It may seem like the summer doldrums, but not when you scratch under the surface. Here is a grab-bag of things percolating in what theater people may like to call the subtext.
If you’ve begun stifling a laugh about the nonstop chatter around “Hamilton,” you’re not alone. Although the altogether brilliant musical seems to have replaced the concept of theater in some minds, a special someone has been out there watching the hysteria and preparing to say what many of us have been thinking — only, most likely, smarter and funnier.
We speak, of course, of Gerard Alessandrini, the master who began “Forbidden Broadway” in 1982 as an antidote to the follies and felonies of the commercial theater. The satirical theater institution, forged from deep love and a dark heart, was an essential Off-Broadway treasure until the creator, writer and director decided in 2009 that he didn’t want to churn out editions of the cabaret staple forever.
He briefly returned from the hiatus with a 2012 show, but told me around then that Broadway’s endlessly long-running musicals and increasing corporate packaging had slowed the pipeline of spoof-worthy original material. Although he didn’t say so, it must have been dispiriting to watch his self-referential parody style get reallocated by such high-profile hits as “Spamalot.”
Enter “Spamilton,” which begins 18 performances July 19 at the Triad, the funky Upper West Side club where “Forbidden Broadway” reigned in its early days. Press is not being invited and there is no opening, but sources hold out promise for an official opening later this year.
For now, Alessandrini is working, not talking. But here is some of what he said in a publicity statement: “Like most of the country, I became obsessed with ‘Hamilton’ and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s revolutionary score. I believe his stunning reinvention on how to musicalize a dramatic story completely revived the Broadway musical from being a dead art form. I couldn’t help but feel obligated to take a few jabs at the biggest hit musical that has opened in New York in my lifetime.”
He says he began to write just a parody or two “for fun,” then found himself rewriting most of the show “while adding bits and pieces of other classic and contemporary musicals.” How delightful that Alessandrini, a virtuoso at putting straight pins into sacred show-biz monsters, is feeling the challenge again. There has seldom been such a target.
Tickets, unlike those for “Hamilton,” are $49 plus a two-drink minimum. Visit triadnyc.com for performance schedule.
STEPHEN COLBERT GETS IT
You know those moments, generally at the start of what will be a disappointing play, when a character starts spouting a lot of back-story facts that the person addressed would obviously already know? And, at that moment, it is clear that this isn’t a character talking to another character but, instead, the playwright filling us in — for example, on how the brother of this guy is really married to the wife of the woman who had a panic attack at the Thanksgiving dinner when poor old dad ran off with the Armenian woman, etc.?
And, chances are, you poke your elbow into the side of your theater date, suppressing a giggle at a playwright who doesn’t know how to write an exposition.
Stephen Colbert has obviously had that same experience, but did more than sigh about it. On a recent episode of “The Late Show,” he and Bryan Cranston dressed up in 19th century hambone costumes for a comedy bit called “Too Much Exposition Theater.”
During the regular interview part of the show, Cranston talks about playing complex characters who subtly reveal themselves, then Colbert says the test of a great actor is an ability to play poorly written characters who awkwardly reveal their back stories.
Actually, the title tells you almost all you need to know about the recorded sketch. But not since Jon Lovitz wickedly delighted in his “Master Thespian” satires on “Saturday Night Live” has mainstream TV had such wicked savvy about the theater. Here’s hoping for another episode, or maybe a series.
A FRIEND SAYS GOODBYE
John McMartin, the marvelous actor last seen on Broadway as a Georgia senator to Bryan Cranston’s LBJ in 2014’s “All the Way,” died July 6 of cancer at 86. Perhaps the most touching remembrance came from Harold Prince, the master director and Stephen Sondheim specialist, who was the actor’s friend for a half century.
In an appreciation in American Theatre magazine, Prince recalled McMartin’s 1971 performance in Sondheim’s “Follies,” the magnificently melancholy musical about a late-life reunion of former follies girls and their guys. McMartin, who played dignified with apparent effortlessness, portrayed Ben Stone, the hotshot New York businessman forced by the evening to face regrets in “The Road You Didn’t Take.”
But it was Ben’s final moments, his breakdown in the middle of his upbeat “Live, Laugh, Love,” that Prince described in such vital detail. First McMartin’s Ben seems to forget a lyric, then finds it, then stammers on. “Found them, lost them, while the girls on either side of him kept tapping away,” wrote Prince, clearly as vivid and specific a writer as he is a director.
Prince reported how the man onstage began grabbing “frantically at his head” and the audience began “visibly sinking in embarrassment in their seats,” believing the actor himself was breaking down. Prince says Sondheim considers this one of the greatest stage performances of our time. Gratitude to Prince for making an ephemeral moment live again.