Following the death of activist Larry Kramer, I was asked to write for The Queer Review about his theatre work as activism and its enduring importance.
Larry Kramer will be remembered for many things, and by many people in the Queer community. As an activist, journalist, and community leader. For his many friendships, and his many disagreements with the community. For mobilizing and uniting, for taking on the political establishment. Nobody channelled rage into action quite like Larry Kramer he was a true activist. It was in everything he did. And he weaponised the theatre for activism in a way that took an artform that has always been political and used it in a way that was as unapologetic as he was. Kramer’s was not the first play on AIDS, but its combination of searing political rage and a heart-wrenching emotional core ensured its impact was felt.
I was asked to be a guest on BBC Radio Wales’ The Review Show for July. Always a delight of a show- who doesn’t like to chat about all things culture for a while? and I always discover some delights I wouldn’t normally when doing my research for them.
This time it was Velvet Underground covers and Perry Mason…
Sadly we didn’t manage to descend on Leicester OR Wolverhampton this year for 14/48, that magic, manic festival where we make 14 new plays in 48 hours.
However not to be defeated, team 14/48 kept the magic going with a WEEKLY mini 14/48 ’14/48 working from home’ where we got to experience the fun of creating new work, overnight…from our own home.
For those not familiar, the writers were drawn at random from a hat, given a theme to write about overnight. Then directors and actors were drawn and given about 8 hours to create a play…this is my suitably stagey contribution this year.
And for anyone who would like to read along ….
Mama Rose and Me.
Singing, ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ from Gypsy, with commitment. It doesn’t matter how well.
I had a dream, a dream about you, baby.
It’s gonna come true, baby.
They think that we’re through, but baby,
You’ll be swell! You’ll be great!
Gonna have the whole world on the plate!
Starting here, starting now,
honey, everything’s coming up roses!
It was a religious experience the first time I heard that song. Ms Patti LuPone belting that song out. It was from the back of the balcony, but she could have been right there in my face. Admittedly that’s a slightly terrifying prospect. If I believed in God I would have been converted. Of course, I was converted long before that. Because if there is a heaven it’s filled with musical theatre, I’m convinced of it. God would not allow any different. Pretty sure God loves some Jazz Hands, right?
Impersonates Mama Rose
Sing out Louise!
When I was a teenager, I would wake up early to find out the winners of the Tony Awards. It was like my Christmas. Or I guess like some…big sporting event. Um, the FA Cup? Look, I might not have known who was top of the charts, but I could list off Sondheim’s musical repertoire by the time I was 12.
Actually, did you know, Gypsy rarely gets included in summaries of Stephen Sondheim’s work because he only wrote the lyrics. The other shows he did that for were Anyone Can Whistle and of course West Side Story. 7 of his musicals have been made into films. He has 8 Tony Awards. Um. I know a lot about Stephen Sondheim. And musical theatre. It’s not the coolest is it? I’ve always struggled with facts. But this I can do. Other things always seem to fall out of my head. I knew every word of Les Mis but I couldn’t conjugate a French verb for a loaf of bread.
‘What use is musical theatre nonsense? What’s that going to get you in life?’
Sings again sadly
Now’s your inning. Stand the world on it’s ear!
Set it spinning! That’ll be just the beginning!
Curtain up! Light the lights!
No Mama Rose in my life. Not that I’m suggesting she’s a model for parenting. She makes ‘Dance Moms’ look reserved after all. Eventually though, I was allowed to see a show. All the way to the bright lights of London. Like a really low budget backstage film. If backstage films included the 7am slow train from Birmingham New Street and a mad dash across Kings Cross clutching a Burger King for the last train home.
Curtain up! Light the lights!
You’re allowed to cry in the theatre too. In the dark. Where nobody can see you. You can sit there, all alone, but not alone. And cry. Have you ever done that? Just been carried away in the darkness by music, by a story…That’s what I remember about those years. That moment of…release, when you get carried away by people telling you their stories. Giving you their heart. And you can give them yours in return. Just by sitting there. It sounds silly when you say it out loud. It wouldn’t sound silly in a song.
Back then my only real friends lived on stage. On CDs. On YouTube. But somewhere between the Birmingham New Street-Burger King dash, I found my people.
Curtain up! Light the lights!
We got nothing to hit but the heights!
I met my best friends in those darkened rooms. We find each other. Somehow, in the darkness. In the way we only know how to talk in theatre. You wouldn’t think it, but we can feel the same as a stadium of football fans, cheering on what we love, united in that moment…watching a perfect moment on stage, in a packed theatre…it’s like scoring the winning goal, or some sports metaphor. It’s a cliché to talk about shared experience…but it feels like breathing with one breath, beating with one heart. Or just bragging rights that you were at the closing night of Company and clearly the coolest of nerds.
I’m back to doing it in my bedroom now. Singing I mean. We all are, I guess. Some days, well, some days, it’s all that keeps me sane. Belting out showtunes. I can be Barbara. Or Imelda. Or I could be Lin Manuel Miranda or Hugh Jackman…or I can be me. More me in a showtune than anywhere else. For now, it’s a bedroom concert. The stage is in my head.
Pretending I’m in a room, waiting for the curtain to come up. I worry we’ll never find our way back. I worry …I worry it’s all gone.
But then I think of that time. The next time. When you hear the start of an overture. I think of the room filling with music. I think of turning to my friends I found in the darkness, sitting there with me. Holding hands tightly to fight back the tears. And the music fills the theatre, and the applause rises, and rises and rises…
Everything’s coming up sunshine and Santa Claus!
Everything’s gonna be bright lights and lollipops!
Everything’s coming up roses for me and for you!
Audio recording of this talk is above, originally intended for an interactive discussion as part of the National Theatre’s learning programmes, this is a modified version of that talk in written and recorded form.
Anyone who wants to ask questions or engage in discussion I can be found on twitter as @EmiGarside
Introduction Tony Kushner and the NT – from Angels to The Visit.
‘Hello and Good Morning’
I like to start all my Kushner pieces like that, as it’s the opening of Angels in America, spoken by the Rabbi Isidor Chemlwitz, addressing the audience and inviting them in…so that’s what we’ll do.
This talk was destined for a full day of Kushner fun at the National Theatre. Designed as combination ‘Tony Kushner 101’ but also an insight into how one of America’s greatest living dramatists came to have such a strong relationship with Britain’s National Theatre…and why perhaps his work is such a good fit for the National.
‘I like big stages’ Kushner.
Big stages and big stories. This is why his adaptation of The Visit has worked so well for the National. Taking in all of the Olivier stage- and space above and below. With over 30 cast members and a choir, Kushner took the idea of big stories and ran with it. It feels both fully Kushner, and fully the National Theatre- an example of what both can do when let loose to play with everything in their arsenal. For Kushner, it feels maybe a strange departure, an adaptation not an original work…but his return with The Visit also seems to fit perfectly into his relationship with The National Theatre.
