24 November 2017

Catching Up With: Jane Alexander

Never lovelier.

NOTE: This is the first of what I expect to be several essays on topics that I should have been writing about on a regular basis, over the past several months.

Writing Madeline Kahn’s biography gave me the opportunity to meet, speak, and/or correspond with a number of people whose work I already admired — as well as coming to admire many of Madeline’s other colleagues, with whose work I had been unfamiliar. In the former category are of course great comedians such as Mel Brooks, Robert Klein, and Lily Tomlin, but also some Great American Actors who worked with Madeline onstage. In the past several months, I’ve seen both Jane Alexander and Kevin Kline return to the boards, offering welcome reminders that, no matter how they excel onscreen, they’re authentic theater animals.

Jane Alexander’s theater background helped me considerably the first time we spoke. When conducting a phone interview, I usually type while talking, transcribing the conversation immediately. Of all those interviews, only Jane Alexander did I trust to put on speaker phone: her diction is so flawless that, even over my crummy cell phone, every word rang clear. Over the course of her career, she’s performed in more than 100 plays (according to her bio in the playbill), so when I heard that she was rehearsing a new play at the Long Wharf in New Haven, I determined to go — little realizing that the play, Matthew Barber’s Fireflies — is set in South Texas, about 30 miles from my mother’s hometown.

I felt as if I were eavesdropping on the neighbors. Based on Annette Sanford’s novel Eleanor & Abel, Fireflies is a slight, sweet tale of a retired schoolteacher taking a late-in-life chance on love. The object of her affection is unlikely, and indeed she finds herself doing all sorts of things that don’t conform to her pre-existing patterns of behavior — even while she is true to herself, perhaps for the first time.

Kitchen-sink zaniness: Alexander and Ivey.

If the play struck me as having more resonance than it actually possesses or deserves, that may be because I saw it at a matinée, where, as the woman sitting next to me observed, I was probably the youngest person in the room. For the people around me, the play’s message — it’s never too late — was as meaningful as it was welcome. And as Jane Alexander flaunted her lustrous silver mane and her character repeatedly told us she’d begun using a new hair product that made her look so good, I contemplated my own grizzled locks and wondered where in the hell I could buy such a product. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

Fireflies called upon both the character and the actress who played her to take chances and to reach beyond our expectations. When discussing Madeline Kahn’s performance opposite her in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, Jane Alexander remarked to me that she’s better known as a serious dramatic actress than as a comedian. One can excuse the people who cast her: when an actress is capable of her kind of command and authority, why wouldn’t you take advantage of that? She’s done more than 100 plays, according to her program bio, so I can’t with any certainty claim that she’s never played scenes of such broad comedy. But I’ve never seen her do anything like what she did in Fireflies. I came to the Long Wharf expecting a reminder of her mastery of the stage, but what I got was a revelation.

At the very least, Fireflies represented a change of pace for her. With the incomparable Judith Ivey playing Eleanor’s neighbor and best friend, the play at times approached the style of a more realistic, grounded I Love Lucy — kitchen-sink zaniness, if you will. Yet stage director Gordon Edelstein also incorporated elements of fantasy (dinosaurs, planetariums) and maintained the play’s emotional foundations with great skill, and he knew how to make certain that every audience member walked out with the lasting image of Jane Alexander dancing in her nightgown. I’ve never seen her lovelier than she was here.

In the Long Wharf lobby, paperback copies of Alexander’s most recent book were on sale, and I bought one — having already shared my hardback copies with friends. Wild Things, Wild Places is unlike any actress’ memoir that came before it, an account of Alexander’s many trips around the world to conduct field research in conservation. She has been doing this without fanfare for more than 30 years. I confess that, when I first saw that she described herself as an “environmental activist,” I originally supposed that she’d signed a few petitions and attended a rally or two. I should have known better.

Of course Alexander engages — actively — in her environmental concerns, just as she committed, body and soul, to her political and arts activism by accepting the (phenomenally difficult) job of chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts during the Clinton administration, as well as by taking on roles in projects such as Testament and Playing for Time. Now I found herself wondering, when she imitated a dinosaur in Fireflies, which wilderness creatures inspired her performance.

The British make it so much easier than the Americans do to identify their Great Actors: the Queen has an honors list, after all, to recognize her subjects for their service to art and society. All we can do is remind one another that Jane Alexander is one of the greatest actors this country has ever produced.

It’s a lucky name for her: Alexander as Eleanor (Roosevelt), with Edward Herrmann as FDR.
This was my first glimpse of her, and I’ve admired her ever since.

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20 November 2017

Joyce Castle Toasts Bernstein, Janice Hall Forgoes Opera at Urban Stages

Lenny and Joyce during the first performance of Arias and Barcarolles.
With Michael Tilson Thomas also seated at the piano, and baritone John Brandstetter.

