Grammy’s `Awakening’

With an archaic-sounding category such as the Best Musical Show Album, it’s no wonder the award (and the winners) don’t make it onto the prime-broadcast.

Still, there are those of us who care about show tunes (the REAL alternative music), and we care deeply that Spring Awakening writers Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (lyrics) won the 2008 Grammy in that horrible-sounding category (why can’t it be Best Original Cast Recording?). Spring Awakening beat out A Chorus Line, Company, Grey Gardens and West Side Story.

Music writer and fellow blogger Jim Harrington was at the Grammys and called me Sunday afternoon when Sheik and Sater accepted their award (during the lengthy pre-prime-time awards when most of the winners are announced). Read his full coverage of the event on the Concert Blog.

In other show tune-related Grammy news, Henry Krieger and Siedah Garrett won in the category Best Song Written for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media for “Love You I Do” from the movie Dreamgirls.

Looking ahead: Theater ‘08 highlights

There are some theater treats heading our way in 2008. Here’s a mere sampling.

The show I’m most excited about also seems the furthest away. The national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening is slated to start sometime in the second half of the year, courtesy of SHN/Best of Broadway. Spring Awakening was the best thing I saw on Broadway last year, and I eagerly anticipate the tour and the chance to hear the Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater score performed by exciting young singer/actors.

A close second on the old excitement meter is Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, her autobiographical solo show coming to Berkeley Rep in February.

At SF Playhouse, Theresa Rebeck, a hot-hot playwright at the moment, arrives with the West Coast premiere of her The Scene starring “Melrose Place” alum (and Berkeley native) Daphne Zuniga. The show opens later this month.

At American Conservatory Theater, the most intriguing offering this spring is ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, John Ford’s Jacobean tragedy about a brother and sister who fall in love…with each other. The show begins performances in June.

TheatreWorks in Mountain View ushers in the new year with Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, Third, which begins performances next week. But the real excitement comes in April when the company mounts Caroline, or Change, the astonishing Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical.

At Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, the summer show will be Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, but the big excitement comes at the end of the year when director Mark Jackson (Death of Meyerhold) returns to take a whack at Macbeth in December.

This summer, California Shakespeare Theater gives us some really good reasons to head into the Orinda hills: Jonathan Moscone directs Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (July) and Timothy Near is directing Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (August).

And this one is a little iffy, but should the fates conspire, Thick Description will bring back former Bay Area actor Colman Domingo (fresh from his Broadway turn in the musical Passing Strange) in his autobiographical solo show A Boy and His Soul. Proposed show run is July. Keep your fingers crossed.

Show tunes and fireworks

Every year around the Fourth of July, I like to celebrate something entirely American: the musical.

I’m a little late this year, but it’s my patriotic duty. So here, better late than never, are some show tune suggestions to get you through the summer.

Of course the original cast album of the moment is Spring Awakening (Decca Broadway). The Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater score, performed by the most appealing cast on Broadway, calls out for frequent spins and rewards careful listening.

Almost as appealing, but in an entirely different way, is Curtains (Broadway Angel), the John Kander and Fred Ebb (with help from Rupert Holmes) show that has turned into a reliable hit on Broadway. The score by Kander and the late Ebb is pure, old-fashioned Broadway, with a few of the duo’s famed vamps thrown in for good measure.

The emotional highlight is Jason Danieley’s “I Miss the Music,” which is, in some ways, Kander’s musical memorial to his late writing partner.

Stars David Hyde Pierce and Debra Monk are completely charming, and the disc is highly enjoyable — a classic show music experience. And for theater fans, there are abundant inside jokes (especially on Monk’s “It’s a Business) and a new theater anthem, a la “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in the rousing “Show People.”

The CD from the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of 110 in the Shade (PS Classics) is worth owning for one reason: Audra McDonald. She elevates this 1964 Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones score to fine art. Just listen to her extraordinary performance — both acting and singing — on “Love, Don’t Turn Away,” “Raunchy” and “Old Maid.”