The end of Act 1 of The Visit sees Claire Zachanassian, returning in true theatrical style in a plume of smoke onto the Olivier stage after much theatrical foreshadowing. Short of calling Tony Kushner a Grande Dame of theatre, the parallels are certainly there. A significant relationship spanning 30 years. And ‘The Visit ‘does in this context feel a bit like dropping by, fabulous entourage in tow, of the greatest export- even if Kushner wasn’t a native, to begin with. The Visit is a kind of triumphant return for one of America’s greatest living dramatists.
In the town of Slurry, New York, the post-war recession has bitten. Claire Zachanassian, improbably beautiful and impenetrably terrifying, returns to her hometown as the world’s richest woman. The locals hope her arrival signals a change in their fortunes, but they soon realise that prosperity will only come at a terrible price. She promises them the financial means to fix their deteriorating town if they kill Alfred Ill, an upstanding member of the community, local shop owner…but who had an affair with her as a young man, fathered her child who tragically died, and denied he was the father in court. Seeking revenge for that portion of her life decades later, Claire makes the town of Slurry choose between the one thing that can save them- money- and saving a member of their community. An updating of the tragicomic 1956 play. It’s told with wit in this epic version that will have audiences debating the best way to kill a man at each interval. And the ethics of it on the way home (maybe).
Fridrich Durrenmatt’s Der Besuch der alten Dame premiered in Xurch in 1956. From there it transferred to Munich and started a ‘tour of triumph’ from there: first in the German-speaking countries where it was the most stated play of 1956 and 1957. It was then produced around the world in France, Spain, Poland, and Japan amongst other countries.
Maurice Valency was the first to adapt the play into English, for a production in London and the New York in 1958, which starred husband and wife Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and was directed by Peter Brook. All three were nominated for Tony Awards.
It has since been adapted for stage and screen many times in numerous languages. In 1964 Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn starred in a much-altered film directed by Bernhard Wicki which had the tagline ‘Hell hath no fury’. In that version, however, Zachanassian halts the execution, giving the town the money as pledged, but forcing Ill to live there among his would-be executioners.
An opera version was created by Durrenmatt himself, with music by Gottfried von Einem was first performed in 1971. And a musical version (90 minutes with songs) was created by Kander and Ebb with a book by Terrance McNally in 2015. As much as there are many jokes to be made about Kander and Ebb managing to do it in 90 minutes straight through with songs, while Kushner took 4 hours, there’s also now the sad reflection that McNally sadly died. A contemporary of Kushner’s in using theatre to confront the AIDS epidemic (specifically with Love! Valour! Compassion! but also in being a visible Gay playwright, and campaigner), McNally sadly died in March 2020. His star in The Visit (and other productions, as a long term collaborator and friend) Chita Revera said at his passing ‘ A huge part of me is gone. But then it’s not. Terrence wouldn’t like that. he helped to make me who I am as a person. He is the epitome of love and friendship’
Previous UK productions include 1989 production by Complicate which transferred t the National theatre. As well as a 1995 production directed by Terry Hands at Chichester Festival Theatre.
In the new edition of the play Durrenmatt is quoted as saying in 1980 ‘The Visit was my breakthrough; it is my most popular play’
So why then Tony Kushner? Why the National? Why now?
All valid questions….
The Visit, The National Theatre, and Tony Kushner
The Visit is also a crash course in what Kushner does but also something quite different. Being an adaptation it isn’t as inherently ‘Kushner’ as his other work, for obvious reasons. And yet it is also.
Personal is political.
Political and social outsiders.
Powerful and mysterious women (who run the world etc)
Damaged men struggling with what society expects.
Political commentary on the present through history.
As for the National Theatre, it is the type of play only the National, and only the Olivier stage can do. It is a huge production in every respect- spanning 4 hours in previews but trimmed to a sprightly 3.5 in production. It has two intervals and uses every inch of the Olivier stage (and substantial space above and below it). Over 30 performers flesh out the production. In these days of small budgets and shrinking productions, when writers are told more than a four-hander limits your chances of getting produced there is opulence to it that suits both the original and Kushner’s writing.
And so who is Tony Kushner and how did we get here?
Who is Tony Kushner?
Born 16th July 1956 in Manhattan to musician parents. Jewish of Polish/Russian descent they moved to Lake Charles Louisiana when Kushner was a baby. He was raised in the South before returning to New York for University (Columbia, Medieval Studies, 1978) and then moved to NYU to study at the Tisch School of the Arts (1984). He has several honorary degrees including an honorary Doctorate from Ithaca College.
Prolific as a writer from college age, he had a range of smaller scale productions in his early career including:
The Age of Assassins, New York, Newfoundland Theatre, 1982.
La Fin de la Baleine: An Opera for the Apocalypse, New York, Ohio Theatre, 1983.
The Heavenly Theatre, produced at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, 1984.
The Umbrella Oracle, Martha’s Vineyard, The Yard, Inc..
Last Gasp at the Cataract, Martha’s Vineyard, The Yard, Inc., 1984.
Yes, Yes, No, No: The Solace-of-Solstice, Apogee/Perigee, Bestial/Celestial Holiday Show, produced in St. Louis, Imaginary Theatre Company, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 1985, published in Plays in Process, 1987.
From 1985 with A Bright Room Called Day, Kushner’s first ‘major’ work – and one that has been probably produced most consistently- he has created an impressive body of work:
A Bright Room Called Day – 1985.
Hydriotaphia, produced in New York City, 1987 (based on the life on Sir Thomas Browne)
The Illusion – adapted from Pierre Corneille’s play L’illusion comique; produced in New York City, 1988, revised version produced in Hartford, CT, 1990)
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part One: Millennium Approaches (produced in San Francisco, 1991), Hern, 1992.
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part Two: Perestroika, produced in New York City, 1992.
Homebody/Kabul, first performed in New York City, December 2001.
Caroline, or Change (musical), first performed in New York at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, 2002..
Mother Courage and Her Children Translation with “liberties”—but purportedly “not an adaptation”—of (2006)
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures Minneapolis, Guthrie Theater, 2009.
He worked consistently as a writer since college, but by his own admission only started making a living from writing after selling his first screenplay (for Angels in 2002, so almost 20 years of ‘success’ later). He has worked with Steven Speilberg (and one hopes quoted his own play ‘Very Steven Speilberg’ at least once during this) on all of his major film projects to date, with Munich in 2005, Lincoln in 2012 and the forthcoming West Side Story in 2020…and including an ‘uncredited’ adaptor of August Wilson’s Fences in which Kushner took up the mantle after the playwright died before production could complete. The pattern of adaptation, alongside historical fusing with current political commentary, is also apparent in his screen work. As well of course as adding further critical acclaim, including Oscar nominations for both Lincoln and Munich.
