On Broadway is generally at its best when delivering nuggets of theatrical lore, particularly those involving surprise discoveries. Some are fairly well known, such as how Lin-Manuel Miranda premiered his first number from Hamilton at a White House event before it was even a play. It’s a story worth retelling if only for the curious immediacy of the footage and the laughter that greets Miranda when he informs the audience that he has been working on a rap about … Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton…
Fiddler on the Roof premiered on Broadway in 1964, proving that an nontraditional musical about an Eastern European shtetl family being wrenched apart by the struggle over tradition and fears of the next pogrom could play to massive audiences. It still does today.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of its first production in Japan. Since then it has become that country’s most popular American musical.
Japan was the first non-English production and I was very nervous about how it would be received in a completely foreign environment. I got there just during the rehearsal period and the Japanese producer asked me, “Do they understand this show in America?” And I said, “Yes, of course, we wrote it for America. Why do you ask?” And he said, “Because it’s so Japanese”…
Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s award-festooned play Fences essentially reconstitutes the cast of the rapturously received 2010 revival and transforms it into one of the year’s great films—not to mention a strong standard to follow for future dramatic adaptations.
Fences is playing now in limited release, and should open wider later in the month and also in the new year. My review is at PopMatters:
August Wilson’s Fences tells the tale of a black family in ‘50s Pittsburgh, centering on the clan’s domineering patriarch. It also resonates with a host of grandly American themes, from the bloody swell of history and race to the yawning gaps separating rhetoric and action, dreams and reality. It’s a big play, in other words, and requires considerable energy to bring it to life, on stage or screen…
Given how many of us have happily or miserably worked through at least a couple Shakespeare plays in school, not to mention the frequency with which those plays are revived on Broadway and in touring companies everywhere, it’s amazing to think that there was a time when Shakespeare was actually more present in American life than today.
James Shapiro’s new book, Shakespeare in America, tells of how in the early nineteenth century, a quarter of all dramatic productions on the East Coast were Shakespeare’s. To be even moderately cultured, one had to know a few of the soliloquies by heart. To get an idea of how deeply rooted the Bard was in American culture, consider this anecdote, related in the New York Times review of Shapiro’s book, which occurred in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1846:
To distract the troops, a theater was hastily constructed and a production of “Othello” put into motion. James Longstreet, the future Confederate general, was originally cast as Desdemona, but was judged too tall for the part. The shorter Grant took his place. “He really rehearsed the part of Desdemona, but he did not have much sentiment,” Longstreet later recalled. In the end, Grant was replaced by a professional actress at the insistence of the officer playing Othello, who, Longstreet wrote, “could not pump up any sentiment with Grant dressed up as Desdemona.”
It’s a far cry from the classics-averse mood of the present. But, Shapiro notes, that could be in part because of one thing America has now that it didn’t two centuries ago: great home-grown playwrights of our own.
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