Fences comes home to the Curran Theatre

FENCESDenzel Washington is Troy Maxson and Viola Davis is his wife, Rose Maxson, in the screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences. The Paramount Pictures release, which Washington directs as well as stars in, opens Christmas Day everywhere. Below: Washington’s Troy walks home from work with Jim Bono, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, a veteran of Wilson’s plays. Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Hard to know which was more exciting: the art or the venue. Let’s go with both.

The Curran Theatre formally reopened Thursday, Dec. 15, after more than a year of renovations and refurbishments, and it’s gorgeous. In shades of elegance and Curran red, Carole Shorenstein Hays’ palace has once again cast open its doors.

The first official event, preceding the January bow of the Fun Home tour (get tickets now), was a homecoming of sorts. Thirty years ago, Hays launched August Wilson’s Fences, a play that would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and sweep the 1987 Tony Awards. But before its Broadway glory, the play bowed at the Curran, and this week, the play returned in a manner of speaking. Denzel Washington directs and stars in the movie adaptation of the play, and the film had its San Francisco premiere at the Curran followed by a panel discussion with Washington, members of the cast (sadly, the busy Davis was absent due to work commitments) and Costanza Romero, a costume designer and Wilson’s widow.

There were more San Francisco roots in play: Washington spent some of his formative years nearly 40 years ago studying with the Curran’s neighbor, the American Conservatory Theater and worked across the street at the now-shuttered soup emporium, Salmagundi’s. After the movie screening and the panel discussion, Washington did something he said he’d always wanted to do but never imagined he could: he took a bow on the Curran stage.

It was a well-earned bow, certainly for Washington’s extraordinary body of work, his two Academy Awards and the stature he holds as one of the best of the best. But it’s also well earned for his achievement in Fences, a beautiful adaptation of the play that feels opened up (but not too much and not egregiously) and keeps the focus on the language and the performances, all of which are stellar. Music and underscore are used sparingly because, as Washington said, “the magic of August’s words, those are the notes. You don’t need an orchestra for Shakespeare. There’s Williams, Miller, O’Neill, Albee and Wilson. August’s work is rich, deep and wide.”


One reason the performances are so good may have to do with the fact that most of the cast (minus the younger actors who got too old) were in the 2010 Broadway revival that, once again, nabbed a passel of Tonys, this time for best revival and for its stars, Washington and Davis. Their chemistry and connection can be felt, even on screen, which is rare. And the supporting cast is just as good, especially Stephen McKinley Henderson, who plays best friend and fellow Pittsburgh garbage man to Washington’s Troy Maxson. Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s war-wounded brother Gabe does such finely tuned, extraordinary work it would seem his performance was always destined to be captured on screen. Russell Hornsby is Troy’s older son, Lyons, and Jovan Adepo makes a remarkable big-screen debut as Troy and Rose’s son, Cory.

Washington says he has fond memories of seeing the original Broadway production of Fences starring James Earl Jones, Mary Alice and Courtney B. Vance, so when producer Scott Rudin and Paramount Pictures approached him about seven years ago to talk about a movie, he was interested, but he wanted to do the play first. That’s how the revival was born. Now, six years later, Washington and his “core squad,” as Washington calls them, have returned. It’s rare for a movie adaptation to feature so many members of a stage company, but Washington says, “I remember when I was in A Soldier’s Play and when they made the movie, they used me and Adolph Caesar from the original cast but passed over another actor, Samuel L. Jackson. When it came time to make Fences, I thought, why should I go anywhere else? The band was tight. We had 114 some performances. It would be hard to get in the band.”

So, with his dream cast, Washington decided to film the movie in the actual location where it (and all of Wilson’s work) takes place: the Hill District in Pittsburgh. The choice lends even more richness to a film that is already dense with drama, remarkable language and performances that stun.

