Thursday, October 27, 2016

Kate Baldwin at 54 Below: We're Not in Glocca Morra Anymore

Kate Baldwin is upfront right off the bat: She isn't at 54 Below to sing musical theater songs. She grew up loving pop music and her concert, "Extraordinary Machine," directed by Robbie Rozelle and music directed by Kris Kukul, is a journey through some of her favorite songs. And it's wonderful. If you didn't know it before, here is the proof that she can sing anything.

Sporting an amazing red jumpsuit that few people could pull off, she is just as comfortable singing Erasure as she is Loretta Lynn. In between numbers, we get to know her through anecdotes about her childhood and family, including an adorable story about how her relationship with her future husband blossomed over AIM.

For those who do want to hear some show tunes, don't worry, she does throw in some musical theater: "Wicked Little Town" (in a beautiful medley with Rufus Wainwright's "Oh What A World," sung by special guest Matt Doyle), "Breeze Off The River" from The Full Monty (to my delight), and "Ribbons Down My Back" from her next Broadway show, Hello, Dolly!

Remaining performances are tonight, Friday, and Sunday (October 27-29) at 7 p.m.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Q&A: Fringe Encore Series

There are so many shows at the New York International Fringe Festival that it can be hard/impossible to see everything. So, one thing I love about the Fringe Encore Series is that you get a second chance to see shows you missed. Not only that, but you can see shows from Edinburgh Fringe Festival--the world's largest arts festival--without even buying a plane ticket to Scotland.
Poster art for Homo Sapiens Interruptus, one of the shows in the Fringe Encore Series.

The series, which is happening now through October 30 at SoHo Playhouse, was founded by Britt Lafield. He and one of his producing partners, John Pinckard, were discussing how many great Fringe shows disappear after the festival, never to be heard from again. It can be difficult to move a show after a successful Fringe run, especially for younger companies, so they thought a "best of" festival would get those productions more exposure and help facilitate the next step. "We wanted to help bring more attention and notoriety to the productions we thought deserved it and try to help educate those productions about what the next step could be. I had seen so many great shows get mutilated by 'professional' producers who just took over the productions from the company in an effort to make a quick buck," Lafield says. "That was so against what I thought the festival and really theater should be about that I wanted to help change it in some way."

Darren Lee Cole, artistic director of SoHo Playhouse, got involved in the second year, when Lafield approached him about hosting the series. "Not only have I known Darren Lee Cole for years, I also know of his passion for new works and new types of theater. He and the SoHo seemed a perfect fit for the Series, especially given the amazing history of the theater itself stretching back to the late Edward Albee and his VanDam Collective in the '60s and '70s and the first productions of some of the world's most famous playwrights like Christopher Durang and Tracy Letts," Lafield says.

Read on for what the two of them had to say about how shows are chosen and more and click here for a list of participating shows and schedule.

Q: What does being a producer of a festival encore series entail?
Britt Lafield: Producing the Series starts with getting like-minded theatrical professionals to go out and scope out the shows during the New York Fringe and then spending lots and lots of time in theaters seeing everything you can. We look at reviews and audience attendance, but also talk to other audience members about what they have seen and like. Word of mouth is a very strong tool at any fringe and you just need to know what to listen for. Once the shows are identified and approached, hopefully they accept our offer to be a part of the Series. The Series works as a ticket split between the production, the Series, and the theater, so there is no out of pocket expenses for the show. We take care of all the staffing and advertising for the Series as a whole. And once it starts, we try to focus on the productions themselves and making sure they are comfortable and offer them help in any areas they might need it. Whether it is outreach to audience members for their show in particular or just feedback of the production itself. It is a lot of work, but worth it to see the productions use what they have learned to improve their show.
Darren Lee Cole: My emphasis has been on searching for the top shows that represent the best of the amazing new talent out there. Basically, it entails going to a lot of theatre and meeting a lot artists. Both things I have a passion for.

