Posted by: Brian Hibbs on February 26, 2006
Airplane writing on the Alpha-Smart, here (with later editing/linking now that I’m home)
I just got back from the NY con (well, the trade show, more accurately – I left back for home on Saturday morning), about which more later.
First though, let me tell you my “Only In New York” story….
I got into town on Wednesday, and went to the current restaging of Sweeney Todd that night. To be honest, I generally hate musicals, but I really really like Sweeney. Perhaps it is the dark story, which ends in horror and insanity, without a single bit of redemption – that’s not what musicals are, right?
I’ve actually seen Sweeney before on Broadway – when I was…. Hm, 10, 11 maybe, I was taken to the original production with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou
That original production was mesmerizing to me, especially because of how the sets worked. Effectively, the set was a giant cube on wheels, with one face of the cube being Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop, one being a street scene, and so forth, and as the action in the play moved from place to place, the extras, or sometimes the principles, would turn the cube on its wheels, creating an illusion of distance or speed or volume that a single set couldn’t possibly achieve.
Thanks to Jeff Lester doing a recent search, after I leant him my very very worn out video tape of the Great Performances telecast, I now know that the Lansbury/Hearn version is back in print on DVD. I strongly urge you to seek out that performance, just to see the masterful way they approached the technical challenges.
Anyway, back in 2006. THIS version of Sweeney has a whole ‘nother set of technical challenges to face. See, the play, as originally mounted has ten “speaking” (and/or singing) roles, easily an equal number of extras providing chorus, and of course, a full orchestra doing the score. The current version only has the 10 principals – so that the principals have to not only being their own stage hands and chorus, which would be kind of insane enough, but they top that by being their own orchestra as well.
I mean that literally – they’re carrying their instruments around the stage, each taking turns playing parts! Some fun can be had in playing “Watch how they hand off piano duties as the various actors are needed upstage”
Understand how complex this is – not only does the crew have to act and sing, but they also have to tackle a pretty damn complicated score, while also being their own stage hands. That is, frankly, insane! There’s almost always someone or something moving on stage. And while it is a very minimalist stage and dressing (Pretty much two chairs represent 50% of the physical objects in the production – set that way to be a boat, this way to be a couch, and so on), there’s a kineticism on display that I’ve never seen before.
These are pretty astonishing performances, as well – Patti LuPone, for example, brings a wickedness and sensuality to her interpretation of Mrs. Lovett… and she does it while carrying a tuba around the set! Just…. Wow! Is all you can think.
On The Savage Critic scale, I’d give the strongest possible VERY GOOD, just a gnat’s breadth from “Excellent”, which is quintessentially unfair to this cast and production, because my qualms pretty much all come down to “Huh, why’d they make THAT choice?” or “Well, that’ not what I’d do” kind of things. For example, there’s lots and lots of instances where the cast is looking at the audience, and not each other. This can be jarring when Anthony sings “Oh, look at me, look at me miss, please look at me!” to Joanna, while HE is turned away from her. The problem was, I couldn’t see a consistent pattern of when they did or did not engage each other – sometimes characters WOULD make eye contact, sometimes they wouldn’t, and I couldn’t see the rhyme or reason.
Much of the staging truly worked – even when you thought it couldn’t. How on earth could “God, That’s Good!” or “City on Fire!” work without extras?! Yet, work it did, exceptionally well. On the other hand, I KNOW the play, and I know exactly what everyone is supposed to be doing and motivations, etc. So the minimalism worked just fine for me. I do wonder if a viewer just seeing Sweeney for the very first time would think the same thing?
I was also happy that the somewhat simpler score allowed some bits — “Quartet” might be the best example — to fully appreciate all four vocal lines of the song. In the fully orchestrated version, the orchestra tends to utterly overwhelm the performers, but with never more than 6 instruments at any one moment, everything was much clearer.