Washington says he felt Wilson, who died in 2005, on the set with him. There’s a scene toward the end of the film, when much of the cast is assembled, and a gate in the yard opens by itself. “That happened on its own,” Washington insists. “I knew August was with us and that we were all right.”

There will be more Wilson adaptations for the screen. The playwright’s epic 10-play cycle about African-American life in the 20th century, one play per decade (Fences is the ’50s), has been optioned by HBO with Washington producing. The idea is to do one play from the cycle each year for the next nine years. “We already have a script for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom [set in the 1920s and the only one of the plays not set in Pittsburgh].”

Before taking that bow onstage at the Curran, Washington added, “This work, these plays, these movies – this is what I was meant to be doing at this time in my life.”

Fences, rated PG-13, opens wide Dec. 25.

[bonus trailer]

Seducing Amy Glazer (away from the stage)

Charlie Barker 3 copy
Stephen Barker Turner is the title character in the Amy Glazer-directed feature Seducing Charlie Barker, based on Theresa Rebeck’s play The Scene. Below: Theater and film director Amy Glazer. Photo by Lisa Keating

Theater folk know Amy Glazer as one of the busiest directors in Bay Area theater. But she also has a burgeoning career as a film director, which is no surprise given that she grew up on movie sets.

I interviewed Glazer for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle pegging to the release of her second full-length feature, Seducing Charlie Barker, which is based on Theresa Rebeck’s play The Scene, which Glazer directed at SF Playhouse in 2008. (Read my review of that production here.)

You can read my interview with Glazer here.

Amy Glazer head shot

As usual, there wasn’t quite enough room in the newspaper for every interesting thing Glazer had to say. Given that she’s becoming a specialist in turning plays she directed on stage into movies, I asked her what the secret of adaptation is.

“First, you have to pick the best of the dialogue, the greatest hits,” she says. “It’s hardly surprising that playwrights are now in demand as TV writers. They write great dialogue and great characters, and film needs that. Then you have to learn to show and not tell. Wherever a play is relying on the grammar of drama, like using dialogue to create exposition, that has to become a scene or somehow it has to inform the visual picture. I discovered ways of including details that can be more powerful than dialogue.”

I also asked her how the movie world feels about plays becoming movies. “People in the know that at the end of the day, a movie has to come from good writing,” Glazer says. “Those people do not have an attitude about turning plays into movies. They understand that you’re not just shooting the play as a movie. You’re deconstructing the world of the play for a film because film is a visual medium and can only sustain so much dialogue. Film condenses time, which is something I didn’t understand on my first movie. I’ve definitely had a learning curve.”

Glazer and her producing partner, Lynn Webb, have formed a production company called Beshert, a Yiddish word meaning destiny or kismet, and they have four projects in pre-production, all based on plays Glazer loves and has directed.

“I’d love to get old doing this. Or stay young doing this,” she says.

Visit the official Seducing Charlie Barker website here.

Watch the Seducing Charlie Barker trailer:

Official Seducing Charlie Barker Trailer from Seducing Charlie Barker on Vimeo.

Enter Stage Left: SF theater history on film

Stage Left 1
Robin Williams is interviewed in a scene from the documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco.

Docuemntary film director/producer Austin Forbord (below right) has created a fascinating documentary about the history of San Francisco theater from the post-World War II days up to the present. The movie has its premeire at the Mill Valley Film Festival this week and will likely see wider release soon after.
Austn Forbord
I interviewed Forbord for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the story here.

The extraordinary cast of interviewees includes: Robert Woodruff, Chris Hardman, Christina Augello, Robin Williams, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Tony Taccone, David Weissman, Misha Berson, Cynthia Moore, Luis Valdez, Peter Coyote, Herbert Blau, Robert Hurwitt, Jean Schiffman, Anna Halprin, Mort Subotnick, RG Davis, Joan Holden, Oskar Eustis, Richard E.T. White. Larry Eilenberg, Bill Irwin, Jeffery Raz, Kimi Okada, Geoff Hoyle, Joy Carlin, Carey Perloff, Bill Ball, Ed Hastings, Bernard Weiner, Charles “Jimmy” Dean, Robert Ernst, Paul Dresher, John O’Keefe, Leonard Pitt, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Pam Tent, John Fisher, Melissa Hillman, Brad Erickson, Philip Gotanda, John LeFan, Dan Hoyle, Stanley Williams and Krissy Keefer.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

You can keep up to date on the movie’s trajectory at the oficial website (click here).

