With two of Frank Loesser’s biggest hits returning in the form of simultaneous all-star concerts,  last week New York experienced a rare treat for Classic Broadway lovers and the ClaBro-curious alike. Wednesday – Sunday, Encores! gave us the quasi-operatic romance The Most Happy Fella with Laura Benanti, Cheyenne Jackson, Shuler Hensley, Heidi Blickenstaff, Jay Armstong Johnson and… yeah, basically everyone The Craptacular has ever written about. Then, on Thursday, Carnegie Hall exploded with the musical comedy excitement of Guys and Dolls, starring Nathan Lane in the role that made him famous, along with Patrick Wilson, Sierra Boggess, Megan Mullaly, John Treacy Egan, Len Cariou and Judy Kaye.

Frank Loesser was unique among Golden Age songwriters for a number of reasons: his earliest hit songs were written for the movies, marrying his lyrics to tunes by Jule Styne, Hoagie Carmichael, Burton Lane and others. In the mid-1940s, he began writing his own music, leading to his first Broadway show, the hit Where’s Charlie, and his Oscar-winning song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” (Please, if you want to debate the perceived rapey-ness of this song, do it in the comments of someone else’s post.)

1950 brought Guys and Dolls, which cemented Loesser’s place in the firmament of stellar songwriters. I think for readers under a certain age — or those with a short memory — Guys and Dolls is a show that needed a bit of rehabilitation after the Des MacAnuff production that sullied the Nederlander a few years ago. The original production of Guys and Dolls ran for three years, spawning a movie, productions around the world, six New York revivals (three at City Center, three on Broadway), and giving the world a bevy of standards like Fugue for the Tinhorns, Bushel and a Peck, Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat, and most famously, Luck Be A Lady. Based on the colorful stories of Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls built on the Rodgers & Hammerstein model of the integrated musical, proving the form could work just as well for comedies as it did for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s more serious musical plays. That being said, Guys and Dolls also deviated from the prescribed format by beefing up the roles of the comedic couple so that rather than occupying a secondary B-plot, they became a main plot in parallel to the romantic leads.

Guys and Dolls has survived many permutations, including performances at just about every high school in America, a generally ill-regarded film starring Marlon Brando (who really can’t sing) and Frank Sinatra (who was pissed he was cast as the comedic Nathan rather than the romantic Sky) and an all-Black production in 1976 that reorchestrated the score to sound more like Motown of the ’70s and suggested the action might have moved to Harlem (although critics complained that the script changes didn’t go far enough in establishing a new setting). For the last decade or so, rumors of a new film version have been circulating, most recently with Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Channing Tatum named as hoped-for leads.

In 1992, Jerry Zaks shepherded a new production to Broadway starring Nathan Lane, Faith Prince, Josie de Guzman, and Peter Gallagher, and it was a sensation. It was THE show everyone wanted tickets to—The Book of Mormon of its day, only it was a revival of a forty-year-old property. As I mentioned above, the show made a bona fide star of Nathan Lane. (He lost the Tony Award to Gregory Hines, who won for Jelly’s Last Jam, in a season that also included Crazy for You and Falsettos… and I remember at the time thinking that season was a weak one!)

At the time, I was 14, so I had to settle for the road company (starring Lorna Luft as Miss Adelaide!) which, to be honest, was really quite good. Still, I’ve always regretting missing Nathan Lane in the role, so I’m thrilled I had the opportunity to attend this gala benefit performance. Besides, if you’re not excited to have Patrick Wilson back on the musical stage, you must be new here to The Craptacular.

The concert was everything I wanted it to be and then some. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that while Nathan Lane was excellent, his was the least-talked-about performance after the show among my friends (probably because he delivered exactly what we wanted and expected). Megan Mullally was simply perfect as Adelaide, unsurprisingly nailing the humor but also mining every bit of pathos found in that character, without going overboard. She also looks incredible, and I can only hope that I look (and dance) half as well when I’m 55. Sierra Boggess reminded us that she can go from belt to legit soprano with the blink of an eye, and it took all my restraint not to scream with delight, “That’s right, you option up gurrrl!” at the end of “I’ve Never Been In Love Before.” Her “If I Were A Bell” was so good I literally leaned over the edge of the Dress Circle to scan the orchestra for surreptitious video cameras because I knew I’d want to see that performance again. And Patrick Wilson did was he does best, which is sing beautifully and radiate sexiness; anyone who didn’t melt when he said “Yeah, chemistry” has no soul. I’ve heard some complaints that Wilson’s acting in the book scenes left a little to be desired, but that’s not what I go to concerts for anyway.

To be fair, I also didn’t buy this ticket with any interest in the supporting cast, but they blew me away. In fact, in addition to Mullally’s rendition of “Adelaide’s Lament,” I’m pretty sure the two biggest hands of the night went to John Treacy Egan, Christopher Fitzgerald, and Coleman Domingo’s performance of the title song and Len Cariou — the original Sweeney Todd! — for “More I Cannot Wish You,” a song that often elicits eye rolls but in the hands of Cariou brought tears to more than a few eyes.

When I bought my ticket to see Guys and Dolls, I didn’t realize it was the same week as The Most Happy Fella at Encores… and I’m not sure when the folks at Carnegie Hall planned their gala performance, they realized that either. When I spoke with Encores Artistic Director Jack Viertel earlier this season about the  coincidence, he matter-of-factly said, “I think it’s just that Frank Loesser is awfully good, and why not do them all the time?” It’s hard to disagree.

