Cool versus Fool—Criticisms of Louis Armstrong

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


By Shannon Stockwell

In the beginning of his career, Louis Armstrong successfully walked the thin line between art and entertainment. His jazz recordings with the Hot Five were regarded as some of the most influential in music history, but at the same time, the records contained enough of his comedy and his distinctive singing to attract those who weren’t jazz aficionados. By the end of the 1930s, however, it was clear that Armstrong’s music was decidedly pop oriented. As he grew more popular with mainstream audiences, jazz scholars turned up their noses at him. Among these purists, the consent was that Armstrong didn’t have the same technical proficiency that he once did, his repertoire was stale, and he gave up musicality for mainstream entertainment value.
            Around the 1940s, young black jazz musicians who had once admired Armstrong found themselves with similar criticisms, but they believed Armstrong had sold out in another way. They believed he had sold out his race. They called him an “Uncle Tom,” an insult that implied a black person was overly subservient and compliant in order to please white people. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis said:

I always hated the way they [Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie] used to laugh and grin to the audiences. I know why they did it—to make money and because they were entertainers as well as trumpet players. They had families to feed. Plus they both liked acting the clown; it’s just the way Dizzy and Satch were. I don’t have nothing against them doing it if they want to. But I didn’t like it and didn’t have to like it.

For Davis and critics like him, Armstrong’s comedy routines, mugging, popping eyes, and giant grin were too close to the minstrel performances of the past, when white people—and later black people—donned blackface and acted out stereotypes of African Americans that portrayed them as happy-go-lucky, dumb, and subservient.  

Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet 1953. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
            These critics weren’t entirely wrong. Armstrong had been influenced by minstrelsy. Many black Americans who had grown up at that time were, because minstrel shows were among the most popular form of entertainment at the turn of the twentieth century. In the world of Armstrong’s youth, minstrelsy was often white people’s primary exposure to black men, so white people came to expect minstrel-character behavior from actual black men. And because of the white-supremacist social system of the time, black men were forced to succumb to the behavior that white people expected of them. By taking on minstrel characteristics like subservience and docility, these black men were actually donning a form of protection. According to sociologist Joel Dinerstein, “Hiding one’s feelings under the grinning black mask was a survival skill of great importance to all black males up through World War II; a black man could get lynched for pretending to be on equal terms with a white man under almost any circumstances.”
            As time went on, black American culture began to shift. During the 1920s and ’30s, many African Americans living in the South sought work opportunities in cities in the North and Midwest. The Great Migration, as it came to be called, instilled feelings of opportunity and economic freedom in many of these black Americans. These improved conditions suggested that there was hope that further social change was on the way.
            Change was coming, but it was a long way off. Although the Northeast and Midwest were marginally less racist than the South, black people still faced discrimination in employment, housing, and nearly every other part of their lives. Some young African Americans, however, had gotten a taste of improvement, and the potential of bettered conditions was enough to make it clear that a happy-go-lucky minstrel attitude was no long appropriate. A demeanor was needed that was antithetical to the docile, compliant stance that white people had expected of African Americans for so long. The answer was “cool.” Writer and activist Amiri Baraka said, “To be cool was . . . to be calm, even unimpressed, by what horror the world might daily propose . . . [such as] the deadingly predictable mind of white Americans.” “Cool” meant that one was reserved, quiet, and in control—a countenance in direct opposition to the exuberant stage manner of Louis Armstrong.
            The philosophy of cool was particularly important to a new genre of jazz that began to appear in the mid-’40s. Bebop was a response contrary to the mainstream pop jazz. Pop jazz was dance music—fast, fun, easy to listen to. Bebop was different. Like “cool,” bebop did not exist to entertain white audiences. To young African American jazz lovers, this was preferable to the ingratiating presence of artists like Armstrong. Some of the major originators of bebop, like jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, were heavily involved in promoting the rights of African Americans, and bebop came to be associated with rising black political consciousness. This also set up a contrast to Armstrong, who often proclaimed, “I don’t get involved in politics. I just blow my horn.”
            As one of the most famous black men of the mid-twentieth century, did Armstrong have an obligation to be a more outspoken crusader for Civil Rights? By not doing more, or by performing the way he did, was he somehow betraying his race?
Armstrong saw himself as an entertainer, first and foremost. He felt he was in the business of making people happy. But he also felt that his entertainment value—the same thing jazz purists and young black musicians criticized—was actually the most powerful aspect to his fight for equality among the races. He knew most of his fans were white, and he knew many of them could very well be racist. “These same . . . people may go around the corner and lynch a Negro,” he said. But he didn’t believe that entertaining racist white audiences encouraged them to be more racist. In fact, he felt it had the opposite effect: “While they’re listening to our music, they don’t think about trouble. What’s more, they’re watching Negro and white musicians play side by side. And we bring contentment and pleasure. I always say, ‘Look at the nice taste we leave. It’s bound to mean something.’” 

Christmas Spirits: Ghosts in the Time of Dickens

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


By Shannon Stockwell

In the 1800s, a strange and spooky fad took the Western world by storm: talking to ghosts. Mediums were in high demand as people organized séances to contact the dead. The craze, known as spiritualism, had a few different causes. It came from improvements in communication technology—if you could send near-immediate telegraphs to your cousin several hundred miles away, perhaps it wasn’t such a stretch to imagine you could contact your mother from beyond the grave. It came from an increase in hiring household staff; seen but never heard, a servant’s presence may have seemed rather ghostly to those living there. And it may have even been related to hallucinations brought on by carbon monoxide coming from the gas lamps popular at the time.

The upshot of all this was “a progressive internalization of horror,” according to author Dr. Andrew Smith. This proved to be irresistible psychology for many nineteenth-century Western authors, and thanks to the rise of the periodical press, spooky stories were able to flourish. Of course, there had always been spirits throughout the history of English literature, but their primary function had been to further the plot—take, for example, the ghost of the titular character’s father in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Now, the phantoms had a new purpose: terrify the reader.


Couple with a young female spirit.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The ghost stories of Sheridan Le Fanu, like Green Tea (1869), had credible settings, which made the phantoms that appeared all the more realistic and therefore frightening. Henry James’s tales explored the psychological, internal aspects of horror in stories like Turn of the Screw (1898). M. R. James’s scary stories relied on realistic settings and were written as though they were factual accounts, such as “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” (1895). With the innovations of these authors and many others, the Victorian era was when ghost stories truly came into their own.