`Chorus Line’ documentary high kicks to glory

Finally caught up with the outstanding documentary Every Little Step about casting the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line.

Though some Chorus Line purists balked at the revival, I was pretty fond of it, mostly because I got to cover its out-of-town tryout at the Curran Theatre here in San Francisco as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series in the early fall of 2006. (I also got to attend the cast album recording session at Skywalker Ranch.)

The best thing about the movie (produced and directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo), though, has nothing to do with the revival and everything to do with the creative process behind the original production. The original interview tapes Michael Bennett made late one night when he gathered a group of dancers (including Donna McKechnie, who would originate the role of Cassie, which was pretty much based on her anyway). Listening to those tapes (happily transcribed on screen, though not always completely accurately) is astonishing because there are lines directly lifted from those conversations that are key moments of dialogue in the show. The movie doesn’t go into the controversy that raged for years about how those people on whom the show is based were (or were not) compensated.

But it’s clear that Bennett was a genius and A Chorus Line exists because of his creative motor and his ability to surround himself with talented people like Edward Kleban (lyricist), Marvin Hamlisch (composer) and book writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante.

There’s great footage from the original 1975 production, especially of the extraordinary McKechnie performing “The Music and the Mirror,” and some fascinating interview footage of Bennett (who gave one of the all-time great Tony acceptance speeches, which is seen at the end of the movie and in the clip below).

The casting process for the revival is pretty interesting as well. Director Bob Avian (who co-choreographed the original production) works alongside casting director Jay Binder and choreographer Baayork Lee (the original Connie) to find just the right people – original but adhering closely to the specific requirements of the characters.

What impressed me about watching the eight-month-long audition process is just how hard performers work and what a grueling process auditioning is (hey, it’s a lot like what you see on stage in A Chorus Line). It’s interesting to see Nikki Snelson come this close to getting the role of Val (“Dance Ten, Looks Three”). She seems really burned by the process and the fact that she didn’t get cast. But then she gets the last laugh (though you wouldn’t know it from the movie): she landed the role of Cassie in the Broadway tour of the revival production (which we saw in San Francisco last summer—read my review here).

We also see Rick Faugno come close to getting cast as Mike (“I Can Do That”), but what the movie doesn’t add is that even though Faugno lost the role to Jeffrey Schecter, he lands the role of Frankie Valli in the Las Vegas production of Jersey Boys.

Another great thing about this movie is that we finally get a celluloid representation of the film that is true to the spirit of the show. The 1985 Richard Attenborough-directed film just doesn’t do it.

By far the film’s most affecting scene is the audition of Jason Tam for the key role of Paul, who delivers a shattering monologue about his parents catching him performing in a seedy Times Square drag theater. If you want to see what a phenomenal audition looks like, check out the way Tam reduces all the Chorus Line veterans behind the table into quivering puddles of tears. Avian and Binder can’t really even speak afterward except to say, “Sign him up.”

Here’s the movie trailer:

A jolly holiday with the Sherman Brothers

My love of things Disney is no secret, so imagine what a thrill it was to get a chance to talk with Disney songwriter Richard M. Sherman about his long-running rift with songwriting partner and brother Robert B. Sherman and about the just-released documentary about their lives and careers, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story, which was made by Richard’s son Gregory V. Sherman and Robert’s son Jeffrey C. Sherman. The cousins grew up mere blocks from one another in Beverly Hills but didn’t get to know each other until adults because their fathers did not socialize, nor did they allow their families to socialize.

