Heavenly or Hellish? Our Critics Debate the Broadway Season

With “Hadestown” and “Burn This” on the bill, and “The Ferryman,” “Gary” and even “Oklahoma!” leaving blood on the floor, it was not a Broadway season for the faint of heart. Yet as “Tootsie” and “The Prom” demonstrated, audiences — and Tony Award nominators — were ready to laugh as well.

Did Ben Brantley and Jesse Green, The New York Times’s chief theater critics, get the joke? Or did the devil get their tongues?

They had their say in reviews of individual shows. Here, in the run-up to the awards ceremony (airing June 9 at 8 p.m. on CBS), they stake their positions in an edited exchange. Scott Heller, the theater editor for The Times, played referee.

Good morning. I’m curious to know, with a little bit of time since the Tony nominations, whether the nominees matched the quality of the season as you saw it.

BEN BRANTLEY Given that we’re talking specifically about the Broadway season — to which the Tony nominations are limited — I’d say, yes. This roster captures a season of unexpected departures on the Staid White Way.

JESSE GREEN I would call this an inflection season, rather than a mountaintop one: the start of something new as opposed to a culmination. So instead of a behemoth like “Hamilton,” which sweeps the nominations (and awards), you get a wider range of possibilities for prizes. I wouldn’t be surprised if 14 different shows pick up the 26 competitive Tonys next month.

BRANTLEY Which is healthy, wouldn’t you say? Any season that can accommodate a radically rethought classic like “Oklahoma!,” a popular hit about a centuries-old government document (“What the Constitution Means To Me”) and a grand guignol mock-Shakespearean farce (“Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus”) deserves a little respect.

GREEN We would have been unsurprised, if delighted, to see those shows Off Broadway at any time in the last decade. (Two of them did get their start there.) What’s groundbreaking is to see them next door to “The Cher Show” and, pardon my language, “King Kong.”

Do you see this as a sign that the divide between Broadway and Off Broadway is fading?

BRANTLEY That door has been cracked open for several years. For example, this is the second season that Rachel Chavkin is nominated for best director, first for “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” and now for “Hadestown.” And it’s the avant-gardist supreme Ivo van Hove’s second nomination for best director (for “Network”).

And yet, when I turn to your ballots describing who you think should win the best musical Tony I find — to my surprise, and yes, a bit of excitement — that you both selected “The Prom.” Not exactly the radical choice. Say more.

GREEN There are ways in which “The Prom” is quite radical. Not, of course, in its mode of storytelling; that’s as conventional as could be. But using such an anodyne form to tell such a sly story — about egotistic New York actors descending on Middle America to help a lesbian go to her high school prom — makes it almost subversive. And the execution is nearly flawless.

BRANTLEY For me, it was the only musical that created and sustained an alternative reality that I love to visit when I’m feeling blue: The World of Musical Comedy (!!), in which characters seamlessly express themselves in song and dance, and find catharsis in harmony. It’s been so long since we’ve seen a show that honored the conventions of an honorable and venerable form with such integrity and affection, without feeling in any way hidebound.

GREEN “Tootsie” hits many of the same marks for me and is, in some ways, more distinctive. But “The Prom,” as Ben said, touches on an atavistic need for comfort without condescension that we rarely get to enjoy at such a high level of skill anymore.

How can a show based on an old movie be more distinctive than an original production?

GREEN Two ways. The story of “Tootsie” has been substantially reworked, in part to make its gender politics more palatable and also, of course, to make it a musical. (It’s now set in the world of New York theater, not soap operas.) And there’s no overestimating the change that songs make, especially the angular, urban, angsty, joke-filled ones by David Yazbek.

BRANTLEY I found “Tootsie” to be less than a seamless whole. Yazbek’s score was intriguing, with its own neurotic, twitching meter. But I’m not sure it matched the wholesale make-believe corniness of the rest of the show, including Scott Ellis’s staging. The production in general seemed to exist in an unresolved state of identity, that, among other things, found it with a (high-heeled) foot in two decades, 30 years apart, at the same time.

GREEN Whereas “The Prom” is cut from one piece of cloth. New cloth, at that, as was also the case with “Be More Chill” and, if you ignore centuries-old Greek mythology, “Hadestown.”