In Victorian England, ghost stories were especially popular around Christmastime. These yuletide tales of specters and spirits tended to take on a less spooky tone, however—the intention wasn’t necessarily to scare. Instead, says Tara Moore in Victorian Christmas in Print, “supernatural agents enter the narrative to alter reality and . . . bring about a Christmas utopia of reunion and spiritual redemption.” Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was one of the most successful of these Yuletide ghost stories, and while the spirits in it can be frightening, they are carefully constructed to convince Ebenezer Scrooge to change his miserly ways.

For his part, Dickens tended toward scientific explanations of “supernatural” events and blamed them on “a disordered condition of the nerves or senses.” But he maintained a measure of agnosticism, writing to a friend, “Don’t suppose I am so bold and arrogant as to settle what can and what cannot be, after death.” He also joined the London Ghost Club, where he participated in several séances. He remained unconvinced of their legitimacy, believing that alcohol may have played more of a role than anything truly supernatural: “The seer had a vision,” he said, “which nothing but spirits could account for, and from which nothing but soda-water, or time, is likely to have recovered him.”

This notion—that the senses are easily affected by explainable physical circumstances—comes through in A Christmas Carol. After Scrooge questions the reality of the first ghost, the spirit asks him why he doesn’t trust his senses. Scrooge responds, “Because . . . a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

But Dickens knew that, no matter how much scientific reasoning one could come up with, the vision of a ghost was still very real—and sometimes terrifying—to those who truly believed they saw one. The monsters might come from within our own psychology, but that does not mean we necessarily have the power to make the spirits go away. Scrooge certainly does not, which he realizes as each of the four ghosts force him to witness painful events from his past, present, and future. The inescapability of the ghosts serves to make the story that much more frightening, and, 172 years later, that which Virginia Woolf calls “the strange human craving for the pleasure of feeling afraid” keeps us coming back to A Christmas Carol again and again.


The Shadow of the Prison and the Novelist's Heart: The Personal Story Behind A Christmas Carol

Monday, December 7, 2015


Michael Paller

When Charles Dickens was 12, his father’s tenuous hold on the middle class collapsed in a heap of mounting debt. John Dickens was incarcerated in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, where he was joined a few weeks later by his wife and four of their six children. Charles was put to work in a Thames warehouse that manufactured boot-blacking. The boy found himself alone in a world without comfort or security, living in a run-down rooming house in Camden Town. At night he played on coal barges or wandered the streets. So began his lifelong acquaintance with the meanest quarters and poorest people of London.

Although Charles’ time in the warehouse lasted at most five months, the sudden descent into the desperate world of London’s poor left a lifelong mark. Beginning at 15, he held a series of jobs that kept him in close contact with that world. The first, as an office boy in a law firm, introduced him to the workings of the legal system and its effects on the middle class and the poor. He saw how it might work for people on occasion, but that more often it benefited the lawyers, who never seemed to lack clients. His opinion of the law did not improve when he became a court reporter at an obscure institution, the Consistory Court of Doctors’ Commons. At 20, he became a journalist, covering Parliament. He observed the operation of a government controlled by aristocrats, industrialists, and wealthy merchants that blocked every attempt to aid the poor. 

Sketch of Dickens in 1842 during his American tour (wikipedia.com)

Once Dickens saw the legal system at work, it did not take him long to find his true vocation. By the time he took a seat in the Visitors’ Gallery of the Houses of Parliament, he was turning the scenes he had witnessed in the law offices and courts into fiction. Two years later he was famous, thanks to a collection of short pieces called
Sketches by Boz. One described a visit to the Court of Doctors’ Commons, where a “hard-featured old man” with a “deeply wrinkled face,” whose every look and gesture “told of wealth, and penury, and avarice,” was busily planning to rob a poor man of a long-awaited inheritance.

By 1840, only about 20 percent of London’s children had any schooling. Education for all children regardless of class became another issue about which Dickens developed passionate feelings. He founded and edited two weekly newspapers in which he wrote about the need for universal education, sanitation laws, labor laws, and prison reform.

As potent as his speeches and journalism were, it is his fiction that made Dickens famous, and where he created the images that caused the world to take notice. In Oliver Twist, he attacked the workhouse system. In Nicholas Nickleby, he exposed the exploitation of children by ruthless schoolmasters more interested in profit than education. The Marshalsea became the primary setting and symbol of Little Dorrit, and John Dickens the model for William Dorrit.

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens created an image of children who lived without hope, food, or education. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two desperate, starving children. He tells Scrooge, “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all their kind, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow is written ‘Doom.’” Dickens came to believe that the privileges and priorities of the wealthy men who controlled Parliament would obstruct all attempts to solve the national problems of poverty, poor working conditions, and substandard education. This only made his vision of British society more uncompromising. His work evolved from melodramas of good characters beset by evil ones to complex tapestries of good people victimized by a system of corruption.

Through 15 novels, the work of his imagination was an attempt to understand a world in which debtors’ prisons and workhouses could exist. Through a public spirit forged from private pain, he found a purpose for his life, giving voice to those whom society ignored. The journey of Charles Dickens’s life was from concern for self to dedication to others—just as it is for Ebenezer Scrooge.

Monstress from Page to Stage: An Interview with Playwrights Sean San José and Philip Kan Gotanda, and Author Lysley Tenorio

Friday, November 13, 2015

By Michael Paller

The tales that populate Monstress, by Lysley Tenorio, are as diverse as they are quirky, alternatively—and sometimes simultaneously—hilarious and heartbreaking. Artistic Director Carey Perloff read these unique short stories and knew that somehow, she had to help these vibrant short stories about Filipino American life find their way to the stage.

A.C.T. reached out to some of our favorite artists and offered them the opportunity to select one of Tenorio’s stories to adapt for the stage. One of these artists was Philip Kan Gotanda, who chose to adapt Tenorio’s story, “Save the I-Hotel,” which he has renamed Remember the I-Hotel. Sean San José chose to adapt the title story from Tenorio’s collection (he renamed it Presenting . . . the Monstress!). We sat down with Tenorio, Gotanda, and San José to talk about writing, Filipinos, and the never-ending chase for the ever-elusive American dream.  

From left: Philip Kan Gotanda, Lysley Tenorio, Sean San Jose.
Photo by Ryan Montgomery.

