Tag Archives: Broadway

Learning the Ropes

Broadway in New York City snakes through midtown like an uncoiled length tossed casually across a grid. It creates wedges: one at the Flatiron building on 23rd Street, and another at Times Square at 42nd Street the one-time-and-forever centre of the known entertainment universe.

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In these “interesting times” where we live, now and then I get an intuitive confirmation of the impressive prescience of certain twentieth century novelists; my latest was olfactory. Aldous Huxley gave us Brave New World – he sure was right about genetic engineering – but do you remember the scene in the book where there is a public protest? The authorities rock up and instead of laying about the populus with strong arms as in cruder locales, they merely pump “soma”, the happy gas, into the vicinity. And while they are doing it they play a soothing voice-over.

“Friends… friends… friends” croons the voice in a tone at once loving and mildly, fraternally, disappointed by the disharmony. The public is soon quieted. Today in real-world Manhattan the streets of midtown are filled with the sickly-sweet skunk-imitator scent of cannabis leaves burning quietly, and undoubtedly to some of us it brings a welcome oblivion.

Orwell was another one. He had it right too, the Big Brothers who presently rule territories East and West are watching you, and some are more equal than others, while the telescreen is the Colosseum, and the public mind marches toward total biddability as Fact, Ethics and Truth are lost in the oubliette of Opinion and the soothing-stimulating somatic-discourse that calls itself “News”. Plato was right after all (when a society seeks the Good above the True – it’s over) and it’s only taken a couple of thousand years to prove it.

By the way, George Orwell wrote an at-close-quarters account of a hanging that happened in Burma (Myanmar) when he was a civil servant there. He was struck by how the condemned man side-stepped a puddle on the way to the gallows.

Along the side streets of midtown there are theatres. They cling to Broadway like barnacles on a submarine cable and claim its name. From them you may purchase entertainment.

Is there a difference between entertainment and art?

“Our job,” says a senior advertising executive to a colleague in the 1980s TV dramady Thirtysomething, “is to give people faith in their leaders, comfort in the purchase of consumer durables and security in the belief that there is absolutely nothing wrong.”

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Last week I joined the company of Hangmen by Martin McDonagh. I stand by for Mark Addy, an actor of extraordinary calibre and absolutely outstanding in the role of Harry. The show previews Feb 28th, opens March 19th.

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And if you do see it, will it give you any somatic relief from the chafing-on-the-nerves challenge of being alive in these “interesting times”?

I doubt it.

The author, Martin McDonagh, is on record as saying he had no intention for a play-of-message as he wrote it. Even so, the show is confronting. It’s very funny. State-sanctioned murderous use of hempen weave – what could be funnier? But if you laugh, soon after you are likely to think “What kind of person laughs at this?!?

I’ll call that art.

Nicely Busy

That young actress Patricia Conolly is back on Broadway, she gave her first performance as Mrs Debose yesterday in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD with the new cast at the Shubert Theatre with Ed Harris now playing Atticus Finch. Tickets are available at mind-numbing Broadway rates.

I haven’t seen the show yet, but judging by the audience response as I heard the last few lines of the play from the stage door, it sounds as if the price of admission might be justified. Understand that I say this as one whose first theatre-going set me back about 30 pence (50 cents), not the mortgage it takes today.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, or as we say here in NYC, Off-Broadway, I am rehearsing LONDON ASSURANCE at The Irish Rep. I’m playing Sir Harcourt Courtly a character descended from a long line of fops. There’s a puff piece here where you’ll also see a picture of the wonderful Rachel Pickup playing the unforgettably-named, Lady Gay Spanker.

That’s Simon Russell Beale in the 2010 National Theatre production.

Sir Harcourt Courtly has been personated by such giants of the stage as Donald Sinden in the legendary 1970, West End and Broadway production, and Brian Bedford 1997, Broadway and Stratford Ontario 2006.

I worked with Brian Bedford twice. He was a master at light comedy. One time I backed him into a corner and asked him to tell me his secrets, “Brian!” I said, “How do you do it!?! I have to know!” Brian gave it a little thought in that slightly puzzled quizzical manner which was one of his comic modes and finally said, modestly, “Well I don’t really know.” He did know of course, but in common with others of unusual ability, he knew it wasn’t a thing to be discussed. Why? Because that’s not what it’s for. And nothing lets the steam out of the bottle before the soufflé rises so surely as casual talk – so I had to be satisfied by just watching him. Which I did. But if Brian wishes to whisper any tips to me now that he’s playing the great stages in the sky, he’s more than welcome.

