Turn Up the Eight-Track (What’s an Eight-Track?): Cast Recordings and the Future of Media

96,000 (dollas? Holla!) would buy a lot of cast recordings. Image via PBS.

Like any good born-and-bred Winnipegger, I’m pretty cheap.

Not a bad sort of cheap though – not the expired bargain bin milk cheap – just a respectable kind of cheap. I bought $36 tickets to a concert recently and although the seats weren’t bad (second bowl), we got upgraded to fifth row in the first bowl. When I bought my single seat to Billy Elliot in January, I got the $27 ticket not knowing what I was expecting. Third row from the stage. Not too bad at all.

This weekend, I went out to spend some birthday money. My fiancé and I went to the bookstore and I picked up The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built by Jack Viertel (and it killed me to pay over $30) and the 40th anniversary cast recording of A Chorus Line. And although I don’t regret either of my purchases, we then went to a used CD store and I bought the movie recording of Into the Woods and the original London cast recording of Les Mis (with a typo on the CD!), plus another CD for half the price of what I paid at the bookstore.

It’s likely that I’m never going to listen to these CDs. I’ll be able to get most (if not all) of them on Spotify and stream them with no hassle. So why do I obsessively seek out physical copies of cast recordings?

My obsession with music started before my long-term memories did: when I was a baby, my parents would put on the Eagles loud and start up the vacuum and I would fall asleep. This would turn into an *NSYNC obsession, which would lead to me buying my first CD with my own money at age 10: Fall Out Boy’s From Under the Cork Tree. In the last 11 years, I’ve amassed dozens of discs and even started to collect vinyl before it got expensive. Most of them are of the pop-punk-rock variety, but in the last few years, the only CDs I’ve bought have been cast recordings.

My bookshelves are filling up with Broadway memoirs and how-tos instead of young adult novels (although my signed copy of Looking for Alaska is still one of my prized possessions). And it seems that my music collection is doing the same thing. Maybe, one day, as I sorted through my parents’ old records and found some gems, my future child will find my CDs and start a renaissance of a now-dead medium.

Even though I take off the plastic wrap, read through the leaflet and set it on the shelf for what seems like eternity, to me, there’s nothing quite like owning and holding a piece of music that means a lot to you.

And it’s even better when you find Hamilton for 40% off.


Happy Birthday, Stephen: Sharing a Birthday with a Legend

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Six years ago, Sondheim found out that the Henry Miller’s Theatre was being renamed after him. Image via Broadway.com.

Stephen Sondheim and I were born 65 years apart. But somehow I feel like I was supposed to be born on this day. My mom was in labour for a long time before I eventually entered the world at almost nine o’clock in the morning one fateful Wednesday; I could’ve been born earlier. But I wasn’t. And now I share a birthday with the greatest musical composter of all time. And Andrew Lloyd Webber.

I kid, L-Webs. You alright. But you don’t have an annual cabaret show named after you (yes, Sondheimas happens every March 21 – a Broadway Christmas Eve of shorts). And you don’t have a theatre named after you (yet, likely), a very rare occurrence for someone still living.

It’s amazing to me that Sondheim has had such a successful career – from West Side Story to Gypsy to Into the Woods to Sweeney Todd to Company to Sunday in the Park with George – I could go on. Composers can have bursts of creativity and then disappear into the abyss, but Sondheim has been working since the ’50s – a career lasting over half a century, and he continues to mentor other composers (like a certain someone who made a certain founding father musical).

I’m going to write a book soon, and I’ve decided to call it Son of Sondheim because my main

Sondheim in 1976. Image via Wikipedia.

character was raised in the theatre world. I feel like everyone in this community feels like they’re the son or daughter of Sondheim because that’s how we learn about theatre. I’m reading Finishing the Hat, his collected lyrics, to gain inspiration before starting to write. I’m visiting Chicago in May and I’ll see the infamous George Seurat painting that inspired Sondheim over thirty years ago.