As much as Guys and Dolls is considered musical-comedy perfection, The Most Happy Fella is considered the same for musical drama. Based on Sidney Howard’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize-winning play They Knew What They Wanted, the show tells the story of a waitress from San Francisco who tries her luck at love when she’s invited to move to the Napa Valley vineyard of a love-struck customer she doesn’t remember, Tony. The twist is that Tony is an older, ugly fellow who lures the waitress (whom he calls “Rosabella” because he never learns her name at the diner and then, I guess, doesn’t care enough to learn it later?) to California by sending a picture of his hunky foreman, Joe, rather than his own. I’m sure you can imagine the ensuing love triangle, but it becomes particularly clear when you picture Laura Benanti as Rosabella, Shuler Hensley as Tony, and Cheyenne Jackson as Joe. (Imagine showing up for a blind date with the thighs for Xanadu and being greeted instead with the monster from Young Frankenstein? Ugh.)

Happy Fella is an achievement on many levels. It’s one of the only hit musicals to come entirely from the pen of one person: Loesser wrote book, lyrics, and music. The score for Happy Fella is a masterpiece: it approaches operatic in places, particularly in the writing for Tony, which is why the piece has been adopted by several opera companies, including New York City Opera, but it also has its share of comedy numbers (like “Big D“) and pop tunes (including the standard “Standing on the Corner“), not to mention some of the most gorgeous choral writing ever heard on Broadway. And the story raises challenging questions that are as relevant today as when it was written.

Fans of classic television might remember an entire episode of I Love Lucy set around the Riccardos and the Mertzes seeing the show. In real life, Lucy and Desi were backers of the Broadway production, so this was an early bit of cross-promotion. Columbia released the cast recording on an unprecedented three LPs, preserving almost the entire show, which prompted them to also issue a one-record highlights version—the first, I believe, of its kind.

Happy Fella gets done more often than your average Encores show, with two Broadway revivals and two New York City Opera productions under its belt, but due to the size of the show, it rarely is done with the full cast and orchestra. The Encores production features 38 members of each. In fact, its last Broadway bow, in 1992 at Lincoln Center by way of the Goodspeed Opera House (the same season as the Jerry Zaks Guys and Dolls revival), was presented with only two pianos in place of the orchestra. There’s a lot to debate about that approach, but it’s worth mentioning that Loesser himself had written the two-piano reduction, the recording of that production is quite charming, and most importantly, it hasn’t supplanted the full-orchestra version in the marketplace. (It was done in New York as recently as 2012 with a full orchestra, in a production by the Dicapo Opera Company.)

A great production of Most Happy Fella is cause for celebration in any circumstance. The convergence of full orchestra and cast of Broadway (not Opera) performers mades this Encores production extra exciting. In many ways, this is the most ambitious Encores production yet, not only because of the size of the cast and orchestra, but also for the amount of music that will be performed. In recognition of this challenge, the Encores folks added a few days to their usually-rushed rehearsal schedule, resulting in a slightly longer but still rushed rehearsal period. God bless them.

The rehearsal certainly paid off. This was just about as perfect a production as Encores has ever done, and without a script in sight. Casey Nicholaw, best known for directing big, brassy comedies like The Book of Mormon and Aladdin, proved that he can handle musical drama, and what’s more, create a sense of intimacy even when there’s 76 people on stage in front of an audience of 2,000. Laura Benanti was her usual radiant, amazing, goddess-like, brilliant as Rosabella, a part that feels like it was written for her. (And I have to say, during the performance of Most Happy Fella I kept fantasizing about Benanti as Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, so let’s hope somebody makes that happen too.) There really wasn’t a weak link in this cast, but I want to especially shout out Heidi Blickenstaff as Rosabella’s best friend and belting sidekick, Cleo, because I am a gay man prone to going gaga over excellent musical comedy belting, and that’s exactly what she provided. In another era Jerry Herman would be writing a brand-new show for her right now. I hope someone else rises to that challenge. (The guys were great too, but do you really need me to tell you that Shuler Hensley commanded the stage or Cheyenne Jackson croons like a dream or Jay Armstrong Johnson was not only cute but danced his little buttocks off? You don’t.)

In summary: this week in New York we had an embarrassment of riches, and if you live outside of the city and think we’re bragging, we are.

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Up close – and I mean very close, like, if I coughed too hard we’d be touching – Steven Pasquale’s hair falls in waves that look so soft it’s near impossible to resist touching them. Just to know. To see if the reality matches the texture you’re imagining while he is thoughtfully answering the question you only just barely remember having asked him a moment ago. There is a hypnotic quality to that hair. You wonder how Kelli O’Hara stands it.

There is a melee happening around us. This is the nature of red carpets, of course. There’s never enough space for all of the press—the photographers and videographers and on camera talent and writers all crammed up against each other. Big outlets and small outlets fight each other for the actors’ attention, scrambling to ask a question or twelve before they’re too tired and overwhelmed, before they abandon the carpet entirely.

Steven does this – abandons the carpet quickly after he speaks with us, ducking between cameramen to escape and dodging half the print outlets. And it’s hard to blame him. Red carpets, like the kind in reality, that we’re standing on tonight, and not the kind you’ve imagine in your daydreams, are exhausting work on both sides of the line. Afterward I want nothing more than a huge margarita to recover. Or maybe a nap. And Steven? He has to go sing his face off. He’s got work yet to do.

