‘Bright Star’ opens on Broadway, #TBT to Old Globe review

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Bright Star opens tonight at the Cort after one month of previews, and the press is buzzing over Steve Martin and Edie Brickell new musical.  Here at 7HalfCents.com, we have a fondness for Bright Star, as if was the first musical we reviewed on the site.  Check out our take on the original Old Globe production from October 2014 here.

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San Diego Premieres Steve Martin’s New Musical

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In his program note, Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein calls Bright Star a “great yarn with a heart as big as a mountain and a soul as deep as the sea.”  A “yarn” proves to be an apt description for this show, because the characters in this completely new bluegrass musical weave their story in a lovely, homespun way.  The creators set about knitting that story using the Broadway formula, but—doing so without customary Broadway-style flash—the audience discovers they have invested in the story without knowing they have fallen for the usual tricks.  After an hour of this knitting, the feeling when the houselights come up for intermission is as if the audience discovered they were suddenly wearing sweaters they hadn’t been donning at the top of the show.

Watching this bit of handiwork on stage is a treat.  The work is the Old Globe’s fifth dramatic collaboration with funny man, actor, playwright, banjoist, songwriter Steve Martin over the last two decades, and the theatre has been involved with Bright Star for the past two years.  The piece underwent the workshop process in February and March in New York; now, in October, it receives a full and proper stage treatment.

As for the show itself, the story opens on a young veteran making his way home to North Carolina immediately following World War II.  A.J. Shively brings an exuberance to the character of the young soldier, Billy Cane.  At the outset, Billy appears to be the main protagonist; he sets out to become a writer upon his return to civilian life.  His storyline, however, is eclipsed quickly by that of Alice Murphy, his editor.  Throughout the show, the story jumps like a handy game of hopscotch between Miss Murphy in 1945 and her younger self in 1923.  We enjoy Billy’s story arc, but we actually invest in Miss Murphy’s.  Carmen Cusack shines bright as a…well, er—star—in the role of Alice Murphy.  Aside from the expected challenges of portraying the same character 22 years apart in back-to-back scenes—which she accomplishes seamlessly—her voice is particularly suited for delivering both the folksy joy as well as the aching melancholy that the bluegrass score demands at different times.

One such moment of aching melancholy is the second act number “I Had a Vision.”  Though the score overall is quite tuneful, this number—shared by Miss Cusack and Wayne Alan Wilcox who plays Alice Murphy’s teenage flame, Jimmy Ray Dobbs—is the most poignant song in the show.  For anyone in their mid-thirties to mid-forties whose present life is different than their twenty-year old self had planned, this song is especially heart-breaking.  By this point in Act II, that same audience who realized they were wearing sweaters look down to discover that somehow the cast has also sewn on buttons and has closed the garment around them.

The garment is plenty comfortable.  Steve Martin—as composer and book writer this time—teams with lyricist Edie Brickell to fashion a bluegrass score that is at times straight up Appalachian hoedown (“Whaddya Say, Jimmy Ray” and “Another Round”) and at other times more of a show tune sensibility (“A Man’s Gotta Do” and the aforementioned “I Had a Vision”).  The cast generally balances bluegrass and Broadway quite well, aided greatly by the orchestra that includes banjo (of course), guitar, mandolin, and fiddle.  While avid musical theatre ears might harken to shows like Smoke on the Mountain, the instrumentation doesn’t seem out of place for a casual theatre-goer who has a Pandora playlist that includes Mumford & Sons.  Efforts to resist toe-tapping are worthless.

Putting the orchestra in the frame of a house, director Walter Bobbie involves the musicians in a charming way without being too gimmicky.  As scenes shift, the actors wheel that shack around the stage like Dorothy’s house.  The audience never questions the band’s onstage presence; they are totally at home in the thick of the action.  On the subject of scenery and staging, Bobbie employs the kind of devices that leave the majority of the work to the imagination.  With this kind of Our Town-esque responsibility, the director charges the actors to transform chairs and crates into a train in one moment and a star-lit glen in another.  The sensibility is a bit more Peter and the Starcatcher than Our Town, but it is of the same lineage.  In Bright Star, the production value always bows in deference to the story, which is the right approach in this instance.