Philip and Sean, rather than asking you to adapt a specific story, Carey gave you the book and asked you to choose one you wanted to work on. Philip, you chose “Save the I-Hotel”. Why?

Philip Kan Gotanda I immediately responded to these two older Filipino-American gentlemen. I grew up in Stockton in the ’50s and ’60s with many Filipino-Americans as neighbors. Manilatown and Japanesetown were kind of right next to each other. The older Filipino-American men, the manongs, held kind of a special place in my imagination.

And Sean, you chose the title story of the collection, “Monstress.” Why was that?

Sean San José It’s the first story in the book, and I was so taken by the whole collection, but that first piece really imprinted itself on me. It’s emblematic, too, of what the collection does: it’s a beautiful mixture of the personal, the fantastic, the cultural and political all in one—but really through the eyes of the personal. And the fact that Lysley made it so fun . . . I think it was irresistible in that way.

Lysley, you’ve said that your stories are emotionally and chronologically autobiographical. What’s it been like to see these two stories, “Monstress” and “Save the I-Hotel,” transformed into a very different medium with different demands?


Lysley Tenorio I didn’t feel possessive about them. I thought, “Okay, this is source material, do with it what you will. Hopefully you’ll keep the plot, you’ll keep the characters,” but how they’d be envisioned for the stage I knew was out of my hands. I think that’s been part of the thrill.

In the last staged reading I saw [in April], there was material that Philip added that I had tried incorporating into the story when I was writing, but I just couldn’t figure out a way. For example, the references to Speedy Dado, the boxer. Speedy Dado was actually mentioned in an earlier draft. Whatever Philip’s been adding feels like it belongs, so it’s been cool to see the ways that we’re in sync. It’s remarkable, those things that feel so integral and authentic to the story that he’s actually brought in himself.

Relatively late in the writing process, Sean decided to change the American setting. In the short story, it’s set just outside Hollywood; in his adaptation, it’s outside San Francisco. How did you feel about that, Lysley?


Lysley Tenorio I was fine with it. Maybe I should be a little more adamant about certain things [laughter], but I thought it was for the purpose of storytelling, and for creating a cohesiveness for the whole show. In a way, it serves the story even better because now Gaz is not a Hollywood loser—he’s not even in L.A. He’s not even in Southern California. He’s right outside San Francisco. What hope [as a filmmaker] does he possibly have? He’s misled Checkers and Reva even more in Sean’s version, so I’m fine with it. I really am. There’s a Filipino population up here too, and there’s a Filipino population down there as well, so it makes sense.

I’m happy to see these changes and additions and innovations. Of course I hoped the adaptations would stay true to the stories, but I was more interested to see a transformation, a metamorphosis.

Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!—The Necessary Play

Tuesday, November 3, 2015



By Michael Paller

By 1931, Eugene O’Neill, the great American tragic playwright, had won Pulitzer Prizes for Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, and Strange Interlude. He’d written 23 full-length plays, including Anna Christie, The Hairy Ape, Desire Under the Elms, The Emperor Jones, and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, which the police in New York attempted to close because it showed a black man kissing a white woman. That same year saw the debut and critical acclaim of Mourning Becomes Electra, his seven-hour Americanization of Aeschylus’s Oresteia set in New England during the Civil War. He was acclaimed—not without justification—as the creator of the modern American theater.

Before him, American theater had been melodrama, vaudeville, and star-driven vehicles. With the aid of his collaborators at the Provincetown Playhouse, he forged an American theater that could aspire to stand beside the European accomplishments of August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, and Anton Chekhov. Like theirs, his was an experimental theater. In his early plays, O’Neill employed a host of theatrical conventions, from masks to spoken inner monologues, and styles, from Naturalism to Expressionism, to peel away the surface of everyday life and reveal the struggle and torment that he sensed seething underneath. O’Neill devoted himself to tragedy, striving to make it a viable genre for the twentieth century.

During the two-year gestation period of Electra, he felt himself encountering the limits of his talents. He wrote to his friend the drama critic Joseph Wood Krutch, “Oh, for a language to write drama in! For a speech that is dramatic and isn’t just conversation! . . . But where to find that language?” Once he was finished with Electra, he feared such a language had eluded him once again. He didn’t know that the solution soon would present itself in homey, informal language and in a genre for which he’d had little or no regard: comedy.

Waiting for fall rehearsals of Electra to get underway in New York, O’Neill and his wife, Carlotta, took a vacation home in Northport Long Island. When the weather was clear, he could look across Long Island Sound toward the south shore of Connecticut and the town of New London, where he’d spent much of his unhappy boyhood and adolescence. Seized by a sudden desire to see the family house again, he told Carlotta he wanted to visit the once-thriving seaport town. She was dubious. “Don’t do it, darling,” she said. “Don’t ever try to go back. Keep your ideas, but don’t go back.” O’Neill was determined, however, and off they went.

Once there, they couldn’t locate the house, so completely changed was the neighborhood. When they finally managed to find it down by the water, they discovered that —of course—someone else was living in it, and had to settle for a view from across the street. According to Carlotta, O’Neill said, “I shouldn’t have come. Let’s go away. I don’t want to look at it.” It was back to Northport where he made a few notes for a play tentatively called Nostalgia, which he stuck in a drawer.

A year later, in September 1932, at his home on Sea Island, Georgia, O’Neill awoke one morning from a dream in which the whole plot of Ah, Wilderness! unfolded itself. From seven a.m. till late afternoon he wrote out an entire scenario, and over the course of six weeks, the play, he said, “simply gushed” out of him. Except for some cutting, the resulting draft was the final one. 
Photo by Alice Boughton, courtesy Library of Congress

Lit, Song, and Slang

The play reflects three of O’Neill’s abiding loves: literature, turn-of-the-twentieth-century popular music, and slang. As an adolescent, O’Neill read all the literature referred to in the play—and there’s a lot of it, from Omar Khayyam (whose Rubiyat inspired the title), Algernon Charles Swinburne, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Rudyard Kipling, to the anarchist writings of Emma Goldman, to the dime novel exploits of detective Nick Carter and George Peck’s Bad Boy. Every summer he read the novels of Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Charles Dickens, the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the poetry of Lord Byron. Like Ah, Wilderness!’s Arthur, the teenaged O’Neill, for all his reading, was much less worldly than he knew; he believed that Oscar Wilde went to prison for the unspeakable crime of bigamy.

