Friday, June 24, 2016

Don't Fuck With The Babysitter

The Disney Channel Original Movie, or DCOM. There have been some hits (Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, Brink) and some misses (Dadnapped, Hatching Pete). Tonight, the 100th DCOM, Adventures in Babysitting, airs. It's a little bit of a cheat to call it a Disney Channel Original Movie, since it's a remake of a 1987 film starring Elisabeth Shue. Tiffany Paulsen wrote the new script and the plot is significantly altered from the original by David Simkins, so I guess it counts. I watched the 2016 version and then watched the original, which I had never seen. Why didn't anyone tell me I should watch it earlier? I have been missing out all these years. In order to see how they compare, I stacked them up against each other in a not-at-all scientific way using five categories that I made up.


The Casts

In true DCOM fashion, the 2016 version stars some familiar Disney Channel faces, Sabrina Carpenter (Girl Meets World) as Jenny and Sofia Carson (Descendants) as Lola. They are competing for an internship and after an accidental cell phone switch off of the DCOM plot device checklist, Lola accepts a babysitting job offer that Jenny turned down, since she was already sitting for another family. Carpenter and Carson are on the likable side of the new crop of Disney Channel stars and the kids are not as annoying as the children in other DCOMS. But in addition to Shue as Chris, the original has a very young Anthony Rapp as obnoxious, sex-obsessed Daryl and Bradley Whitford plays her asshole boyfriend, Mike, so it automatically has the edge.

Winner: 1987

The Characters

Chris only had to watch two kids and the tag-along friend. Jenny and Lola have a total of five. There are some nice additions--future Master Chef Junior Bobby (Jet Jurgensmeyer) and rebellious Emily Cooper (Nikki Hahn)--but because there are so many, you don't get a chance to know them as well as in the original. Less is more. Plus, the 1987 version has the hilarious Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller), who runs away from home and needs Chris to pick her up, the inciting incident for the adventures. Her storyline was probably too dark for Disney, but the movie isn't the same without her.

Winner: 1987

Rap Battle Versus Blues Singing

Most of the ads I've seen for the 2016 version (and because I've been watching a lot of the old DCOMS as part of the marathon, I've seen A LOT of commercials for it), advertise the rap battle between Jenny and Lola. It's not that great, as far as rap battles go. They find themselves on stage in a club and have to perform before they can leave, so it is an update of the original in which they find themselves in a blues club. The blues song has better lyrics and more emotion. Rapp even performs in it.

Winner: 1987

Thor Versus Roller Derby

In the original, the youngest kid, Sara (Maia Brewton) is infatuated with Thor. She rides around on roller skates wearing a Thor helmet. In the update, AJ (Madison Horcher) rides skates too, but it's because she's obsessed with the roller derby. It's odd that Disney wouldn't take advantage of the obvious Marvel tie-in and keep the Thor stuff in there. I appreciate that a young girl in 2016 would have roller derby as a hobby, but I also like that a young girl in the '80s liked comics before it was trendy.

Winner: 1987

The Dialogue

The line, "Don't fuck with the babysitter," was changed to, "Don't mess with the babysitters," to make it kid-friendly. Likewise, all the curse words and talk of Playboys is gone and with them, a lot of the humor. There was a questionable line about rape that I'm happy to see gone, but overall, the 2016 version is so watered down that I wonder who at Disney saw the original and thought, "Yeah, that's in keeping with our brand."

Winner: 1987


The original Adventures in Babysitting is the clear winner here. The DCOM is not without its charms. The song "Wildside" is pretty catchy (though it's no "Supernova Girl") and Carpenter always elevates the material she's given (I'm looking at you, Girl Meets World). If you're a Disney Channel fan, you won't be sorry you watched it, but if you're going to, do yourself a favor and watch the original too. It's available on Netflix streaming.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Annual Tony (Or Hamiltony) Nomination Post

A lot has changed since I started this blog in 2006, but one constant is my annual Tony nomination post. I do this partly for myself, to organize my thoughts after the initial excitement/anger, and in an attempt to start a conversation with other theater lovers. So let's get to it. Here's the complete list of nominees, followed by thoughts in each category about what the nominators got right, who they left out, and who deserves to win.