As stated before, the possibility that Mr. Martin and Ms. Brickell might tailor this piece further following the San Diego run is an exciting prospect.  The creators might consider rounding out Act II with a few additional numbers or judiciously-placed reprises.  For example, Miss Murphy’s employees, Daryl Ames and Lucy Grant—played hilariously by Jeff Hiller and Kate Loprest—could stand to have a number in addition to their part in the lackluster expositional number “My Wonderful Career.”  Dora—the slightly daffy sister played by Libby Winters—needs more material to connect the events from Act I to her raucous Act II romp, “Another Round.”  Lastly, because Act I ends in a kind of lean-forward-in-your-seat, eyes-wide-open manner, Act II opens with the reassuring “Sun’s Gonna Shine” to release the collective tension.  But the song speaks with so much hope that it practically begs for a reprise at the end of Act II.  Martin and Brickell use a reprise of “I Had a Vision” instead—which is effective and moving—but the moment could benefit from some musical quoting of “Sun’s Gonna Shine.”  No doubt, the creators feel they have a complete and streamlined story, and again, in this instance, snappy storytelling is probably the best choice.  But the audience—happily on board for the story—would probably permit a few detours.

The Old Globe should be commended for this collaboration with Ms. Brickell and Mr. Martin as well as with director Walter Bobbie, choreographer Josh Rhodes, music director Rob Berman, and the team of designers.  They have woven a story that feels good and that hopefully will parade around for awhile before it goes in the cedar chest.

Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy and Wayne Alan Wilcox as Jimmy Ray Dobbs with the cast of the world premiere of Bright Star, a new American musical with music by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, lyrics by Brickell, book by Martin, based on an original story by Martin and Brickell, and directed by Tony Award winner Walter Bobbie, Sept. 14 - Nov. 2, 2014 at The Old Globe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy and Wayne Alan Wilcox as Jimmy Ray Dobbs with the cast of the world premiere of Bright Star, a new American musical with music by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, lyrics by Brickell, book by Martin, based on an original story by Martin and Brickell, and directed by Tony Award winner Walter Bobbie, Sept. 14 – Nov. 2, 2014 at The Old Globe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Edited:  March 24, 2016

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BroadwayCon: One musical theatre lover finds his people

At long last comes an antidote for those coffee breaks spent listening to your co-worker go on and on about meeting Wil Wheaton at ComicCon.  Broadway fans unite…for BroadwayCon!  Held in New York City January 22-24, 2016, the first-ever BroadwayCon featured talks, panels, and performances from some of Broadway’s top talent.  For another “first,” we welcome our first-ever guest blogger, Brian F.B. Reavey, official 7 1/2 Cents correspondent at BroadwayCon. 


 

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by BRIAN F.B. REAVEY


 

Try to imagine the most amazing pep rally, summer camp, professional conference, rock concert, family reunion, and Tony Awards party combined into one weekend.  That was BroadwayCon for me.  It’s impossible to fully encapsulate my entire experience, but I’ll starting by sharing some of my favorite BroadwayCon highlights.

Before the official BroadwayCon Opening Ceremonies took place, the first of three days (Friday) offered the 3,000+ attendees various fan meet-up sessions.  It was difficult to choose between the Sondheim, RENT, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Smash, Newsies, and other meet-ups offered, but ultimately I chose the Hamilton fan meet-up.  I entered “the room where it happens” and several hundred people were waiting patiently for the session to begin.  The space quickly became Standing Room Only.  While the staff was finalizing sound system tasks, two teenaged BroadwayCon attendees started an impromptu Hamilton sing-a-long a cappella, and the entire room instantly joined into synchronized song and cheers.  I was home, y’all!

Each of the panels, performances, workshops, autographs, and photo booth sessions were as impressive as the next. The Opening Number on the MainStage showcased incredible production value, complete with surprise appearances by Tommy Tune and Ben Vereen.  Footage from the Opening Ceremonies is available on the BroadwayCon YouTube page (as well as a number of videos from attendees).