Everyone sang or played an instrument at home and on social occasions in early-twentieth-century America, and this domestic pleasure was dear to O’Neill’s heart. He filled his plays with snatches of songs; according to the O’Neill scholar Travis Bogart, only 8 of his 31 full-length plays are without music. Ten songs are heard or referenced in Ah, Wilderness!; one of them, “Bedelia,” is plunked out on a player-piano at the Pleasant Beach House Hotel in Act III. After the play opened to great success, Carlotta surprised him with a like instrument; allegedly, it had once graced the parlor of a New Orleans bordello. O’Neill named it Rosie and would sit at it for hours at a time, singing happily along. In one of the few photographs that show O’Neill with a smile, he sits contentedly at Rosie, hands splayed across the keys. According to Bogart, once O’Neill had settled into his last home, Tao House, in the hills above Danville, California, on warm summer nights residents for miles around could hear Rosie cranking out, “She’s the Sunshine of Paradise Alley”.

O’Neill may have strained for a tragic language, but the slang of his youth, like the music, flowed from him freely. It’s even more ubiquitous in his plays than music. The slang he used came almost exclusively from the first decade of the twentieth century, and he used it in plays, letters and everyday speech, long after it had gone out of fashion. In later years, some critics wondered if he knew any contemporary idioms; on the other hand, those who knew him would comment on the unique flavor the words lent his speech.

Many of O’Neill’s themes and character types appear in Ah, Wilderness!: the young man at odds with the world of his father, yearning for a mother figure and dreaming of illicit passion with prostitutes (or, in O’Neillian parlance, “tarts”); the grasping, material life of America versus the higher callings of love and self-sacrifice; the divided nature of man’s soul. Here, though, they appear in a congenial atmosphere. What in his other plays are the big thematic guns of tragedy are rendered in Ah, Wilderness! as Fourth of July firecrackers. Dark issues lurk, such as Uncle Sid’s drinking problem and Lily’s lonely future and perpetual disappointments, but their implications are the shadows, not the substance of the work.

Those shadows belonged to the true story of O’Neill’s youth, which Ah, Wilderness! decidedly is not. The play depicts, in his words, “the other side of the coin,” the family that he wished he’d had: parents who love each other and care for their children, and children who feel secure and loved, even while in full-blown, normal adolescent rebellion. O’Neill’s own family—the self-involved father, tight with money and love; the mother who disappeared into the spare bedroom to emerge in a morphine haze; an elder brother who spent his days and nights in brothels and bars on a life-long bender of guilt and self-loathing—is erased in this telling.

Perhaps O’Neill had to imagine his youth in the fictional glow of comedy before he could face his family’s tragic truths. He would depict those with absolute courage and stark honesty in the masterpieces that came later—Long Day’s Journey into Night, set in the same (yet very different) house as Ah, Wilderness!, and A Moon for the Misbegotten , which takes place just a few miles away on a piece of property that his father owned. Playwrights write the plays they need to write. Ah, Wilderness! is O’Neill’s most popular and most produced play. Even if it weren’t, the fact that it laid the groundwork for the last great ones makes it one of America’s most significant plays, too.

A Lens on Small Town America: An Interview with Scenic Designer Ralph Funicello

Monday, October 26, 2015


By Cecilia Padilla

Despite its title, Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! does not take place in the wild outdoors. Instead, it depicts the home of a tight-knit Connecticut family. Bringing the world of small town America to San Francisco audiences is scenic designer Ralph Funicello, a longtime designer of A.C.T. productions.
This will be Funicello’s second time working on Ah, Wilderness! with A.C.T.— he also designed the set in the 1978 production. Then, Funicello’s designs adhered to O’Neill’s textual specifications, exhibiting realistic styles and period-appropriate architecture. This time, he’s approaching the play through a new lens. “O’Neill literally dreamt up Ah, Wilderness!,” he says, “so I want the audience to fall into the dream with him.” 


Ralph Funicello's stage design in the current A.C.T. production of
Ah, Wilderness! at The Geary Theater. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne.
What research has contributed to your scenic design?
I still have some of the books that I bought when researching the 1978 A.C.T. production, one of which is A New England Town in Early Photographs. More recently, my wife was performing in a play in Connecticut, and I went to visit her on her day off. We took a trip to the Monte Cristo Cottage, which is O’Neill’s boyhood summer home. After that trip, I definitely had that research in the back of my mind.
What other influences have you drawn from?
I grew up just north of New York, halfway between New York City and Connecticut. Ah, Wilderness! takes place in a town similar to mine. I was born in the 1950s right after World War II, when the area where I grew up seemed like the world! This play takes place on the Fourth of July, and I clearly remember what my hometown felt like as a kid in the summer. There’s a sense of relief from school and an elation for summer vacation. The Fourth of July celebrations in these small towns were incredible—bunting and parades and lovely festivities. Also, the winters in that area are brutal. I can only imagine what it would have been like back in 1906, when New Englanders didn’t have central heating or waterproof boots or nylon clothing. So by May, there’s this incredible release when the weather gets warm.
What are you most looking forward to regarding this production?
When I went to college at Boston University, one of my teachers was the great theater critic Elliot Norton. He was a personal friend of O’Neill. Elliot Norton’s lectures on O’Neill are something I will never forget. He would go into a trance and talk about O’Neill’s work and everything that influenced his writing. It was wonderful. Elliot spoke about the development of the American theater, and it struck me that American theater history is a chain of people who can be traced back to O’Neill—and sitting in that classroom, hearing about Eugene O’Neill from this great man, I became a part of that chain. Working on Ah, Wilderness! allows me to be a part of Eugene O’Neill’s influence on the American theater tradition.



Your College Play Will Change the Face of American Theater in These Ten Steps

Friday, October 16, 2015

by Peter Friedrich

1. Three weeks before opening night, go to your college cafeteria. Eat.

2. Go back to the line and introduce yourself to any staff member. Give your first and last name, and ask for the same from them. Then ask if they like going to plays. If they say no, keep asking others until someone says yes. Let them know you have complimentary Champagne VIP seats for all cafeteria staff, friends, and family. Make sure you have 50 hard copies of tickets in your pocket at all times. They should look and feel exactly like Broadway theater tickets.

3. Go back to the cafeteria every day and build your VIP audience. Get your cast and crew to do the same—ask them at the end of each rehearsal for the names of who they talked to.