Ah, families.

I wrote a feature on Richard M. Sherman and the movie for the San Francisco Examiner. Read it here.

I also reviewed the movie (four stars) for the Examiner. Read it here.

Both pieces are pretty short, so here’s some bonus Richard M. Sherman.

On his and Bob’s love of Walt Disney: “We were under the wing of a genius. He pushed us that much further, gave us these giant assignments. We adored him, and he was fantastic to us. Let it never be said that Walt was just a figurehead. He was an inspiration to everyone he worked with and was totally a hands-on producer no matter who was directing, writing or composing.”

On his son and nephew collaborating on the film: “It’s another Sherman partnership. Fate has wonderful twists and turns. They came to us about five years ago and asked for permission to do the story of our careers and our life together. I thought, `Sounds good to me.’ I didn’t realize they were going to get so in depth. It’s really an intense documentary.”

On the lesser-known work: “There are songs in a lot of different pictures I’m fond of. I love Shelby Flint’s recording of `Do You Remember me?’ from Snoopy Come Home. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous recording. She sang it with all her heart. There are other obscure things I like: 1Tell Him Anything But Not That I Love Him’ from The Slipper and the Rose — that’s a very mature piece. We’ve written a lot of songs people don’t know. They tend to remember the funny, clever ones.”

On Busker Alley, a Broadway-bound musical that never got to Broadway: “It’s a great show. I’d love to see it re-mounted. I always keep a little prayer in my heart. Who knows? Tomorrow is another day. I’m an optimistic guy. Always have been. There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow!”

On a favorite memory: “It was the opening of Mary Poppins, a gigantic party. My folks were there, and when they went over to Walt, my dad said, `Thank you for the opportunity you’ve given my sons.’ Walt shook my dad’s hand and said, `Al, I want to thank you for your sons.'”

Here’s a preview of the documentary:

All that Chazz…

Let’s go watch a Chazz Palminteri movie … with Chazz Palminteri!

While the venerable movie and stage actor is in town with his one-man show, A Bronx Tale (Sept. 23-Oct. 19 at the Golden Gate Theatre), he’s going to head up Market Street to the Castro Theatre for a screening the 1994 Woody Allen movie Bullets Over Broadway in which he stars as a brainy thug named Cheech, who’s a much better writer than the playwright David Shayne played by John Cusack. The role nabbed Palminteri an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

Here’s one of my favorite exchanges between Cheech and David:

David Shayne: You’re gonna write it?
Cheech: What am I? A fuckin’ idiot? They taught me how to read and write in school before I burned it down.
David Shayne: You burned down your school?
Cheech: Yeah, it was Lincoln’s birthday. There was nobody there.

Palminteri will submit himself to a Q&A session after the movie, and I will serve as moderator.

Please join us. The movie is at 7 p.m., Monday, Sept. 22. The Castro Theatre is at 429 Castro St., San Francisco. Admission is $9.50 general, $7 for seniors (62 and up) and children (12 and younger).

You can also enter to win tickets to A Bronx Tale (visit www.shnsf.com for information about the show).

Visit www.castrotheatre.com for information about the movie screening.

Now here’s a sneak preview of Bullets Over Broadway (alas, Palminteri isn’t in this clip, but Harvey Fierstein and Dianne Wiest, in her Academy Award-winning role, are):

Robots in love: WALL-E meets `Dolly’

Not only is Pixar’s WALL-E an extraordinary movie – it’s also, in its strange way, a paean to musical theater.

You just don’t head into a computer-animated film set in the 2100s to feature tunes by the great Jerry Herman, but that’s exactly what you get. WALL-E is about a soulful little robot, one of the last moving creatures on Earth (save for his faithful and resilient cockroach friend), whose duty is to compact the mounds of garbage humans left on the planet into stackable little cubes.