An unusal occurrence in this day and age, Grey Gardens received cast albums for both its off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations. The Broadway album (distinguished by the green cover with star Christine Ebersole wearing a hat and peering around a hand mirror) from PS Classics is the one to own. It’s a more polished version of the score, and the performances (especially from Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, both Tony winners for this show) are even richer. It’s sad that the musical is closing so soon after winning Tonys, but at least the performances are preserved here.

I’ve reviewed the revival CD of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company in this space before, but I have to amend that review. After seeing the show, I fell in love with the CD, especially the performance by Raul Esparza, which I had disparaged after just listening to the disc.

Esparza was amazing onstage, and the disc from Nonesuch/PS Classics captures every bit of warmth and flawed humanity he displays in person.

Finally, we have a disc from one of the season’s major flops. High Fidelity (Ghostlight Records) never should have been a musical, and this disc demonstrates exactly why. Nick Hornby’s story about popular music snobs who work in a record store is full of very strong opinions about what makes music good and what makes it suck. The kind of music delivered here by composer Tom Kitt is exactly the kind of music that the story’s characters would make fun of. Amanda Green’s lyrics are actually pretty clever, but they’re mired in mild-to-murky pop that obscures their charms.

Two more discs to check out: Broadway Scene Stealers: The Women and Broadway Scene Stealers: The Men, both from Playbill Records and Masterworks Broadway. Hardcore show tune enthusiasts will already have most of the cuts on these discs, but they’re excellent surveys of musical theater and don’t have all the usual suspects (for instance, there’s no Andrew Lloyd Webber), and all the cuts are from original cast albums originally released on Columbia or RCA (a benefit of the Sony/BMG merger).

`Spring Awakening’ in San Francisco

The musical gods are smiling on the Bay Area.

It was announced today that the national tour of Spring Awakening — winner of eight 2007 Tony Awards including best musical — will indeed launch in San Francisco as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway 2007-2008 season.

“When I saw Spring Awakening, I was instantly struck by what a vital leap forward this work represents for the American musical,” said SHN founder Carole Shorenstein Hays in a statement. “The show resonates with audiences young and old and touches everyone. Since this is the kind of work SHN is committed to presenting, there was no doubt we would partner with the Spring Awakening creative team to launch the national tour in San Francisco.”

This means that in a little more than a year, Tony-winners Duncan Sheik (score, orchestrations), Steven Sater (book, lyrics), Michael Mayer (direction) and Bill T. Jones (choreography) among others, will be running around San Francisco whipping a whole new cast of youngsters into shape to tell the story of German teens going through adolescent angst.

“Carole Shorenstein Hays is an incredibly passionate producer who is committed to presenting new bodies of work,” Mayer said in a statement. “I couldn’t imagine a better guardian to launch the national tour of Spring Awakening in San Francisco.”

For information visit

`Spring’ awakens

(all photos Associated Press)

For Spring Awakening fans such as myself, Sunday night’s Tony Awards was one of the most exciting in years. Granted, the “medley” of songs performed by the exuberant cast wasn’t great. The girls sang “Mama Who Bore Me,” then the boys sang “The Bitch of Living” (with some slightly re-tooled lyrics), then everybody sang “Totally F***ed” and covered their mouths where they would have used the f-word. Unless you knew that it just looked silly.

Still, eight awards out of 11 nominations is more than enough to make up for the medley.
Herewith, a gallery of choice Awakening moments.

John Gallagher Jr. wins for best supporting actor in a musical and says to director Michael Mayer, “Michael, I’m not the only one whose life you changed this year.”

Steven Sater wins for best book and manages to incorporate the song title “The Bitch of Living” into his speech. He, along with Duncan Sheik, would also go on to win best score.

Duncan Sheik won two awards: best orchestrations (during the non-televised portion) and best score (with Sater). His memorable quote: “Musical theater rocks.”

Bill T. Jones thanked his sisters, including Rhodessa Jones, of San Francisco’s Cultural Odyssey, when accepting his award for best choreography.

Director Michael Mayer finally won a Tony after nominations for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Thoroughly Modern Millie and A View from the Bridge.

