Tag Archive: musical theatre

Someone Tell the Story, Someone Sing the Song

Assassins, by John Weidman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Mysterium Theatre, prod. Marla Ladd, dir. John Massey.

An intelligent and engagingly homespun production of Stephen Sondheim’s all-American musical Assassins just closed this weekend at the Mysterium Theatre of Santa Ana, CA. While the show is not as polished as more elaborate, higher budgeted productions, what it lacks in sophistication it more than makes up for in thoughtfulness and well-executed vision.

John Massey’s direction borrows heavily from the 2004 revival, crafting an intimate chamber musical for Mysterium’s tiny space, a former chapel which retains architectural details such as pews and a wonderful lofty ceiling. The religious sensibility lends itself well to Assassins, giving some moments a particular resonance, such as Guiteau’s manic “glory hallelujah” cake walk to the gallows. When the Balladeer (Nicholas Palmer) sings “Charlie Guiteau / Drew a crowd to his trial, / Led them in prayer” we the audience are that praying crowd, in any production, but how much more so in an actual church? Another moment strengthened by the production site is the transformation of the Palmer from Balladeer into Lee Harvey Oswald. This moment of sheer theatricality becomes, in this space, clearly an act of conversion, the gathered assassins – led by the Proprietor (John Blaylock), a substantially augmented role in this production – ganging up on the Balladeer to persuade and force his transformation into the most infamous member of their merry band.

Many of the production’s strongest elements – this transformation, the use of a compact fairground set, and the projection of video footage of President Kennedy’s assassination onto Lee Harvey Oswald’s white T-shirt – are drawn directly from the 2004 revival. However, they are played here with clarity and insight, not just purposelessly mimicked as is too often the case. This does also mean, however, that some of the earlier production’s weak points are also on display here. The script is not flawless – Sarah Jane Moore (Sarah Meals) is not a great character, acting more as a catalyst for others than someone with motivation of her own. (In short, despite adding some wonderful comic relief, she lacks an emotional trigger, if you’ll excuse the, ahem, gun pun.) Additionally, the song “Something Just Broke” (added for the 1992 London production, and part of the licensed version since then), a heartwrenching lament for a shattered Camelot, gives the audience too much distance from and too much condemnation of the otherwise persuasive, convincingly un-monstrous assassins. However, these are problems with the musical and its script, problems which Massey worked around but did not entirely fix.

For the most part, the cast is not one of these problems. They sing complex harmonies with comparative ease, and there are some real stand-out performances, including Kayla Cavaness as Woman #1, whose voice is frankly too good for how little we get to hear it, and Duane Thomas, channeling Kevin Spacey in House of Cards as the irrepressible Charles Guiteau.

Palmer’s performance as the Balladeer is by far the show’s weakest link, and his disconnected acting is combined with a hoarse voice that sounds like an unfortunate illness. However, while the role is usually given far more weight, the Balladeer’s position as witness and interpreter of history seems diminished by the overwhelming presence of the Proprietor, played deftly by John Blaylock. Similarly, the importance of John Wilkes Booth as the “pioneer” and ringleader of the murderous company, though the role is performed with strength and finesse by Garrett Chandler, is somewhat reduced by the Proprietor’s constant presence and delicately controlling air.

Still, though the cast is sometimes uneven, and designer Haley Schwalbe’s lighting is a hit-or-miss joke at best, Massey’s strong directorial hand does shine through the rough patches. The end result has more insight, power, and focus than many technically stronger productions.


So here’s something worth thinking about with regards to this year’s Tony Award nominations, which were announced on Tuesday morning. The quartet of young actors who play the title role in Matilda were deemed ineligible for the award – for reasons not forthcoming, but easily guessable – and, to make up for their ineligibility, were given special honorary awards to recognize their work. Fair enough. I had problems with the trio from Billy Elliott being nominated/winning together last year, as did many others, questioning whether the award was being given for the acting work (really, are all three identically, uniformly, worthy?) or for the role as written. Not all nominators/voters could see all three young performers, and the same problem would have occurred had the Matildas been eligible. This was a slightly awkward, but probably least awkward, way of handling the issue for 2013.