Best Play
Eclipsed
Author: Danai Gurira
Producers: Stephen C. Byrd, Alia Jones-Harvey, Paula Marie Black, Carole Shorenstein Hays, Alani Lala Anthony, Michael Magers, Kenny Ozoude, Willette Klausner, Davelle, Dominion Pictures, Emanon Productions, FG Productions, The Forstalls, MA Theatricals, The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, Patrick Willingham
The Father
Author: Florian Zeller
Producers: Manhattan Theatre Club, Lynne Meadow, Barry Grove
The Humans
Author: Stephen Karam
Producers: Scott Rudin, Barry Diller, Fox Theatricals, James L. Nederlander, Terry Allen Kramer, Roy Furman, Daryl Roth, Jon B. Platt, Eli Bush, Broadway Across America, Jack Lane, Barbara Whitman, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, Sonia Friedman, Amanda Lipitz, Peter May, Stephanie P. McClelland, Lauren Stein, The Shubert Organization, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, Roundabout Theatre Company, Todd Haimes, Harold Wolpert, Julia C. Levy, Sydney Beers
King Charles III
Author: Mike Bartlett
Producers: Stuart Thompson, Sonia Friedman Productions, Almeida Theatre, Robert G. Bartner, Norman Tulchin, Lee Dean & Charles Diamond, Scott M. Delman, Ruth Hendel, Stephanie P. McClelland, Jon B. Platt, Scott Rudin, Richard Winkler, Zeilinger Productions, The Shubert Organization
This was a good year for new plays. I loved King Charles III, The Humans, and Eclipsed. I liked the idea of The Father--it was from Frank Langella's character's perspective, so you experienced dementia with him--but it didn't have a lasting impact on me. Still, I don't think any of the other eligible new plays are deserving of the fourth spot, so I'm fine with this. It's going to be a tough race and I'm not sure what will win. The Shakespeare nerd/Anglophile in me wants King Charles III to win, but then again, Stephen Karam is one of the finest playwrights of his generation and the family dynamics and dialogue in The Humans are so realistic.

Best Musical
Bright Star
Producers: Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, Zebulon LLC, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Len Blavatnik, James L. Nederlander, Carson & Joseph Gleberman, Balboa Park Productions, The Shubert Organization, Jamie deRoy/Catherine Adler/Cricket Jiranek, Rodger Hess, A.C. Orange International, Broadway Across America, Sally Jacobs & Warren Baker, Diana DiMenna, Exeter Capital, Agnes Gund, True Love Productions, The Old Globe
Hamilton
Producers: Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs, Jill Furman, The Public Theater
School of Rock—The Musical
Producers: Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Really Useful Group, Warner Music Group & Access Industries, The Shubert Organization, The Nederlander Organization
Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
Producers: Scott Rudin, Roy Furman, Columbia Live Stage, Center Theatre Group, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Broadway Across America, Heni Koenigsberg, The Araca Group, Peter May, Jon B. Platt, Daryl Roth, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, Sonia Friedman, Ruth Hendel, Independent Presenters Network, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Spring Sirkin, Eli Bush, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, Color Mad Productions, Len Blavatnik
Waitress
Producers: Barry and Fran Weissler, Norton and Elayne Herrick, David I. Berley, Independent Presenters Network, A.C. Orange International, Peter May, Michael Roiff, Ken Schur, Marisa Sechrest, Jam Theatricals, 42nd.club/Square 1 Theatrics, Benjamin Simpson & Joseph Longthorne/Shira Friedman, The American Repertory Theater
Hamilton will and should win. I don't really need to go into the brilliance of Hamilton here. I'm not seeing Shuffle Along until Saturday, so I can only talk about the shows I've seen. So far, Waitress is my favorite new Broadway musical that isn't Hamilton this season. After that, American Psycho. Even though it's sometimes messy, it dares to be different, and that's more than I can say for the unoriginal and predictable Bright Star. I enjoyed myself at School of Rock, but I'd rather watch the movie. The other new musicals this season were Amazing Grace, which I didn't see, Tuck Everlasting, On Your Feet!, Disaster!, and Allegiance!, and though they all have their issues, I'd have probably given the fifth spot to one of them over Bright Star.