In his personal life, Kushner and his husband, Mark Harris, held a commitment ceremony in April 2003, the first same-sex commitment ceremony to be featured in the Vows column of The New York Times. Harris is an editor of Entertainment Weekly and author of Pictures at a Revolution – Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. In summer 2008, Kushner and Harris were legally married at the town hall in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The drive for marriage equality was one Kushner campaigned heavily on, as politics personally, as in his plays are never far from the forefront of his life as well as work.
Passionately political- seen clearly in any of his work, Kushner has campaigned across gay rights, particularly in recent years the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ and the Equal Marriage Bill. Kushner was quoted in the 2010 book “It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs” on page 76. His six-word memoir was “At least I never voted Republican.”
While his plays are unashamedly political, he is also a regular at political marches and demonstrations. Campaigning for the Democrats and driving voters on Polling days.
He has not been immune to political criticism, not just predictably from the Right and homophobes, but also from his criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and of the increased religious extremism in Israeli politics and culture has created some controversy with U.S. Jews. Around 2006 causing something of a stir in American Jewish and political circles, resulting in some calling for his honorary doctorate and associated commencement address to be revoked.
Kushner has never been one to shy away from the argument and has stood firm to his beliefs
‘He delivers fierce opinions in genial, unruffled tones at lighting speed.’ Said The Paris Review, in an interview and that is an apt description of his writing.
Plays and Politics
‘The one thing that I do think was kind of new, at least in American playwriting when I wrote Angels, was that I made the decision that these characters were going to see the world through a political lens.’
An unapologetically political playwright, he is also a playwright who keeps family and love at the heart of his work. With the supernatural permeating a lot of what he does (even at his own expense in re-writes to Bright Room Called Day where “the playwright” now appears to offer commentary on the criticism of previous productions).
‘I would hate to write anything that wasn’t” part of a political movement. “I would like my plays to be of use to progressive people. I think preaching to the converted is exactly what art ought to do.’ (1995, Mars Jones)
He doesn’t consider his plays a means of political lecturing to be listened to passively, or with him as the expert. He considers this a Jewish characteristic, in a sense. In the rabbinic tradition, “you don’t get attention just because somebody’s elected you cardinal and you put on a big hat.” Rather, for rabbinic Judaism, “knowledge is the seedbed and the foundation of power. If one isn’t able to ask provocative, mind-expanding questions, then one has no business asking for anyone’s attention.”
All of this comes into play in ‘The Visit’ in which 1950s Slurry New York, is a clear metaphor for the late capitalism of modern day America. In which a loved resident will be sacrificed for cold hard cash. For Kushner the past as political allegory, as well as art and politics have long since been intertwined.
“Some visionary playwrights want to change the world. Some want to revolutionize the theater. Tony Kushner, the remarkably gifted 36-year-old author of Angels in America, is that rarity of rarities: a writer who has the promise to do both.” Frank Rich 1992
Stylistically, Kushner has in a way created a style of his own. He blends poetry and politics. Brechtian with American lyrical traditions of Tennessee Williams and infused with the world of activism, and with indeed his parents’ musical background.
‘I always go back to Brecht’ has long since been Kushner’s refrain. That blurring of the lines between audience and consciousness. And yes, with an undercurrent of politics. He has been accused of ‘ludicrous’ in his stage directions. Kushner himself prefers to consider them moments of ‘excitement’ If we look at a stage direction from Angels
“A sound, like a plummeting meteor, tears down from very, very far above the earth, hurtling at an incredible velocity towards the bedroom; the light seems to be sucked out of the room as the projectile approaches; as the room reaches darkness, we hear a terrifying CRASH as something immense strikes earth; the whole building shudders and a part of the bedroom ceiling, lots of plaster and lathe and wiring crashes to the floor. And then in a shower of unearthly white light, spreading great opalescent grey-silver wings, the angel descends into the room and floats above the bed.”
Kushner says of it; ‘[I] hope that doesn’t sound ludicrous. I hope when a reader reads that, he or she will feel, first, shivers and glee; and then they might ask, as a designer or director ought to: “Wow! HOW are we (they) going to do THAT!?” “What will that look like on stage!?”
And he’s right there’s a sense of attempting the impossible in what he rights, but also a sense of what might be possible.
And another from The Visit proves little has changed, only evolved in the intervening years…
It is impossible to know her age. Her face, heavily painted, almost resembles a mask from some ritual drama. She’s bedecked with alarming jewellery. She is terrifying, excessive to the verge of insanity, also improbably beautiful. She walks with the aid of a jewelled cane.
This from The Visit goes on a further two paragraphs. They are both excessive in detail, yet the detail relates to the wider world Kushner creates, and can also be forgotten. The wires may show however a director ultimately pleases. And while Kushner is incredibly particular on the cutting of his words, the look and the feel of a piece still can and must evolve with the directors.
He is of course famed for his relationships with directors. Beautifully synchronistic, but also infamous in other ways. Oskar Eustis and he get on famously well. Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod famously banned him from the National’s rehearsal room (in hatchets long since buried over the endless re-writes of what was already a 7-hour play). Kushner is a writer who commands the room, but the results are often so exquisite is worth it. It’s no surprise really that this auteur of a writer teamed up with Steven Spielberg when he made the move to film.
Angels at the National
The first relationship with the National Theatre was tumultuous, yes, but it marked the beginning of a nearly 30-year relationship with the theatre. Kushner’s seminal Angels in America (1992/4) not only was the National Theatre the company behind the play’s first Broadway revival, but it was also intrinsic in the creation of this modern American classic. Surprisingly to everyone (Kushner himself included) Richard Eyre loved the idea of a (then unfinished) seven-hour odyssey on America, AIDS, and Angels. The National Theatre achieved the World Premiere of what would become an iconic play of the 20th century, with the opening of London just pipping Broadway to the post due to technical difficulties on the other side of the pond. The first run of Angels was a success, critically and commercially for the National, as was its part in that chapter of American theatre history.
Angels in America burst into the theatrical world, much like the Angel through Prior Walter’s ceiling, in 1993. A weaving of over 30 characters Kushner’s play creates a world where illness and sexuality are unapologetically shared and political diatribes sit alongside Angelic visitations manifested through-yes fittingly- Spielberg-like spectacle.
Production of Angels in America began in 1988 in San Francisco, when Kushner was offered, through a special project grant from the National Endowment for the Arts a commission from the Eureka Theatre Company. Following workshops in San Francisco and Los Angeles, this Epic piece of American theatre made its way to the National Theatre in 1993 in a co-production with theatre company Cheek by Jowl. It was through a quirk of logistical fate, partly the technology of making the Angel fly in New York, that the National Theatre’s production became the world premiere of the full two-part drama. It was on 20th November 1993 that Millennium Approaches and Perestroika had their world premiere at the National Theatre, in the then Cottesloe theatre, the Broadway premiere of both parts happened at the Walter Kerr theatre three days later the 23rd November 1993.