Joyce Castle captivated me from the minute we met, more than 30 years ago. Since then, I continually discover that she’s had that effect on other people, too, many of whom I admire in their own right. When I interviewed director Harold Prince, for example, we concluded our conversation with praise of Joyce — almost as if we were trying to one-up each other, or competing for the presidency of her fan club.

Leonard Bernstein thought highly of Joyce, too: at one rehearsal, the height-challenged composer was so delighted that he pulled up a chair and stood on it to kiss her. Joyce sang the first performance of his Arias and Barcarolles, and she won the hearts of New York audiences (and a Grammy Award) playing the Old Lady in his Candide at City Opera in the 1980s. Joyce has sung Bernstein’s music all over the world, easily embracing both his show tunes and his “classical” compositions. She’s got the musicianship — and, importantly, the sense of humor — to field anything Bernstein throws her way.

Bernstein’s centennial (officially in August 2018) is already being celebrated by orchestras and other musical groups around the country. When Urban Stages invited me to produce a show for its annual “Winter Rhythms” series, I thought it would be nice to stage a tribute now, before audiences are overloaded with his music. Naturally, I thought of Joyce. Would she be interested in making a “special guest star” appearance in a Bernstein tribute? “Why don’t I do the whole thing?” she replied.

And that is how Joyce Castle will be making her first New York appearance in more than six years, on December 16, at 7 pm, in LENNY! A Toast to Bernstein on the Eve of His Birthday. With her longtime collaborator Ted Taylor on piano, Joyce will share songs and stories, reminiscing about the composer — and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

A long way from Rovno Gubernia: Joyce as the Old Lady in São Paulo, with conductor Marin Alsop.

This year’s “Winter Rhythms” series features 22 shows in 12 days, to benefit Urban Stages’ remarkable educational and outreach programs. The series kicks off on December 12 with a tribute to composer and music director Barry Levitt, whose sudden death this fall hit the cabaret community hard: remembering him in song is the perfect celebration of a much-loved man. People are very excited about the tribute to Broadway book-writer Michael Stewart on December 18, featuring Chita Rivera, Jim Dale, and Charles Strouse. On December 21, there’s a concert performance of Stephen Cole and Matthew Martin Ward’s After the Fair, marking that show’s twentieth anniversary; and the series wraps up with a concert of Disney songs on December 23. Over the 12-day period, more than 100 artists will perform, a who’s who of New York’s musical scenes, and every year, producer Peter Napolitano makes sure there’s something for every musical taste. Click here for a complete listing and descriptions of all the shows.

Janice Hall draws on her own experiences from her operatic career.

I’m especially looking forward to Janice Hall’s “The Opera Show with No Opera” on December 16 at 3 pm. I first saw Janice in an opera, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, opposite Joyce Castle herself, and it was Janice who ushered me into the cabaret community. For this show, Janice will tell the stories of great operas — using songs by everybody from Billy Joel to the Smashing Pumpkins. “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. Just like at the opera,” Janice promises. Peter Napolitano directs, and Matthew Martin Ward is music director.

If you want to see both Joyce’s and Janice’s shows (and you do), you can get a discount by clicking here.

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16 November 2017

Adès’ ‘Exterminating Angel’ at the Met

An “Enchanted” Beginning:
Act I at the Met.

As an event, the Metropolitan Opera’s presentation of Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel has pleased me. Boosted by a rave review in the New York Times and by worldwide press coverage of soprano Audrey Luna’s record-breaking achievement — reaching the highest note ever sung on the Met stage — the production has attracted large audiences, which isn’t always the case for new operas. (Indeed, for any opera written after Madama Butterfly and Der Rosenkavalier, Turandot [1926] being the notable exception.) Even more encouraging: the audiences have skewed younger than is typical for the Met or most other opera companies. When I started attending the opera, I was 13 years old and very often the youngest person in the auditorium. What’s dismaying is that, on many nights, more than four decades later, that’s still true — but not for Exterminating Angel.

Beyond this, I welcome the Met’s casting so many singers whom I admire as artists and whom I know and like as people, offstage. But more on that in a moment.

Audrey Luna’s feat has attracted all sorts of attention.
Seen here, NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers.

About the opera itself, I’m of many minds. It’s a curious choice of subject matter to begin with, and I note that I still haven’t seen Luis Buñuel’s film. Certain choices seem dictated by what was in the movie, rather than the needs of this piece in the theater. An example is the arrival of a massive chorus at the start of Act III; the chorus returns at the end of the act, after a costume change. Yes, the opera does open up as a consequence, and we see what’s going on beyond the claustrophobic confines of the Nobiles’ home. Maybe we’ve had enough of the experience of being trapped in one room, as the principal characters are — though an argument can be made to the contrary, that we should remain trapped, sharing that psychological experience. On a practical level, however, Exterminating Angel — which saw its premiere at the Salzburg Festival, with the same production and many in the cast proceeding to Covent Garden and the Met, with a new cast to follow at Royal Danish Opera — will be prohibitively expensive for many other companies to produce. Is the movie’s precedent sufficient justification? I wonder.