Best Revival of a Play
Arthur Miller's The Crucible
Producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Len Blavatnik, Roy Furman, Peter May, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, Heni Koenigsberg, Daryl Roth, Jane Bergère, Sonia Friedman Productions, Ruth Hendel, JFL Theatricals, Stacey Mindich, Jon B. Platt, Megan Savage, Spring Sirkin, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson
Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge
Producers: Scott Rudin, Lincoln Center Theater, Eli Bush, Robert G. Bartner, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Roy Furman, Peter May, Amanda Lipitz, Stephanie P. McClelland, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, Sonia Friedman, John Gore, Ruth Hendel, JFL Theatricals, Heni Koenigsberg, Jon B. Platt, Daryl Roth, Spring Sirkin, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, The Young Vic
Blackbird
Producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Scott M. Delman, Peter May, Jon B. Platt, Len Blavatnik, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Heni Koenigsberg, Stacey Mindich, Wendy Federman, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson
Long Day's Journey Into Night
Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company, Todd Haimes, Harold Wolpert, Julia C. Levy, Sydney Beers, Ryan Murphy
Noises Off
Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company, Todd Haimes, Harold Wolpert, Julia C. Levy, Sydney Beers
I think A View from the Bridge has a good chance of winning this, and it should. I wouldn't be mad if The Crucible won. Noises Off was a lot of fun, but it didn't make me look at the play in a new way the way the other two productions did (I'm not even an Arthur Miller fan). I had mixed feelings about Long Day's and this production of Blackbird was the weakest work I've seen from Joe Mantello, who can normally do no wrong.

Best Revival of a Musical
The Color Purple
Producers: Scott Sanders Productions, Roy Furman, Oprah Winfrey, David Babani, Tom Siracusa, Caiola Productions, James Fantaci, Ted Liebowitz, Stephanie P. McClelland, James L. Nederlander, Darren Bagert, Candy Spelling, Adam Zotovich, Eric Falkenstein/Morris Berchard, Just for Laughs Theatricals/Tanya Link Productions, Adam S. Gordon, Jam Theatricals, Kelsey Grammer, Independent Presenters Network, Carol Fineman, Sandy Block, Menier Chocolate Factory Productions
Fiddler on the Roof
Producers: Jeffrey Richards, Jam Theatricals, Louise Gund, Jerry Frankel, Broadway Across America, Rebecca Gold, Stephanie P. McClelland, Barbara Freitag & Company/Catherine Schreiber & Company, Greenleaf Productions, Orin Wolf, Patty Baker, Caiola Productions, The Nederlander Organization, Gabrielle Palitz, Kit Seidel, TenTex Partners, Edward M. Kaufmann, Soffer/Namoff Entertainment, Healy Theatricals, Clear Channel Spectacolor, Jessica Genick, Will Trice
She Loves Me
Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company, Todd Haimes, Harold Wolpert, Julia C. Levy, Sydney Beers
Spring Awakening
Producers: Ken Davenport, Cody Lassen, Hunter Arnold, David J. Kurs, Deaf West Theatre, Carl Daikeler, Sandi Moran, Chockstone Pictures, Caiola Productions, Marguerite Hoffman, H. Richard Hopper, Learytodd Productions, Markoltop Productions, R&D Theatricals, Brian Cromwell Smith, Invisible Wall Productions, Monica Horan Rosenthal
I'm so glad Spring Awakening was remembered. It was such a special production and I hope it wins to give more visibility to Deaf artists. But the Roundabout She Loves Me production is perfection. It will be hard for either to beat The Color Purple, which is also deserving. I have mixed feelings about this production of Fiddler with its unnecessary framing device, but the fourth slot had to go to something I suppose.

Best Book of a Musical
Bright Star
Steve Martin
Hamilton
Lin-Manuel Miranda
School of Rock—The Musical
Julian Fellowes
Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
George C. Wolfe