But for the minute or so we talk, Steven blots out the world around him. It’s just he and I in a tunnel, alone, as his thoughtful answer fills the air around us with his minty breath and I struggle to focus on the important stuff.

But like. Let’s get real.

That is the important stuff on the red carpet.

Anway — back to the point at hand. We were asking Steven a question. It was the same thing we asked everyone we chatted with, in fact. Below, check out the big Q and all the big As we snagged at Miscast last night. Then, feel free to click through our pics, they’ll give you a taste of what the carpet really looks like. Plus, Jeremy Jordan and Billy Porter and Raúl Esparza are easily as hot as Steven Pasquale is, and we snagged some snaps of them, too.

The Craptacular: Okay, for a hot minute you get to play casting director – miscast yourself in a Broadway show for us right now.

Steven Pasquale: I would do Ophelia in Hamlet – that level of crazy would be pretty fun to try out every night.

Stephen Oremus: I would say, Eliza Doolittle. Just cuz.

Billy Porter: You know, I never really thought about that, but I would probably have to say… Fanny Brice.

Jeremy Jordan: Jeez, I’m trying to think of big roles, but they’re all too depressing. Oh, alright, I’m going to go for it and say Bess [from Porgy & Bess]. …I’d bring some fun to it!

Perez Hilton: For the next revival, I would KILL as Mimi in Rent. I would rock that hair, I would rock the Cat Scratch Club!

Raúl Esparza: [Without even blinking or breathing] I would like to play Mrs. Lovett.

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The first thing Max Crumm does when meeting me at Physical Graffitea in the East Village is apologize for being late (it was only by a few minutes) and tell me about how he had to clean up after his dog (I’ll leave the rest of the details up to your imagination). His easy-going, friendly nature is about what you’d expect from the guy who charmed America and won the reality show competition Grease: You’re The One That I Want, despite being the underdog. He is currently playing shy guy Scott, a far cry from Danny Zucko, in Disaster!, the off-Broadway 1970s disaster movie musical. The show just announced that it’s closing on April 11, but after reading this interview, you’re probably going to want to buy a ticket.

L: Are you having as much fun as it looks like you’re having?
M: Yeah. The show is so much fun. The cast is incredibly talented. Everybody’s voices are so great, but they’re like new best friends instantly because they’re so professional and so wonderful and so talented. Jen Simard is probably my favorite actor I’ve ever seen live in anything in this show. It’s like her and James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors. Seth Rudetsky who wrote it is so inclusive and brilliant and the atmosphere he created for the show is excellent, so I feel like that carries to the stage where it’s so much fun to watch.

L: Since Grease, you’ve done off-Broadway. Did you want to get away from Broadway or is that just what came up?
M: Oh no. The thing with that is Grease was just so much exposure and so crazy so fast and I was just like a normal dude from LA and I wasn’t as ready for starring on Broadway as the Laura Osnes was and is. She was pedigreed for Broadway. I also feel there are more roles for her type—gorgeous, beautiful, ingénue, so talented. That’s like Broadway. And for me I’m a character actor, but it wasn’t like I chose to not do more. Like I told Josh Ferri when I did a Broadway.com interview, I was not out when I was doing Grease, so I felt like I needed to go home and come out and get my head straight and not do that while I was in New York.

L: Were you happy with the way you were portrayed on the reality show?
M: Oh yeah. The producers were really cool and nice to me and they portrayed me pretty normally. They portrayed everyone pretty much how everyone was. Some people will tell you, “They made me look weird,” but it’s like, well, you said some of that stuff. But I feel like I was pretty much portrayed as my self.

L: How did you feel about the nickname Slacker Danny?
M: I asked them about that. I asked Kathleen Marshall why was I Slacker Danny. She was like, “Well, we couldn’t call you Stoner Danny.” I wasn’t a stoner. I was just lazy.

L: I know you have a lot of nice things to say about Laura Osnes. Everyone loves her. But can you say one mean thing about Laura Osnes?
M: There’s literally nothing. There’s literally nothing.

L: So she really is perfect?
M: Absolutely. I mean nobody’s perfect. I don’t know if she would like me saying she’s perfect either. I guess the meanest thing I could say about Laura is she’s super competitive when you play board games. But it makes sense she’s competitive, she won a reality show. I mean, I’m competitive. She’s not a sore loser. There’s really nothing. She’s genuinely a Christ-like wonderful perfect. She deserves every bit of acclaim and love and friendship that she has. She works so hard. She’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met.

L: What’s your favorite board game?
M: I love Settlers of Catan. I have it but I haven’t played it in a while. I’ve been playing My Little Pony Monopoly a lot. I’m Fluttershy. I don’t know if you know what that means. She’s one of the ponies.

 

L: Is that the new My Little Pony?
M: Yeah.

L: I don’t know those. I had the old ones when I was little.
M: My sister did too and I just loved them. I liked Treasure Trolls also.

L: Did you have a favorite stuffed animal?
M: I had the Wuzzles. They were half something half something. My favorite was Rhinokey. It was like a rhino monkey.  And that was my favorite stuffed animal. That and the Princess Diana Beanie Baby. It was the purple bear with the rose. I was so weird.

L: Do you watch reality television?
M: Yeah. Sometimes. I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. I think that’s a great show. I watch Face Off. That’s a really good show. Where they do special effects make-up and they compete. Is there anything else I watch that’s a reality show? Not really. I get too invested so I feel like I can’t because I feel like I’ve been there.