The most memorable panels for me included the Hamilton cast panel, the RENT reunion panel, the choreography panel, and the Original Broadway Cast of Les Misérables panel.  The most stand-out “only at BroadwayCon” experience happened on Saturday night during Blizzard Jonas. Many pre-scheduled performers were not able to get there due to the insane weather conditions, but that didn’t stop the stellar BroadwayCon staff.  A spontaneous “Party Line” ensued where event organizers utilized their personal contact lists and called various Broadway stars to join the fun.  We were graced with live phone conversations from Laura Benanti, Betty Buckley, Darren Criss, Harvey Fierstein, Joel Gray, Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald, Idina Menzel, and Patti LuPone.  When Patti asked us if we needed anything, my very hungry self yelled, “PIZZA!”  Immediately following my snowed-in outburst, Anthony Rapp and I started a spontaneous “Send us pizza, Patti!” chant.  Only at BroadwayCon…

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10,514, 880 MINUTES– Friday Night programming at BroadwayCon included the ‘RENT’ 20th Anniversary Reunion Panel.

 

A particular line from the musical “Wicked” kept replaying in my mind the entire weekend: “I think we’ve found the place where we belong!”  Never once did I or anyone at BroadwayCon feel left out or put down for loving Broadway so much; on the contrary, the inspiring, renewing, and transforming effect that live theatre has had on me and so many was celebrated in major, uninhibited ways.  As one new friend said to me on the first day: “It’s like we’re all speaking the same language.”  My grand hope as a result of this experience is for everyone in the world to feel a similar sense of belonging and unbounded joy in some small way, wherever they may find themselves on life’s journey.

Special thanks to Anthony Rapp, Melissa Anelli, Mischief Management, Playbill, and everyone else who had their hands and hearts invested in this memorable, inaugural event.  My gratitude for one of the best weekends of my life, new friendships, and my renewed love for everything Broadway is immense and endless.  BroadwayCon was a phenomenal, magical, and unforgettable experience, and I look forward to making new memories there again next year.

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YOU’LL BE BACK–From Interviews to Panels to Autograph and Photo Booths, BroadwayCon offered plenty of opportunities to rub elbows with stars. Brian, along with Retreat to Broadway participants and supporters Kathy Murray and John Roche snagged a photo with Jonathan Groff.

Brian F. B. Reavey is the Director & Founder of Retreat to Broadway, a national non-profit project that inspires, renews and transforms individuals and organizations via innovative programming and live theater. Brian works full-time in the Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Office for the Marianist Province of the United States; he also serves as their NGO’s Main Representative at the United Nations.

 

“Mom, Dad…I’m an actor.”

Talking to people you love about your profession in the theatre

Over the Christmas break, I had a “big talk” with my family about what my future after grad school held.  I have long maintained that I really didn’t start these two years knowing precisely what I wanted at the end of the two years.  This past semester, however, has helped me realize that I want to perform.  Full time.  For a living.

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Though this decision dawned on me gradually and after a great deal of introspection, I wondered whether friends and family would perceive it to be whimsical, starry-eyed, or even a little bit foolish.  After all, I had been a teacher for ten years.  My days had been ordered, my income had been steady, and my artistic life had been nourished.  Why would I want to change that?  But I arrived at the same conclusion that many actors come upon: “I just have to.”

I knew I needed to share my decision with my family and also give them a glimpse of how my life was going to look as a working actor.  I also knew that I would need to approach this topic with a spirit of empathy.  While my parents are terrifically loving, I knew there was going to be many aspects of this new life that they simply weren’t going to understand.  It was my responsibility to educate them, allay their concerns, and address some common stereotypes.  Here are some talking points from that “big talk” as well as some advice.

I can make a living in the theatre without being a household name:  For my folks—and probably yours too—there are two types of actors:  community theatre actors and famous actors.  Most people are completely unaware of the scores of talented, successful performers who are working—and feeling quite fulfilled—but who aren’t headlining on Broadway.  From regional theatre to tours to Broadway ensemblists, there’s a vast population of musical theatre bread-winners in that space between “semi-professional” 12301628_978217705553021_3968259521778363560_nand “star.”  And furthermore, I might not be a star right away, but give me some time.