VIPs at the The Tempest at Millsaps
College in Jackson, Mississippi
4. On your way to the cafeteria each day before opening, be on the lookout for groundskeeping and janitorial staff. Introduce yourself. Ask their name. Pull out tickets.

5. Recruit your server staff. They can be actors not in the show, or students who need extra credit. Or call up the athletic director and say you can help promote a sport that isn’t getting the attention it deserves—you just need a few athletes for a couple nights. You might even get the athletic director in on the whole thing.

6. Train your server staff. They should wear a tuxedo every night—men and women. If they don’t have one, use your costume shop or partner with a local tuxedo company. At the very least, arrange black pants, black shoes, white shirts, and matching ties and cummerbunds. Plastic glasses are fine, and your set shop should have a few trays. Buy at least 20 bottles of champagne. Train your staff to stand up straight, look VIPs in the eye, shake hands warmly, and thank them sincerely for coming. Female VIPs should be offered an arm as they are walked to their seat.

7. You will have people who request VIP tickets even though they are not a cafeteria worker, maintenance person, or groundskeeper. Remind them politely that your theater’s VIP policy is strict and clear. You may be asked if all this is actually “a real thing.” Answer, “Yes it is!” with your warmest smile. There may be people who are used to special treatment who still insist, saying things like, “Yeah, right, [your name], but seriously, I need to be in the VIP.” If this happens, breathe. Look them in the eye and remind them that they have been in the VIP from the moment they were born. Excuse yourself and walk away. Don’t turn around. Wait at least one day to respond to an apology email, which they will send. Accept graciously in a reply email, and mention that you are still short one server in the VIP section.

8. On opening night, your VIPs might not show up at all. Do not panic. Save the champagne. Go back to the cafeteria the next day and stay positive. They are coming.

9. The first night your VIPs arrive, there might only be two. It doesn’t matter. Announce the news in the dressing room, and listen to the roar of triumph like you are rebels in The Empire Strikes Back and the first transport has escaped the Imperial Armada. Explain the reference to them another time—get to work. Your entire job is now to take care of those VIPs. Leave your crew alone. Leave your cast alone. Leave your house manager alone. They’ll be fine. Stay with your server staff, and stay with the VIPs. That does not mean smother them. It means that at all times, you have an eye on them and are making sure their evening is unforgettable. When the show is over, walk and talk with them all the way out to the exit.

10. Be prepared to buy more champagne. The night after you have two VIPs, you will have four. The next night, you will have twelve. The next night just be ready.

P.S. These ten steps take time and money. But they do not cost as much time and money as your rotating stage for Mother Courage, your 18 custom lighting gobos for Caucasian Chalk Circle, or your set for Our Town that resembles an actual town. In space. Not one of those things is going to change the face of American theater. If you want to change the face of American theater, get more American faces into the theater.

Peter Friedrich
Peter Friedrich (M.F.A. class of ’96) is Chair of the Theatre Department of Millsaps College. In 2013, he won A.C.T.’s Contribution to the Field Award.

An Interview with Ah, Wilderness! Director Casey Stangl

Thursday, October 15, 2015

By Allie Moss 

Director Casey Stangl.
Photo by Ann Marsden.
Director Casey Stangl returns to A.C.T. to stage Eugene O’Neill’s American classic Ah, Wilderness! She approaches Ah, Wilderness! with a fearlessness toward this play’s particular challenges and an appetite for unearthing truths. “I want there to be a sense of immediacy,” Stangl says. “The characters confront first love, parent-child relationships, and the difficulty of finding love and companionship as they get into their older years. These situations are so universal and are very much with us today.” We spoke to Stangl recently about her directorial vision for A.C.T.’s production of Ah, Wilderness!

O’Neill is generally known for his tragic works, but Ah, Wilderness! is a comedy. How does that inform your understanding of the play? 
I think that the comedy actually derives from the great depth of feeling that is in the play. These characters are real people in real situations with real consequences. But even though the consequences and the circumstances are deep, there’s a lightness to the material, and the characters come out on top. The play doesn’t shy away from depth of feeling, but because there’s this effervescence to the material, everything has a soft landing. That’s where the comedy comes from. It comes out of the characters and their situations, not jokes.

O’Neill is known for incorporating historically accurate slang into his plays. When directing Ah, Wilderness!, how do you plan to approach that language?
 I feel like O’Neill was trying to write truth. Before him, theater in the United States was pretty much only vaudeville and musicals. He was writing the language that he heard people speak, and he was trying to write it with a kind of naturalism. When the actors and I approach the slang, we won’t stylize it. We will figure out a way to integrate it into the characters’ regular language so that it gives us a sense of them as living, breathing people.

How does nostalgia function in the play, and what does it mean for you aesthetically? 
To some degree, I feel like nostalgia is something to be careful of and, in some ways, to avoid. I don’t want us to look at these people as fixtures of the past or as museum pieces. In Ah, Wilderness!, there’s more of a sense of dreaminess and memory—that’s an aspect of nostalgia that I like and that has very much informed what Ralph [Funicello, scenic designer] is doing with the piece. We have a scrim [a large piece of cloth onstage that appears opaque until lit from behind]. That design element evokes beauty and poetry. The aspect of nostalgia that I don’t want is the sense of characters not feeling vibrant or real. That idea can be useful as a way of looking at the piece dramaturgically, but as a piece of theater, we want to make sure that we land the characters in a place that feels immediate to us.

Ah, Wilderness! is set more than one hundred years ago. What relevance does it hold for today’s audiences? 
We all still fall in love. We all still worry about our children. We all still fight our demons. These are human conditions that have not changed in a hundred years, and they’re rendered so beautifully and with great gentleness in this play. In our current generation, which is so prone to snark and cynicism and the easy brutality that social media can foster, this compassion, gentleness, warmth, and love for one’s fellow man feels like a real tonic right now.

Growing Up: A Universal Journey

Coming-of-Age Stories over Time 
By Allie Moss

Coming-of-age stories have been told practically since the start of civilization, but they did not receive a name until 1819, when German university lecturer Karl Morgenstern dubbed them the Bildungsroman. This German word translates literally as “education novel,” but its definition has expanded to encompass the entire coming-of-age genre.

Teenage newsboys in New Haven, Connecticut. Photo
by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1907. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Although coming-of-age stories share some commonalities that transcend their publication dates, they are also intrinsically tied to what “coming of age” meant at the time they were written. Near the turn of the twentieth century (when Ah, Wilderness! is set), life for teenagers was changing, but slowly. Post–Industrial Revolution society enjoyed an increase in leisure time, so children and teenagers had more hours to spend with their friends than in the past—but they were still very integrated into family life. The modern concept of “teenage culture” did not exist.