Tix at the Rep will set you back a manageable amount and they are available here. It’s a holiday show. We open December and play through January and I hear there’s a nice advance, so please book soon if you plan to come.

A big shout out to two colleagues of Irish Rep fame, Mick Mellamphy and Tim Ruddy, two of the lads who were also in THE SEAFARER with me, Andy Murray and Matthew Broderick at The Rep a couple of years back.

Matthew Broderick and Andy Murray in The Seafarer at the Irish Rep 2017

Mick performs and Tim directs THE CURE, tix here, and for the price of a couple of pints. It’s bare bones, storytelling magic at its best. Mick turns in a virtuoso performance with nothing much behind him in terms of set. Doesn’t matter, not needed.

He takes you to Cork and back.

A Prince Among Men

They will dim the lights on Broadway in honor of the passing of Hal Prince. Mr. Prince’s many achievements and his collection of honors will be well documented in many publications, and there will be tributes of all kinds in all media, to which I add my own small and oblique one here.

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I never met Mr. Prince, but I knew him to be an extraordinary man of theatre, outstanding in his courtesy. I’ll tell you why.

Because he wrote back to me.

No fewer than three times.

Each time by return of post.

When I arrived in New York in 1999, I put up a one-man show in an off-off-Broadway space in the upper 50s on 8th Avenue.

Naturally I sent mailing pieces to as many industry professionals as I could find addresses for, while developing a monologue with which I hustled the discount seekers in Times Square in the manner of one of the too-many performers at the Edinburgh Festival. An excerpt would be:

“Nicole Kidman naked live onstage! – Not in this show, but it’s a matter of global importance that you see it tonight!”

Among the many postage stamps in which I invested, one was fixed to a postcard addressed to Mr. Prince whom I knew by reputation of course. He knew me not at all, not enough to distinguish me from a bar of soap.

Hal Prince wrote a personal card back. By return of post. Let me say that again.

By return of post.

He regretted not being able to see the show and he wished me well with it. This exercise was repeated three times. Each time, I confidently expected that he would file my postcards in the bin and ignore them. But no, each time a personal hand-written message came back with a polite regret and an explanation of his other commitments.

It’s difficult to convey how extraordinary this is. And what an outstanding example of good manners way beyond usual practice in theatre circles. For example:

When I graduated from the Central School in Britain some time back in the last millennium I wrote to each of the 120 repertory theatres in the country (of which about 30 remain). I filed their word-processed rote-replies under F.O.A.D.

I wrote to the head of casting at the RSC once a week for two years, eventually I was granted a general interview (not an audition, that never came), where the opening gambit was, “Now, have you written to me?”

How to describe this astonishing attention to detail from a man well known to be a workaholic and one of the giants of the business? And which, by the way was hugely encouraging to a struggling actor trying to come to notice.

I think the phrase I want is: noblesse oblige

STOP PRESS!

April 1st 2019 — mcphillamy actorblog still ABSOLUTELY FREE!!!

INK will tour to MARS

Solar system debut now confirmed!

 “Terrestrial culture important on inner planets,” says congressperson in funding debate.

Aliens give hour-long standing ovation! Win a one-way ticket to Jupiter! Your postcard from Mercury — no-risk delivery ABSOLUTELY FREE!!! 

Plus: Special feature how to date a Venusian (and live)!

Catch INK while still local!!!

1st Preview tomorrow 04/02/19 Friedman Theatre West 47th St, NYC, USA, EARTH.

 And Much Much More! All in INK! 1St preview tomorrow!!!

Breaking Cover

The Manhattan Theatre Club production of INK by James Graham directed by Rupert Goold starts previews on April 2nd and opens on Broadway at the Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street on April 24th 2019. It is a brilliant play which tells a story of the young Rupert Murdoch. I am contracted to be in it.

By which I mean actually going onstage on a nightly basis and saying words aloud while at the same time moving to and fro and generally replicating human behavior, a practice known in some circles as acting.

Michael Caine covered Peter O Toole

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It will be a contrast to my last five months occupation where I was employed to catch up on my correspondence, work on my Sanskrit calligraphy, and paint my toenails. None of which I actually managed to accomplish. And all this while maintaining total readiness in full crouch position to leap in at any moment for one of three principal actors.