And what about its music? David Yazbek finally broke through last year with “The Band’s Visit.” What do you think of the work Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin did for “The Prom?”

BRANTLEY It’s not a showboating score; it’s utterly functional, in the best sense of the word, so that songs match the characters while speeding the momentum. “Hadestown” and “Tootsie” certainly have more distinctive scores. Faint praise for “The Prom,” perhaps, but its consistency is rare enough at the moment that I’m giving points to its songwriters for collaborative savvy — and humility.

GREEN I could have done with more showboating, the kind of bravura that makes a musical really take off. “The Prom” score achieves that a couple of times, especially in giving Beth Leavel, as the most egotistic of the egotists, two fantastic showstoppers. “Functional” songs in a musical comedy are a bit dysfunctional.

Ben expressed a wish that a musical take him to an “alternative reality” — that captures “Hadestown,” doesn’t it? And yet while you both admired it, I don’t feel a full embrace. Is hell not a place you want to visit these days?

BRANTLEY I don’t mind mirrors to hell when I’m living in hell; they can offer enlightening views. My problems with “Hadestown” have to do with the imbalance between the two parallel love-hate stories: between Orpheus and Eurydice, our young lovers (yawn!) and Hades and Persephone, the unhappily married rulers of the underworld, whom Patrick Page and Amber Gray make into devilish, oh so stylish star turns. That’s where Anais Mitchell’s score is it at its most confident, too. And I liked Rachel Chavkin’s nightmare vision of a world divided — a honky-tonk on the edge of an abyss.

GREEN Downtown in 2016, in an immersive staging, “Hadestown” was visually awkward, leaving you a lot of bandwidth to start pondering the thinness of the story. Ms. Chavkin’s astonishing revision of it for Broadway doesn’t solve the story problems but effectively moots them. It’s important to note that a move uptown doesn’t always mean coarsening or cheapening. It can help some works find their scale.

Ah, scale — that inevitably brings me to the battle for best play, which by many accounts will be a face-off between “The Ferryman,” with its three acts and 21-person cast, and “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a three-person, one set, quasi-monologue. In that great debate, I know you have a difference of opinion.

GREEN I liked “Ferryman” and thought the production was exceptional. But it was a culminating kind of work in an inflection season, tying up lots of best-practice theatrics of the last century in one gorgeous package, with a live goose on top. “Best-practice” here includes a pretty big dose of stage-Irish stereotyping, which put me off when reading the play, though not when watching it. “Constitution” best exemplified the idea of change that’s in the air this year. Not only does it directly ask whether we are finally ready to rethink our founding document, but it also creates a highly unusual format, including a live debate, to do so.

BRANTLEY I think Heidi Schreck is only a force for good, as is the presence of “Constitution” on Broadway. Seeing it there recently, I was struck by the emotional current that ran between her and the audience, as if we were at an unusually reflective revival meeting. For me, the miracle of “The Ferryman” isn’t just its ability to make all those many component parts work in such suspenseful synchronicity. Without being overtly “meta,” Jez Butterworth is considering the way we tell stories (replete with nationalistic clichés), for ill as well as for good. It celebrates narrative and subverts our use of it at the same time.

GREEN I don’t disagree. The two front-runners represent the best extremes of what is possible in the commercial theater today. Add in “Gary” and the other best play nominees — “Choir Boy” and “Ink” — and you’d almost believe we have a healthy system.

I ran into a director on the subway this morning, and he saw the “Ferryman” vs. “Constitution” race as a referendum on American playwriting. How about love for work that digs deeply into what’s going on right here, right now?

GREEN Plays don’t have to address politics directly to be topical! “Ferryman” has a lot to say about civil sectarianism and violence, and how storytelling can feed them. “Gary,” which is explicitly revolutionary, is set in ancient Rome. We’re talking about some extremely rich, intelligent plays here. Pitting them against one another, as the Tony campaigns inevitably do, feels vaguely disreputable, like betting on greyhounds.

BRANTLEY Or greyhounds versus the trotters (though don’t ask me to say which is which). I don’t want to make this a contest between nations. In truth, I’d be happy if either won, but comparing them seems almost unfair, their aspirations and form are so different.