How WALL-E the robot got his soul is left for us to ponder, but this adorable little guy – a cross between E.T., the robot from Short Circuit and a little bit of V.I.N.C.E.N.T from Disney’s The Black Hole – is fascinated by the detritus of humanity. When he comes across items that intrigue him, he throws them into a little cooler and takes them home to the Dumpster he lives in (and has festooned with Christmas lights). One of his favorite items is an old VHS tape copy of the 1969 movie Hello, Dolly! starring Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau. Using an old VCR, an iPod and some sort of magnifying lens, WALL-E watches two scenes over and over again: “Before the Parade Passes By” with Michael Crawford as Cornelius Hackl strutting down the street and the ballad “It Only Takes a Moment” with Crawford crooning sweetly with Marianne McAndrew as Irene Molloy.

There’s no Streisand or Matthau in sight (which is probably for the best – Hello, Dolly!, though directed by Gene Kelly, is not a great movie musical). Rather, WALL-E is attracted to the high stepping of “Sunday Clothes” and the song’s naively romantic message about joining the human race to discover wonderful things and the heart-fluttering, hand-holding romance of “It Only Takes a Moment.” The fact that the movie and the original 1964 Broadway musical are based on a Thornton Wilder play (The Matchmaker) all play into the movie’s core message about the vital importance of connection and consciousness.

WALL-E director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) understands the potent romance of musical theater – the same thing that people who hate musicals deride as silly and unrealistic. In a post-apocalyptic setting, Herman’s sweet music represents an idealistic side of humanity not visible for all the junk and rubble. That’s what little WALL-E responds to – he wants to dance and be in love like Cornelius Hackl.

There’s a scene of WALL-E trying to dance with a hubcap for a hat that is priceless. But that’s just a prelude to the robot’s actual chance to fall in love with EVE, a slick droid sent down from the mother ship (where all the too-fat humans are carried on floating chairs, eyes glued to the screens in front of their faces). Neither of the ‘bots really speaks, so the true expression of their feelings (again, why these robots have developed feelings is mysterious, but intriguing) is by touching, or holding hands, just like Irene and Cornelius do in Hello, Dolly!

Is it corny? Yes. Is it effective? Undeniably.

Stanton comes by his affection for musical theater naturally. Apparently he was in a high school production of Hello, Dolly! See what we risk losing when we cut arts programs from our schools?

And Herman, whose music is so integral to one of the best movies of the year (animated or otherwise), is getting the kind of exposure he deserves. He told the Associated Press: “I’m still blown away by the fact that two songs of mine that are close to 50 years old have been used as the underpinning of the movie.”

Herman sold Pixar the rights to use the songs, but he was unaware of just how they’d be used in the final product. He said the movie brought tears to his eyes. He told the Hartford Courant: “It really blew me away. You’re talking to someone still in a haze. I couldn’t believe how beautifully the songs expressed the entire intent of the film.”

Now it’s time for those geniuses at Pixar, who haven’t made a bad movie yet, to create a full-bore musical of their very own. Maybe they’ll get Jerry Herman to help them out.

Here are clips of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment” from the 1969 movie Hello, Dolly!:

`Brokeback’ sings, `Fair Lady’ redux, `Nine’ lives on

So much information to digest.

First comes news that Annie Proulx’s extraordinary short story, “Brokeback Mountain,” which was turned into a less extraordinary but admirable film, is now becoming an opera. New York City Opera has commissioned American composer Charles Wuorinen to create an opera based on “Brokeback” for the 2013 spring season. I, for one, can’t wait to hear Ennis’ beleaguered wife sing that sure-to-be-hit song “Jack Nasty.”

Why, oh, why? Columbia Pictures and CBS Films are going to remake My Fair Lady with producers Duncan Kenworthy and Cameron Mackintosh.

Yes, the movie is going to be a musical and will feature the famed Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe score, but the gimmick this time out will be on-location shooting rather than in studio sound stages. They also say the film will will incorporate more of George Bernard Shaw’s original play, Pygmalion.