But the young actress playing the title role in the 2012 revival of Annie, Lilla Crawford, performs the role by herself, unlike either the Billys or Matildas (nothing against them — it’s simply a different casting/directorial decision, and no reflection on the individual performers, all of whom must be highly talented as well as fortunate to be acting on Broadway at such a young age). The controversy over last year’s decision to award the Tony to three performers for a single role didn’t affect Crawford’s initial eligibility. She was deemed eligible for the Leading Actress in a Musical category, and there is certainly precedent for a child actor to take home the Tony — see Daisy Eagan, who won the Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical when she was 11 (The Secret Garden; 1991) and Frankie Michaels, who was only 10 when he received his Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Mame; 1966). (The fact that Eagan was put in the ‘featured’ category, rather than lead, is a different issue. The trio from Billy Elliott won in 2012 in the leading performance category, as Crawford might have had she been nominated; this is the category sought by the producers of Matilda for their four stars.)

The Tonys aren’t the only theater awards in town, of course, and Crawford has been recognized by a nomination for the Distinguished Performance Award in the 2013 Drama League Awards, for one. (The eponymous stars of Matilda were not, it may be worth noting. Perhaps for the same problem of multi-casting — can you call it an award for a distinguished performance if all four share it? Yet how do you single out one of the four and say “Yeah, you, Matilda #3, you were better than the others”?) Still, the Tony Awards are the best known and most mainstream theater awards. It’s worth thinking about the fact that, likely to avoid a repeat of last year’s controversy, the Tony eligibility committee gave one set of young performers a special award to avoid even nominating or not nominating them… Then gave nothing – not even the nomination – to the hard-working young star of Annie.

I haven’t seen any of these actresses in their snubbed performances, myself, so for all I know, maybe Lilla Crawford is terrible as the famous little orphan, and the quartet of Matildas thoroughly deserving of every Tony or not-quite-Tony award offered them. Either way, though — it’s worth thinking about.

So I have this friend. She’s a little smarter than me. (Maybe more than a little.) She also writes about theatre, feminism, and generally gender and social issues in theatre and other entertainment media. And we often talk about this stuff in written form, because we don’t live near each other, and then I sit back and think gee, I wish I’d written that as a blog post instead of it just being a chat between two nerdy friends. Can I just copy and paste these conversations and call it a blog? And then she, because she is a little smarter than me, or maybe just more willing to sound pretentious – you decide – says things like “Hey, if Diderot did it…” (Side note: Say that sentence out loud once or twice. Wasn’t that fun?)

In conclusion: Dialogues between She and Me are now a thing.

Today we talked about the Broadway adaptations of Matilda and The Little Mermaid and what it means that the character of Miss Trunchbull is portrayed by a male actor in drag (Bertie Carvel, nominated for a Tony for his performance) while Ursula, whose animated origins were inspired by a drag queen, is given to a female performer. 


Me: I don’t know much about Matilda the Musical. Apparently Trunchbull is a drag role. That sorta sucks. Big, brassy, tough women need roles too.

She: Well, I think that it is highly British in tradition? Because it’s like a panto role. (Speaking of which, the Trunchbull from the Matilda movie is in Call the Midwife.)

Me: I’ve never seen the movie. I kind of … refuse. I just have too many feelings about the book.

She: Oh. Well, it has its moments. It’s weird because it’s American. But the Trunchbull, playing an American character in this movie, is actually this British woman. BUT, I agree with you about drag roles, generally.

Me: There’s also… this whole vibe in the book, I’m not sure I can articulate? I’m sure it’s been written about many many many times. But something about different kinds of female power. Because Trunchbull obviously, and Matilda’s physical powerlessness being overcome by her intelligence channeled into a physical force; and then Miss Honey’s powerlessness in her own situation, but her strength of character helps her there; and then in Matilda’s family, the dynamic with the mother and father, affects that message, too. And making Trunchbull a drag role doesn’t necessarily make that message go away, or undermine it even, but it does change it.

I don’t know much about the show, like I said. So it might be that the creators thought about that, realized it, wanted to make it a drag role BECAUSE of that – to emphasize something about misogyny, the patriarchy, female agency, power, etc? Because Trunchbull is the one primarily keeping down both Matilda and Miss Honey, she is the manifestation of oppression. So, okay, make her a man on one theatrical level, and you’re maybe highlighting that power imbalance. BUT… I do feel like it’s likelier that she was made a drag role because she’s this big, loud, athletic, ‘unfeminine’ character. And that’s not good enough. I may be completely underestimating the show and its writers. That might be completely unfair.

