My life as a Broadway beat reporter
Looking back at the 2005 Tony Award nominees, the Monitor's theater writer recalls a year of backstage follies, bruised knees, and confetti showers.
NEW YORK — If movie reviewers have to make their peace with popcorn, those who cover Broadway learn to live with confetti. I was picking tissue-paper dots and metallic rectangles out of my belongings weeks after seeing two of this year's Tony-nominated musicals - "Monty Python's Spamalot" (14 nominations) and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (5).
With the award ceremony airing on Sunday, it seemed like a good time to look at the past season as a newcomer to the Broadway beat, with tales of backstage visits and forgotten notebooks.
Few behind-the-scenes details made it into my regular coverage during the year, which included pieces about religion in off-Broadway plays, the unexpected laughs in a revival of "On Golden Pond" (two nominations), and the spectacle of "Spamalot," a musical staging of the 1975 movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
When my foot fell asleep during an interview with two "Spamalot" cast members, for example, they entertained me backstage until I could walk again. They let me hold the Holy Grail prop (a big goblet that is surprisingly lightweight) and encouraged me to smell the curtains, which they said reeked of "vinegar and death" (an accurate description, as it turned out).
Sidestepping props to get to dressing rooms is a normal part of my job. But so is attending shows, where often the biggest surprise is not what's happening on stage, but how little leg room is available in the theater. Even with your knees touching your chin, though, it's possible to make observations about the progress - or lack thereof - in Broadway theater.
Set design, for example, is fast approaching the George Lucas level: The car actually flies in "Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang." The crew won't say how it's done, of course. Which is why they have to distract you with the shower of confetti - very "Wizard of Oz" of them. But even advanced technology can't prevent every mishap. A performance of the musical "Hairspray" I attended had to be stopped and started over about 10 minutes in when the movable set malfunctioned. But that show, a previous Tony winner, is worth the wait.
During many shows I found myself looking around to see how the audience was reacting to racial and ethnic jokes - or adult content in productions that otherwise would appeal to families.
I might have missed such a moment in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (six nominations, including Best Musical). So preoccupied was I with the fact that I had forgotten to bring a notebook, I was half listening to the show, half thinking about how many notes I could squeeze onto the few pieces of paper I had in my purse - a friend's wedding registry, an e-mail printout. As if sensing my concern, the actors threw cards with spelling words on them into the audience (a regular part of the show). Where other people saw souvenirs, I saw office supplies.
That Best Musical nominee often hilariously captures the awkwardness of adolescence - and advances the cause of spelling. But I wondered how parents of young kids in the audience felt when one of the characters launched into a song about how he was disqualified because he was distracted by the embarrassing physical response he had while thinking about a girl. It was the only PG-13 rated moment in an otherwise largely G-rated show.
Even "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" - based on the story of a flying car written by James Bond scribe Ian Fleming - has its dark side. The child-catcher character, with his ghoulish features, prompts young kids in the audience to ask their parents what happens to the children. (For the record, they are rounded up at the behest of a child-hating baroness.) But overall it's basically a vaudeville-style show suitable for the family.
Even though I don't write reviews, I do like to see if I'm reacting the same way to a play as the audience.
It was a lonely evening for me when I saw "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (11 nominations, including Best Musical) because the audience was howling at the bawdy humor, but I wasn't. I thought maybe I was just in the wrong mood (or took one song that mocked Oklahomans too personally - my parents were born there, after all). But a friend who loves the movie it's based on also thought the musical, starring John Lithgow, was lacking.
Some plays are of such high caliber, everyone tends to agree on their quality. Easily the most riveting production - play or musical - was "Doubt" (eight Tony nominations, including Best Play). Written by John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar for "Moonstruck," the play is about a nun who runs a school and suspects a priest of having an inappropriate relationship with a male student. I saw it twice - once Off-Broadway, once on - and had two very different experiences. In one performance, I thought the priest was innocent, in the other I did not. The play never tells you. I knew it was good because I never once looked at my watch - the play was just suddenly over. It recently won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Last weekend, a week before the Tony awards, I finally saw the fourth contender in the Best Musical category ("Spamalot," "Scoundrels," and "Bee" being the others). "The Light in the Piazza" is a highbrow, almost operatic musical, which, like "Scoundrels" has also earned 11 nominations. The music and lyrics were written by Adam Guettel, grandson of the late Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein), and the musical takes a less flashy approach to tell its story of a mother and daughter traveling in Italy in the 1950s. No confetti in this Lincoln Center performance. Instead, something more appealing that stayed with me for days: the music.