Adès has never been one to eschew attention-grabbing stunts, which is one reason we know who he is, whether or not we’ve seen his work. A musical blowjob in his first opera, Powder Her Face, garnered all sorts of headlines, and more when the opera was recorded, and yet more when the opera has been produced subsequently. Exterminating Angel contains other such épater-les-bourgeois ingredients, and indeed the entire opera both shocks the bourgeoisie and depicts the bourgeoisie itself in shocking circumstances.

To an extent, even those record-breaking high notes are just another stunt. They don’t tell us very much about the character, an opera singer named Leticia, though certainly those notes do contribute to an overall atmosphere of otherworldliness. And nobody who’s a fan of bel canto can argue with the compositional device of generating excitement through feats of vocal derring-do. Leticia isn’t that far removed, really, from Tonio in Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment and his high Cs. (His high notes do make plenty of dramatic sense, however: Tonio is ecstatic at what he believes to be his good fortune.)

Certain of Adès’ compositional choices puzzled me, and while the language in this opera (to a libretto by the composer and Tom Cairns, who stage directed) is infinitely superior to that of the ludicrous doggerel in his The Tempest, he doesn’t seem any more concerned with whether the audience understands the singers (why bother, when there are titles?), whether his prosody mimics ordinary speech or departs from it, or whether he needs to make any clearly comprehensible choices about any of these matters. Another conductor might draw out more meaning from the score, but the composer himself is in the pit.

Deliverance: Act III.

Yet there are vast portions of the score that pleased me immensely. Adès shows mastery in the most intimate (a lullaby, a love duet for a dying couple) and the grandest passages (a hair-raising march number). He gives almost every character a spotlight. He resorts to a few easy tricks (the wind-up toy orchestration of the scene in which some characters indulge their most compulsive behaviors); and while the use of the ondes martenot doesn’t seem terribly original (we’ve heard it, or something like it, in old horror movies), it’s certainly effective. The score may not invite but it does welcome repeated hearings: I’ve seen the opera twice so far, and I expect to see the HD simulcast on Saturday afternoon.

Now, about that cast. When I was a kid listening to Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, it never occurred to me that I would ever know any singers. I mean, I liked Star Trek, too, but I never expected to know any Vulcans. The very idea was pure fantasy. And yet today I know quite a few of these people, my life is all the richer for them, and some of them are on the Met stage right now.

Case in point: Audrey Luna herself, who sang Zerbinetta in Fort Worth Opera’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos, in which I also appeared. She’s one of the loveliest people I know, and a wonderful singer. The role of Ariel in The Tempest, which Audrey sang at the Met, taps into some of her so-high-only-Jesus-can-hear extension, and as soon as she made her entrance in Exterminating Angel, I thought, “Well, Adès certainly got her number when she sang Tempest.” Her ability to extend her upper register while retaining a pleasing timbre and strength is remarkable, and while Exterminating Angel is, as I say, an ensemble piece, it is ultimately Leticia’s show: her big scena is integral to the finale ultimo. “She’s one of only two people on earth who can sing this role right now; the other is her cover,” mused one of her co-stars.

Tenor David Portillo, who sang Tonio in Daughter of the Regiment as part of the same festival season in Fort Worth, has reached an extraordinary level in his singing these days, as further demonstrated in Handel’s Ariodante at Carnegie Hall last spring. There’s an effortless sweetness to his singing that makes him a dream to listen to in the role of Exterminating Angel’s ardent fiancé — and he, too, is a lovely person offstage. As the elderly Señor Russell, bass Kevin Burdette, whom I saw most recently in Santa Fe Opera’s Die Fledermaus in August, adds yet another distinctive portrayal to a gallery that also includes an ogre, a jack-in-the-box, a Mormon patriarch, and an aesthetic poet — just a few among those that I’ve seen.

David Adam Moore with Amanda Echalaz (Lucia Nobile).

But the greatest satisfaction of hearing Exterminating Angel must be the success of baritone David Adam Moore. I've followed his career ever since I saw him in Neal Goren's production of Dido and Aeneas, and in turn his work has introduced me to the work of other remarkable artists, such as the designer Vita Tzykun, the composer David T. Little, and even the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (whom I first heard co-starring with David at Glimmerglass, and whom I heard again recently, singing and dancing exquisitely to Pergolesi).

Every now and then, David and I get together for coffee to catch up on each other’s news. A while back, he told me about Exterminating Angel. The announcement wasn't official (“You can't tell anybody” — and I didn't!), but he was slated to make his Salzburg debut as Colonel Gómez in the world premiere, with a real possibility that he’d follow this by repeating his role for his Covent Garden and Met debuts.

As it was foretold, so it has come to pass. His musicality, his bearing, and his innate authority are ideal for the role. And the rest of us have confirmation that sometimes good things do happen to good people. I couldn’t be happier.

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