L: Do you still get recognized from Grease?
M: Yeah. I do sometimes. It’s very humbling and nice. Some people are like, “Oh this is so annoying but I voted for you.” Why is that annoying? Like, thank you so much for saying hi and telling me. I’m always so grateful to hear that from people because they are the reason I get to do what I do, so I always want to give them a big hug.

L: I voted for you.
M: You did? Thank you. [Ed note: I really did vote for him and I didn't say it just to get a hug, but at this point in the interview, he, true to his word, gave me a hug.]

L: I also saw F#%king Up Everything, which I loved.
M: You liked it? That show was so much fun. I loved that character. Christian is such a great character. I would die to do that character again. Cause I love the Muppets. I love puppets.

L: So who’s your favorite Muppet?
M: Janice. She’s always been my favorite. I have no idea why. I just think she’s cool and she’s in Electric Mayhem. I always loved Piggy too. I like the girls. And I love Kermit. Kermit, Piggy, and Janice, but Janice is my favorite.

L: What’s your favorite ’70s song?
M: You mean from the show or in general?

L: In general. Or from the show.
M: I’m going to say this and later I’m going to be reading it and I’m going to be like that’s not really my favorite, but I probably like Donna Summer “Bad Girls.” I like Donna Summer a lot. My dad likes Donna Summer a lot so I like Donna Summer. The Beatles are ’60s right?

L: Yeah. But their solo stuff came out in the ’70s.
M: Maybe “Imagine.” I’m going to say “Imagine” and “Bad Girls.”

L: What is your favorite mid-to-late ’90s pop song?
M: It’s obviously going to be Bye Bye Bye. Or is that 2000? 1999 is “Baby One More Time.” I definitely know that. I’m a shameless pop junkie. I like too much terrible pop music. I feel like I didn’t start listening to my own music until 1999 or 2000. Sorry that I’m taking so long. Probably a Spice Girls song. I’ll just say Spice Girls “Wannabe.”

L: What was the last book you read?
M: I’m reading the second book in a series right now. The last book I read was the first book in the series, which is called The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s a really cool book. I like fantasy. So it’s about this guy called Kvothe. He starts out as a kid traveling in like a circus kind of thing and it takes you on this journey of how he becomes a powerful wizard. And right now he’s in college. It’s kind of like a more grown-up in-depth funny cool Harry Potter. The second book is dragging right now, but it’s ok. I don’t do well with tons of chapters on library research. That’s what’s happening right now. But it’s a good book. He’s a great writer.

L: What’s a word you use too much?
M: Can it be a phrase? I feel like I say “do you know what I mean” a lot when I’m done talking. Or “you know.” It’s people’s way of forcing people to actively listen to them, you know? See I just did it. [Ed note: He did say "you know" a lot in the interview. I took them all out except for that one.] I probably say “like” too much also.

L: What word or phrase do you not use enough?
M: I’m not sure. That’s interesting to think about though. I probably don’t say” live from New York it’s Saturday night” enough. I probably don’t say “excuse me” enough.

L: Do you have a dream role?
M: To be honest I’m not a very good musical theater person. I don’t know very many shows and I don’t know what I’m right for. Seymour in Little Shop I think would be a really awesome role to play. I feel like I lie in this interesting spot with musicals where I feel like I’m not handsome enough for those handsome roles but I’m not quite nerdy enough for the nerdy roles.

L: You played Danny Zucko.
M: Right. I feel like that was a fluke. I feel like I can do both. But it’s hard for people to see you as both things. I would also love to play Christian in F#%king Up Everything on Broadway. I would love to be a part of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. That show is so good. I would be anything in that.

L: Do you ever do plays or want to do plays?
M: I would love to. Plays are wonderful, beautiful things. Sometimes I want to just do those because it’s stressful to have to sing. I love to sing so much. I wouldn’t consider myself a singer singer. I can sing. I love Shakespeare. I want to play Puck in Midsummer. Oh wait. Another dream role. When I’m older, I would love to play the Baker in Into The Woods.

L: What do you do the rest of the week? (Ed note: Disaster! only plays on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursday, and Fridays)
M: I hang out with my dog. I currently just moved to the East Village. I hang out with my boyfriend. Do you know who Taylor Trensch is?

L: Yeah.
M: That’s my boyfriend.

L: Really? I interviewed him too.
M: You did?

L: Yeah, when he was in Bare.
M: He was so good in that. He’s so cool. He’s the best. I hang out with him a lot. I write music. I tentatively play piano and guitar. I don’t like to say I play because I kind of don’t. I write weird, funny music. I’ve been writing a musical with my friend for like 6 years. We’re trying to get that to a 54 Below concert later this year and maybe a reading.

L: What’s your favorite breakfast cereal?
M: I never have it anymore, but Kix. Pops are good too. Corn Pops. I gotta have my Pops. They’re just so bad for you. When we were kids there were so many good commercials for things that were so bad for you.

L: And since we’re at a tea shop, what’s your favorite tea?
M: I like Lady Grey, which is Earl Grey tea with a little bit of lavender.

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In a the basement party-room below an Irish pub on the Upper West Side – our own little underworld, where no one is dead – there is a hubub, followed by silence. A voice rises over the mostly-young, mostly-actor crowd, warning us that we better hit the bar and get drinks in our hands. The toast is coming.