And of course there were the “kids” singing and dancing their fool hearts out on the “medley.” (In an interview, Sheik couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “medley.” He described the number as “several songs strung together.”)

Tony red carpet, etc.

(all photos Associated Press)

“Musical theater rocks,” so said Duncan Sheik with a sly smile and a twinkle in his award-drunk eyes during Sunday’s Tony Awards.

Here’s Sheik on the red carpet before the event.

That’s the smile of someone who knows he’s going to win two Tonys (for best score and orchestration for Spring Awakening.

Another gorgeous red carpet arrival was best actess in a musical nominee Audra McDonald (110 in the Shade), who would not go on to win her fifth Tony.

But she would go on to electrify the audience (in Radio City Music Hall and at home) with the number “Raunchy” alongside co-star (and fellow nominee) John Cullum.

Returning to the red carpet, here’s the lovely Laura Bell Bundy, nominee for best actress in a musical for her role as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. To no one’s surprise, Bundy did not win, and Blonde failed to win in any category.

Looking like the Broadway royalty she is, Angela Lansbury, a best actress in a play nominee for Deuce, arrives. That’s Harry Connick Jr.’s daughter in the rear looking at Lansbury adoringly (“Daddy! It’s the voice of Mrs. Potts!). Lansbury lost to an ecstatic Julie White for The Little Dog Laughed, but she was a gracious ad hoc host.

Cutest married couple award on the red carpet goes to Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs. Neither was nominated but they should have received an award for looking so good.

I am thrilled that David Hyde Pierce, by all accounts a marvelous guy, was the surprise winner for best actor in a musical (for Curtains), but I was a little disappointed for Raul Esparza, who is electrifying as Bobby in the John Doyle revival of Company (which won best musical revival). On the red carpet he was clearly amused by the whole shebang.

Esparza’s performance of “Being Alive” during the awards was just a taste of how good he is in this show.

Another cutest couple award goes to a non-couple: presenters Cynthia Nixon and Felicity Huffman, who should definitely find a project to work on together.

Speaking of couples, hard to resist including a snap of Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts. In Hollywood that’s called a baby bump. In New York, it’s called pregnancy.

In the realm of manufactured couples, here are the reality show castees Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, who will be starring on Broadway in the much-needed revival of Grease.

Tony Week: Here’s Steven Sater

Steven Sater is heading into Sunday’s Tony Awards ceremony with two nominations of his own and 11 total for his show, Spring Awakening. Sater is nominated as lyricist, along with composer Duncan Sheik, for best score and for best book of a musical (which he based on Franz Wedekind’s play of the same name).

On the phone from his New York home, Sater says he’s been walking through the busy awards season in a “semi-delirious state.’’

“I truly haven’t been thinking about awards a lot,’’ he says. “I usually live in an absorbed state, focused on the thing I’m working on, which, right now, is about five things. But when I’m in front of other people accepting an award, I find myself surprisingly moved. This has been such a long, hard journey. To have the kind of reception we’ve had, to win these awards. It’s completely remarkable.’’

As a playwright, Sater is probably best known for “Carbondale Dreams’’ and “Perfect for You.’’ Buddhism, aside from any spiritual benefits, has been good to Sater. Through Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organization, he met his wife, Lori, and Sheik.

Sater asked Sheik to collaborate on a play called “Umbrage,’’ and their collaboration was born. Their work can be heard on Sheik’s contemplative album “Phantom Moon’’ and then in the play with music, “Nero (Another Golden Rome),’’which was the title when it opened last year at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. Now that still-being-revised work is simply called “Nero.’’

The duo was only warming up for what would become “Spring Awakening,’’ a musical based on an 1891 German play about the repression of teenagers and their sexual, intellectual and spiritual urges.

In the 8 ½ years they’ve been working together, Sater and Sheik have learned and grown.

“Duncan and I were close right away,’’ Sater says of his collaborator. “We have a connection, and it’s really profound. To me, it’s kind of mystic. We have this relationship based on faith. We have created these things of such beauty together. That’s the only way I can describe it. What we’ve done together neither of us could have conceived doing on our own. I certainly didn’t ever see myself writing musicals or even writing song lyrics.’’