The biggest WTF of all the nominations is how Bright Star got nominated for book of a musical. There are things about that show that I liked, but the book is terrible. I would have given that spot to Jessie Nelson for Waitress. It was based on a movie and still had more originality than Bright Star, which wasn't based on anything. Also, almost all the best lines in School of Rock's book were from the movie.
Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre
Bright Star
Music: Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
Lyrics: Edie Brickell
Hamilton
Music & Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda
School of Rock—The Musical
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Glenn Slater
Waitress
Music & Lyrics: Sara Bareilles
Bright Star is a good example of why music and lyrics should be separate categories. The music itself is deserving of a nomination, if you don't pay attention to the lyrics. Anyway, again Hamilton will and should win, but it's too bad Waitress didn't open another year so Sara Bareilles could get a Tony. She writes good music and lyrics.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
Gabriel Byrne, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Jeff Daniels, Blackbird
Frank Langella, The Father
Tim Pigott-Smith, King Charles III
Mark Strong, Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge
I would have nominated Ben Whishaw from Arthur Miller's The Crucible over Jeff Daniels. For me, it's between Tim Pigott-Smith and Mark Strong.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play
Jessica Lange, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Laurie Metcalf, Misery
Lupita Nyong'o, Eclipsed
Sophie Okonedo, Arthur Miller's The Crucible
Michelle Williams, Blackbird
I completely forgot that Misery happened this season, so I'm impressed the nominators remembered. Laurie Metcalf was really good in it, as she always is. I wasn't a fan of Michelle Williams in Blackbird. Sophie Okonedo was the standout in The Crucible, but I hope it goes to Lupita Nyong'o who was absolutely mesmerizing.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Alex Brightman, School of Rock—The Musical
Danny Burstein, Fiddler on the Roof
Zachary Levi, She Loves Me
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Leslie Odom, Jr., Hamilton
In any other year, I'd want Danny Burstein to finally get a Tony for his very human portrayal of Tevye. In any other year, I'd want Zachary Levi to get a Tony for his charming Georg and off-the-charts chemistry with Laura Benanti. You're aces, Zachary Levi (yes, that's an intentional Chuck reference). I've been a fan of Alex Brightman for years and he made the role his own, which is not easy considering how memorable Jack Black is in the movie. But I want Leslie Odom, Jr. to win with all my heart. Miranda is great and he wrote the damn show, but Odom is giving what is for my money the best performance of the season. He makes you care about a murderer. I even get chills when I listen to the cast recording because his performance comes through in each note. Edit: I forgot to mention this before, but Ben Walker deserved a nomination for American Psycho.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Laura Benanti, She Loves Me
Carmen Cusack, Bright Star
Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple
Jessie Mueller, Waitress
Phillipa Soo, Hamilton

I would not want to have to pick between these five ladies. Carmen Cusack was the best thing about Bright Star and the show's most deserving nomination. As perfect as Laura Benanti and Jessie Mueller are in their shows, it's probably between Cynthia Erivo and Phillipa Soo and I'll be happy no matter who wins. I haven't seen Audra McDonald yet, but I'm shocked she wasn't nominated. I didn't know it was possible for her to be in a show and not get a nomination. It was too crowded a year for Ana Villafañe from On Your Feet! to get a nomination, but just want to give her a shout out because she is very natural in the role and channels Gloria Estefan.  

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
Reed Birney, The Humans
Bill Camp, Arthur Miller's The Crucible
David Furr, Noises Off
Richard Goulding, King Charles III
Michael Shannon, Long Day's Journey Into Night

I was not expecting to see Richard Goulding here for his Prince Harry, so that was a nice surprise. Michael Shannon was the best thing about Long Day's. I would have probably nominated Rob McClure from Noises Off over David Furr just for his nervous shaking. Anyway, if you follow me on Twitter, you know that I'm the president of the Reed Birney fan club and I'm rooting for him, although it's weird that he is considered featured, since he is onstage for most of the play.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Pascale Armand, Eclipsed
Megan Hilty, Noises Off
Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans
Andrea Martin, Noises Off
Saycon Sengbloh, Eclipsed
Another perfect category, though it would have also been nice to see Saoirse Ronan on here for her chilling performance in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. I'm glad that both Pascale Armand and Saycon Sengbloh were nominated. As I said, it's hard to take your eyes of Nyong'o, but they made you with their heartbreaking and hilarious performances. Megan Hilty was the star of that production of Noises Off. The Humans makes a good case for ensemble awards, but if I had to give an award to only one of them, I'd give it to Houdyshell. While we're on the subject, here's an interview I did with her and her on-stage daughters.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Daveed Diggs, Hamilton
Brandon Victor Dixon, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
Christopher Fitzgerald, Waitress
Jonathan Groff, Hamilton
Christopher Jackson, Hamilton
I didn't see Brandon Victor Dixon yet, but I did get to interview him and after hearing him talk about what being in the show means to him, I couldn't be happier for him. Nice to see so many guys from Hamilton on here and I would have been just as happy to see Anthony Ramos and Okieriete Onaodowan, but I think this award belongs to Daveed Diggs and deservedly so. In any other year, I'd want scene-stealer Christopher Fitzgerald to win. I'm sad that Gavin Creel didn't get any award nominations this year for She Loves Me. When the cast recording comes out, I'll be listening to his "Ilona" on repeat. Another dream nomination that I didn't expect to happen was Daniel Durant for Spring Awakening.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Danielle Brooks, The Color Purple
Renée Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton
Jane Krakowski, She Loves Me
Jennifer Simard, Disaster!
Adrienne Warren, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

After Leslie Odom, Jr., Renée Elise Goldsberry is giving the performance in Hamilton I talk about the most. She has to win this, but again, what a category. I only knew Danielle Brooks from Orange is the New Black, so I didn't know she could sing like that, but she blew me away. And Jane Krakowski and Jennifer Simard are giving such strong comedic performances. I've heard great things about Adrienne Warren and I can't wait to see her.