The genesis of the play in London has become the stuff of theatrical legend; From Artistic director Richard Eyre reading the play almost by accident, finding himself snowed in at home, to the tempestuous relationship between playwright and director. Cheek By Jowl, the theatre company Eyre immediately thought of to collaborate on Angels were known- as the name suggests- for working on Shakespearean texts. Chosen by Eyre to co-produce for their experience in sweeping narratives and an eye for the unconventional. The company who would create an inaugural production of Angels that was different in style and approach to its contemporaries, and yet one that played a part in creating the blueprint of this play . Kushner commented on his feelings about the British production of Angels in advance of its performance:
‘I feel tremendously excited, honoured that the Royal National Theatre want to do it. I’m also very nervous…But I don’t know how British audiences will respond.’ (Kushner, Gay Times 1992)
Kushner was possibly correct to worry- the sweeping and controversial nature of the play was an antithesis to the big-budget musicals of the West End in this era, and a play about gay men and AIDS in contrast to the traditional productions much of the National’s audience would have been used to. And there were some reservations. Benedict Nightingale commented;
A three-and-a-half-hour play about Aids is not the most inviting of prospects, nor its American author’s subtitle ‘A gay fantasia on National themes’ the most seductive of theatrical come ons. (The Telegraph, 1992)
However, it did receive acclaim from critics including:
‘something rare dangerous and harrowing has erupted upon the London stage. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is like a roman candle hurled into a drawing room.’(deJongh, The Evening Standard, 1992)
Ultimately it was a gamble that paid off. The run at the National was successful, and reviews asserted the importance of the plays. The staging of Angels, an untested American work of this scale, at the National Theatre is indicative both of an understanding of its importance as a text and recognition of Kushner’s significance as a contemporary American playwright. This play was an important landmark in the National Theatre’s history- situating not only an American play- but an American gay play about AIDS on the National Stage (in both senses) was a brave and important move. Although not creating a wave of Angels imitators in theatre, Angels nonetheless impacted the British theatrical landscape in its staging. Angels opened discussion and potential for more plays of this nature, more plays which were grand in scale and scope.
Oh and also, James Bond and Lucious Malfoy were lovers in this version…(Daniel Craig and Jason Issacs as Joe and Louis)
Caroline or Change
Kushner’s relationship with the National Theatre continued with his next big project- a semi-autobiographical musical, Caroline or Change. A similarly Brechtian musical, it follows a Jewish family in Louisiana, through the eyes of their maid Caroline. On one level charting the Civil Rights tensions of the 1960s, on the other the private grief of a family. The musical numbers are brought to life by inanimate objects made animate- a chorus of ‘the Radio’ narrate much of it musically but are joined by ‘the washing machine’ or ‘the bus’ again the supernatural elements of Angels from another angle.
Returning in 2006 with the UK premiere of Caroline or Change at the National Theatre. A lack of commercial success on Broadway meant that a West End run was unlikely, and the National became again the London home for Kushner’s newest work. Far from commercial musical theatre, The National Theatre provided a logical home for another of Kushner’s plays that pushed the boundaries of what audiences could expect- or indeed traditionally embrace.
Staging the commercially impossible remains a through line in Kushner’s work. His first musical (do we count West Side Story as the second?) was created with Jeanine Tesori. Not known for sing-along classics and tap dancing- Kushner was never likely to write that kind of musical. Tesori began her career arranging the dance music for the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1995) and is probably best known for her work on Shrek the musical or Fun Home depending on your personal taste in musicals and it’s style combines spirituals, blues, Motown, classical music, and Jewish klezmer and folk music.
Tonya Pinkins from the original Broadway cast, Tony Award performance.
The musical was first workshopped in May 1992 at New York’s Off-Broadway Public Theater. Director George C. Wolfe continued to workshop the musical at the Public Theater, where it opened on November 30, 2003 and closed on February 1, 2004. It transferred to Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on May 2, 2004 and closed on August 29, 2004 after 136 performances and 22 previews. It was, we could say, not a commercial success. And once again the National and Kushner’s relationship with them proved the more appropriate vehicle for it.
Opening in October 2006, a London production at the National Theatre on the Lyttleton stage, also directed by Wolfe, ran in repertory with Marianne Elliot’s production of Thérèse Raquin to January 2007. The production did not transfer to the West End but did win the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. The opening night cast in London starred Tonya Pinkins as Caroline. Other cast members included Pippa Bennett-Warner as Emmie Thibodeaux, Anna Francolini as Rose Stopnick Gellman, Hilton McRae as Mr. Stopnick, Perry Millward, Jonny Weldon and Greg Bernstein alternating as Noah and Clive Rowe as the dryer/bus.
“The National Theatre used to bring us Broadway’s golden oldies. Now it imports something original: a remarkable musical, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori’- Billigton, The Guardian.
Caroline again was the type of production that the National could make, sell and that their audiences were receptive to that, strangely the ‘home crowd’ or at least the commercial Broadway crowd, was not. Kushner is not really a commercial theatre writer- something he himself noted when Angels first went to Broadway. His work finds a natural home with the National and perhaps, strangely, British audiences as well.
Angels fly again
And is there something in the British productions of this American’s work that resonates particularly? With Caroline returning to Broadway this year via a British (if not National Theatre) production. And Angels doing the same in 2018?
This true test of the National and Kushner’s enduring relationship came in 2017 when the National mounted a revival of Angels and became the first company to take the play back to Broadway. Flying the Angels back to their native New York was an act of theatrical nerve in some respects, but also an indication of the shared history of the play that it was accepted- and applauded on home soil. There is something even beautifully Kushnerian about the playwright who wrote a treatise on American political history being given voice by the British National Theatre. And for the writer who blends a unique mix of Brechtian Epic and a uniquely American sensibility to his writing- infused with Tennessee Williams along with a litany of Queer American culture, found a niche within the heart of British theatre also. Who somehow managed to sell that ‘vision’ back home on his behalf.
This time including a starry cast including Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey along with Olivier award winner, and all-round star of British theatre, Denise Gough. Combined with direction from Marianne Elliot, who has delivered some of the biggest hits for the National Theatre in recent years, this is not so much a homecoming then a triumphant return that looked to defy the previous production in scope and scale. More than this however, it is a sign of the significance of the play itself, that the NT has returned to the production on such a scale. Including it in the celebration of 50 years was an indication of its importance to theatrical history. The revival became one of the fastest (the fastest?!) selling productions in NT history.
With a flurry of London awards, and critical acclaim, it was a successful a revival as anyone could hope for. Strangely the reviews, as well as the public response, seemed to embrace Angels more so in the revival than the original. Added to this it is fitting that the National was able to not ‘upgrade’ but ‘upscale’ the play to the Lyttleton theatre for this run. Setting aside that it is notoriously difficult to direct a play in that space, seeing the play on such a scale, and giving it the full technical scope that the space could offer, gave it new dimensions. It’s a play that could be performed on 8 chairs and have an equally powerful effect. But giving it the full might of the National’s resources really, pardon the pun, let it fly.