I thought the performances were very strong, especially Lauren Molina who portrayed Joanna, and Manoel Felciano who was Tobias. Both do a lot of “background” bits and action, that really add to the mounting insanity of the story. One of the conceits of the show is that the set and setup is reminiscent of an insane asylum, where the inmates are putting on this play – rather than it being that *we’re* watching the story of Sweeney, himself, it is more that we’re watching lunatics act out the story of Sweeney, which at once makes the play more immediate and horrifying (if that were possible), and yet also slightly distancing. So, Molina and Felciano really did a lot of “selling” this conceit — Tobias creeping around the stage, or perching up on chairs observing the action, looking bug-fuck nuts, Joanna quivering her lip in mad, nervous panic when scary actions she isn’t involved in happen cross stage. Also of note is Donna Lynne Champlin who plays Pirelli (and interestingly, the didn’t change any gender references whatsoever, so she says “…when I was just a lad”, and things like that.) starts off the play as one of the keepers of the asylum, so there are several occasions where as the violence of the play escalates, Champlin steps closer in as if to be saying “Huh, if they take it too far, I need to be able to step in and stop it.” It’s a very effective device, really.
I was less impressed with Benjamin Magnuson who played Anthony, and Alexander Gemignani who plays the Beadle. In the former case, it may simply be that my brain is far too locked in on the DVD ’82 performance of Cris Groenendaal in the role. THAT Anthony is essentially Dudley Do-Right – a big, strapping, utterly earnest, and thoroughly clueless person who has his entire life turn to shit thanks to Todd. So, my brain has a hard time accepting a much weedier guy, who looks more like an NY intellectual than a young and vital sailor, in the role. His actual performance was good, but not, I thought, fully up to the level of his cast mates. Still, this is the difference between “really good” and “really really good”, so perhaps I’m being unfair.
As for Gemignani as the Beadle, the choice was made to deliver most of his dialogue in a monotone. You can practically hear the periods between. Each. And. Every. Word. I don’t know if it was the actor’s choice, or the director’s, but I thought it was a really poor choice. Other than that he was fine – the Beadle has some really difficult lines to sing, and he acquitted them very well.
Patti Lapone was really terrific as Mrs. Lovett, bringing, as I said, a real raw sexuality to the character that once certainly never get from the Lansbury version. I was pretty iffy on some of her readings and interpretations in the SF Symphony production of the play that she participated in 2001 (also on DVD), but in the intervening years, she’s really claimed the part.
Michael Cerveris as Sweeney was a revelation. While he’s not really old enough in appearance to be convincing physically, he absolutely psychically takes upon the mantle of Todd, and sells it 100%. It’s a very challenging role, and Cerveris sticks the landing (to mix a metaphor badly)
Bottom line: this is an astounding and audacious production of a play that was always a masterpiece of its own. If you’re in the New York area, I whole-heartedly recommend you see this production if/while you can.
Anyway, back to the “Only in New York” portion of the story… So, I really like Sweeney as a play, and I know the libretto backwards and forwards. It’s pretty disturbing on my part, actually.
So, I’m… well, I’m not actually SINGING along, because, y’know, you can’t actually DO that at a play, but I’m “mouthing” along with the music, if you see what I mean. My hands are also moving in my lap with the different musical lines. In short, I’m Really Fucking Into It, and It Shows, right?
2 seats over from me (which reminds me, I owe Mark Evanier a big wet kiss for advising me that I was better to sit in the 7th row than the first or second – I had my pick of the theatre when I booked the tix, and I ended up with superb seats thanks to ME’s advice), was sitting Michael Imperioli, who was Chris on the Sopranos, right? He was with a fairly large party of people, and they, in turn, had a friendship with an artist (whose name I didn’t catch) who was doing a “live sketch” of the performance, during it. “Capturing the energy” or something.
Anyway, during the intermission, some of the women in this party start up a conversation with me, “Who are you? How do you know all the words? Where are you from?” that kind of thing. We chat all pleasantly, and the second act begins and that’s that, right?
Well, we’re getting up to leave, and I say my goodbyes, and one of the women (Eva, I think?) says, “Look, we’re going backstage, how’d you like to come along?”
Obviously, I told them to fuck off. Er…. No wait, the other way, “What? Are you nuts, of COURSE I’d like to go.” So I got to go backstage, meet most of the cast, ask several questions on the staging, and wander around the set, and examine the props and dressing close up! Totally awesome!