I can’t listen to pop music very much anymore since I started listening to showtunes, mostly because the rhymes and songwriting is just awful. Sondheim is to blame for that – “while her withers wither with her”? Are you kidding me? Stop ruining other songs for me with your incredible song structure and intricate rhymes. I can only hope that by listening to these works nonstop until my book is published, some of his hard work (and, I don’t want to say “genius,” but you know) rubs off on me too.

Happy 86th birthday, Mr. Sondheim. Let’s enjoy our cake tonight.

Edit: I also share a birthday with John Kander of Kander & Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret, The Scottsboro Boys). If this isn’t destiny, I don’t know what is.


Review: Theatre Projects Manitoba’s Reservations

Steven Ratzlaff, Sarah Constible and Tracey Nepinak star in Reservations, now playing at the Rachel Browne Theatre. Image courtesy CBC.

I hate being late.

My friend and I jogged a few blocks from our parking spot so that we would be on time for Reservations. We made it, with extra minutes to spare, but I found that I wasn’t the only one that had this concern.

Reservations is two one-hour plays stitched together to be one normal-length play with the same theme. In the first act, aging farmer Pete wants to give away his former farm land to the Siksika people, since it was originally theirs before the settlers came in. He is also worried about running out of time.

Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about indigenous culture and issues. As much as I try to pay attention to news articles and be aware of the world, it’s not something I’m actively involved in. I wondered if playwright and actor Steve Ratzlaff shared the same experience. Why a non-indigenous man would write a play about indigenous issues intrigued me. Of course, these stories need to be shared, but it takes caution and great care to write about a culture that isn’t your own. So I asked him during the talkback. He told me that for the second act, he came across “a story” that moved him and he followed the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry. And for the first act, he said was influenced by people he knew in Alberta. And that was it.

Alright, thanks Steve.

The stories, though framed by indigenous issues, were about white people. The first act focused on the struggle between a father and his entitled daughter and her potential inheritance going away. The second act was about a couple who fostered indigenous children and didn’t want them to be re-integrated into their “place of origin.” Out of the three actors, one was indigenous. I appreciated that Ratzlaff didn’t try to write stories rooted in indigenous perspectives – because frankly, that’s not his place to do so.

Actress Tracey Nepinak had only good things to say, though. During the talkback, she said it was “brave” for Theatre Projects to be taking on a show dealing with these issues.

I see a lot of musicals (if you haven’t noticed by now), but it’s been a long time since I saw a play without singing. The last honest-to-goodness play I saw may have been my high school’s production of The Princess and the Pea six years ago. So although the structure of experimental plays aren’t necessarily something I’m experienced in, I know it when I see a good stage story. Though I walked away from the play initially feeling content with my theatre experience, after reflecting for a while, I realized it lacks some basic storytelling pillars. With both plays, there was no protagonist. None of the characters make any choices, which means that none of the characters have story arcs or progress in any way. This was deeply unsatisfactory.

Despite the literal 20-minute Heidegger lecture in the middle of act two, the thing that really took me out of the play was the use of the c-word. A woman says it to another woman (which I have never encountered in real life) in the middle of an argument. The male playwright knew exactly what kind of reaction he was going to get with that word, and so for its use, it’s a cheap sucker punch and lazy.

The set was the star of the show. The actors interact with a simple table and chairs most of the time, but the three hanging projector screens in addition to the backdrop is the real beauty. They show beautiful prairie fields blowing in the wind, dipping from colour to greyscale depending on the intended mood of the scene.

Though the messages are well-intentioned, Reservations leaves the audience grasping at straws. These two mini-plays should have been two flushed-out, two-act plays with story arcs and resolutions. They don’t have to be happy resolutions or even complete ones, but when your audience doesn’t applaud at the end of the act because they don’t think the story is over, you have a problem.

Reservations runs through March 20 at the Rachel Browne Theatre. Tickets are available at TheatreProjectsManitoba.ca.