Beside me, two of Broadway’s very brightest rising stars are chatting quietly – as quietly as a crowded bar allows, I suppose – and it’s kind of impossible not to ask them for a picture. Not with me, but together. Because this is how I want to remember the opening party for Ryan Scott Oliver’s new musical, Jasper in Deadland: with Matt Doyle and Jay Johnson, current and former stars of the show, side-by-side, with big, easy grins on their beautiful faces.

As for the show, well, there’s a lot to remember there, too. From Doyle’s sweet, beautifully-voiced performance as Jasper – the teen who’s gone to Deadland to bring his best friend Agnes back – to Brandon Ivie’s sharp direction and Patrick Rizzotti’s spare but smart sets. And let’s not forget the cast. Oh, that cast. I still kind of can’t believe all those awesome people were there, together, in the tiny West End Theater. Like. Each and every one of them is so fucking good I’m pretty sure someday I’m going to be bragging to my kids about all the famous people I saw way back when in some tiny church theater. “Oh, you young’uns like Ben Crawford/Allison Scagliotti/Bonnie Milligan? Well, I remember when…”

Perhaps what I loved most about Jasper, though, was the opportunity to see a full, fully-staged show from a young, up-and-coming composer whose work I’ve followed for years. Like… see, world? This guy has got it. Not just in a song, but in a story, too. In a whole world of songs and stories. And I love being able to bring friends with me, like the kind who don’t know anything about theater’s inner-workings – as I did on Sunday – and introduce them to Ryan’s work. I look forward to doing that with lots of other young composers’ work someday, too.

My friend LOVED the show, by the way. I loved it too. And then, I got to give Ryan and Matt and even Jay – my first Jasper – a big hug afterward. And it was a pretty amazing Sunday, like a glimpse of the future, when all these people are enormous stars.

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The Shirtless Confrontation

I don’t know about you, but I never thought I’d get to a place in my life where I thought Jean Valjean was hot. I was weaned, after all, on bearded Colm Wilkenson, who was and remains old enough to be my grandfather. Plus, his huggy Irish Santa Valjean just seemed really sweet and generally beyond the idea of hotness. And who could concentrate on him anyway, with Enjolras, Marius, and history’s first boyband doing jazz squares all over that dizzy barricade?

Ramin Karimloo, begs to differ with aaaaalllll that. Because he’s 35, highly tattooed, more jacked than that Equinox trainer you’re crushing on, and so intense and clear-eyed up on that stage that by the time you get to “Bring Him Home,” you’re all like… “Marius? Enjolras? Who’s Enjolras? I can’t even say that.”

Plus, in this same Broadway revival, we have Will Swenson’s Javert (hashtag #swavert), who has basically built an entire theatrical reputation around looking amazing with no clothes on. Or also, in a Henley. Or also, in a fringed loincloth/diaper.

This is not your mother’s Les Miserables. And in fact, it’s not even your beloved childhood Les Miserables, because there are no synthesizers, the barricade stopped spinning, and people wear blue sometimes. Welcome to adulthood, fangirls and boys. Join us as we re-imagine “The Confrontation” not as a battle of wills, but as the shirtless battle of Will and Ramin. Because that’s a better mental image, anyway…

Who would win The Shirtless Confrontation?

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So, our friend and excellent Craptacular columnist, David Levy, is putting on a 54 Below show on Saturday night in honor of the venerable Stephen Sondheim. Exciting, yeah? First thing’s first: If you want to win some tickets to this show — AND A $50 FOOD CREDIT, YO — we have some to give away. To enter do the following things…

  1. Cancel all your Saturday night plans. If you win, you’ll be with us at 54 Below. Doors are at 10pm. Drinking probably goes on forever after.
  2. Make sure you follow @thecraptacular and tweet the following ditty:

Yo, @thecraptacular, I want to celebrate Sondheim at Sondheimas at @54Below. Gimme those tix! (PS. RT and follow to win!)

  1. Keep your eyes peeled. We’ll pick a winner tomorrow afternoon. (Chookas, y’all!)

Meanwhile, we chatted with David — a bona fide Sondheim superfan who has more delightful stories than can fit in one blog post, which is why we gave him a column — about the show, his communications with Steve (that started when he was in the 5th grade, natch), and his attempt to get a Sondheim song played at a bat mitzvah…

Lucky: What are you most excited about re: Soneheimas?

David Levy: We have one surprise that we’ve kept under wraps that I think is going to get a huge reaction, so I’m pretty excited to see how that goes. Which is a terrible answer.

L: Give me a one-word hint about the secret thing.

DL: Felt.

L: Besides the secret thing, though, what are you excited about?

DL: I’m excited that we’re doing a few songs that never get done. One of the songs we’re doing hasn’t ever been officially recorded, so that speaks directly to my geeky heart. It’s the title number from Wise Guys. I don’t know if it’s been performed since the New York Theater Workshop production that starred Nathan Lane and Victor Garber more than a dozen years ago.

L: Why did you write a note to Mr. Sondheim about the show, and were you expecting a response?

DL: Rachel Shukert and I went back and forth about whether or not to invite Sondheim to the show. I think we were nervous that we’d freeze up if he came. But when Leah Horowitz (who was in the most recent revival of Follies on Broadway) joined the cast, she was like “Is someone inviting Steve?” and I figured why the hell not? I knew once I sent the letter, I would get a response. He’s always been very good about writing back to fan letters, as I learned many years ago. I wrote him the first time when I was in the fifth grade.