She: I like your reasoning but I think that it would probably not be a drag role if it were not a British import. I haven’t seen it, but I wonder if it’s like when they do various fairy tales as pantos in Britain – they often have characters like the Wicked Stepmother played by men.

Me: That’s done a lot in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, too, with the stepsisters. But then back up into THAT reasoning, British it may be, or more traditional though it may be – it’s still the unpretty, unfeminine, villainous, big/broad/brassy characters. Maybe that’s obvious – ‘the unfeminine females are played by men’ – but that’s still something to notice. Opera tradition, in contrast, seems more willing to have … I don’t know how to say this. ‘Pretty’ gender switching? In both directions – soubrettes and castrati. I mean, castrati are a whole other can of worms, but.

Back to Broadway, though –in Hairspray, the whole kind of charming thing about Edna is that she’s a very feminine character, and very sympathetic, and very dainty, and also romantic. Edna and Wilbur get a love duet and everything, and she’s also very maternal, and yet a drag role. She’s physically large, but she’s not the villainized masculine woman, the un-woman, of characters like the Trunchbull. And that (Edna) is sort of unusual and rather nice. Though I still throw out a little weak flag of “more roles for women!”

I can’t remember the details or exact context now. But I remember someone talking, when The Little Mermaid opened on Broadway, about how Ursula should be a drag role. That she’s a drag queen-type character, based on a drag queen in the original animated movie, so the Broadway production should have her as a drag role. And I was like, okay, but wait, sometimes women can play those brassy, broad, ‘un-feminine’ or over-feminine characters, too. Come on, Sherie Rene Scott is SHERIE RENE SCOTT so let’s not talk about replacing her with a man just for a shock value that isn’t shocking. Or for a bit of comedy that’s based on an inherent discomfort with effeminate men and gender role issues. Aside from the movie’s animation inspiration, there is no dramaturgical reason for Ursula to be a drag role, however much she fits into that character type. And you can’t keep taking away all the larger than life, brassy female villains from female performers.

She: Real. So real. I get so mad when people don’t recognize the inherent discriminations and the lack of female roles.

Me: There are already a LOT of male roles in that show.

She: Yeah. All the sidekicks are men. Sebastian, Flounder, Scuttle.

Me: Eric, King Triton, the Chef. Either way, the other mermaid daughters get very little to do, and aren’t fleshed out characters. It’s really just Ariel and Ursula. And Ursula, turning into the alterna-Ariel, fits fits into both the wicked (drag) stepmother slot and the (dark-haired) anti-virgin slot. (Only in the original movie, though. They cut that for the stage show, replacing that plot line with some kind of Cinderella’s-slipper-singing-contest thing.) And that added character, Carlotta the castle housekeeper, as an added mother figure type of thing. An anti-Ursula, perhaps? But that’s it.

[At this point, we started discussing the article “Where Do The Mermaids Stand? Voice and Body in The Little Mermaid” by Laura Sells, published in From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture. We’ll wait while you go read it.]

Me: Going off that premise– Ursula teaching Ariel how to perform gender– I can see the argument for Ursula as a drag role but even more, the argument for Ursula to NEED to be played by a female, still. Premise: Ursula teaches Ariel about gender performativity. Therefore: A female character (Ariel) CAN perform the idea of female. (This version being, voiceless for a man.) I posit that the performative and artificial nature of the construct of gender are better highlighted by a female actress, performing Female past the point society has, at this time, arbitrarily decided is acceptably feminine – performing, in fact, on a level of Male-as-Female (appropriation by the male?) – guiding a female actress/female character to perform her own femininity to exactly the point arbitrarily deemed acceptable and desirable for a female. CONCLUSION: Let us have Ursula. You get everyone else.

Picking the perfect song for an audition is stressful. It is, in fact, way more stressful than the situation merits. After all, in the end, you’re still the same singer/actor/face whatever you pick. Still, the song choice does make a difference — you want it to show off  your range and vocal ability, you want lyrics that work outside of the show’s context, you want a character/story with which you can connect… And maybe that’s why some songs, songs that seem to have these magic qualities, get used over and over and over and over again. Thus completely negating any audition-worthy traits they had in the first place.