And fly it did- back to Broadway the following year. With a slightly tweaked cast and altered staging- partly to reflect the constraints of Broadway houses compared with the flexibility of the National, partly to adapt to new cast members and new ideas from the interim. But Angels here was a critical success.
Harder once again to ‘sell’ a two-part play to audiences, more difficult too to sell an American classic back to America when produced by a British team. It went on to become the most nominated play in Tony Award history, winning a slew of other awards across the season also. But such was the quality of the production, and indeed the respect for the National’s programming, that it worked. Most importantly it worked because what had been produced was the best version that play could be in that moment. And what an achievement, to be the production that took this iconic American play back to Broadway for the first time.
Why The Visit? On one hand why not?
After Angels it would have seemed fitting that Kushner return with a new original play. Or at least a revivial of one of his old ones- A Bright Room Called Day has been revived with a re-written version at New York’s answer to the National, The Public Theatre. And while Caroline had a revival at the Hampstead Theatre and later the West End, there are many of Kushner’s ‘smaller’ plays (including the wonderfully named ‘Tiny Kushner’ collection of short plays) that need, how do we put this, a bit of a safety net to make them viable to stage…Or was it time for the long-rumoured Trump play from Kushner? None of this, instead an adaptation. And why this play? Why now?
Why not, is a perfectly viable answer. It feels like a Kushner interlude, a taster while we wait for the next original epic…and The Visit lets Kushner flex a few muscles he’s learned in film- adaptation and the art of giving your own voice to something that has at its heart another’s…he’s most recently finished adapting West Side Story so why not add another iconic work into the mix with The Visit?
It fits perfectly Kushner’s Americana aesthetic. The transformation of the German play to the depths of the American depression is fitting, and one as with the best of Kushner’s work where history reflects the present perfectly. The warnings from history are once again clear to see, even in adaptation.
‘Once a waystation, now a bywater, bypassed by commerce and attention…dark unfathomable forces at work…nobody visit slurry! Not any more!’
As David Hochfelder highlights in his programme essay, the problems of such towns in 1950s America reflect that of the original play. (as an aside ‘slurry’ fits with the original translation of ‘Gullen’ which means liquid manure)
It’s political on the micro and macro level. It’s the day to day politics of humans in a town, versus the government politics that got them there. It’s the rich in power over the poor. And the complexities of a rich woman, getting there through perhaps ill-gotten means, perhaps the least likeable person in the play but also central to it (Roy Cohn anyone). It’s a family drama that comments on the politics of the past and the present (Caroline). It’s a little bit out there and extreme…in other words classic Kushner.
The original play it is insisted by its author is a comedy (though many a German production may have ripped that from it somewhat). But it is a difficult thing to make comedic…enter Kushner. One of the most surprising things about his work is in fact how funny they are, even in the face of dark subject matter. It’s not even a dark comedy, it’s just that his people, like people, are inherently funny.
Why though the National?
Nowhere could have done a production quite like this. The combination of Jerry Herrin have done the impossible- filled the Olivier to the brim. Kushner took this play and expanded it, found routes in it that weren’t there. Wrote a luxurious prose poetry into a piece that previously had a different feel entirely. It’s the luxury of space to experiment, the lack of commercial pressure and the sheer space in every sense to create. Audiences wise where else can you get away with a 4-hour drama today? (3.5) that isn’t Harry Potter at least. It’s the audiences as well as the space, who are willing to sign up and say ‘ok we’re game’
And while the National Theatre didn’t ‘discover’ Kushner- who had already reached a degree of upward trajectory in American theatre, the National Theatre’s platform for Angels cemented his path to be a leading American playwright of the 20th century. And in returning not with a new play, but as an adaptor of a classic, surely cements Kushner now among the National’s repertoire of regulars.
With the Public Theatre in New York- the closest thing to a National Theatre the US has- reviving a new version of Kushner’s troublesome first play A Bright Room Called Day in 2019, the question is perhaps, a time for a Kushner retrospective? Or indeed something new…
And it is the gift of the National Theatre to have this continued theatrical exchange with one of the greatest living American dramatists. And who knows what the future collaborations may hold…especially after Kushner has had plenty of time to write in Spring 2020 while theatres have been dark…we might want to bring a cushion though…and snacks.
I was writing the start of this when Phillip Schofield came out and it turned into something more…I never wrote about Schofield at the time so it feels like this is my verison of that blog/article.
(Also I’m looking to develop this piece, should any directors/performers want to slide into my DMS)
Jen enters carrying an array of charts. She delivers this as a lecture/TEDTalk style monologue.
Jen: I feel like there’s aspects of my species that need explaining. I sometimes wonder if I’m a totally alien species even in the places and spaces I’m supposed to feel at home in. Like I walk into a Lesbian Women’s comedy night and I feel like a 150-year-old relic who should be wearing a 1950s dress.
Ok, I’m often wearing a 1950s dress, but it’s like the 25-year-old uber-cool lesbians can smell my 35-year-old bisexual self coming, and I suddenly feel like an uptight ultra heterosexual by comparison. Meanwhile in my oh-so-straight office where the only gays they know are ‘that Graham Norton fella’ and they hadn’t even heard of Queer eye the first time around…well, I look and feel like lesbian 101. I’m still old there. Because over 30 and unmarried is very much ‘Lesbian or Bridget Jones’ territory.
Which leads me on neatly to lesson number 1:
Bisexual women are attracted to ALL women and 5 very specific men.
Who has seen that tweet and felt ‘seen’ as the kids say? Raise your hands?
I didn’t think it was true. I set out to disprove it. No, I’m a TRUE bisexual, I would say, I am attracted to a WIDE variety of humans. And some scumbags who challenge the definition of humanity.
But no turns out its 100% true.
For the record here are the 5 male humans I am attracted to. And I can guarantee almost all 30-something-ish bisexuals from my demographic are also or some variation thereof. Yes, I said thereof. This is science.
I brought charts. Because in trying to work out my sexual and gender identity in 2020 I feel like I need charts. To go with all my labels.
She reveals charts
Maybe it’s because I’m old? I’m in my 30s, which in Queer years is practically dead right? But I look around at the community I’m in. Allegedly in. And I think…I can’t find my place. Is there a map? Did I miss a seminar and so lose all the information that was on the final exam?
Of course, I’m old as balls so it’s been a very long time since I sat an exam. Maybe they’ve changed the criteria. We have changed the criteria since I was in school. That’s when I first said the words ‘I’m bisexual’ things have changed labels have changed and multiplied, our numbers have grown…maybe we do need a geography lesson or a maths lesson to work out exactly where in this jigsaw of Queerness we fit in. This is handy because I brought charts!
I love a spreadsheet. Practically get off on one. But you know what a spreadsheet doesn’t give you…context. Is this starting to sound like your GCSE lessons? Good. Are they even still called GCSE’s? I’m old and the Tories have been in power a long time, they could be called ‘You’re not at Eton so it doesn’t matter’ levels now.