In the early 1900s, teenagers were expected to listen to their parents. Rather than creating independent identities by resisting their parents, upper- and middle-class teens often cultivated a sense of self by going away to college. Working-class teens achieved the same result by joining the workforce. So it is especially shocking for the characters in Ah, Wilderness! when Richard goes out drinking and sneaks out to see his girlfriend.

In the economic boom that followed the Second World War, jobs were readily available for teenagers who wanted them. Meanwhile, postwar technology improved transportation, allowing teenagers greater mobility, and new appliances reduced their household responsibilities. This combination provided teenagers with more free time and spending power than ever before. Now products were marketed specifically to teenagers and advertised as mechanisms through which they could define their individuality. Teenage culture was on the rise.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the literature written for and about teenagers at this time reflects these cultural changes. Many of the coming-of-age stories written in the early years of the Young Adult genre (YA) are still recognized as classic stories: J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), and S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967).

Over the last half-century, the genre has expanded to include other fiction genres. Many popular modern YA books—like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—are narratives about children growing up against a fantastical or dystopian backdrop. Today’s coming-of-age stories have also evolved to deal with grittier themes, like drugs, violence, or sexuality, subject matters very different from the moral growth emphasized in the Bildungsroman of the nineteenth century. Despite these changes, coming-of-age stories remain largely universal. The need for self-definition and personal discovery is as crucial for Harry Potter in the twenty-first century as it was for Richard Miller in 1906.

An Interview with Director Casey Stangl

Monday, June 8, 2015

An Interview with Love and Information Director Casey Stangl
By Beatrice Basso

Scenic designer Robert Brill’s rendering for A.C.T.’s 2015
production of Love and Information
Director Casey Stangl returns to A.C.T. after staging David Ives’s Venus in Fur last spring. Now, Love and Information, a play that offered her a blank creative canvas that she describes as simultaneously “exhilarating and terrifying.”
Stangl brings her talent for seamless transitions and precise pacing to Love and Information, a play that offered her a blank creative canvas that she describes as simultaneously “exhilarating and terrifying.”
    Stangl found her stride in directing new work and reimagining classics through a bold contemporary lens. Her movement background and interest in visual composition have helped her weave the complex fabric of Love and Information. At a new-play festival in Southern California a week before rehearsals began, Stangl was happy to talk about the themes and ideas that have piqued her imagination, what it’s been like to include the specific communities of San Francisco in Churchill’s scenes, and whether the gap between love and information is truly as wide as it may seem.

How did you react when A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff asked you to direct Love and Information?
I was thrilled. Carey described the play, which is made up of disparate scenes with no common characters. Then she talked about it being the first production at The Strand Theater, which is located in San Francisco at a kind of crossroads between various communities—from homeless people to tourists to tech workers to government workers to immigrant mom-and-pop store owners. She felt that Love and Information was the perfect play with which to open this new space.

What were your first impressions of the play?
Carey told me, “The play is wide open.” When you read the first scene, there are just lines and no character names. I remember thinking, “Wow, she wasn’t kidding, this is wide open.” When you have that amount of choice, you can do anything, but it also means you have to find a container and a way into the play. With most plays, the container is usually already built for you, so this is an interesting challenge.

You were already familiar with Caryl Churchill’s work, as you directed Top Girls for the Guthrie Theater over a decade ago.
Yes. They are very different plays, but they share some commonalities; for instance, Churchill’s ability to manipulate language, to write characters and scenes in which so much is happening below the words, is important in both works. Love and Information is so striking because these scenes range from a quarter of a page to three pages, but despite such a small amount of dialogue, you can pull back the curtain and imagine what’s happening between these characters. This illumination of a moment in someone’s life is thrilling to be able to evoke. Churchill has a very unflinching, unsentimental view of life, but there’s so much hope and humanity and joy in her perspective, as well.

Generally, directors are asked to guide an audience through a linear, narrative, realistic journey.
Absolutely. I would say there is almost always a story being told, even in plays that have a nonlinear structure, or that bounce around in time. But that’s not what we’re doing here. There’s not one specific story we’re telling; the play has a radical form in which several individual narratives add up to something larger that reveals how we live and what it means to be a human on this planet right now. Because there are so many different themes and ideas, they will resonate differently for different people.

What do you think makes this play relevant at this particular moment in time?
When somebody told me about the play originally, they said that it was about living in the Digital Age. So before I read it, I really thought that it was about dealing with the age of Facebook, and that sort of thing. There are certainly hints of that in the play, but it’s so much bigger and broader than that. Throughout history, there have been large technological leaps—such as the invention of the wheel or the Industrial Revolution—that have radically changed the way people live. With such changes, there have always been predictions that we’re going to lose our humanity. I remember when computers first became ubiquitous, people said, “Soon, no one will ever see each other, and we’ll never leave our homes, and robots will take over everything.” In fact, what happened was a proliferation of coffee shops so that people could actually come out and connect with each other. Churchill has tapped into the sense that, despite the constancy of dire predictions, humanity prevails. We just find different ways to continue to have this sense of connection.

For more about Love and Information, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to Love and Information visit act-sf.org/information.

A Fantasy of Fools: An Interview with Costume Designer Candice Donnelly

Friday, June 5, 2015

A Fantasy of Fools
An Interview with Costume Designer Candice Donnelly
By Shannon Stockwell

Costume designer Candice Donnelly's
rendering of a female member of the Liebeslieder
quintet for A.C.T.’s 2015 production
of A Little Night Music
“For the sheer beauty of all the satin and ruffles, costume designer Candice Donnelly should have bouquets delivered to her sewing room every night,” wrote Washington Post journalist Peter Marks in his review of Center Stage in Baltimore’s 2008 production of A Little Night Music. Seven years later, Donnelly revisits Sondheim’s classic for A.C.T.’s production, directed, as it was in Baltimore, by Mark Lamos.
    Donnelly’s vibrant costume designs were last seen on the Geary stage in Indian Ink, Tom Stoppard’s cross-cultural romance about the complex relationship between a poet and a painter, set against the backdrop of the struggle for Indian independence in the 1930s. Donnelly says she has an affinity for designing period pieces: “The research is very interesting to me. It’s a bit of a time travel experience.” A coproduction with New York City’s Roundabout Theatre Company, Indian Ink was recently nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Costume Design. Since Indian Ink, Donnelly’s designs have been seen in the musical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a coproduction between the Guthrie Theater and the Acting Company.
     A Little Night Music is set at the turn of the twentieth century, and designing the costumes of any era other than our own involves careful research and a watchful eye. Donnelly was happy to share with us her process of designing costumes for this sensuous musical. 