The two New Yorkers spend a lot of time together and, earlier this year, attended a TheatreWorks writers’ retreat in Mountain View to work on their next musical, “The Nightingale,’’ a loose adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale set in Ancient China in the Forbidden City.

“Duncan and I are close friends,’’ Sater says. “We’ve both grown in what we’ve learned about the musical form, and this new life opened up for each of us. Duncan had a different kind of success than I had in the pop world. I was more of a writerly guy. Still am. We’ve gone through a huge life experience together – a number of them, really. We still talk about everything.’’

“Spring Awakening’’ is a bold musical – both a period piece and completely contemporary – that is sort of a mash-up of concert and heavy-duty play dealing with sex, abortion, suicide and friendship. It’s not exactly Rodgers and Hammerstein, and that’s what Sater says he and Sheik were after.

“From the beginning we wanted to do something different,’’ he says. “Duncan wanted to do something different musically, and I wanted to do something different both with the lyrics and the book. The songs we love and that remain part of us, take us into the heart and soul of the singer. The singer becomes the song. That’s what we wanted to write — not songs forwarding the plot of the story. That is writing the surface instead of the depth.’’

That doesn’t mean they could throw just any song into any scene.

“We still had to find a way for the songs to tell the story, serve the dramatic moment and, yes, move the story forward,’’ Sater says. “There’s easily an album, if not a double album’s worth of songs we wrote for the show that didn’t make it in, any number of which are as good as the ones in the show.’’

The central idea became the creation of a play – not simply a book linking songs – that took place alongside, as Sater describes it, “an incredible concert of the same material unfolding in your heart, deepening your investment in the story. I was inspired by great plays I love and by `West Side Story,’ `Carousel’ and `Porgy and Bess.’ ’’

A published version of Sater’s book and lyrics was supposed to be out in time for the Tonys but won’t be out until about a week later from Theatre Communications Group.

Thinking about Sundays’ Tony Awards, Sater says he has his suit picked out (he bought it with Sheik when they were meeting in Los Angeles), but he hasn’t written a speech.

“I’m nominated in two categories, and you don’t want to set yourself up,’’ he says. “Will they divide the wealth? Hard to know. I have things in mind I’d like to say. As we get closer I’ll have to think more about it.’’

Here’s Sater picking up a Drama Desk Award (his last line is classic):

Tony Week! Chatting with Duncan Sheik

As we head toward the Tony Awards telecast on Sunday, June 10, I will be offering interviews with folks from my favorite musical of the season, Spring Awakening. Up first, composer Duncan Sheik.

Last time I interviewed Duncan Sheik it was February 2006, and we were sitting in his bedroom at the back of his tour bus in front of San Francisco’s Independent concert venue.

Sheik was in full-on rock-star mode, sipping a glass of wine next to a giant pile of laundry that partially obscured the big flat-screen TV on the wall. He had a play with music about to open at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre (Nero, Another Golden Rome) and there was big buzz about his and Steven Sater’s impending musical version of the Wedekind play Spring Awakening.

A lot has happened in the last year. Nero, another collaboration with Sater, didn’t generate much buzz, but Spring Awakening became the most talked-about new musical of the year, with the Atlantic Theater Company’s off-Broadway production transferring to Broadway, becoming a big hit and scoring 11 Tony Award nominations.

On the phone from his New York home, Sheik says he’s OK with being called a “theater guy.’’

“I’m feeling like a jack of all trades, and that’s not a bad thing,’’ he says. “I really do enjoy working in different mediums – film, theater, recorded music. They all have their different challenges and different aspects that are fulfilling creatively. Obviously, it’s the theater stuff that has kind of taken off for the moment. We’re enjoying that ride.’’

It’s a ride that will likely give him the “Tony Award-winner’’ prefix for the rest of his music career come Sunday’s Tony ceremonies.