Anyway. Long long ago some very clever Queers developed an equation- that’s what we did before algorithms and Buzzfeed polls, that dictated the five men you were allowed to fancy as a bisexual woman. I will warn you there are some historic references to the 1990s coming up. References will be provided later.
So. Here goes.
Colin Firth she reveals a picture of Colin Firth
It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone who was a child during the BBC Pride and Prejudice era, and then was of University age during the Bridget Jones era is fundamentally in love with Colin Firth. Yes, we know he’s a bit of a posh twat, but we’ve all got a bit of a thing for a posh twat now and then. Again, I call that the University years. Mr Darcy. Posh. Aloof. Unattainable. With in real-life rock-solid marriage that made him seem like that perfect older man in your life….
Until they divorced last year. I’m not saying I want them to divorce but I AM saying that if he needs a Mrs Firth again, I’m available.
But man number 1. Aloof in fiction. Unavailable in real life. A safe choice.
David Tennant. She reveals a picture of David Tennant Very specifically David Tennant as the 10th Not just because he’s played a whole lot of murderers since (spoilers)
Now I’m not saying there’s a connection between bisexuality and a skinny slightly camp sexless alien in a pinstripe suit and converse with floppy hair but….it’s a mood.
Brad Pitt. The Jennifer Aniston years. Reveals a picture. Specifically, possibly the episode of Friends with Brad in. That was peak 90s. We were allowed to say Jennifer Aniston was ‘like so pretty’ too and pretend that we didn’t fancy her a little bit. (For the record, Lisa Kudrow was always the hottest). But Brad has always been a little bit girly. Metrosexual before it was a thing. Girly…again not saying there’s a connection here but…
Idris Elba reveals a picture of Idris. Look I don’t make the rules, the man is hot, I’d have to be dead not to see it.
I thought I was being so clever with this one. Not just the one everyone fancies. Not the pretty boy or sexless alien. A real honest to goodness attractive heterosexual male.
I had whole theories Phillip. I had theories about ‘yes I like non-threatening sexless men, and unattainable pretty boys’ But then there’s you. Constant from the Broom Cupboard in the 90s. Ahem we’ll come back to that. To the This Morning Sofa. Constant of University life and sick days. My silver fox and his Technicolor Dreamcoat. The reason I sneak a look at Dancing on Ice but pretend I don’t. The reason I can feel TRULY bisexual watching This Morning is I can imagine a perfect heterosexual life with Phillip while ogling Holly’s chest. It’s the dream Phillip. And now what?
Well to be honest I’m still going to be looking at Holly’s chest I’m only human. But what about you? Should I be joining the legions on twitter lamenting my childhood crush?
No. I’m getting the glitter and banners out and saying WELCOME TO THE CLUB.
But on a personal level my heart is breaking. My heart is breaking for you and for me. Saying why couldn’t we have done this 20 years ago.
I understand that there are some strange humans out there who feel betrayed by Phillip. The fact that he like Gordon the Gopher has leapt out of the closet (come on tell me Gordon isn’t gay). Wait for those who don’t know what a Gordon is here she reveals a picture of Gordon. Gopher. Gordon. Back in the 90s we had men with their hands up puppet’s arses for entertainment and we were all the better for it.
Anyway Phillip. Welcome. He’s not gay, Trevor from finance, because he’s spent too long with ‘that Barrowman fella and the figure skaters’ he’s just…gay.
And I’m happy. I really am.
But it got me thinking. How different would my life have been if I’d had Phillip, the real Phillip in the 90s. Bursting out with his Technicolor Dreamcoat. Out and proud and as gay as the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical he was part of. What if we were all allowed to be as out and proud? What if we’d had those 20 years together Phillip?
Not together, together. That would be weird. And you had Gordon. Then Holly.
You see there’s two lost generations, that older one, in their 50s and 60s now. And the ones underneath, the ones who should have been looking up to them. Who should have had them to ask directions from? And we all ended up hidden. And a bit lost.
You lot, all you lot asking why we care about some older white dude who may or may not be mates with the Tories, and don’t want him in the club. You grew up different. You found each other on the internet, came out on Instagram.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out where the 30-something bisexual female fits in. I even made a chart. She reveals a chart and draws as she speaks.
You see up here we have a BIG OLD BUBBLE OF MEN. Because that’s the way of the world right? So, the cis gender gay male. Usually white, but we make the odd exception. They take up ALL THIS SPACE. The straight world notices that one. They’re older, more assured. Louder. More male. You get ahead. I get that. I’m a woman. I’ve lived in this world.
Over here are the lesbians. You know the ‘proper’ lesbians. We’re talking Doc Martin wearing, mechanics or whatever lesbians are supposed to do. I don’t know what we? They? Are supposed to do…I tried wearing Doc Martins. I look ridiculous. Nobody told me there was a dress code for this shit. Also this lot, they’ve proudly never touched a penis. They don’t even like to SAY penis. If you whisper it too loud they revoke your membership.
Look ladies there’s lots of penis I wish I hadn’t touched. She draws one. Believe me. Lots of hours wasted when I could have got there a lot quicker without if you see what I mean. A penis is not the be all and end all. With sincere apologies to the gay men in the room. You do you. But I happen to have, very unfortunately fallen in love or sometimes lust with the owner of one. Again, the gay guys know what I mean. We got this right? Right. But that means I will never have access to this exclusive ladies’ club over here.
And I’m mad jealous. I love women. Like I LOVE women. She draws a heart. But the ladies who love ladies…they don’t always love me. I’m not one of them. I don’t dress like them they say. I don’t act like them. I touched a penis 10 years ago and apparently that bars me for life.
Now now not ALL lesbians. Some of my best friends are lesbians. Some of the women I’ve loved are lesbians. Some of the women I’ve lost are lesbians.
My problem is I’m also old. I’m over that magical age of….25. Where apparently life falls off a cliff and your should be retired never to be heard from again.
I’m 35. My 25-year-old little brother (our parents had some issues to work out clearly) is also a raging Queer (at least our parents did something right). And he had to google section 28. He googles it. I lived it. And there’s the difference.
I grew up in a time when who I was wasn’t spoken of. I didn’t learn the word bisexual until University. It’s no wonder I’m resistant to labels if it took me 20 years of my life to find out what they were. If it took me 20 years not to hear the word ‘gay’ in hushed tones or hurled insults. I had it better than most. I grew up in a time when my friends weren’t dying. In a time they weren’t being arrested.
But I also grew up in a hinterland. Where my history had been taken from me and erased. And before any of you had chance to start writing some new history. I look back further than you do because I’m trying to reclaim what was lost. I tell my little brother weekly to ‘know your history’ because with my generation it was in danger of being lost.
We moved away from the love that does not speak its name. To not being spoken about at all. Erased from the curriculum was erased from a generation in a way. And it took growing up for us to reclaim it.