I understudied on The Ferryman on Broadway for 20 weeks. And I did actually go on as Father Horrigan. It was long odds to be honest, The actors I was covering were all robust character men. And here I observe that among actors of a certain generation the work-ethic tends to the formidable. These are men and women who scorn to be defeated by flu, fleas or food poisoning. My three runners; the friendly and ebullient Mark Lambert, the gigantic, sensitive Justin Edwards, and the splendid and splendidly robust Charles Dale, all with a long history of never or very seldom being off, were coming in at odds of about 100-to-8-against in a strong field. Picture my surprise then when Charlie was suddenly indisposed. But then, absence was more than usually rife over this New York winter season, see below.

The original Broadway cast disbanded on the 17th of February, most of them returning home across the Atlantic. A few are staying on, and a new company began performances on the 19th. I watched the final performance given by the first company. Mostly during the course of a run, performances hit a par, in this case an excellently high one, but last nights sometimes create an extra intensity. As was the case on that final Sunday matinee. It was an outstanding rendition of an already outstanding performance.

Sir John Gielgud stood by for Noel Coward

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A word about this understudying business …

Understudying, also known by the more delicate term of “covering” — which sounds like something out of stud farming — or the even more delicate term of “standing by” – which sounds like something to do with an airline on a bad day, is one of the more demanding yet least understood jobs in all theatre. To be done well it requires a very specific skill set. A deep personal reserve of flexibility, patience and nervous energy. It does also help if you can act.

Times are changing: in my earlier youth back in London, taking an understudy job was seen as the last resort of the desperate actor, and such was the anonymity of the position that many times there was no listing or credit in the playbill. Nowadays, the enormous over-supply of acting talent, the fierce competition for a job, any job — this, coupled with the trickle-down casting of recent years — and plus the fact that Broadway, even in its minimum salaries and almost uniquely among stage-acting markets, pays something approaching a living wage — all this combined, means that the status of any Broadway involvement is high.

Even so, few actors undertake such a gig as a first choice, but in 40 years of acting (nearly), (nearly) all the actors so engaged that I have known, have been exemplary in their diligence and professionalism. Here I salute my colleagues of the 5th floor at The Bernard Jacobs Theatre, (full billing here in alphabetical order: Glynis Bell, Peter Bradbury, Trevor Harrison Braun, Gina Costigan, Holly Gould, Griffin Osborne, and the kids, Will Coombs, Carly Gold and Bella May Mordus, also mentioning the two principals who also covered a role: Dean Ashton and Glenn Speers), each of us having multiple opportunities to prove our dollar worth (and also saluted for it in a generous post on social media by Mr. Judd Apatow, who happened to attend when no fewer than 5 people were on).

It is an irony worth noting that one of the least visible occupations in theatre should also be one of the most valuable. In the initial 20 week Broadway run of The Ferryman there were 47 performances when one of the principals was off. Due to everyone doing their job, loss of revenue to the tune of more than $4million in ticket sales was prevented.

It doesn’t always happen that way, sometimes no one is off in the course of a run. But in this case the insurance which a management is obliged to purchase in the form of actors learning lines and moves which they may never perform, yielded a near-tenfold return on investment. And where else can you get that sort of dosh these days?

This season of Broadway theatre fields at least two outstanding transfers from the West End, originating at The Royal Court and the Almeida theatres in London. I am lucky enough to have been involved with both of them, in the first as cover for three roles, in the next actually playing three roles — is the juice fasting having the desired effect, I ask myself? (See recent previous posts).

As it stands I am contracted to return briefly to The Ferryman to stand-by for the role of Tom Kettle for just one week — Tom is the gentle giant in the play, given prose to speak of heart-breaking sensitivity. This involvement with the new company of The Ferryman is an overlap while rehearsing INK, and after protracted and formidably expensive negotiations (not really, they asked and I said… “Yes”), the managements of both plays have agreed to allow me to be on call in both productions for the week in question.

Albert Finney was a substitute for Sir Laurence Olivier

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In an uncertain profession the prime feature of cover jobs is the uncertainty. Sometimes there is notice of when one will be called upon, as when a principal actor has a vacation booked, or has negotiated a release so as to go and make a film; and sometimes there is zero notice, or less. By which I mean an understudy can be called to take over a role in the middle of a performance – Jeremy Northam famously taking over from Daniel Day Lewis in Act Two of Hamlet at the National Theatre in London, for example.

Perhaps this is why one should never count the geese, the rabbits, or the apples, until the INK upon the deal is dry. See here

The Ferryman, Broadway 2018

The Ferryman, by Jez Butterworth, directed by Sam Mendes, with a superb cast, opened on Broadway last night. The show just could be that rare commodity: a review-proof play. In almost 40 years of acting I have seldom seen audiences respond like they do for this one.