The pre-Tony award ride has been, in a word, smashing for Spring Awakening. At the Drama Desk Awards, the show won best musical, Michael Mayer won best director, Sater won for lyrics and Sheik won for music.

The musical also scored major awards from the Lucille Lortel Awards, New York Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics Circle and the Drama League, leaving Sheik and his cohorts with high hopes for the Tonys.

“It’s been sort of fun the last couple of weeks,’’ Sheik says. “We’ve done well with the awards leading up to the Tonys, but the problem is your expectations get higher than they should be. I have to keep a lid on it internally. I need to go into the Tonys thinking anything can happen. I’ll cross my fingers and hope for the best, but with 11 nominations, I don’t have enough fingers to cross.’’

Having been called the best rock musical ever and even the best musical adaptation of a play since My Fair Lady, Spring Awakening is getting the kind of praise and attention that Sheik first received when he burst onto the pop charts in 1996 with “Barely Breathing.’’

“I’m not going to say I don’t enjoy all the congratulations and everything,’’ Sheik says. “It has been really great. The Tonys are a big deal because they do have an effect on how long the show runs on Broadway and whether the show will tour extensively through the U.S. or overseas. It’s important for all of us that we do well at the Tonys. We all want to see the show continue to grow and have a long life.’’

Speaking of the Spring Awakening tour, there have been rumblings about the tour starting in San Francisco. Sheik has heard those rumblings as well, but he acknowledges, “That’s not my department.’’

“It would be great if the tour started in San Francisco. The Bay Area would be an excellent place to start the tour. There’s an amazing theatergoing audience there that would probably respond really well to the piece.’’

When Sheik and Sater were in San Francisco working Nero at the Magic, they saw American Conservatory Theater’s production of The Black Rider,the Tom Waits-William S. Burroughs-Robert Wilson musical.

“That was an extraordinary show, and Steven and I sat in that theater saying, `This is such a great Spring Awakening audience here in this room.’’’

ACT artistic director Carey Perloff is reportedly a big fan of Spring Awakening and approached Sheik about composing a score – mostly underscore, though there may be a song or two – for next season’s production of Tis a Pity She’s a Whore.

“She wanted to do something that was kind of edgy and intense and out there,’’ Sheik explains. “It’s more instrumental and scene transition music, which I’ve done before in the Public Theater’s Twelfth Night in Central Park. I’m interested in jumping into a different side of music for the theater, where it’s not necessarily a musical.’’

Not that Sheik is anywhere near abandoning his burgeoning musical theater career. In fact, the success of Spring Awakening is making people listen to Sheik’s work a little differently these days.

“Before, the things Steven and I were working on were long shots, but now they have a chance to see the light of day,’’ Sheik says. “That means people have a certain amount of respect for our vision, how we work on these shows. We do take a different approach to musical theater than most folks. It’s an eccentric thing we’re doing, breaking quite a few rules and looking the other way from certain conventions and formulas. It’s nice that people seem to respond to these different approaches in a more positive manner.’’

Sheik and Sater continue to work on Nero, which after a number of title changes, is called (or so Sheik thinks at the moment) The Golden Rooms of Nero. There may be a workshop at the Public later this summer.

Another musical project in the works a commission from the Stamford Center for the Performing Arts in Stamford, Conn., is Whisper House, with a script by Kyle Jarrow. It’s about a boy whose father is killed in World War II, so he goes to live in a lighthouse with his aunt and deals with ghosts, fears, grief and confusion.

“I’m just getting started on that one,’’ Sheik says.

A project that’s farther along is his next collaboration with Sater, The Nightingale, a sort of musical fairy tale set in ancient China. The next workshop of that show may be under the auspices of ACT.

“We’re going to do a workshop with (director) James Lapine later this fall, probably here in New York but possibly in San Francisco,’’ Sheik says. “ACT would be an amazing theater to work with on that show. We’re hoping everything comes together to make that happen.’’

Amid all the Spring Awakening Tony Award hoopla, one writer described Sheik as a “former pop singer.’’ But don’t believe it.