Our internet was full of dark corners, discovering things- things we probably shouldn’t. Covert conversations, not unlike the offline conversations of the generations before that. We hid our narratives in plain site- a chaste kiss on a soap that made headline news, that Channel 4 show that saved our lives hidden away and watched in secret on bedroom TVs as teenagers. It was knowing looks not pronouns in twitter bios and emjoi rainbow flags. It was going to Pride ‘for a laugh’ and finding you belonged. Or running away scared.
I look at my little brother and I’m proud he’s grown up in a world where he’s not whispered about.
It’s far from perfect. We all know. Hate crime. Violence. It’s still a harsh world.
And I’m grateful. To my sisters and brothers before me. Who marched for me. Who died for me.
But there’s this weird lost generation. The generation who didn’t have anyone to look up to.
I’m not woke enough for the club. I’m not young and hip enough. They speak a language I don’t understand. And that’s brilliant, and beautiful and how it should be. Evolution. That used to be a club in Cardiff. For the straights. So we don’t speak of it.
Gay-volution. Gay revolution. But sometimes it’s hard to keep up.
There are 100 new labels. And even a well-meaning Millennial like me gets it wrong sometimes. And cancel culture and internet trolls. And the way we talk about ourselves is wrong somehow…and we somehow don’t know who we are anymore despite all the labels.
And so, I come back to Phillip. I look at him and I look at the younger generation. Who would tell me as a woman I shouldn’t be looking to a cis, white man as my inspiration? And they’re right. I maybe shouldn’t. I shouldn’t HAVE TO. But I look at my diagrams. And I think how I don’t fit into a neat circle. Queerness doesn’t have a gender right? Maybe my role models don’t either.
Because who we have, and who we had to look to matters. And maybe I should be wishing on a nice lesbian role model. But actually, I’d settle for anyone in that gap at all.
But to them I say, you don’t remember how it was. You don’t have the same need to reclaim your childhood through Queerness. That’s what Phillip represents to me.
I didn’t know who Ellen was as a kid, and anyway she’s cancelled anyway now. But what if the nice man on children’s TV had proudly had a boyfriend. What if my Mum could have turned to me and told me ‘that nice man with the Gopher married another nice man’ how different would both our lives have been? Would I need a flipchart to try and work out who I was if the government hadn’t told a generation we couldn’t say the names of what we were in the classroom? If a generation before hadn’t been wiped out by a virus nobody was willing to put on the news? Or killed by the shame and the fear? What if the headlines had been ‘TV presenter has lavish wedding’ not ‘scandalous soap kiss’ or ‘Actor and husband adopt babies’ not ‘Filthy gays spread death’. What if…what if Godon the fucking Gopher had burst out in a feather boa shouting ‘I am what I am’ What a different life Phillips Schofield and I might have led.
Don’t take Phillip Schofield away just because he waited this long. Don’t take my identity away just because I needed some charts and 30 something years to figure it out.
And so here it is…my top 10 musicals of the decade. It turned out to be a slightly emotional journey. As a ‘Dr of musicals’ (in part) that probably isn’t surprising as this decade coincided with that chapter in my life. But it turns out musicals meant a lot in that time. And I’ll fight anyone who says musicals aren’t a serious artform.
I don’t normally condone the separation of musicals and plays, to me all things are equal in theatre (except for mime). But for the purposes of keeping these lists under control two lists made sense. They are for once ranked as well.
I’ve gone for ‘productions’ that moved me, that I will remember rather than sticking to new works on both lists- for me this is about personal memory, impact and what I take with me as the world spins into a new decade. And so, the musicals….
There’s also a playlist to accompany this one here
Yes alright it’s in here…in fact back in the far off land that is 2016 I was quite the Hamilton fan. I just now have Hamil-fatigue. Or more accurately Lin Manuel Miranda fatigue (less is more darling, less is more). That said, it is clearly one of the musicals of the decade. It is utterly brilliant- and the storytelling through choreography doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Also I saw the original cast for $10 ‘cos I won the lottery. Which makes me the smuggest theatre-wanker of the decade.
The Great Comet of 1812
This musical is totally out of its tree. The tree is in Russia and frozen. And they’re fighting over whether to cut down the tree…oh wait that’s another Russian play. Anyway, this musical was madness, and I adored it. And I want to camp out at the National Theatre until they agree to stage it (because nobody else will). Also, Josh Groban belting at the top of his lungs feet away from you is a bucket list moment.
Justice for the Hog! Nope still not over Broadway not appreciating the Hog while we sold it out and that I never got a Groundhog Plushy. Anyway. This show…was just the perfect contemporary musical. Yes it was a film adaptation but it was one made with heart and wit (and Tim Minchin). And Andy Karl. The last number had me ripped in two feeling hopeful and heartbroken all at once. It was beautiful.
Another for the ‘know your history’ pile perhaps. But also, a rite of passage for many- you could glance around the audience and know who was feeling the same thing as you at a given moment. And maybe that’s why it didn’t ‘work’ for everyone- perhaps its one you have to have ‘lived’ some aspect of to truly love. And that’s ok, not every musical can be for everyone. But isn’t it beautiful that Fun Home can exist for those who needed it and didn’t know?
If someone asked my most joyous musical theatre moment of the decade it would be seeing an audience join in with the dance moves at the end of Eugenius. That show felt like a meeting of worlds- my super nerd world with my musical theatre super nerd- and it was beautiful. This whole musical in fact was beautiful- an endearing story of high school love, layered with nerd references, what’s not to love? In the face of far bigger musicals, with bigger budgets, starry casts and yes ‘highbrow’ themes, Eugenius is the one that brings me the purest joy.
Falsettos – William Finn and James Lapine- directed by Tara Wilkinson- the Other Palace (2019) /James Lapine- Walter Kerr Theatre (2016)
Is it cheating to include this twice? Maybe but it’s my list I’m making the rules here. The first time I saw it Falsettos blindsided me. I haven’t cried like that at anything in the theatre, ever. You’d think then I’d be prepared the next time…wrong. There’s something in this, perhaps similar to Fun Home that speaks to experiences and thoughts that perhaps have to be shared to feel the true resonance. But it’s also quite simply a beautiful piece of work, and a fascinating exercise in musical theatre history to track and analyse its progression over the years. The Broadway and London productions were like night and day in their approach, and while for me London had something ineffable that made it hold a place in my heart forever, both were important moments in a musical theatre decade for me.
Come From Away- David Hein, Irene Sankoff- Directed by Brian Hill- Phoenix Theatre
This show…this show. It sounds ridiculous right? Let’s make a musical about being stranded in Canada on 9/11…utterly ridiculous. But it’s almost perfect. If I had to show a piece of musical theatre to people who think Musicals are all jazz hands and shallowness, I’d show them this and challenge them not to cry. It’s also an act of shared catharsis, whether you remember 9/11 or not. Whether that event touched you or it was a distant thing, this show brings humanity to the recent past, to politics, to news headlines…it’s in part sitting in the dark crying with strangers, but more than that, emerging with a sense of hope about what humanity can be. And lord knows we all could do with more of that.