L: And he answered you then?

DL: He did! So of course I wrote back again. I thought of him as my pen pal. I would send him not only letters, but drawings and home-made puzzles (since I knew that was his hobby). Every single letter I sent received an answer.

L: What’s your favorite and least favorite Sondheim moment, ever?

DL: I’m not sure if this is favorite or least favorite or both. When I was 12, I went to a friend’s bat mitzvah party right around the time Madonna’s I’m Breathless album came out, before Dick Tracy hit theaters. I was so anxious to hear the Sondheim songs that I asked the DJ to play “More” (because it was the B-side of the “Vogue” single, I think?) and he was like, “Uh, that’s not really party music, but I’ll play ‘Vogue’ instead.”) At that point in my life, I wasn’t yet into Madonna for her own sake, and I was so disappointed.

Then, when I was in college, I was the assistant to the person in charge of bringing visiting artists to campus. We really wanted Sondheim to come, but he was just not interested in doing a run-of-the mill master class, so he challenged us to make it interesting for him. Simultaneously, we were working with a television producer to create a pilot based on our “Learning from Performers” program, so somehow Sondheim’s challenge became the basis of this pilot, which was going to focus on me and a group of my friends scheming to bring Sondheim to campus.

We shot some footage of me and my friends plotting together over a fancy sushi meal at the Harvard faculty club, and we enlisted the help of James Lapine (who had already been a visiting artist when he was in Boston for the pre-Broadway tryout of his production of Diary of Anne Frank).

Somehow, James convinced Steve to allow us to film the two of them in conversation. So I got to fly to New York with my boss and a camera crew to spend the day in James Lapine’s office — in the Shubert Building, overlooking the Majestic Theater — while James and Steve watched the DVD of Sunday in the Park With George and mused about “Children and Art.”

It was so exciting! And of course I was trying so hard to be cool that I barely said anything to Steve because I didn’t want to sound stupid. Anyway, long story short, we never figured out how to get Steve to campus, the pilot was never completed, and here I am 14 years later putting on a ridiculous concert in his honor.

L: Any controversy or gossip about the show that we absolutely need to know about?

DL: Yeah. We originally had this very elaborate Nativity scene with Sondheim as the baby Jesus (and Milky White as one of the barnyard animals). That’s actually the image I sent to Steve when I wrote to him about the show. A couple days after I sent it to him, I got a note from the 54 Below marketing department saying, “The image is a bit offensive to anyone Christian and possibly to Sondheim fans. We need something more pc.”

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…Or at least, they tell us who they’d try to bring back. If they had a shot.

So. Ryan Scott Oliver and Hunter Foster’s new musical Jasper in Deadland started previews last night. It stars scads of very attractive young people — Matt Doyle, Allison Scagliotti, Ben Crawford, & F Michael Haynie among them — and tells the story of Jasper, a 17-year-old who journeys to the underworld to rescue his bestie and runs into some mythological creatures and such on the way. We’re pretty sure it muses on life and death and love and all those good things, too. But it’s hard to remember stuff like that when we’re just like… enraptured by that gorgeous show art (hell yeah Matt Murphy and  Peter James Zielinski).

Anyway. While we were busy alternating between staring at pics of Matt Doyle in a wet t-shirt for hours and staring at pics of Ben Crawford in a natty suit for hours, the cast of Jasper got together and made a list of folks, ridiculous, (possibly) real, and otherwise, who they’d bring back from the dead. You know, if they could. Somehow  we got the exclusive line on sharing that list with you here. (Okay, there was some begging and bribery involved.)

Anyway. We couldn’t possibly imagine how to put these in an official ranked order, so we’re sticking with the order they were in when Mr. Ryan Scott Oliver himself sent along. So. Enjoy this peek inside the cast’s deep, dark minds. Or something like that. 

 

#10 Julia Child
ANDI ALHADEFF (Persephone)

…so she could make me dinner, and we could eat it together.

#9 Lenoardo da Vinci
BEN CRAWFORD (Mr. Lethe)

…just to see him poop his pants at all the awesome stuff we’ve created since his time.

#8 Dorothy Dandridge 
DANYEL FULTON (Ammut)

…for girl talk, natch.

#7 Andy Warhol
ALLISON SCAGLIOTTI (Gretchen)

…because I’m dying to know what he’d think of social media. And what he’d do with it. Maybe he’ll show up if we break Vine.

#6 Every character that Sean Bean ever played.
F MICHAEL HAYNIE (The Chuckster)

…cause even though technically Sean Bean (one of my favorite actors) is actually still alive, he’s basically famous for dying in almost every film he ever makes. This ever present spoiler alert makes enjoying films and television much harder. He always plays the coolest characters, good and bad, who meet their demise just as they are getting started (sometimes before). To bring him back would require a great editor, flawless cgi artist and the original reels of all his film and TV, so, no big deal, really.

[Ed note: The first time I read this, I somehow transposed Sean Astin and Sean Bean. Everything makes less sense but is funnier that way.]

#5 George Washington Carver 
JOHN-MICHAEL LYLES (Lester)

…so we could all get a good taste of those nuts! Obviously, I would visit his gravesite and do my Tituba-inspired spirit dance in my birthday suit… that ought to do the trick.

#4 Henry VIII
BONNIE MILLIGAN (Beatrix)

…so I could force him into a therapy session with a female psychiatrist that I get to watch with a bucket of popcorn, whilst interjecting my highly insightful questions or comments throughout.

