Broadway 2019: My New York Fix

By

Leonard Zwelling

I’m a Houstonian now. I have spent as many years in Houston as I had in New York, Connecticut, Washington, D.C. and Durham, NC combined. But, scratch the surface just a hair and I’m still a New Yorker and I can’t get enough. Actually, that’s not true. I can get enough and it’s about five nights in Midtown. Why Midtown? So I can walk back to the hotel after the theater every night even if it means walking through Times Square with more people from Kansas than reside in Wichita.

I was a Broadway theatergoer since I was about ten. I saw Mary Martin in the original The Sound Of Music. I saw Robert Preston in the original Music Man, twice. I saw Richard Kiley in The Man of La Mancha, twice. I even saw Joseph Cotton, Jackie Gleason, Gwen Verdon, and Burt Lahr in long-forgotten shows in the fifties and sixties. It was just a Long Island Railroad ride into Manhattan and a subway to Times Square to get from Bellmore to Broadway. I did it often when I wasn’t going to the World’s Fair or the original Shea Stadium in Queens.

I always thought that one of the great blessings of my life was to have been brought up in New York in the 1960’s. The Beatles and Broadway. Tough to beat!

So once or twice a year, I travel back home for my fix. Crowds, shopping and theater. June 18 was the day this year and United Airlines made sure we got into Manhattan after ten when we were supposed to be there at 5 or so. Welcome to New York, it waited for me.

It was a busy and rainy couple of days, but that doesn’t stop anyone in The Big Apple. You go and go means the subway or walking. No point in taking any car-type vehicle of any kind if you want to get where you are going in less than an hour. The traffic—always bad—has gotten far worse and there is a ton of construction on the cross streets in Midtown. Walking and subway are the only options.

But this is about Broadway, so here we go.

Up first, the latest revival of Lanford Wilson’s 1980’s era, four-person drama Burn This. It reminded me that some screen stars actually can act and boy can Adam Driver and Keri Russell who star in this show without light sabers or spy craft. The show itself is terrific, but when real stars radiate that certain something off the stage before a live audience, it is something special indeed. I suspect this show would be good with any competent actors, but with stars it rocked.

The show we came to see was Aaron Sorkin’s new adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird with Jeff Daniels playing Atticus Finch. While more than competent, it came highly praised and I found it compared poorly to either the novel or the 1962 film. Jeff Daniels is a fine-looking and superb actor who works best when either in the strange position of being a handsome supporting player (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Terms of Endearment) or the quirky lead (The Newsroom). Here playing the straight-laced and strongly principled Finch he pales beside my memory of Gregory Peck (I had just watched the film and read the book a few weeks ago). This was a bit of miscasting, I think, and the production, while clever (when is Sorkin anything if not clever?), lacked a certain energy and feeling for place and time (the Depression Era South). It was a disappointment.

We were supposed to see King Lear next with Glenda Jackson and Ruth Wilson. It closed ahead of schedule and we had an opening in our schedule. I took advantage and bought seats to Tootsie before the Tonys and the win for lead actor in a musical by star Santino Fontana. The story is not that of the movie in that Dorothy Michaels (Michael Dorsey) is now slated to star on Broadway rather than in a TV soap opera. The rest of the story follows the movie closely and, surprise, even without Dustin Hoffman, it is fantastic. The talent just ripples off the stage in a well-written treatment of the familiar plot with loads of laughs, lots of song (and dance), and brilliant performances all around. (Special mention to Sarah Stiles of Billions for playing Sandy, the Teri Garr role). This is the one I saw this week that I would see again.

We woke up Saturday to brilliant sunshine (finally) and thought about what we could do. Hadestown had won the Tony for best musical, why not see if we could get matinee tickets? We could and we did. This is a most unusual show and very much of a type with Rent and Spring Awakenings. It is kind of dark, but with awesome sets and a very unusual modern score (gospel, R and B, and rock) and great performances. There is no shortage of talent on Broadway. I understand why the Tony voters leaned this way instead of the more traditional Tootsie. I am glad we saw Hadestown, but you have to be in the mood for a dark modification of Greek tragedy to enjoy this. It is, however, one of the best displays of sets, costumes, choreography and production design that I have ever seen. This will be hard to take on the road. Tootsie won’t.

Finally, we saw the brief feminist screed that is What The Constitution Means To Me, Heidi Schreck’s almost one-woman show about her past as a debater about the Constitution in the American Legion halls of her home state of Washington that concludes with a real debate between Ms. Schreck and an 18-year old local high schooler. This is a moving and moveable focus on the currency of the document that is the foundation of America and of American prejudice, especially against women. If this gets to Houston, do not miss it. Thought-provoking and very woke.

We sit in the United lounge waiting for yet another domestic flight praying that this one won’t be delayed.

If you can get to New York, there are great shows to see although many do depend on the starring talent of some very special performers. Get here if you can. Welcome to New York, it’s waiting for you.

Leonard Zwelling