So here it is — my list of the top 5 songs to avoid taking to an audition: Teenage/20something Belting Girl edition!
1. On My Own (Les Miserables)
This song is like a cockroach. Every time you think its popularity may have waned, they go and have an anniversary tour, or a concert recording, or a damn (surprisingly good) (but let’s talk about the camerawork later) movie. And back it comes, with its easy range and plaintive “omg I TOTALLY get Eponine” unrequited love/awkward girl connections. I was using this song for my auditions 10 years ago, so I guess I can’t pretend not to understand its appeal. But still. Still? After all these years? Always. (Snape out.)

2. Astonishing (Little Women)
A slightly newer favorite, and maybe less obvious than “On My Own” — “Astonishing” is the “On My Own” of those who have actually been in a few shows. Don’t get me wrong, I totally get the appeal. If you have the voice for it, it’s a great show piece. It requires absolutely no context for the faintly generic lyrics. It’s easily and tidily cut. And the “I’ve just got to get out of the suburbs and be superduper awesome!” message couldn’t resonate more with a particular type of wide-eyed girl dying to belt her way onto Broadway. But roughly 80% of the people who choose it, can’t sing it, probably because if you’ve been around enough, had lessons and been in shows enough, to be able to sing it… you have other options and know that “Astonishing” isn’t astonishing anymore.

3. I’m Not That Girl (Wicked)
Do I even need to explain? Like “On My Own”, this song’s unspecific lament of unrequited love strikes a chord with many of the “she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers” set, and there’s something to be said for acting what you know. But it doesn’t show off your voice (not even as much as “On My Own” does) and really, no one’s interested in how much you totally ARE Elphaba. It’s possible that in many, many more years, it’ll be useable, but it’ll never be a strong audition piece even when it’s less popular. Remember, just because a song resonates with you, doesn’t mean it’ll do you any favors in the audition room.

4. The Story Goes On (Baby)
Choosing this song for an audition, you get a little more leeway from me. At least it’s a lesser known show, and props for picking Maltby and Shire. But you know, there are other songs in Baby. There really are. (“Patterns” is my favorite.) (“Patterns” is my favorite in every category.) I get it — it’s youthful, it’s vocally showy (if you got it, flaunt it), and to its credit, at least it’s an optimistic song, unlike certain other loser-girl ballads on this list. If no one else in the world had ever conceived of using this song for an audition, I’d say go for it (unlike “I’m Not That Girl”). Unfortunately, everyone else had the same bright idea as you. And considering the consistency and longevity “The Story Goes On” has had in the 30 years since Baby opened on Broadway, there probably will never be a chance for you to take it out. Sorry ’bout that.

5. Anything by Frank Wildhorn
Look. I get it. Those dramatic mezzoland ballads make you feel powerful and significant. The lyrics are so generic, you can imagine any story you feel like acting onto them. The key changes generate a false sense of excitement. I GET IT.

But seriously, if you’re dragging a Wildhorn song to an audition, you need to reconsider your life choices.

Story time: Ten years ago, I sang “Memory” (yes, THAT “Memory”) at an audition for the school edition Les Miserables. Somehow, I was cast anyway. (To be fair, the girl who ended up playing Cosette also sang “Memory”…right before me…and better.) Despite my own inability to pick a less ridiculous audition piece, I still took note of how many people came in with Wildhorn songs (mostly Jekyll and Hyde — the boys prefer The Scarlet Pimpernel). I estimated roughly 60-70% of the girls sang Jekyll and Hyde – 90% of that was “Someone Like You.”

Let’s all agree to end the madness now.


Remember! Just because you shouldn’t bring it into the audition room, doesn’t mean you can’t sing it in your shower. I thoroughly encourage singing these songs in the shower. There is no better venue for a Wildhorn ballad, in fact, and the water streaming down your face totally hides your tears of unrequited love.


What other songs would you recommend avoiding at auditions? Or do you disagree with my list – do you think the virtues of “Astonishing” outweigh its unfortunate overuse? Do you really, really, REALLY connect with Eponine and Elphaba and just need to share that with the casting director? Comment below!