Is your costume design at A.C.T. the same as it was for the Center Stage production?
There will be some tweaking, but it’s essentially the same. It’s a completely different cast, so that impacts things.

Do you design musicals much, or do you normally work with straight theater?
I do a little bit of everything. I’ve done several musicals and a few operas over the years. It’s actually the most fun to design a musical, because it is a bit more fantastical and very theatrical. It’s harder to design those types of costumes for film, and sometimes modern-dress plays end up being a little too similar to a filmed experience.

Compared to the costumes you might design for a straight play, what kind of practical elements do musical costumes require?
It depends on how much dancing the actors are doing and what the movement is like. The actors need to be miked, obviously, so you have to figure out a way to do that. Other than that, it’s not necessarily that different.

Does the dancing in A Little Night Music affect your design choice?
When we did the play at Center Stage, the dancing wasn’t so complicated that the actors needed special shoes. The shoes needed to be comfortable enough for them to move in, but they didn’t need to be dance shoes in particular.

How did you come up with the designs?
I did the same thing that I always do. I look at a lot of photographs and research, especially if it’s a period piece. A Little Night Music takes place at the turn of the twentieth century, which was a very feminine and extravagant era; the clothes, the fabrics, and the colors are very beautiful.
    This is a romantic piece, and Mark [Lamos] feels that it’s very sexual. It’s about love and romance and the foolishness of people when they fall in love. It’s also about the whole idea of the midnight sun and how it makes people giddy. I put all of those factors together and came up with frothy, lacy, summery designs.

What kind of resources did you use in your research?
I used a lot of period magazines, and I have books of old photographs. I also used a French website, associated with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. It has old photographs from 1860 up to the present.

You said that the period itself was very feminine. Does that hold true for the men’s costumes, as well?
Their costumes are much more formal. At that time, there were a lot more people who really dressed up. They wore clothes that were appropriate to their station. The people in A Little Night Music are upper class, so they adhere to rigidity in social roles. People are so aware of that kind of style now because of Downton Abbey—people dressing in tuxedos, tails, and gloves for dinner, even when they’re at home. That is a wonderful fantasy world for us today. It’s nothing that we would ever experience except in a play or a movie.

What are the costumes for the Liebeslieder quintet like?
Mark wanted to make the quintet young and sexy, so they’re getting in and out of bed, and they’re in corsets and underwear. I had research from dancers and carnival-goers from 1900, and the quintet is almost reminiscent of Pierrot [a stock character from the Italian comic theater of the eighteenth century that may have been the origin of the sad clown; he was often seen in white face paint and flowing white clothing]. The men are in black tails, and the women are in patchwork silk-satin dresses; the outfits are very fun and playful.

How do you decide what color a particular garment should be?
Sometimes it has to do with what the set looks like, because you want the characters to stand out from or complement the set. In this case, at the end of the show, the women are all in paler, shimmery, nighttime, starry colors.

What sort of costume choices have you made for Desiree’s play-within-a-play?
I had a lot of pictures of actors from the turn of the century doing various period plays, and what I tried to do was a nineteenth-century version of an eighteenth-century costume. If you look at these picture, you’ll notice that the costumes are trying to look like they are from the eighteenth century, but they’re cut like nineteenth-century clothing. So that’s what I did.

That’s fascinating; it’s a twenty-first-century version of a nineteenth-century version of an eighteenth-century costume.
Right!

What excites you about A Little Night Music?
It’s a perfect musical. It’s just very pleasing. A Little Night Music allows me to do what I love: design beautiful clothes.

For more about A Little Night Music, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to A Little Night Music visit act-sf.org/music.

The Enduring Mystique of Caryl Churchill

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Enduring Mystique of Caryl Churchill
By Nirmala Nataraj

Caryl Churchill. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.
Caryl Churchill is perhaps the most acclaimed female playwright in the English-speaking world, and simultaneously the most elusive. Critic Charles Spencer has called her the “least predictable of contemporary playwrights.” Her work has been described as elliptical, provocative, shocking, confounding—and, over the years, it has become significantly more pared down, devoid of stage directions or notes, which only seems to contribute to her enduring mystique.

Although Churchill has been writing plays for over five decades, she stopped giving interviews many years ago. She rarely comments on critics’ analyses of her work, but her past interviews and the words of her close collaborators, of whom there are many, continue to spark the imaginations of those who recognize the multiple ways in which she has pushed dramatic boundaries over the course of her career.

Feminist and socialist politics are important facets of Churchill’s plays, as her work challenges the oppressions and repressions of gender, class, sex, and race—but her bold stylization is an equally prominent feature of her writing. The fact that her work ranges from epic Brechtian dramas to surreal “anti-plays” to disconnected slice-of-life episodes is part of what makes it difficult to define Churchill’s style. Flashbacks, twisted chronologies, overlapping dialogue, contradiction, repetition of word and gesture, and different actors playing the same character in different scenes are just some of the devices Churchill has employed in her plays.

Given the scope of Churchill’s experimentation (with form as well as process), many critics have noted that answering the question “What is a Caryl Churchill play?” leaves most people scratching their heads in puzzlement. Playwright April de Angelis says, “She has turned the idea of what a play should be over and over, revisioning it beyond the accepted imaginative boundaries, to produce plays that are always revolutionary.”

As eager as they are to be heard, according to Churchill’s publisher of over 40 years, Nick Hern, her characters themselves are often less “talky” (preferring to justify their existence not with long speeches but with activity) and less obviously categorizable as villains or protagonists than those of other playwrights. Actor Maxine Peake, who played the title role in Churchill’s The Skriker (about a malevolent fairy who manipulates two teenage mothers) in 2014 at London’s Royal Exchange Theatre, describes Churchill’s characters as “coming more from a physical impulse rather than a cerebral one.”

