April 2010

For the past several years I’ve been on the road one way another, and finally the penny has dropped. By which I mean I know now why the majority of New York based theatre people like to stay in New York. I knew it before of course, in theory, but now I know it in my bones. Not only can you earn a lot more money in New York (and a lot less if you work below 14th Street, say), but in a country with no national theatre, it remains the nation’s theatrical centre. There’s more theatre on offer in New York than in the rest of the State capitals put together.

New York is a special case.

The Encore series gets ever more ambitious and ever starrier as the years go by. This year’s production of ‘Anyone Can Whistle’, starring Donna Murphy and Sutton Foster, and directed by Casey Nicolau was a triumph of energy and skill over an incomprehensible book. Everyone said so, and as a late coming enthusiast in musical theatre and one with very little knowledge on the subject (except that I know what I like), I agreed. I certainly enjoyed the perf. Ms. Murphy took command from the first hip twist of the first number. There’s a thing that happens when a supremely accomplished performer hits the marks – you relax, and you relish each moment. Equally accomplished, though completely different in quality and style, Sutton Foster slinked around the stage in a form fitting red cocktail dress and red wig with matching feather boa (expertly deployed at all times), and a form fitting French accent to match, a revealing couterpoint to her plain-jane act – the one she usually gets cast in.

They rehearsed for a week, maybe ten days, certainly no more than that. The result was the usual accomplished high energy inventiveness that you just take for granted in the New York scene. This is the stuff where the chorus gives 120% and the featured players, in this case including some razor-sharp definition from Edward Hibbert, are like stilletos stealthing steadily – alright too much alliteration – what I’m getting at is that this level of finish and professionalism is not technicallly possible to achieve in a week or so. But they do, of course they do. Why? Because New York is the big time, but its theatrical community is also a village too. While the people who know and love you will see your work in this venue, it’s also just possible that some life-changing thing will happen and you will be plucked from the back or the middle of the stage and elevated. And that is one explanation why the sheer commitment in the dancing and the singing, and the elan in the style is just the best in the world.

Another great feature of the new York theatrical scene is the Anglophilia that obtains on Broadway. Every season Broadway’s theatres fill up with transfers from London’s West End, sometimes direct from The Royal National Theatre. It’s hard to imagine that the drive behind these imports is not a commercial one. It’s all subtly reinforced by the baroque taste and style of the principle New York Times reviewers and their enormous influence. It’s not that I don’t enjoy British theatre (except when they try to do American accents), I do. It’s not that I don’t think British actors are among the finest in the world – they are. What dismays me is that the commerically driven Anglophilia on the Great White Way, and the conditioning of the audience to come and see plays from another culture, must have retarded new American playwriting for about half a century (and counting).

But one British play which has zero chance of being produced on Broadway since it’s last outing there in 1969, is T.S. Elliots verse homage to J.B. Priestly’s ‘An Inspector Calls’, ‘The Cocktail Party’. And an astonishly fine production was offered by TACT – a company which specializes in lesser known works. Led by Simon Jones, the cast gave a textured ensemble performance, with some of the best accent work I’ve seen in this country. Americans doing Brits and vice versa presents special challenges to do with rhythm, culture, and expectation – as in an audience hears what it expects to hear – too frequently you get a sub-masterpiece-theatre version of the accent minus any bass notes. But the work here was fine, detailed, and accurate.

Yet another British transfer is ‘Gabriel’ by British playwright Moira Buffini. She, currently with another production at the National Theatre in London, and a film on the way, has found a producer in The Atlantic Theatre (off-Broadway) here. The play treats on the German occupation of Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands) during the Second World War. It’s not a story often told in Britain, although there was an excellent (if incomplete) television series called ‘Island at Wat’ from the BBC some years back. Another verse play, and excellently well spoken by the cast of six, including the incomparable Ms Patricia Conolly of my acquaintance; this piece falls somewhere between Tolstoy’s short story ‘What Men Live By’ and ‘Inglorious Basterds’.
So yes the Brits are all over Broadway still. I even had a chance to join in myself, being part of a reading for the Acting Company of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ – Another very enjoyable evening on offer in the salon series the company fields every year.

Meanwhile, the city remains highly convenient. The compact geography of midtown Manhattan and the subway mean that you can get anywhere in ten minutes (twenty at the outside). New York, though not, to quote that great American author John Steinbeck, a model of neatness is a miracle of supply.

And in a city which contains something like 165 ethnicities and nationalities – from a possible 182, in a place where literally everyone is here, surely too in the cultural smorgassbord that is the city that never sleeps, there is something for everyone.

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