As they say, it was a truly magical night. There was even an after party that I could have gone to, but I thought it better to not be “a leech” and know when to leave on my own. That makes it at least a little more likely that they’ll continue to be kind and inviting to absolute stranger in the future, y’know?
(Having a reasonable amount of contact with the comics talent, and watching as people sometimes have inappropriate fangasms sometimes, I’ve largely learned to restrain myself in my own encounters with celebrities)
Anyway, how cool is that? A great night at the theater, topped off with a backstage visit just from being excited about the work. Only in New York City though, right?
Garth Ennis and Ruth Cole were gracious enough to offer to let me stay at their place during the con, not only saving me a big wad of money from the hotel, but allowing me to spend some real quality time with one of my dearest mates, and turning my experience from just “going to a con”. I don’t think I would have heard about the Paul Pope/John Cassaday party at the Slipper Room, for example, without Garth – which ended up not only being a tremendous amount of fun, but being very productive in setting up a few things in the future.
I went out to NY for 2 specific reasons: 1) Marvel, in the original plan, was gong to have a “retailer day” of some kind, which got turned into “just” a cocktail party (We were there 4-5 hours, actually) after I booked the trip. But I thought it was REALLY important to go out and support Marvel working with retailers (especially as the guy who sued them, y’know?), because Marvel is getting better and better in working with us each month, and it is good to have a closer relationship. I met Dan Buckley, and Joe Quesada and I have buried the hatchet (If there was a hatchet to begin with, really) – we did it in email a few months back, but I wanted to do it face-to-face as well. Plus ay opportunity to tell more people what a godsend David Gabriel has become to Marvel and the retail community is always welcome.
I also went out to NY because 2) the first day of the con was a trade show. We need more trade shows in this business, especially ones that aren’t directly controlled by Diamond comics. I was, I think, the only retailer from west of the Rockies to show, but I thought it was very important to support the thing.
Of course, the trade-only *day* turned into “4 hours” (noon to 4) until they started letting the fans in, so it “wasn’t much” of a trade show this year, but still, a man has to do what a man has to do, right?
The con itself was pretty impressive for a first show – attendance seemed pretty huge to me. Even during the trade show portion, there were times it wasn’t possible to move in the aisles. Once they started letting in the fans it became a real madhouse. When I finally left the Javits ~6 pm, there were STILL a couple hundred people standing in line to get badges.
I suspect Saturday is going to get ugly, and I’d lay coin that the fire marshall shuts it down at least once during the day. The aisles aren’t nearly wide enough to accommodate the NY comics community – they need to be twice what they are, really. Really really glad I’m going home and not staying for the con, proper, because it will be a madhouse.
Also on the trip, I visited Rocketship in Brooklyn, which is a fab looking store for only being open 6 months. They looked like they were doing well, and I’m really proud that I’ve been able to help them succeed.
I also spent some time up with DC at their offices on Thursday– had Lunch with Dan Didio, and an afternoon meeting with the Vertigo editors, offering up a retailer’s brain to pick. All part of the service, ma’am.
Anyway, so that’s my little travelogue. I’ve really not read much this week – ASTONISHING X-MEN #13, which I’d rate an EXCELLENT, GREEN LANTERN #9 (I think? Comics are packed away right now), which I thought was a solid GOOD, and CATWOMAN #?? Which I’d say the same. That’s all I’ve read so far, despite 11 hours of flight time in the last 96 hours! (slept a lot of those plane hours, really) So, uh, PICK OF THE WEEK is ASTONISHING X-MEN #13, PICK OF THE WEAK is “I have no idea, hurray!”, and TRADE OF THE WEEK is…”your guess is as good as mine, I have no internet 30k miles in the air here I am, and I don’t recall what shipped this week.”
I am gong to be SOOOOOO happy to see Ben when I get home, though. I REALLY missed the little guy. Tzipora, too, but it is different with the 2 year old – four days away is…what? One half of one percent of his entire life?
Suck ass part is I have to do the weekly reorders, this months ORDER FORM (haven’t even cracked it yet), and the March subscriber setups all before Tuesday. That’s gonnnnnnna suck! So If you hear noting from me next week, that’s the reason why.