionally for theater, when done well, take theatrical experience to another level. I want to see theater that does both.

 

In addition to environmental theater like Sleep No More or jukebox musicals like The Donkey Show, Paulus has directed well-crafted older musicals that are already conducive to the type of theater experience that she is interested in creating.

The production that arguably got Paulus her gig as the Artistic Director of the ART was her production of Rado, Ragni and MacDermot’s “tribal rock” musical, Hair. I recently saw the touring cast of this show returned to Broadway for a short run at the St. James Theater.

At this production I realized that there is a trademark of Paulus’ directing style that persists outside of her home court. Even on the big stage at the St. James, there were hippies sitting in my lap, handing me flyers, appearing from the audience, running up and down the aisles. I was surrounded by spectacle and unavoidably inside the piece.

I also saw a bunch of naked actors. Most of the naked human I have seen in theater has been in Paulus’ productions. Donkey Show, Prometheus Bound and Cabaret all depend on a lot of gyrating flesh, but Hair had full frontal nudity of the entire cast at once.

The nudity wasn’t all that shocking, nor was it meant to be. It was done with a comfort for the human body that is relevant to the comfort with which sexuality is discussed in Hair. I hope this reflects a decision not to stray from the core values inherent in the writing itself. As a writer there is nothing I value more than a director whose goal is to understand and amplify the meaning of the underlying work.

 

Another recent production on this list was Paulus’ staging of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret. This show obviously written with Brecht in mind features the distinctive oom-pop of his most famous collaborator, Kurt Weill, and even starred Weill’s wife and original Three Penny Opera lead, Lotte Lenya, when it first ran on Broadway in 1966. In Cabaret, the audience is meant to be inside the drama and meet the actors in a theatrical Limbo space. The show is beautifully crafted so ‘breaking the fourth wall’ is intimately connected to story and meaning. As we acknowledge an emcee is leading actors in performance and that the story itself is a work of fiction, we are asked to think about the political landscape of the world where the story takes place and wonder if politics and social norms are acting as an emcee for the cabaret of life.

Cabaret was a good choice for Paulus and a good choice for Cambridge, and the ART marketed it as a star vehicle for a local hero, Amanda Palmer. While it was not written specifically for Cambridge, it was produced and directed for Cambridge.

 

This brings us to Porgy & Bess, the most recent and most controversial Diane Paulus production of an old, well crafted show.

With Porgy & Bess, the stakes were high from the beginning. For one, the production began with commercial enhancement money. This means that Broadway producers provide an advance for a regional theater, the ART in this case, to develop a show until it is ready for Broadway, knowing they have the right to transfer the production to New York.

In part, this is good for Cambridge. It allows us to see a Broadway level production on Brattle Street. At the same time, it brings a different kind of attention from the outside and pressure to create something commercially viable.

I’ve discussed my sense of what art Cambridge values already, but even beyond Cambridge, regional theater audiences are known to be more interested in intellectually challenging and emotionally deep work than Broadway audiences. My inner iconoclast is fearful of a commercially enhanced production in Cambridge’s big regional theater. I can only imagine that Paulus was negotiating between her artistic vision, the writing itself and pressure to make the production into a Broadway hit.

Additionally, the stakes were high on this production because Porgy & Bess is Steven Sondheim’s favorite show and he has frequently declared the importance and integrity of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and George and Ira Gershwin’s work.

Sondheim is unarguably the writer who has done the most to push musical theater to be a serious art form in the last decades and he knows it. Coming to the end of his career, he has been incredibly concerned with his legacy and the way we remember the history of musical theater. This is clear if you take a look at his recent books on lyric writing, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. Sondheim is very much aware of his power in the theater industry and his eyes were focused closely on the particular manner in which Porgy & Bess would be revived.

When I first heard about Paulus’ production I wasn’t yet aware of all the hype, but the stakes were high for me too. I was interested in Porgy & Bess because it is the first show to declare itself a folk-opera and one of the only folk-operas that actually provided folk songs that became part of American consciousness. I have long been a fan of the Porgy & Bess covers by Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and others. Over the last 50 years, songs like “Summertime” and “I’ve Got Plenty o’ Nothing” that were written for specific dramatic moments in the opera have been reinvented time and time again and continue to find loving audiences of all types who are often unaware of the piece as a whole.

The first thing I did when I moved to New York and got a NY Public Library card was rush up to the Theater On Film and Tape archive at Lincoln Center to watch old productions of Porgy & Bess. Little did I know, the chance to see it in person was coming.

Just reading the bill, a lot can be determined about Paulus’ production. For one, she brought in some incredible performers. Audra McDonald who played Bess is certainly one of the most talented actors working in musical theater today. Not surprisingly, I first became aware of McDonald after watching her performance of LA Opera’s 2007 revival of Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny that was taped for PBS. Yup. More Brecht. (I found that tape at the Cambridge Public Library. You can too.)

