Thursday, May 29, 2014

Hedwig: Every “Inch” a Modern Major Musical

 At this point, there have been at least three incarnations of Hedwig and the Angry Inch: the original off-Broadway production starring Hedwig creator John Cameron Mitchell, the film version (again starring Mr. Mitchell), and now, an honest-to-God, big-budget Broadway production starring TV star, movie star, and ubiquitous host of the Tony Awards, Neil Patrick Harris. What’s remarkable about this show is that it has endured over the past 20 years and its trajectory mirrors that of not only the scrappy protagonist, but of the entire gay rights movement itself. Who could have imagined, 20 years ago, that gays would not only have the right to marry but would become so mainstream that they’re a running joke on both the Tony Awards and the Oscars? Equally astonishing is the fact that a show about a transsexual is now on Broadway, playing alongside not just one but two shows about transvestites (Kinky Boots, Casa Valentina), as well as the usual assortment of gay-themed shows (Mothers and Sons).  Part of the credit may go to the gay rights movement, but the other part belongs to the rock-solid credentials of this show.
In a sea of jukebox musicals (Beautiful, Jersey Girls, Midnight Blue) and original musicals that close overnight (Bridges of Madison County), this is that rarest of creatures: an original Broadway musical with staying power. When was the last time you walked out of an original musical and the songs were truly hummable? I don’t want to take anything away from Mr. Mitchell’s clever book, with its Borscht belt humor (and I mean that as the highest compliment), but I don’t think enough credit has been given to Stephen Trask’s phenomenal, Bowie-inspired score. It now has to rank among the great works of American musical theater, alongside Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim.
Hedwig, in its stage version, is essentially a one-man/woman show, so it’s critical to find an actor with both the musical chops and the comic timing to pull it off. Needless to say, they’ve found that person in Neil Patrick Harris. Harris has proven his musical theater abilities in the recent concert staging of Company, as well as his recent Tony-hosting duties. He’s so effortlessly self-assured in this performance, it’s breathtaking! The one-hour-and-40-minute, intermissionless show breezes by with the immediacy of a rock concert.
There’s only one minor criticism I can think of: Some of the seats on the side of the orchestra (I had one such seat) have a partially obstructed view of the stage. Other than that, it’s hard to find fault with this production. It now takes its place in the musical theater canon as the very model of a modern major musical.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why Louie is the Best Drama on TV

 Some people may have been surprised when Louis CK was nominated for multiple Emmy Awards for his television series, Louie, last year. After all, he’s “just a comedian.” What does he know about acting, writing and directing (not to mention editing)?
I wasn’t. My only quibble was that he was nominated in the wrong category. He should have been nominated in the drama category.
Each episode of Louie unfolds like a miniature Woody Allen movie, from its beautifully-photographed New York locations to its jazz score. And it appears that Mr. CK has learned a lot from The Master and may even be his rightful heir, even though he works primarily in television.
Louis CK has been rightly praised for his willingness to take chances, whether it’s because he allows his scenes to go on “too long,” because he frequently places his characters in extremely uncomfortable situations, or because the episodes of his show sometimes seem to end abruptly, without tying up all the loose ends.
For me, one of the most amazing things about his show is the plotting. It’s like watching that improvisational exercise “Yes, but…,” only in this case it should be called “What if?” What if Louie bombed at a benefit in the Hamptons but wound up going home with a beautiful model who was in the audience? What if one of Louie’s neighbors got stuck in an elevator and asked him to get her medication from her apartment but, when he did, he found her niece sleeping on the couch? You truly never know where the plot is going to go when you watch Louie, and that’s what makes it great.
Another thing I love about this show is the way it routinely breaks into the absurd, such as when Louie is awakened by noisy garbage men in one episode and they literally break into his apartment, jumping up and down on his bed while continuing to bang their garbage cans. Or the Time Warner Cable-like message he listens to, which drones on about how awful their service is.
Curiously, Louis CK is the kind of comedian who doesn’t necessarily make me laugh all the time, but I enjoy listening to him because he’s interesting. Oftentimes, I find his stand-up segments to be the weakest part of the show. (I’m sure I’ve just destroyed my comedy career by saying that!) There are more laughs per minute in the more cleverly written Silicon Valley than there are on Louie. But that’s not why I watch it.
I watch it because Louie delves as deeply into the human condition as any episode of Breaking Bad. Like this week’s episode, where an overweight woman talks for an uncomfortably long time about how hard it is for fat women to meet men, while at the same time underscoring how easy it is for a similarly overweight man like Louie to meet women. Or the episode where he breaks up with a girlfriend at a diner: another uncomfortably long conversation. One of the other great things about Louis CK is the way he’s able to put himself in the place of other characters, particularly women.
So the next time the Emmy Awards roll around, I expect Louie to be recognize for what it is: the best drama on TV.