Best Scenic Design of a Play
Beowulf Boritt, Thérèse Raquin
Christopher Oram, Hughie
Jan Versweyveld, Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge
David Zinn, The Humans
I barely remember the set from Hughie (or the show, to be honest), Beowulf Borritt should win this. Remember that flat that was basically floating in the air? That was amazing!
Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Es Devlin & Finn Ross, American Psycho
David Korins, Hamilton
Santo Loquasto, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
David Rockwell, She Loves Me
Well, at least American Psycho got nominated for something, and the set was pretty great, but David Rockwell's music box of a set for She Loves Me is so lovely that this is the one category I'd like to see Hamilton lose (I don't think it will).

Best Costume Design of a Play
Jane Greenwood, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Michael Krass, Noises Off
Clint Ramos, Eclipsed
Tom Scutt, King Charles III

I really don't have strong opinions about this.

Best Costume Design of a Musical
Gregg Barnes, Tuck Everlasting
Jeff Mahshie, She Loves Me
Ann Roth, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
Paul Tazewell, Hamilton
Interesting that this is Tuck Everlasting's one nomination as the costumes didn't stand out to me. Anyway, give it to Hamilton.

Best Lighting Design of a Play
Natasha Katz, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Justin Townsend, The Humans
Jan Versweyveld, Arthur Miller's The Crucible
Jan Versweyveld, Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge
I might give it to Long Day's, but they're all deserving.

Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Howell Binkley, Hamilton
Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
Ben Stanton, Spring Awakening
Justin Townsend, American Psycho

Spring Awakening got another nomination! 
Best Direction of a Play
Rupert Goold, King Charles III
Jonathan Kent, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Joe Mantello, The Humans
Liesl Tommy, Eclipsed
Ivo Van Hove, Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge

Ivo Van Hove should have been nominated for Arthur Miller's The Crucible as well, but that's fine. I hope he wins, but I wouldn't be mad if Liesl Tommy or Joe Mantello won.
Best Direction of a Musical
Michael Arden, Spring Awakening
John Doyle, The Color Purple
Scott Ellis, She Loves Me
Thomas Kail, Hamilton
George C. Wolfe, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

I'm so happy to see Michael Arden on this list. He incorporated the communication struggles of Deaf students at a time when sign language use was forbidden in schools into the story of Spring Awakening without changing a word of it. I saw the first preview in L.A. and interviewed Arden that first week, so it's been exciting watching the show reach more and more people. Anyway, I feel like I'm repeating myself here, but everyone is deserving and Hamilton will and should win.
Best Choreography
Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton
Savion Glover, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
Hofesh Shechter, Fiddler on the Roof
Randy Skinner, Dames at Sea
Sergio Trujillo, On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan
As I said, I had mixed feelings about the revival of Fiddler, but one of the highlights was the dancing, so it's nice to see Hofesh Shechter on this list. And I know without having seen Shuffle Along yet that Savion Glover deserves his nomination. The highlight of Tuck Everlasting was the ballet at the end, so I would have given Casey Nicholaw Randy Skinner's spot. Actually, I would have probably given it to Spencer Liff for his Spring Awakening choreography that beautifully incorporated ASL. Anyway, congrats Andy Blankenbuehler.

Best Orchestrations
August Eriksmoen, Bright Star
Larry Hochman, She Loves Me
Alex Lacamoire, Hamilton
Daryl Waters, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

Hamilton. Nothing left to say.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Q&A with Grace McLean

If you're a musical theater fan, you might know Grace McLean from her performances in musicals like Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812Bedbugs!!!, and Brooklynite. She'll make her Broadway debut in the fall in Natasha, Pierre, reprising her role as Marya D. She also has a career as a singer/songwriter, fronting the band Grace McLean and Them Apples. On Friday, April 1, she and her band close out Lincoln Center's 2016 American Songbook series. Last year, they opened the series after winning Prudential's Invest in the Future of American Song contest. She's releasing a new single in conjunction with the American Songbook concert and her first full-length album is out next year.
In college at NYU (after attending Orange County High School of the Arts in California), McLean studied musical theater, then Shakespeare at the classical studio, and then experimental theater in Amsterdam. "I think all of those things have really influenced the way that I work and have given me permission to be myself in the work that I do," she says. Read on to find out more about her influences, the pop opera that she's working on, and why she gives out goodie bags at her concerts.