GREEN The question of overt and covert politics naturally leads to Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton,” a fine new play that received only one nomination, for Laurie Metcalf as an alternate-reality Hillary Clinton. Was it about electoral shenanigans or something bigger?

BRANTLEY I liked the play, though I felt it didn’t take me into new territory; it took familiar speculations on the Clintons’ marriage and transformed them into rather touching and elegant theater. But it needed the performances by Metcalf and John Lithgow (as Clinton), and especially Joe Mantello’s ace direction, to give it the substance it had on stage.

GREEN I was moved by its exploration of the almost cosmic limitations society still puts on ambitious women. But I’d like to pick up on something else you said, about what it takes to be electable in a popularity contest. That’s the Tonys in a nutshell, right? Which makes me think about why “To Kill a Mockingbird” wasn’t nominated as best play even though it got nine nominations in other categories.

BRANTLEY That was the shocker for me, the snubbing of “Mockingbird.” It certainly could hold its own among the nominees for its levels of stagecraft and coherence. As Jesse has said elsewhere, it translated the novel into persuasive theatrical language in a way that hadn’t been done before. As to the reasons it wasn’t nominated, well, for starters there was the issue of its producer, Scott Rudin, effectively closing down other versions of the play being performed around the U.S.

I’ve heard “Mockingbird” compared to “Green Book,” and we know how that Oscar victory went over in some quarters.

BRANTLEY And yet “Mockingbird” never made it to the starting gate as a best play contender. What does that tell us about the difference between Broadway and Hollywood? (And, yes, I think the comparison to “Green Book” is not inappropriate.)

GREEN To me it’s more about the difference between Broadway and Off Broadway. Look at the Tony nominators: They are gradually becoming younger, more identified with downtown theater and, perhaps, less susceptible to mere commercial success. Also: less monolithically white. Without making a direct snub, they went for the edgier material. I’m not sure that’s so bad.

Did the performance nominations follow that pattern?

GREEN They did. Choosing among equally deserving performers, the nominators often opted for diversity — of all kinds. Too bad they couldn’t recognize ensembles, those strange organisms composed of several actors functioning almost as a single unit. “Choir Boy” is a great example, though Jeremy Pope was nominated from its ensemble cast. And “Ain’t Too Proud” is another — though, again, Jeremy Pope was nominated from its ensemble cast, as were Derrick Baskin and Ephraim Sykes.

BRANTLEY The ensemble of “Ain’t Too Proud” managed to convey the assembly line gloss of a Motown product, while at the same time each performer made it clear that there were fraught, idiosyncratic individuals beneath the smooth surface.

Jesse, when we had this conversation a year ago, with the sounds of (Donna) Summer still ringing in your ears, you announced that you’d be happy “to ban all jukebox musicals forever.” Any change this year?

GREEN Not really; the talented directors and authors involved in them all do other things better. Now it’s true that tripartite Cher in “The Cher Show” was a notable improvement on tripartite Donna Summer, and Stephanie J. Block was sensational as Star, the most grown-up incarnation. But that’s about all I liked about a show that, following the jukebox musical rule book, makes a hash of biography and reduces psychology to a slogan.

BRANTLEY I came to “Cher” late, with limited expectations, and had a swell time. That tripartite business doesn’t bear close scrutiny. But I thought the show captured the essence of its subject, and Block managed an impersonation that also hinted at the abiding, self-protecting shyness in someone who has become Celebrity Incarnate. And the Bob Mackie parade of frocks was a hoot.

You both agree that Stephanie J. Block deserves to win her first Tony. Were there any other performances as transfixing? Tell our readers one performance they must — and still can — see.

GREEN Adam Driver in “Burn This.” I’m still vibrating.

BRANTLEY Absolutely. Driver playing a cokehead in mourning has the kind of volcanic energy that rarely erupts on Broadway anymore. Also, Bryan Cranston in “Network.” What a stunning portrait of a man who exists fully only on camera. And though, sadly, the production has closed, the magnificent Elaine May in Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery” provided a dazzlingly smart and controlled study of an old woman losing control and doing her best to pretend that she isn’t.

GREEN “Waverly Gallery” is another play that started Off Broadway — in 2000. So maybe it just takes time for the downtown sensibility to trickle uptown. I wish we could speed the process.

Source: Read Full Article