New York Times critic, Ben Brantly writes of the performance in Cambridge, “Audra McDonald has every right to say, ‘Bess, you is my woman now.” He also lauds the performance by co-stars Norm Lewis and David Alan Grier. Sondheim agrees, “I can think of no better Porgy than Norm Lewis nor a better Bess than Audra McDonald, whose voice is one of the glories of the American theater.” Those are a couple of pretty strong votes of confidence.

It is clear that Paulus values the piece of writing as a whole and has put significant effort into presenting it as best she can to an audience that loves the music but probably hasn’t ever heard the entire story.

Paulus also brought on playwright Susan-Lori Parks to help adapt the work. In the first big feature on the production, Paulus told Times reporter Patrick Healy, “In the opera you don’t really get to know many of the characters as people, especially and most problematically Bess, who goes back and forth from Crown’s woman to Porgy’s woman while also addicted to drugs.”

Steven Sondheim notably reacted to this article in a scathing letter back to the Times:

“I can hear the outraged cries now about stifling creativity and discouraging directors who want to reinterpret plays and musicals in order to bring ‘fresh perspectives,’ as they are wont to say, but there is a difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting.”

Sondheim’s reaction was not to the experience of seeing the production. It hadn’t even opened yet when he wrote his letter. Rather he responded to the way that Paulus, Parks and McDonald discussed the writing in Healy’s feature article. When I first read Sondheim’s letter, I was disappointed that he would exert his power in such a way that would threaten the chances for the production’s survival in New York. I was excited to see it.

I was then reminded by Hilton Als who responded in The New Yorker that Sondheim may not be the best person to ask about what makes a well rounded black character. Als points out that “the stories [Sondheim] tells involve white characters, and his professional world is a white one.” Als suggests Paulus and especially Parks represent a different generation of theater makers and based on their experience may be better equipped to interpret the characters in Porgy & Bess.

While I find the controversy interesting, my purpose is not to weigh in on whether or not the characters are rounded in Porgy & Bess. I am happy enough to have a chance to see the show on Broadway. But the question that Sondheim’s letter really demands is important: Is good directing possible without trusting in good writing? Sondheim seems to doubt that Diane Paulus trusts in good writing.

 

In this article, I have discussed ways that Paulus’ directing has created theater that is geared towards Cambridge. She has created a theatrical environment that is inclusive of the audience, challenging in a new way. She has brought in environmental theater and older shows that let her show off a new style of directing. I think she really is after a theater that looks Cambridge directly in the eye and says, “This play couldn’t happen without you.”

The influence of Brecht on Paulus’ work is great. She has certainly responded to his ideas about what theater should be capable of. She has done many productions that are direct and visceral and envelop the audience—some without need for good writing: Sleep No More, The Donkey Show. —and other older, well-written shows that showcase her directing choices: Hair, Cabaret, Porgy & Bess.

Interestingly these are all productions in which the writers are not around to comment and she is relatively free to reinterpret and make directing or spectacle the featured new work. Maybe it is this that Sondheim objects to. After all, he won’t be around too much longer to keep an eye on big revivals of his work.

I do not suggest that Paulus never does new writing. I very much enjoyed The Blue Flower, a show that passed through the ART on a long path of developmental productions. The Blue Flower refers directly to the time and place when Brecht was working (Germany 1930s-40s) and the sounds of Kurt Weill and tells a love story through a combination of media: storytelling, drama, collage, projection, dance, music.   Again, the experience of watching this show was fantastic.   My ideas about what could happen on stage were stretched at the seams, but I’m not sure what was new about the story itself or why it was taking place in Cambridge.

I also enjoyed Prometheus Bound, an adaptation of Aeschylus’ tragedy written by Spring Awakening librettist Steven Sater and System of Down vet Serj Tankian. Prometheus Bound was another immersive theatrical experience with a sound I hadn’t heard in theater, it was engaging and brash, but it seems the main point was to persuade Cambridge that torturing prisoners of war is a bad idea. I already felt that way.

I have yet to see a production at the ART that feels like it is written by Cambridge for Cambridge.

My challenge to you and to Diane Paulus should she read this is to bring new works out of hiding and produce something at the ART that could only take place in Cambridge.   It is already proven that the ART can do a new kind of theater.   Now let us find the self-portrait written with steel-wool honesty. Now let us find Cambridge writing that invites an audience into the theater and begs that they don’t forget “their cheerful occupations while we hand the world over to their minds and hearts, for them to change as they think fit,” theater that demands we be Cantabrigians while we are watching.

I am painfully aware of the hypocrisy in writing this article while living in New York and demanding that Diane Paulus who also lives in New York find the real theater writers of Cambridge. So, I ask you to bring them out of the wood works.

Send me an article about Cambridge theater writers. Send me an article about fringe theater in Cambridge. Send me the article that I am not able to write in exile and I’ll print it in Volume 5.

In the mean time, well, I’ll probably still be waiting in line to get rush tickets to see Porgy & Bess on Broadway.

 

Jahn Sood is too ashamed of how much he has already written about himself to provide a real biography.

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