#3 Christopher Columbus
DANYEL FULTON (Ammut)

…on Columbus Day, clearly. So he can fess up to his crimes, and we no longer have to have a whole avenue blocked off for his lies.

#2 Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore 
JOHN-MICHAEL LYLES (Lester)

…because he’d be a fierce gay rights activist. I’ll just bust out my Supreme witch powers, a la AHS: Coven, and raise that beautiful bearded queen from the dead!

#1 GENE KELLY! 
LEO ASH EVENS (Pluto)

…I would bring him back during a humongous thunderstorm. And when the rain was pouring down all over Times Square he would come up through one of the sewers like Tim Curry in IT. And Gene Kelly, with New Yorkers and tourists alike, would sing and dance in the rain.  A huge flash mob of theatrical fun. (Added bonus: Since we’re both Pittsburghers. Gene and I could have a competition of who can tap singing in the rain better. I fear he may win. But I’ll take the challenge.)

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My Dearest Alex,

I’m sorry.

It pains me to say this, it does, but I have to be honest. And I feel like just getting this out of the way might make it hurt less? I dunno, I guess I’m picturing this like a bandaid I just need to rip off. So here it is: Rocky is kind of a bad musical.

I STILL LOVE YOU! But Rocky is kind of a bad musical.

Seriously, though. This is not your fault. It’s like… the opposite of your fault. Because it’s so abundantly clear that you did everything you possibly could to save this show from itself — to snatch it back from the jaws of pastiche-y, kickline-y horror — that the producers owe you an enormous debt. And fuck, so do Ahrens and Flaherty. Especially them, in fact.

Because that score is… well… let’s just say you have a real serious problem on your hands when the best song in your musical is a pop song that was written over 30 years ago by people who are not named Ahrens. Or Flaherty. Sorry dudes, but that score is dreck, and even the songs that work are more feats of performance than perfect songwriting.

Like, sure. “I’m Done” has the ability to bring the house down. (I’ve seen it ‘done.’) But I still can’t remember a single word of that song. And I’ve seen the show three times. It’s just that holy HELL does Margo Siebert perform the absolute piss out of that song — peep the shock on even her own face as she realizes she’s finally summoned the courage to tell her shitty brother to fuck off — and frankly, homegirl kicks it’s ass from here to Philly and back.

So you have that. You and Das Musical have that at least — a handful of genuinely kick-ass performances, anchored by your Rocky and Adrian. Or Andy Karl and Margo Siebert, as it were. Dany Mastrogiorgio’s turn as Paulie, Adrian’s abusive doucheroo of a brother, is pretty great, too, as is the hilarious Philly accent he’s sporting. (Though, really, in 2014 do we HAVE to forgive the abusive fuck so quickly and easily?) But really, it’s all about Karl and Siebert, who are both giving seriously smart, sensitive, subtle performances. Watching Siebert’s Adrian find her inner strength is just lovely. And Karl’s carefully crafted Italian Stallion — neither too far from, nor too close to Stallone’s original interpretation — is equal parts dumb, sweet, and heartbreaking.

But like. Let’s get real. Much though I’m really hoping Karl and Siebert get all kinds of accolades for their performances… anyone who sees this show is going to walk out giving basically no fucks about anything but your direction. Because somehow, despite astronomically bad odds, you have taken this pile of shlock and turned it into a good show. Rocky is the best bad musical I have ever seen and that is entirely down to you.

Sure. The first act is slow. But by the time we all make it to the second act, things are picking up. We’re moving. Your incredible sets — designed by Christopher Barecca — have us completely enraptured, and then “Eye of the Tiger” happens and for a second we get to pretend the score doesn’t suck and THEN ROCKY GETS TO THE STEPS OF THE ART MUSEUM AND YOU FUCKING PULL THEM RIGHT OUT TO THE EDGE OF THE STAGE AND TURN THEM AROUND AND ROCKY IS FACING US AND FIST PUMPING AT THE TOP AND OH MY GOD WE ARE ALL DEAD FROM YOUR PERFECT DIRECTION AND PS THE BIG FIGHT HASN’T EVEN HAPPENED YET.

Okay. I’m breathing.

Because we still have to talk about the big fight. Which is like… probably the most genius thing I’ve ever seen on stage. Ever. Better than the turntable in Les Miz, or the barricade even (and that has its own entrance music!!), or the helicopter in Miss Saigon, or the fact that Elaine Stritch even thought she could just muddle through A Little Night Music and we all kind of agreed. But I digress…

I saw Rocky: Das Movie as a kid, so I already knew how this whole shebang ended. And again, I’ve seen Rocky: Das Musical three times. So when the fight starts, at this point, I actually know like… every single move that’s about to be made in that ring. And let me tell you — that fight does not get any less exciting. It’s never not thrilling. It always finds me on the edge of my seat, chin in my hands, fingers ready to cover my eyes as necessary, which is pretty fucking amazing, all things considered.

It’s kind of the greatest thing ever, actually. Because you managed to harness the power of live theater — the way the best of it can grab you by the shirt collar and drag you into another world even as the people sitting, breathing, rustling M&M bags beside remind you of exactly where you really are — and marry it to the drama and energy of live sports. You saw no limits, no rules you couldn’t break, nothing to stand in your way and keep you from making this more real than it seems like the stage could ever allow.