Q: What can audiences expect from your upcoming American Songbook concert?
A: I have little goodie bags that I bring for my audience because I like everybody to be pleased with me when I perform, so [last year] I made them do little magic tricks and write down their wishes and blow bubbles. There's going to be more of that this year. I like to call these kinds of shows that I do Grace McLean lives in concert as opposed to live. Just add a little s there because it's alive. It's vibrant. I'm going to have my core band, Grace McLean and Them Apples--bass, percussion, and me and my looper. We're going to do some reimagining of some old American standards that we're maybe going to mash up with some American pop songs. I'm talking Beyoncé and, like, Duke Ellington. I'm going to do a bunch of original stuff. I'm going to do some things from the musical that I'm writing about Hildegard von Bingen, who's this 12th century mystic who was a really powerful, amazing, medieval woman who I'm obsessed with. I'm going to tell some stories. We're going to learn some lessons together. We're going to make some big old wishes come true in a big musical, costumed way. 

Q: How did the name Grace McLean and Them Apples come about?
A: I thought it was funny. We were trying to name the band for my boyfriend at the time. We were looking for a name and a somebody. I think my roommates and I were trying to make each other laugh so "them apples" was out there, but also "these guys," which we also thought was funny. But Them Apples I just thought was so funny and cute and I just liked the idea of when you have your name and the people behind you. And I like it because, "How do you like them apples?" You probably will because they're quite good.

Q: When doing a show like this, how do you come up with the set list?
A: I definitely think of the arc of the evening and how the whole thing is going to work because I want to take everybody on a little journey. Months ago, I started making a list of anything and everything that I want to play and then I have to whittle it down because I don't have three hours to play to people. I just think about the different stories that I want to tell and how I can weave all of those things together, not only in terms of the arc of the set, but also how and when to get audience involvement, and it's not in a scary way. I give everybody a goodie bag and there are different points in the show where we'll do something together that relates to the song that's coming up next just so there's a communal context for everything. And then I also think about how I'm going to surprise people. At my 54 Below show, I had a flash mob of dancers for one song. Last year at the American Songbook, I had a whole horn section that came on at the end, so I'm going to have something like that this year as well. You've gone along for this whole concert, you think you know where you are, and then there's one other big, fun thing that happens that kind of comes out of nowhere.

Q: You've done a lot of musical theater. How do you balance your musical theater career with your singer/songwriter career?
A: It's working out pretty well. They're kind of riding side by side so far, which makes me quite happy. When I have a musical theater gig, that's where I'm focused and that's where my energy is going and when I don't, that's when I have more time for my music, which is pretty great because right now I'm waiting for Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet to start at the end of the summer, so I have a lot of time to put out these singles and get ready for the album next year. And the two kind of feed each other. It's great to be able to work on other people's projects as an individual in the whole cog and hone your one specific part and then it's great to be able to take that back when I'm looking at all of my work and being the director of things, making a whole album or a whole song or a whole evening.

Q: Have you learned anything about yourself as a singer/songwriter from the musicals that you've done?
A: I've really learned about succinct, clear storytelling. Sometimes as a songwriter, I really like to be quite personal and poetic and metaphorical and I think that works for songs sometimes, but then sometimes it's like, "How can I be as simple and clear about this moment and make it about one moment as opposed to five within a song? How can I stretch this one feeling over this whole arc and be very clear and have everybody understand really simply what's going on?" Working in musical theater, that has to be done. When I'm writing a song, sometimes that's a whole play. But inside of a whole play, every song has to be its own little moment and there's a little bit of different clarity of storytelling that's necessary. And it's been a good thing to learn that it's ok to do that. 