So You’re Going to Write A Review

Ain’t it a fine life writing theatre reviews? Image via BroadwayBox.

My classmates and I are attending a play (Reservations by Theatre Projects Manitoba) this week, and I can tell that some of them are feeling unsure about how to approach this assignment. Well, have no fear. Your local CreComm theatre reviewer is here.

Heed this advice, and I promise for a fulfilling, wonderful theatre experience without stress.

Do Your Research
For any play/musical you see, you should do your research first. Is this an original production? If not, who’s done it before? How old is it? Who wrote it? What’s their story? Answering these questions will help you give some context to what you’re going to see. Personally, it helps me if I already know the story – that way, I can pay attention to the actors, the sets, the book (a.k.a. the script), and how the story gets told, rather than the story arc itself. Find out if there’s an intermission and plan your bathroom breaks accordingly.

You should also do some research on the theatre – what are you allowed to bring? Should you expect a bag check? Some theatres are okay if you bring water in, but most have a no-food policy.

Take Notes
Bring a small notebook and a writing utensil of your choice (mechanical pencil is mine – self-sharpening and never breaks or dries out) and take notes during the show. Take notes on the normal things (the visuals, the acting, the story), but also write down how you feel. If the show makes you angry or disgusted or joyful, that’s influencing what you think of it, and you should write about it. Theatre is art, and art is created to move people.

I promise – you won’t remember everything if you don’t have notes. It’s going to be dark and you won’t be able to read everything you write down, but it’ll be something. Don’t rely on your memory, and do not record the show. Not only is it rude, but it’s illegal.

Be Respectful
Let’s make this clear: the theatre is not the movies. Do not bring your own snacks. Don’t ever put your feet up on the seat in front of you. Don’t make comments to your friend (or the stranger) beside you. And for the love of God, stay off your cell phone. Turn it off, or put it in your purse. Separate it from you completely. Something I’m working on in my life is to be more present, and that’s especially important in theatre. Actively listen. Actors can see if you’re engaged in the story and it’ll make all the difference.

The one etiquette thing that drives me up the wall is people (usually, men) who don’t want to be there and don’t even try to have a good time. When I saw the Les Mis tour a few years ago, there was a man who was unhappily sighing throughout the whole thing. Dude, these seats were $90. If you didn’t wanna go, don’t go. If you have to go for some reason, suck it up and enjoy it because hating your life for the next two hours isn’t going to do anybody any good.

If you have the opportunity to, ask the actors and creative team how they feel about their respective roles. How did they research it? How do they approach it each night? Ask them specific questions about the show if you’re confused. They’d be happy to help out someone who paid attention to their hard work.

If you have more tips, leave me a comment and let me know what your thoughts are! I hope this was helpful. Best of luck, first-year CreComm.

Ring of Keys: International Women’s Day

Tony-winner Kelli O’Hara in her “feminist badass” t-shirt.

International Women’s Day is a day that means a lot to me: of course, I am a woman, but my biggest inspirations have been the women who came before me. My mother, my grandmother, Patti LuPone. As I began thinking about what I wanted to blog about this week, I started to think about shows with my favourite women in them. Although lots of them don’t pass the infamous feminist Bechdel test, that doesn’t mean that the women featured in musicals don’t deserve praise for creating beautiful, powerful, three-dimensional characters. Not every woman has to sing “And I Am Telling You” and be a finger-snapping ain’t-need-no-man type to be a force of nature.

Take Cosette for example. She has been compared to a bird countless times and on the surface, her main function in Les Mis is to be with Marius. But she is the reason Valjean continues to be a good man. She is his redemption and the light of his life. Everything Valjean does is for the betterment of Cosette’s life. If Fantine hadn’t died and Cosette left without a caretaker, Valjean might have continued running his factory and the story would have never continued. The entire second act is driven by Cosette – Valjean trying to protect her, Marius pulling through his injuries to be with her, Eponine feeling inadequate because of her. Without Cosette, there is no story. And yet, she is seen by some as unimportant. Not so.