There have been rumors that Keira Knightley has been approached about playing Eliza Doolittle. That’s all well and good (if she can’t sing, Marni Nixon, who dubbed Audrey Hepburn in the movie, is still available, bless her heart), but can we please cast Julie Andrews as Mrs. Higgins?

Rob Marshall’s movie musical follow-up to Chicago (Memoirs of a Geisha doesn’t count because it wasn’t a musical) is going to be Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s Nine, and Daniel Day-Lewis has been confirmed to star as Italian film director Guido Contini. Day-Lewis replaces Javier Bardem, who had to drop out because he refused to get rid of that terrifying bowl cut from No Country for Old Men (kidding — he dropped out because he’s exhausted). Also in the cast, playing the women in Guido’s life are Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman and Judi Dench.

‘Mama,’ Meryl, musings

Got a little excited when I saw the Mamma Mia! trailer in a movie theater recently. With the success of Hairspray last year, it looks like summer is becoming the season for frothy stage musicals turned silver screen tuners.

Here’s one of the trailers. I like this one because it actually shows Meryl Streep singing.

Here’s the trailer I saw in the theater:

Aaargh! The tyranny of ABBA! Why is that music so fun? Mamma Mia! the movie opens July 18.

Cinematic theatrics: A LaGravenese musical?

This holiday weekend I saw some movies on the big screen (Indiana Jones and the blah blah Crystal Skull – exactly what you think it would be, enjoyable but nothing more; Iron Man, which made me love Robert Downey Jr. all over again – oddly more human than Indiana Jones) and at home.

One of the movies I watched at home was P.S. I Love You, a movie I had avoided in theaters because the review chatter was so negative. Why do I listen to reviews? I know better. My mother loved the movie, which should have been my first indication that I should see it. And it was co-written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, the man responsible for one of my favorite movies of all time: Living Out Loud, which is inspired by two Anton Chekhov short stories (“The Kiss” and “Misery”). LaGravenese also co-wrote another favorite, the 1995 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess directed by Alfonso Cuaron.

One of the things I love about Living Out Loud, A Little Princess and now P.S. I Love You is their use of music. LaGravenese clearly cares about music. He doesn’t just throw pop songs haphazardly onto the screen. He practically writes musicals, but they’re cleverly disguised as straightforward movies. In Living Out Loud, Queen Latifah is a nightclub singer, and actually demonstrates her chops by singing some standards (“Lush Life,” “Goin’ Out of My Head”), and there are a couple scenes in which leading lady Holly Hunter is lifted by music: once (on Ecstasy) at a lesbian dance club and once to the strains of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime.”

Here’s the Ecstasy scene from Living Out Loud:

A Little Princess is a musical in many ways, even if the young stars aren’t singing and dancing around. Patrick Doyle’s enchanting score includes some beautiful songs, though they’re on the soundtrack rather than in the characters’ mouths.

In P.S. I Love You, even star Hilary Swank sings (albeit in a karaoke bar – the one way modern audiences will accept characters breaking into song), as does her leading man, Gerard Butler (whose varied film career includes the title role of Phantom of the Opera and the gladiator epic 300). The movie’s soundtrack includes some great songs by the likes of Flogging Molly, the Pogues (with the divine Kirsty MacColl),Toby Lightman and a band I have discovered great affection for, Camera Obscura. Even co-star Nellie McKay (a formidable singer-songwriter-actress whom you should check out if she’s unknown to you) gets to sing the title song. I could have done without the James Blunt song, but that’s just me.

So my point here is that Richard LaGravenese should just go ahead and make a musical already. It appears that among his next projects is the film adaptation of Douglas Carter Beane’s hilarious play As Bees in Honey Drown (rumored to star Cate Blanchett). That’s wonderful. But how about an honest-to-God LaGravenese musical? Now that’s the movie I want to see.

Here’s a montage from A Little Princess set to the song “Kindle My Heart.”