Q: Why do you include shows from Edinburgh in addition to New York?
Lafield: After a number of years just doing the "best of" Fringe NYC, we saw great opportunity in expanding the Series to try and be a true world-wide Fringe Encore Series. Edinburgh, being the oldest and most famous fringe festival, seemed like the logical choice to start with. We are hoping to add shows from the World Fringe Alliance every couple of years.
Cole: Three years ago, I went to Edinburgh with three shows I directed. Once there, I began telling people about the encore series that I was a part of back in NYC. Frankly, they flipped out and kept asking me when I was going to expand and bring shows from the Edinburgh Fringe. So I called Britt and invited four shows that year to join us. The word got out and I have gone to Ed Fringe each of the last three years searching for the best there to bring to the New York audience.

Q: What other factors are involved in deciding which shows will be included?
Lafield: We try to see every show we can that wants to be eligible for the Series. Darren travels to Edinburgh to look at shows there while my team and I work on all the production here in New York. We look at reviews, attendance, word of mouth, and just the artistic value of the production itself. The show doesn't have to be a runaway hit to be included. We love to find the great show no one has heard of or that was just getting noticed. Because at the end of the day, a great show is a great show. And with all the competition for audience in any fringe, the loudest show is not necessarily the best.
Cole: It is tough because there is no way to see all of the shows in Edinburgh; there are over 3,000. However, as artistic director of the playhouse and having produced and directed plays for the past 35 years, I now have many associates and friends that help point me in the right direction.

Q: Are there any shows in particular that you are excited about it or that you want to call attention to?
Lafield: What I love most of all is the diversity that we have in the Series this year. From incredibly quirky shows like ChipandGus to the amazing physical theater work of the production Flight. There really is something for everybody. I myself really enjoy the a cappella musical The Extraordinary Fall of the Four-Legged Woman and the ingenious performance of Dominique Salerno in her amazing one-woman The Box Show.
Cole: This year, I really love two shows that are at the tail end of the festival. Yokes Night from Edinburgh and Homo Sapiens Interruptus from New York. I love Homo Sapiens Interruptus so much I am directing the encore production.

Q: Is there anything that you've learned from past years of the series that has been helpful this year?
Lafield: We learn something new about the Series every year. But we never get to rest on our laurels because with every new year comes an entirely new set of shows and theatrical professionals. And every show is different, so we learn what types of productions play best at what time slots. What days of the week or holidays are best to avoid. But most of all, we just learn what the next generation of theater people are passionate about. And that is what make it important.
Cole: Never give up on theatre! There are always amazing new emerging artists at these festivals. I've learned that we can really make a difference in helping them move forward artistically and professionally.

Q: The fall is a pretty busy time for theater in New York (busier than the summer, when Fringe is going on). How do you stand out from the crowd?
Lafield: It very difficult to stand out, but we believe that people want to come see good theater and that there is an audience for every show. We aren't trying to compete with Broadway or other cultural events. That's a losing battle. We are competing for the audience that wants to see the next big thing and where tomorrow's Broadway shows will be coming from. That is what we try and offer.
Cole: New York is a big place with a healthy appetite for theatre. The Fringe can be overwhelming. So many theatergoers are interested in "the best of two fest" idea we put forward. There's lot of competition, but nothing quite like what we do.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Q&A with The Lion's Benjamin Scheuer

The album Songs From The Lion, released in June, is the official cast recording for Benjamin Scheuer's autobiographical one-man show. But if you saw the show, which deals with his father's death and his struggle with cancer, at Manhattan Theatre Club, the Lynn Redgrave Theatre at the Culture Project, or on tour, you will notice some differences--new arrangements, added musicians, backing vocals, and an altered order of the songs. "You don't only have to play the show top to bottom in a recording studio. Doing that is to me making a record only for the people who've seen your show. And I'd rather make a record for everybody, people who have seen my show and maybe people who haven't," Scheuer says. "There are plenty of people in the world who are never going to get to see The Lion, but if I can make a record that they dig, then that's just as exciting for me."

He has also been reaching people with his music in other ways. The video for "The Cure" premiered on the The New York Times' Well Blog. His next video, for "Golden Castle Town," will be out in mid-October. I spoke to Scheuer over the phone before his first performance of The Lion in San Diego, where he will be through October 30, about the album and the future of The Lion.