Q: When did you discover your sound?
A: It's always being discovered. I've been working with this looping station since 2012, which is a little box that records my voice live and then I layer harmonies on top of it or beats or whatever and it's sort of like a little one-man band situation. That's really shaped the direction that the band has gone. But before I had that, it was very pop singer-songwritery. I think you could hear Nellie McKay Regina Spektor. Since I got the looper, it's gotten a little more dance-y or fun and a little bit darker maybe. I'm also influenced by Joanna Newsom and her really idiosyncratic, long-form poetic storytelling. I love the lady storytellers. But also I want to be Robert Plant. I like a good scream sometimes.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about the pop opera that you're developing?
A: Also in college, I studied medieval art, just because I liked it and you can do those things in college. So I came to know this woman Hildegard von Bingen through her artwork. Once I graduated, I kept buying all these books about medieval history and she kept coming up and I was like I want to know everything I can about this woman and I started delving into her and her story. And she's just such an important woman that not a lot of people know about. You know about her if you're in the classical music world. In addition to the crazy artwork that she made, she wrote songs and poetry. She basically wrote the first opera in the west, predating others by like 400 years. She wrote the first mystery play. When you go to theater school, they say theater in Europe started in the church. She did that 100 years before anyone else was doing it. She just had a crazy, amazing, creative, abundant life. But what I'm writing is about the first 40 years of her life where we don't know that much about her because she was locked in a cell with another woman called Jutta von Sponheim. Jutta was an anchoress, which means she decided she was far too holy for this world, so she was going to live her life inside of her own tomb. 

Hildegard was given to the church at the age of eight. You're supposed to give 10% of your income to the church. She was the tenth child, so her family was like, "Just take our kid." And the church was like, "Great. Jutta needs a handmaiden. Go live in this cell with her." So they did. It was these two ladies in a tomb. There was one window through which they could participate in mass and get food and basically your open grave is in there and you just meditate on that and just hang out in there because your body is tied to this world, but as a nun, you're engaged to Christ and death is the best possible thing because you're going to be united with your bridegroom. And we know that Jutta really loved hurting herself, self-mortification, because that sort of pain and denial of the body brings you closer to spirituality. So Hildegard grows up around and becomes a women around this other lady who eventually died when Hildegard was in her early 40s. And Hildegard comes out and then she lives this totally explosive, individual life with this individual voice at a time when individuality doesn't exist. Nobody signs their name on anything. You don't know who anybody is. Especially if you're a woman. I'm interested in what happens in this period of time for 30-some years when these two ladies were together just being quiet and crazy and in darkness. I read this quote somewhere that I loved that Hildegard's life was one splendid vision of dying. And Jutta's was too, but Jutta's life leads her to a literal death and Hildegard's leads her to a life of creativity and celebration of death in life. 

Q: Where are you in the process?
A: I was just at the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed Musicals in February and we finished the first draft of it. I have a concert on May 5 at Greenwich House for their Uncharted series to perform all the music as it is now to see what it sounds like all in context.

Q: If you could have anyone come see your American Songbook concert, who would it be?
A: Hildegard! My mom and dad are coming, so that's good.



Thursday, March 10, 2016

Q&A with Rap Artist Baba Brinkman

Canadian rap artist Baba Brinkman creates one-man shows using rap and projections to educate and entertain about scientific or literary topics. His latest is The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos. He's been interested in the topic of global warming from a young age. It was dinner table conversation growing up, since his mother wrote a thesis on climate change. After debuting the show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year, he performed it at the Paris Climate Conference. He just opened the show at SoHo Playhouse, where it's playing through April 24.
Baba Brinkman in The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos. Photo credit: Olivia Sebesky 
On the night I saw The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, Bill Nye the Science Guy was a special guest for the Q&A portion, which leads into a freestyle rap performed by Brinkman. Each week there will be a performance with a special guest. The next will be Gavin Schmidt, NASA's chief climate scientist.

I spoke to Brinkman about the process of writing a rap guide, the effect Hamilton has had on audiences being more open to rap in theater, and more.


Q: What is your process like for writing one of these rap guides and how long does it typically take?
A: I was probably researching and reading for this one from March through June all last year. So it's probably three to four months of just reading climate change books and articles and blogs and everything I can get my hands on really. And then it took me about two months to write a draft for a script, so I wrote the script all through June and July and by the end of July I had a version I was performing, and then I probably scrapped about half of that. I'd say about 2/3 of the show that I'm doing Off-Broadway now was written since December, but it's based on the frame of something I wrote this summer, so that's usually how I do it. I'll do a version for an audience and treat that as a beta test and then go back to the drawing board on some of it and talk to people about what's clear and what's unclear. 

Also, the process includes this whole peer reviewed concept where I do actually send drafts of the script to scientists and get them to comment and send me back feedback, so then I can feel like I'm representing the scientific consensus view.