Churchill and her collaborators are often surprised by the plays that emerge from her imagination. Hern says, “The plays just turn up, without warning. I think she’s one of those shamanistic writers, in the way Harold Pinter was. A play isn’t planned or premeditated; it’s scratching an itch. They come to me and I sit down to read them, having absolutely no idea what the length or subject matter or form will be.” Much like Pinter, Churchill is also mordantly witty, whether she is training her eye on large-scale social ills or the quirky dynamics of an intimate relationship. A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff says, “Churchill’s plays are supremely alive because the scenes are endlessly active. They’re about transactions, power, competition, desire.”

Love and Information premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012, under the direction of Churchill’s frequent collaborator James Macdonald. De Angelis notes that this enigmatic play is an exploration of two of the most powerful human themes: needing to know and needing to love. Love and Information is a collection of 57 short, episodic vignettes that use a series of interactions between mostly unnamed characters to explore knowledge, meaning, and how we make sense of information in our lives. Each vignette is self-contained and characters are not repeated from one scene to the next, meaning that the dozen actors in our production are responsible for playing multiple roles. Some of the scenes last only five seconds, and none are longer than five minutes. Because Churchill does not include stage directions or character descriptions in Love and Information, the artistic team is tasked with filling in the blanks and creating the world of the play according to the production’s specific needs and intentions.

Overall, Love and Information presents an assortment of stories and perspectives that leave much to the viewer’s imagination. Indeed, a viewer’s process of making sense of the play may be the ultimate point that Churchill is attempting to make. As she has said, “I don’t set out to find a bizarre way of writing. I certainly don’t think that you have to force it. But, on the whole . . . I enjoy finding the form that seems to best fit what I’m thinking about.”

“Decision”
(a scene from Caryl Churchill’s script for Love and Information exactly as it appears on the page)

I’ve written down all the reasons to leave the country and all the reasons to stay.

So how does that work out?

There’s things on both sides.

How do you feel about it?

No, I’m trying to make a rational decision based on the facts.

Do you want me to decide for you?

Based on what? The facts don't add up.

I’d rather you stayed here. Does that help?

For more about Love and Information, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to Love and Information visit act-sf.org/information.

An Enchanting Vision: The Creation of A Little Night Music

Thursday, May 7, 2015

An Enchanting Vision: The Creation of A Little Night Music
By Nirmala Nataraj

Stephen Sondheim. Photo by Jerry Jackson.
Inspired by Smiles of a Summer Night, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s romantic comedy of errors, A Little Night Music emerged from Stephen Sondheim’s vision of a musicalized tale about the games that men and women play in sex and love. With a grand scope that is meant to generate nostalgia for turn-of-the-twentieth-century elegance, the play is a marked departure from Sondheim’s previous collaborations with director Harold Prince, such as Company (1970) and Follies (1971), which feature upper-class New Yorkers in a contemporary setting.

Before librettist Hugh Wheeler came on board, Prince and Sondheim had been toying with the idea of writing a chamber opera since their collaboration on the 1957 musical West Side Story (for which Sondheim was the lyricist and Prince the producer). Scandinavia in midsummer (a time of year during which the sun rarely sets throughout the region) provided the ideal backdrop for a play about sexual frustration, perpetual anticipation, and romantic foolishness. After settling on Bergman’s film for source material, Sondheim drew the title for the play from an English translation of the German name for Mozart’s serenade no. 13 for strings in G major (Eine kleine Nachtmusik). In A Little Night Music, three-quarter time, counterpoint, and harmonically complex melodies help evoke the grandeur and complex social interactions of a bygone era.

Sondheim’s original story for A Little Night Music was comparatively darker than the piece he ultimately developed with Wheeler. An early draft of A Little Night Music relates the story as a parlor-room fantasy with three distinct endings. Wheeler, however, felt that Sondheim’s idea was overly bizarre and confusing. As Sondheim explains in his annotated book of song lyrics Finishing the Hat, “[Wheeler’s] work had always been linear, not fanciful.” Although Wheeler attempted to write the libretto that had been asked of him, he ended up generating a piece that Sondheim found “boring and literal.” Wheeler’s book had erased all traces of gravity, darkness, and melancholy from Sondheim’s initial idea, leaving “a graceful but fluffily light comedy version of Bergman’s movie.”

Although Sondheim’s surreal vision for A Little Night Music never came to fruition, the musical that was eventually produced was hardly received as fluffy. In fact, many critics saw through the play’s cheery facade; as Richard Watts commented about the characters: “On the surface they appear to be enjoying their sins, except at moments when they are embarrassingly caught in them. But the atmosphere, for all its gaiety, seemed to me that of men and women who are leading hollow lives and are only too aware of it.”

The original 1973 Broadway production of A Little Night Music secured eleven Tony Awards (including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score), six drama Desk Awards, and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. New York Times critic Clive Barnes summed up the show as “heady, civilized, sophisticated and enchanting . . . the real triumph belongs to Stephen Sondheim . . . the music is an orgy of plaintively memorable waltzes, all talking of past loves and lost worlds.”

A Little Night Music opened at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway on February 25, 1973. Directed by renowned Broadway director Harold Prince and starring Glynis Johns, Len Cariou, and Hermione Gingold, the musical closed on August 3, 1974, after 601 immensely successful performances. The musical went on to enjoy an equally successful run on London’s West End in 1975 and a number of revivals throughout Europe, with productions spanning from Paris to Stockholm. In the last four decades, the musical has enjoyed numerous Broadway revivals and continues to be a popular selection among opera companies throughout the world. Prince also went on to direct a film adaptation of A Little Night Music in 1977, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Rigg, and Lesley-Anne Down. And of course, the music endures. The nostalgic and wistful “Send in the Clowns” is one of Sondheim’s most immediately recognizable songs and has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra (1973) to Judy Collins (1975), who won a Grammy Award for her rendition, to Grace Jones, Judi Dench, and Megadeath.

Although Sondheim isn’t usually sentimental about his own work and has expressed continued befuddlement over the popularity of “Send in the Clowns,” it seems that much of his early ambivalence about the play has transformed over the years. In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim describes Wheeler’s libretto as supple and surprisingly ageless. Although he jokingly admits to feeling dread as an audience member during a major revival or a school production of A Little Night Music, he writes:

Once the lights have been dimmed, I have an exhilarating time watching it. . . . I underestimated Hugh’s work shamefully when I first read it. After living with it through numerous productions for more than thirty-five years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is one of the half dozen best books ever written for a musical.

For more about A Little Night Music, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to A Little Night Music visit act-sf.org/music.
 
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