And that’s what saved everything. The realness. From the gritty, Trainspotting-inspired wallpaper and suffocating ceilings in Rocky & Adrian’s homes, to the full-contact fight at the end. You refused to let musical theater’s baser instincts win, and we are all better for it.

So thanks for keeping it real.

And please, please don’t be mad that I just told the world I think the music is basically really fucking bad. Because what you did is really fucking amazing. And that’s what matters most to me. Not the spectacle, but the reality you grounded it in. So I can try to forget that Rocky sang the words “my nose ain’t broken” like sixty-five times in three hours. And I can continue to love you, and your work, and pray every second of my day that you don’t ever leave theater for very long. Because Hollywood will never love you like I do.

Yours Always,
The Mick

PS. Call me.

PPS. Lucky has an idea for you that I think it’s important to share, so, here goes… What if you took all the songs out of this show and just replaced them with the entire Hangin’ Tough album? THINK ABOUT IT. It kind of works. Probably better than this score does, anyway. And like… Rocky: The Musical Featuring the Songs of Hangin’ Tough Directed By Alex Timbers is a show we would instantly see. Like, 400 times. So. You know… just a suggestion. #weacceptkissesinlieuofroyalties

PPPS. Shoutout to fight choreographer Steven Hoggett, who I basically love, and who I forgot to mention up there in the body because I was just so excited about all the things I have to say to you that I kind of lost control of my words. But really. Steven Hoggett is the bees knees and Rocky wouldn’t be what it is without him, so, you know… just let him know I said thanks, too.

 

Photo: Steven Klein

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Like. I will end your soul.

Because last night in The Bridges of Madison County you got up on that stage and sang a song so beautifully that I cried until snot ran down my face in public. IN PUBLIC. SNOT. I’m 31, not 2. At my age, there is no place wherein which it is socially acceptable to have snot running down my face. And I did it because of you.

And that’s not even counting  the songs that made my heart stop, or my lungs temporarily cease to function, or my eyes burn with tears that never quite released. The ones that had me on the edge of my seat. Or the one time, near the very end of the very last song, where you did something that made me – MADE ME – open my mouth and say some words out loud that I really should not have said in a quiet theater.

And I get it. I get it. There’s money in Hollywood, for work that’s like… less demanding, in its way. And I’m not even saying that to imply that you’ve got the wrong motivations. We’ve all got dreams for where our lives will go and Broadway isn’t everyone’s dream. And acting on film is a different kind of work and I’m sure you love it on its own terms and shit, it doesn’t hurt that it pays well, too. We’ve all got bills. But like… here’s the thing…

Hollywood will always rob you of the very thing that makes you the most special. That allows you to reduce me to a shivering pile of snot and tears in a public place. And it’s not just the immediacy of the stage – the soul-rending humanity that radiates outward from you every time you move, or speak, or throw Kelli O’Hara onto a big white bed. It’s not just the knowing that this is a magical moment that will never happen again, that what you and I shared here can never be replicated or relived or loved in quite the same way by another person now, or ever again.

No.

It’s your singing voice. They don’t let you use that in Hollywood and it’s the single most glorious thing about you. The thing that makes you stand out – head and shoulders and chest and elbows and wrists and knees and ankles  above the whole entire world. That makes you magical.

The moment you open your mouth and your chest expands and some insane note soars out over the audience, brimming with everything your character can’t say, you become otherworldly. And Hollywood doesn’t understand that about you. Can’t find a way to use that in you. Doesn’t have the mechanism available to celebrate that part of your star power.

And that’s a goddamn shame. So please, please don’t leave us again. Please just always be somewhere on a stage where I can go hear you sing my soul into pieces. I’d offer you all the money in my savings account, or all the stars in the Iowa sky, but I don’t know if that’d be enough and I don’t what else I can do to keep you here besides begging. So I’ll do that. I’ll beg. Forever and ever amen.

 

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We love it when Broadway show costumes send our minds spinning. Wouldn’t we all love to have those high-waisted pants that Sutton Foster rocked in the title number of Anything Goes — and the legs to go in them? Or every single thing that Yvonne Strahovsky wore in Golden Boy? Hell, we would even take that tattered slip that Anne-Marie Duff wore in Macbeth, if we could figure out a place to wear it besides our next Tinder date.

Which brings us to Rocky. The New York Times apparently thinks this is a show for dudes, but if you’ve ever seen any of the six Rocky films, or sauntered down to the Winter Garden Theater in the last week or so, you will of course be reminded that this is basically just a manly story about a woman. And that woman is Rocky’s reluctant girlfriend, Adrian.

She is the reason why Rocky cavorts with tiny reptiles. She is the singer of several heartfelt songs. And she is, ultimately, the reason to win the big fight. (SO MANY SPOILERS.)

And also, we want all her clothes. OK, well, we want Rocky, as played by the endlessly shirtless Andy Karl. But mostly, we want her clothes.

Of course, you’re not supposed to want Adrian’s clothes, as the show — and six films — have taken pains to remind us. Because Adrian, as the story goes, is shy, verging on spinsterhood, and figuratively and possibly literally beaten down by her brute of a brother. But as Les Miserables and Zoolander have consistently reminded us through the years, the fashion of the downtrodden in one ouvre is the runway-ready style of the next.

So, if you see any midi skirts, cat-eye glasses, cute little knit hats, gleaming cherry-red wraparound Christmas frocks, and twee plaid winter coats lying around, please send them straight this way. As for low-heeled Oxfords, we already bought those, and here they are. Enjoy!

 

 

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