In September, Sheik is going into the studio with David Poe (who performed onstage with Sheik at last year’s San Francisco concert) and other downtown New York singer-songwriters. He says he also has a covers album concept he’d like to record this year.

“Then, next year, I think I’ll start getting together material for a proper Duncan Sheik album,’’ he says.

If you trawl around YouTube (or look below), you can find video of Sheik singing songs from “Spring Awakening,’’ and he says demo recordings exist of him singing most of the score’s songs. He may eventually record his own show tunes for an album encompassing Spring Awakening, Nero, Whisper House and The Nightingale.

“That’s something I still have to think about,’’ he says. “It seems I’ve released a lot of records in the last year and a half. Don’t want to glut the market. There will be more albums and more film scores. At the moment, I’m enjoying my theater moment.’’

Visit the Spring Awakening Web site here.

Here’s Sheik singing the final song in Spring Awakening, “Song of Purple Summer”

Tony party planning

OK, people, time to start planning those Tony Award viewing parties for Sunday, June 10 on CBS.

We’ve got to get those dismal ratings up, so if you’re having people over, make sure they’re still setting their TiVos (and VCRs if you’re archaic) to record the telecast. If you’re a Nielsen family, do some creative figuring and say you watched the Tonys on all five of your TVs.

The show’s organizers have begun talking about what we’ll be seeing.

Audra McDonald will sing “Raunchy” from 110 in the Shade, for which she is nominated in the best actress in a musical category.

Christine Ebersole will sing “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” which happens to be the best song in Grey Gardens, for which Ebersole is competing with McDonald in the best actress category.

The cast of Curtains, featuring David Hyde Pearce, will peform “Show People” and the adorable cast of Spring Awakening (so I’m biased — sue me) will perform a medley from the Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater score. The cast of Mary Poppins will perform — probably the TV-ready “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

The revival of A Chorus Line will likely trot out “One” again (we’ve seen that baby everywhere, from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to “The View”), and Raul Esparza will probably sing “Being Alive” from the revival of Company.

Fantasia, a recent replacement in the hit The Color Purple, is also slated to perform.

There won’t be a host (sorry, Nathan Lane) this year, but the list of presenters is impressive and includes Harry Connick Jr., Claire Danes, Neil Patrick Harris, Anne Heche, Marg Helgenberger, Felicity Huffman, Eddie Izzard, Jane Krakowski, Angela Lansbury, Robert Sean Leonard, Cynthia Nixon, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Plummer, Liev Schreiber, John Turturro, Usher, Vanessa Williams, Rainn Wilson and the cast of Jersey Boys.

Tony, Tony, Tony

Tony nominations were announced this morning, and to my great delight, Spring Awakening nabbed a leading 11 nominations, including two acting noms for Jonathan Groff (best actor in a musical) and John Gallagher Jr. (best featured actor in a musical).

Grey Gardens received 10 nominations, including one for Christine Ebersole (best actress in a musical), whom many consider the front runner.

In the play categories, Tom Stoppard’s mammoth, three-play cycle The Coast of Utopia snagged 10 nominations. In the acting categories, the best actress slot is filled with Broadway royalty: Angela Lansbury (Deuce), Vanessa Redgrave (The Year of Magical Thinking) and Swoosie Kurtz (Heartbreak House). Tough choice.

Bay Area theater fans got the first peek at several nominees:

Legally Blonde scored seven nominations: best book (Heather Hach); score (Music & Lyrics: Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin); actress (Laura Bell Bundy); featured actor (Christian Borle); featured actress (Orfeh); choreography (Jerry Mitchell); costume design (Gregg Barnes).

A Chorus Line received two nominations: best musical revival and featured actress (Charlotte d’Amboise).

Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me received one surprising nomination: featured actor (Brooks Ashmanskas).

One of the two nominees for special theatrical event is Kiki & Herb Alive on Broadway, which comes to San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater this summer. The other “special” nominee is the ventriloquism show Jay Johnson: The Two and Only.

For a complete list of nominations, visit the American Theatre Wing Web site.

The Tony Awards will be broadcast on June 10 on CBS. Start planning the party now.