Q: I had interviewed you before and the album hadn't come out yet, but you said you wanted it to be different from the show, that you don't think recordings should be exactly the same as what's on stage. I think you really accomplished that. Why was that important to you?
A: On stage, the theater director, Sean Daniels, helped me take my material and realize the best version of it for the stage. And for a record, I did the same thing. Meaning, I asked record producer Geoff Kraley to do the same job on the record that a director does in the theater, which is take the material and make sure it works best in the chosen medium. In the theater, you come in and you sit down and you hear all the songs all the way through with stories in between. On a record, you don't have costumes, you don't have lights, you don't have sets, you don't have talking, and you don't have the promise that they audience is going to listen to it all the way through. You do have a lot of other things. You have the opportunity to work with whatever sound you can imagine and whichever musicians you can call.

Let me give you an example. In the show The Lion, during "St. Rick," my character Ben is an angry 16 year old and is imaging he has the band Nine Inch Nails in his head when they play the song. For the record, Geoff Kraley and I thought, why don't we just get actual Nine Inch Nails to play on the record. We called Josh Freese who plays drums in Nine Inch Nails and he came and played on the track. So, suddenly the record sounds the way my character hears things in his head in the show.

We changed words, we changed arrangements, we changed the order of the songs to make a record that stands up on its own. We'd like to get this record, which is an official cast recording, nominated for a Grammy for best musical theater album, to simply show that there is a different way that musical theater records can be made.

Q: As you said, on the record, you can listen to it all the way through or you can listen to each song individually, so what was the thought process behind the order of the songs?
A: The play is one act, meaning there is no intermission, but it is structured in three acts with a coda. A record is two acts. A record is side A and side B. And a record doesn't have any talking, so we thought about tempos, we thought about keys of songs, we thought about the flow of the record.

The song "The Lion" is the last song in the show. I didn't want to put "The Lion" last on the record Songs from The Lion, so we put it third. The song "White Underwear," where dad dies, is the fifth song in the show. I didn't want to put that song fifth on the record before the song "The Lion." "The Lion" is a much more fun song. The song "Golden Castle Town" is a much more fun song. I wanted to open the record in a way that captured a positive energy and I didn't want all the positivity to be at the end, whereas in a piece of theater you want to end on a joyful and high note.

We end with "Three Little Cubs" which is actually a nod to the song "Her Majesty," which ends the record Abbey Road. Geoff Kraley and I played with different orders until we came up with one that felt like a nice journey for people who had never seen the show. It felt like it had good ebbs and flows--the pacing, the timing, the content of the lyrics. For the show, you pick the best order for the songs and for the record, you pick what you hope is the best order for the songs and if people want to put it in a different order, that's what iTunes is for.
Photo credit: Shervin Lainez
Q: You're getting ready to open in San Diego and then Los Angeles. I remember reading that you were looking for someone else to take over so the show can continue when you leave. Are you still looking?
A: We're still looking. I'm looking for a guitar player first. Any age, any gender, any race. The way you audition is you learn the song "Cookie Tin Banjo" and send a video of yourself playing it to us, so I look forward to seeing what people share. I'm excited.

Q: Do you think it will be weird for you to have somebody else perform it, since it's such a personal story?
A: Probably. That's ok, though. I'd like to see if it works as a piece of theater without me in it. And it very well might. It also might not at all. It might need the autobiographical elements to work. I'm not sure, so as a playwright, I'm interested to see how much of The Lion is a play and how much of it is very much a coffee shop gig and the differences there. I'm eager and curious.

Q: You've been performing the show for a couple of years now. After performing it for so long, are you still finding new things in it?
A: Well, doing it in the round is really fascinating because here in San Diego we restaged the entire show. Because we are doing it in the round, I think there are 14 microphones on stage now and it feels very much like a recording studio. And I feel very comfortable in a recording studio, a room with microphones everywhere, so that feels really fun, and it feels pretty different, so that keeps it fresh for me.

Q: Are there any other cast recordings that you like?
A: Hamilton. Questlove, who produced that record, did an amazing job. It sounds like a contemporary pop record. It sounds like a record that can exist outside of a theater. And I look forward to hearing what new musical theater artists do when they now record their cast albums. When they think how can we keep allowing this wonderful genre to grow. Musical theater is not a genre. Musical theater is a methodology. And so, how can that methodology continue to evolve and captivate new audiences?