The female characters I love most in theatre are the manipulative, sometimes even evil, ones. Patina Miller’s Leading Player in Pippin, The Witch in Into the Woods, Mama Rose in Gypsy, or even Maureen in RENT, depending on your perspective. I love these women so much because they’re never a cardboard cut-out. They have dimension and backstories. They have motivation to do the thing they’re doing. (This is the same reason why I love Gone Girl: all of the characters do awful things, but they’re clever and inspired.) Maybe it’s not always a good thing: why do the “bad guys” (so to speak) always get the good backstory? Why can’t the heroines be dimensional too?

Most importantly, I love flawed, grey characters. The Baker’s Wife from Into the Woods is one of my favourites (and also a reason why I love that show). You can agree or disagree with her decisions, but she’s realistic. No woman’s – no person’s – personality or decisions are always black and white. Indecision and mistakes are human.

In the fall, a young (male) author came to my school and was talking about his book.
Having never been a woman, he asked us: how do you write a woman? I told him: treat us like people.  He said that each woman has a different experience. Although that’s true, I thought, each man also has a different experience.

Last June, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron made history and were the first-ever female writing team to win Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score for Fun Home. Although their award/speech was not televised, Tesori said in it that she only realized a career in music when she saw Linda Twine conduct Lena Horne: “The Lady and Her Music” in 1981. For women, said Tesori, seeing is believing. In a case of intentional art imitating life, the song “Ring of Keys” in Fun Home is when a young Alison sees a butch lesbian for the first time in her life. She identifies with her and feels a sense of belonging. I think that this happens for women everywhere when they see female characters on stage.

So playwrights, hear me out: from here on in, don’t put your women on a pedestal. Write your women like you would write your men: complex, dirty, and utterly human.




Finding my Corner of the Sky: Why I Don’t Perform

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Me, circa 2002 (ish). I’m pretty confident someone will approach me for Disney’s Broadway adaptation of Sleeping Beauty.

I’m preparing for the largest project I’ve ever taken on before, and of course, it revolves around theatre. I’m going to write a novella about a theatre family, and I have to defend this project to a panel. Being hugely interested in theatre is important, but here’s the thing – I’ve almost never performed before.

I’ve heard stories of the people who “made it” and their experience of going to see a show for the first time. Their eyes light up and usually, they know immediately that’s what they want to do. That was never my experience. To my knowledge, the first musical I ever saw was Big: The Musical (based on the Tom Hanks movie), and I was so young that I don’t remember any of it. Maybe that was a sign that I wasn’t meant to perform.

When I was a kid (like elementary school), I would regularly get parts in the Christmas and spring pageants. Sure, maybe it was just because nobody else would audition, but my music teacher helped me with my one-line parts and it boosted my confidence immensely. I was the wise owl in a chorus line of birds during a zoo-themed production. I was the little old woman who lived in a shoe during a fairy-tale show. Then in grade five, there was a new music teacher and I didn’t get a part. I was an understudy. I still showed up for rehearsal so I would be prepared, but she dismissed me and told me I didn’t need to be there. Understudies were never used or even addressed. I stopped trying to be in front of a crowd. Nobody ever encouraged me to get back on the horse. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t, but nobody ever told me I could, either.

If I had been encouraged into theatre, who knows where I would be now? I would’ve discovered Les Mis ten years earlier than I did and I would likely have the Patti LuPone songbook memorized. I might still be sitting in the exact same place that I am right now.

I’ve been listening a lot to the Theater People podcast lately (which is phenomenal), and I’m only beginning to learn that performing isn’t necessarily exclusive with loving theatre. I’m learning through fantasy job searching that there are lots of theatre companies and journals looking for writers and communicators that have roles nearly as important (not at all as important) as performers themselves. I’m finally learning that I can sing out loud in the car with friends and I don’t have to worry about hitting that note. I can work with what I have and still be passionate about what I do.