Rather being ‘on’ this production, than ‘in’ it, I considered it part of the job to read the reviews — something I try hard to avoid when actually appearing in a show — See previous blog post here.

And the reviews are spectacular. Across the board. Up to and including the mighty New York Times.

Theatrical history is full of contention between critics and actors — see for example Dame Diana Rigg’s amusing volume of collected reviews, No Turn Unstoned

Sir Nigel Hawthorne once took issue with a review of his production of the seldom-performed The Clandestine Marriage. (He directed and played the lead; I played a hedge. Yes, hedge, as applied to topiary, not to fund management). Nigel wrote a closely spaced four-page letter to a prominent theatre critic, with point by point analysis supporting his production choices. The critic in question conceded that perhaps he had been too hasty in his judgment. Too late! The damage had been done. The show closed prematurely.

It’s no secret that adverse reviews can close shows. I have witnessed at close hand the collapse of box office in several productions — each time, in my opinion, completely undeserved and a great shame, considering the work, talent and yes, money, that went into them.

You may wonder why I am taking the trouble to lay out this context, when in the present case there is, as far as I know, (again in my opinion) universal, absolutely earned, deserved, and appropriate high praise. There is a reason. But on this occasion I certainly have no quarrel with either critic or criticism.

The reviews, as I said, are raves across the board. In the Broadway landscape, The New York Times is a king-maker, and Ben Brantley, as senior critic there, is the most powerful. He’d already endorsed The Ferryman when he saw it in London last year, and his review of the Broadway production, published today, confirms what he said in 2017.

One usually doesn’t think of an actor reviewing a critic, (see here for an example).  I have taken issue with Mr Brantley’s view on several productions, as many theatre folk I know have done from time to time, but here I find his review to be accurate and excellent, and filling the highest function that theatrical criticism should: namely to elevate and preserve standards, and to inform and enrich the community it serves.

Well, that’s enough about that. A long way to say that The Ferryman is a hot ticket.

Looking at another part of the production, and now I disclose a fun technical detail which may come in handy should you (or I — as my present employment may at some point require) ever be called on to go on stage with a live goose tucked under one arm. No spoiler here, every review mentions the goose. And the rabbit. And the baby. Our goose is mostly well behaved and quite a hit with audiences. I do know though, from our wrangler, that if the goose were to get stressed, there is a chance that she might… well… what’s the word I want? — Evacuate. In projectile fashion. This is where the staging is crucial. Consider if the actor were angled even slightly down-stage. Well it hasn’t happened yet. But if you do chance to buy tickets, perhaps choose something beyond the very front row?

Don’t go Green go Emerald

In so many ways Ireland leads the way. Not least in their policy on clean energy. But I’m not here to talk about that.

Way back when I was in The Seafarer with a quartet of excellently robust actors, (the craic was mighty) I asked Mick Millamphy to give me a hand with the accent of County Armagh, significantly different from the Dublin sound we were going for then. I had an audition for The Ferryman. This is the transfer that originated at The Royal Court Theatre in London and then ran in the West End for almost a year and is now coming to Broadway with the original cast.

“Sure,” said Mick, “come over to Ryan’s Daughter (a bar on New York’s Upper East Side,  he was part owner) and we’ll work on it.”

I made my way to 85th Street and 1st avenue. It was a misty evening. A light drizzle was falling. Shape-shifters were out and about just past the corners of perception. As I entered this bar under an Irish flag (one of several in New York City), a pint of Guinness materialized in my left hand.

“Come up to the snug,” said Mick.

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Guinness continued to manifest about every quarter hour. Just before the preceding pint was finished. And here is the funny thing; I never saw it arrive. Mick and I chatted, discussing the idea that the job I was going for – understudying several roles in The Ferryman, an extraordinary play by Jez Butterworth – was distantly reminiscent of when governments subsidize farmers not to grow alfalfa. Getting paid for actively not acting. Although being ready, willing and able to do so, should someone twist an ankle.

At my age the capacity for Guinness is not what it once was. So although Mick’s company was highly agreeable, I had to slip away after about a gallon or two. We did spend a little time actually working on the accent and the next day I got the job. I started work last week. We preview October 2nd, open October 21st. Mick, I owe you.

The Ferryman tells an epic true story, but the play is threaded with mythology. I’m now convinced that selected newborns in Ireland are taken by the ankle and dipped in the river of Guinness that runs, with tributaries, through all of that magical land.