EXTRA CREDIT:  Show your parents the Instagram account for “Humans of Broadway.”  It includes some great profiles of real people—many who you probably wouldn’t recognize on the subway—but are no
less a part of the vibrant Broadway community.

Having a survival job does not mean you are a failure:  This is the point that may give your mother pause, your father a raised eyebrow, and your skeptical neighbor fodder for a wisecrack about waiting tables.  The-Broke-and-Beautiful-LifeThe stereotype is unavoidable.  Most actors make ends
meet by doing something unrelated to acting.  You know what?  That’s ok.  Are you getting worried financial talks from your mother?  Try to calm her fears by actually crafting a financial plan and showing her.  Are you getting derisive jeers from your Aunt Tillie about how broke you’ll be?  Let her skepticism fuel your fire!

EXTRA CREDIT:  Check out Stefanie O’Connell, actor and finance expert.  Her book, The Broke and Beautiful Life is available on Amazon. 

Actors work looks different than other “work”:  It’s easy for people to identify with the work of an office job.  You go to work from 9-5.  You have a computer.  There are meetings.  You have a supervisor.  Similarly, people identify with the work of a manufacturer.  You go to work for the late shift.  You stand on the line.  You assemble parts.  There’s a tangible product at the end of the assembly that can be bought and sold.  But an actor’s work simply looks very different.  It is in itself a variety of tasks.  It resembles an office job in that there’s daily correspondence, scheduling auditions, going to production meetings.  It’s like a factory job in that there’s a day shift for rehearsals and fittings and a night shift for performances.  But it also includes things that don’t look like work. An actor’s work includes going to the gym so that your body is physically fit enough to manage the stresses of a show.  It includes going to photo shoots and press happenings which look very fun to the outsider but require a great deal of energy.  It includes going to voice lessons and dance classes so that you can keep your craft honed.  It’s a great deal of work, just not work you might recognize.

EXTRA CREDIT:  Let your Google calendar stand as proof of the variety of appointments, obligations, and to do lists that an actor juggles. 

It seems like you’re always having coffee, lunch, or drinks with someone’:  I am.  I am building relationships with people.  Theatre relies on collaboration.  Collaboration relies on having a team.  Artists often build teams from people they know and trust.  It seems so simple, but a cup of coffee and a good conversation can help me stay on the short list for exciting new projects (and can be tax-deductible).  The old adage “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know” is especially true in the theatre.

I may be on social media quite a bit more, but I am crafting my brand:  One aspect of being a working actor in the 21st Century that those even a half a generation older than millennials might have trouble grasping is that social media is crucial in your networking with other artists, finding and booking jobs, and gaining a following.  Considering that a casting choice can come down to how many Twitter or Instagram followers you have, the two minutes that you take to edit a photo and slap a filter on it might help in securing the next paycheck.  The direct relationship between social media followings and acquiring work can be a vague concept, but it’s real.  Social media is a slow burn; consistent engagement with your followers means you are steadily and authentically growing your fan base.  Yes, you have one of those now.

tweetBy the way, I now have a brand:  I have to think of myself as a business now, and businesses have a particular way that they market themselves.  Some actors consult specialists to help in this endeavor.  They need to be conscious about presenting the best version of their authentic self on social media, on headshots and reels, and in relationships with other artists.  Think about strong brands like Apple.  You know exactly how you feel about Apple products and you can recognize their products in milliseconds, because their branding is so clear.  Conversely, sometimes businesses decide on complete overhauls of their business or products.  Think about how Domino’s remade their pizza from the crust up a few years back.  Sometimes actors need to be Domino’s Pizza, and that can be jarring for their loved ones.

As you discuss being a working actor with people close to you, consider two more broad ideas.  First, that there is no one big “talk.”  Actually, your lifestyle is going to be ever-evolving, and you can take people on the journey with you by sharing in a continual dialogue.  Secondly, remember that in discussing any life choices with your loved ones that both they and you are coming from a place of love.  Keeping these things in mind will make the “big” talk a little less monumental.

 

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