Company- Stephen Sondheim- Directed by Marianne Elliott- Gielgud Theatre
Sometimes the show you need comes along at precisely the moment you need it. Getting to see Company with a female Bobbie, in the year I was 34 going on 35 was an act of musical theatre serendipity. The fact that Marianne Elliott directed it made it pretty darn perfect naturally. While the Sondheim Bros continue to argue about its validity, the production proved them wrong by existing, and connecting- in a way I’d bet the ‘real’ version no longer does. On a personal level, seeing yourself reflected back at you is always a powerful thing, and feeling a little less alone in the world is why we do this right?
Next to Normal – Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt- Directed by Michael Grief- Booth Theatre New York
I still get goosebumps thinking of this show 10 years on. And it’s only pipped to the number 1 spot because of …well what the show in the number 1 spot means.
Next to Normal took me by surprise. I went because of the Rent link and because one of my nerdy goals is to see all the Pulitzer Prize winning musicals (nerd alert). Somehow I managed to avoid knowing anything else. And it was one of those shows where I looked at my Mum at the interval and said ‘It’s so good’. And now it’s been 10 years I think I’m ok in saying, whenever I think of the moment Dan said ‘Why didn’t you go with her’ I still gasp internally (or am I dense? Did everyone else know?) and then cry when he says ‘Gabe, Gabriel’. As I’ve grown older, it’s a musical that has grown with me. I saw it and I felt Natalie’s rage against the world, her frustration at trying to escape. I now feel Diana’s confusion, her grief and Dan’s frustration at being helpless. It’s a musical that feels like its become part of me.
The other part of Next to Normal that feels so special to me is that I saw Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley play Diana and Dan. At the time I didn’t know who either of them were, but I remember being utterly floored by Marin’s performance, and wondering how as husband and wife they could do that night after night- while also knowing I’d seen something special. When Marin died in 2018, it was the first ‘celebrity’ death that I cried over in a long time. Even now, I feel incredibly sad she is no longer here. I saw her perform only once but she left such a mark.
Rent – Jonathan Larson- Directed by Bruce Guthrie- The Other Palace/Tour.
As with the plays list there was never really any doubt what number 1 would be? Predicable but also I spent most of this decade with these plays, of course they are my top two.
I first saw Bruce Guthrie direct Rent at RWCMD in 2013, and that was something special. Three years into my Ph.D. it was a gift to spur me on to see a production with a director who ‘got’ it (and frankly actors the right age!). When Guthrie came back to Rent for the 20th Anniversary tour (we’ll quibble about dates later) at the St James’ Theatre (ah remember when it had a good name) I knew it was going to be something special.
And it was. From the front row it was…intense…but it was special. As someone who hadn’t known Rent before Guthrie directed it like any other piece, rather than the time capsule piece most directors have approached it as. It felt like any good revival should be- created again for the moment it was staged in. And free from the previous productions, it felt more honest, more real and certainly more visceral. It was like seeing an old friend grown up.
That production of Rent reminded me what I loved about the musical. It also reminded me that the musical had so much more to give me as an academic, as a writer. Still, I’m waiting to properly write about it. Also, there’s something about being able to truly ‘grow up’ with a piece and revisit it, finding you’re still as much as in love as when you were a teenager.
How do you measure a decade in musicals then? Measure in love it seems…
So on looking at my spreadsheet (yes of course there’s a spreadsheet) of the decade, I saw 428 shows that I recorded. Foolish me did not record the shows that I saw while ushering at two theatres over three years. We’ll call that 20 more shows I saw in that time (and to allow for others I know I’ve missed) and so we’re looking at 450 shows give or take this decade.
I started this blog (the previous incarnation of it) in 2011. My PhD supervisors tried to stop me from having a blog, but writing here has led to lots more opportunities over the past decade, so it’s worth marking that.
I’ve got a top 10 musicals and top 10 plays, but in going through I realised there were a few highlights that won’t make the top cut…but are worthy of note. And so…year by year here we go.
Holding the Man-Tommy Murphy- Trafalgar Studios
This book is one of my favourites ever, and as I was just beginning my PhD on AIDS theatre, this was a significant one this decade.
Hair- Gerome Ragni and James Rado- Gielguld Theatre
I danced with Hippies on stage (those damn Hippies get everywhere) and finally seeing this great American musical in London again was a joy.
La Cage Aux Folles- Jerry Herman/Harvey Fierstein
This is a classic of a musical, and a joy of one. And sometimes John Barrowman in drag comes along when you need it to lift an otherwise drab year.
War Horse-Nick Stafford/Michael Morpurgo New London
You never forget your first Joey right? I spent the next 3 years arguing with my PhD supervisor over it.
Lwyth – Dafydd James- Sherman Theatre
This glorious bilingual piece was the first Welsh language theatre I saw. And it brought me joy. I’m thrilled its sequel will be starting the new decade too.
Bring It On-Jeff Whitty, Amanda Green, Lin Manuel Miranda- St James’ Theatre NY
Cheerleaders, kick ass routines, lesbian undertones and some bloke called Lin Manuel Miranda. He’ll go far one day that lad I’m sure.
This House- James Graham- NT Olivier
Look when Graham gets it right he really gets it right ok? Also when the NT do immersive properly, or audience interaction properly they nail it too. T
Merrily We Roll Along- Stephen Sondheim- Comedy Theatre
Jenna Russell and Sondheim are like music to my ears. And this was bittersweet and beautiful.
The Crucible- Arthur Miller- The Old Vic
Richard Armitage was a powerhouse in this. Otherwise a just sold production of an incredible play. That apparently I still have memorised from school.
My Night With Reg- Kevin Elyot- Donmar Warehouse
A play I’d longed to see as the only ‘British AIDS play’ (it’s niche). Honourable mention to Mr Julian Ovenden. Ahem.
Meet Fred- Hijinx Theatre
Look I love me a filthy puppet ok? And this show was innovative, challenging and all round brilliant.
Hello/Goodbye- Peter Souter- Hampstead Theatre
A sweet little play that probably didn’t light everyone’s world on fire, but I adore a well told relationship drama and this was brilliantly executed. And Shaun Evans will never cease to be a delight to watch.
The Dazzle-Richard Greenberg Found 111
Andrew Scott giving a typical tour de force performance in the attic of an abandoned shop.
A Good Clean Heart-Alun Saunders- WMC Weston Studio
Alun Saunders debut play is a sweet one of love, lost and family. It’s also one that leaves its mark long after you’ve left it.
The Busy World is Hushed-Keith Bunin- Finborough Theatre
Sometimes you see the play you need to see at the time you need to see it. And something in this study of grief and love hit me at the right time.