Q: What was the biggest surprise in your research for this show?
A: I think the scale of some of the dangers or tipping points I was pretty stunned by. It reinforced the whole we're playing with fire mentality. And also the Exxon knew revelation that Exxon was doing climate research in the '70s and their internal scientists are saying the results of this will be catastrophic for the planet and they turn around and fund climate denier groups and their public statement is that the science is uncertain. It's just a blatant lie and one of the worst examples of corporate malfeasance that I can think of, so I was pretty surprised. I talk to a lot of climate deniers and I give them the benefit of the doubt that they're actually sincere--that they really don't think that there's climate change. You can kind of forgive people that. People have their ideologies or their tribal views or they see the world through a lens and they focus on the data that satisfies what they're looking for. I start the show out with that. I get the crowd shouting along with me, "When I say confirmation, you say bias," just to keep that idea in mind that we're all doing that to a certain degree. But sometimes you get a really blatant example of something that is not just confirmation bias. It's cynical manipulation out of a profiteering motive. And when you look at it from the perspective, that's when it starts being permissible to get mad about it.

Q: Do you ever change your mind about something while writing one of these rap guides?
A: Yeah, I actually totally changed my mind about something. In the version of the show I was doing last summer, I came down pretty heavy that consumer action is not getting us anywhere. All this feel-good altruistic response is a total waste of time and all we need is a carbon tax and a legislative level policy shift. And the thing that I was surprised about in Paris, which I tried to convey in the show with more of a balanced multilevel perspective, is the degree to which other factors besides federal governments are playing a role in the response. Like the mayors of 1,000 cities signing up to commit their local economies to becoming 100% renewable by 2050 whatever the national policy ends up being. I was sort of surprised and inspired by that. Richard Branson was there in Paris and he was doing press conferences. He said, "I own three airlines. I speak for the business community. And we want carbon pricing. We demand it. We recognize the scale of the problem and we're going to move as business as quickly as we can towards decarbonization but clear regulatory frameworks are going to help us, so that's what we're calling for." But I didn't expect the business community to be there so forcefully on the side of the good. I went into the Paris conference thinking business is in the way of saving the world and my mind was changed there to some degree. 

Q: Do you worry about preaching to the choir? I think if you're going to see a show called Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, you're already concerned about global warming. How do you reach the skeptics?
A: I think the hard-core skeptics, the best you can do is quarantine them. I don't think you're really going to convert them. But you can innoculate other people against their views. I think there are a lot of people out there who care about climate change and there are a lot of people out there who know about it and know they're supposed to care, but don't really know why. I think that's the people outside the choir who I'm trying to connect with. People that are on the fence about whether they should care or if they do care, what they should do about it. I'm not so easy on the choir either, if the choir is the people who already believe in climate change and think it's a big deal, but what they're doing about it is riding their bike to work instead of driving a car to work, but not taking it seriously from a policy perspective or a legislative perspective. If they say they don't support a carbon tax, but recycle plastic bottles, then actually they're not the choir, they're totally deluded. I'm actually going after some of the green fallacies in the show as much as I'm going after the more skeptic views. Hopefully that means that everybody who comes hears something that challenges them or makes them rethinks their views.

Q: Obviously, you've been doing this for a long time, since before Hamilton, but do you think the popularity of that musical will make audiences more likely to check out other theater with rap in it?
A: We've only been open for a week, so it's hard to say how much that's going to cause a flood of audiences, but one of the reviewers who wrote about the show said, "I wouldn't have gone to this show if I hadn't like Hamilton so much." So, there's some evidence right there that it's going to open people's minds. I think there is a major effect because I did a hip hop theater show Off-Broadway in 2011 and when I told people what I was doing, I'd have to explain that it's like a play, but it's with rap, and that took some processing to wrap their head around what that would be like. But now you can just say it's like Hamilton but it's about climate change and then instantly people are like, "Rapping and theater, of course. Those goes together great." Hamilton has had the effect of making it intuitively obvious that it's a good idea to put theater and rap together whereas people before needed some convincing of that fact, which is I think a very good thing. Although Hamilton and my show are different in genre because that's a musical and I don't do much singing in my show.

Q: You've already tackled religion, global warming, and evolution. Do you have other topics that you want to explore?
A: I'm starting research and looking into a new show about artificial intelligence. I'm pretty interested in biotechnology and genetic engineering and what could happen with that as well. Still science related, but I do tend to gravitate towards controversial subjects. I think there's entertainment value in that because if you can get a feel for what kind of emotional reactions people have to it, whether it's excitement or revulsion or indignation or whatever, then you can navigate and negotiate those creatively and provoke reactions and then subvert those reactions. That's where a lot of my artistic craft is based, provoking outrage in ways that somehow are still funny.