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All the World's a Stage - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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September 6th, 2007


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11:24 pm - All the World's a Stage
In the last couple weeks, I've been to a lot of unconventional theatre.

On August 22, we saw Avenue Q at the Orpheum ($55). I was very excited, of course, since I had been hearing about it for years. And while I'm not sure it totally blew my mind, I definitely enjoyed it a lot. I especially liked the little Sesame Street-esque videos played between scenes; they were such an essential part of the show that it made me think about the limitations of putting it on. Of course, the major limitation of putting the show on is finding puppeteers who can act and sing. It was really amazing to watch the puppeteers because they, as actors, had to keep the focus off themselves. In the world of the play, they're not really there. They're not part of the show. The puppet is the character; they're just in charge of it. It helps that they're dressed in dark, regular clothes, whereas the puppets are very colorful, drawing your eye. The really interesting thing about watching them perform is their faces: they must remain emotionless while still emoting vocally. They must control the puppet's physical acting while not physically acting themselves. It must be fucking insane. Add to all that the fact that you have to be extremely talented to sing that well in muppet voice.

The show itself is a lot of fun, and pretty soon, you stop noticing the actors so much and see the puppets as characters. You sympathize with them and everything! The story is typical musical fare, but unlike most musicals, this show includes onstage sex. Between puppets.

The songs are very cute and in the style of Sesame Street songs, usually, but with more adult subject matter. You've probably heard of the most popular songs like "The Internet Is for Porn" and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." Another favorite of mine was "I Wish I Could Go Back to College." What I loved about the show was the fact that, because it was all cutesy and puppety and dirty at the same time, it could get away with being, well, honest. The resolution to Princeton's story was not what I expected, but it was realistic. Avenue Q is the truest musical I have ever seen.

(Trivia: I have no idea what a swing is in terms of the show, but one of the swings was the voice of Suki!! How cool is that?!)

Two days later, on Friday, I saw Aaah! Rosebud! ($18.42) at the Thunderbird Theatre. You may remember that I saw Release the Kraken! there last year. This year, they were taking on Citizen Kane, telling the tale of William Orson Kane and his evil sled. It's hard to put the play into words because it is, of course, so very absurd. What Citizen Kane parody would be complete without the great sport of curling, freakishly slow zombies, and a show-stopping musical number? Not to mention a fight with day-old baguettes? The Thunderbird Theatre clearly does not care to illuminate any great truths of humanity, but they want to be creative and entertaining, and they succeed.

And, finally, last night, I saw Sweeney Todd ($47) at A.C.T. This was the Tony-winning Broadway revival production where the actors doubled as the orchestra. And, really, they tripled as the stagehands. The ten actors were always onstage. Usually, they were off to the sides if they weren't in a scene, functioning as the mini-pit, but they carried their instruments with them from place to place, sometimes leaving them to be transferred to another actor. Sometimes they would sing or speak dialogue while playing. Usually, the instruments were like the actors in Avenue Q: you weren't supposed to pay attention to them; they weren't really in the scene. Sometimes, however, Mrs. Lovett would come out and shake her ass while playing the tuba.

The conceit of the production is that the play is a flashback/story/performance in a mental institution. You begin and end in an asylum, and Jesus God, I forgot how fucking creepy "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is. It gave me chills. The show proper is intact as far as I know, but the minimalist staging forces the audience to use its imagination a lot. Scenery isn't a priority, nor is blocking. Since some actors, particularly the cellists, are not as mobile as others, dialogue is often delivered straight forward; neither character is addressing the other onstage, but you can tell from the dialogue that they're talking to each other. It's a little confusing and distracting, honestly, and I have to think there's a better way around the complicated staging required to accomodate actor-musicians. Actor-musician-stagehands, as I said. The major prop is a giant coffin that turns into a platform or a table or a closet or whatever. You can play a cello on top of it! You can hide your violin in it! It's a very versatile coffin!

I think what I love about Sondheim is that he doesn't craft catchy songs. They're not runaway pop hits. That is, yes, some songs do sound quite song-like and follow familiar patterns. But, mostly, he's not "writing songs." He's allowing the characters to communicate through song. The lyrics and music fit whatever they need to say and how they need to say it. The songs tell the story, not interrupt it. And Sweeney Todd is almost all songs, with very little plain, spoken dialogue. Which means the actors hardly ever get a break, since they're playing the whole time.

It was a very cool production, although I kept comparing it to the production I saw at Rice, which I really liked. The actors didn't play any instruments there, but it was still good! In particular, I missed Judge Turpin's self-flagellation in "Johanna." I wasn't entirely sure what was supposed to be going on with him here, since they used so few props. I think maybe he had an orgasm at the end, I don't know.

Sweeney Todd is such a dark, darkly comedic show. It...doesn't really make you go, "Rah, rah, humanity!" But it's so good anyway! I'm even more excited about the movie now. Tim Burton! Johnny Depp! Helena Bonham Carter! Alan Rickman! Sacha Baron Cohen! This Christmas!

(Trivia: the resident musical director at A.C.T. is someone I went to Rice with! How cool is that?!)

So, there you have it. Theatre: it's not just for you men...with your sales, anymore!
Current Mood: artisticartistic
Current Music: Of Montreal - Please Tell Me So

(37 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


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From:cerulgalactus
Date:September 7th, 2007 06:38 am (UTC)
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Are you high? And I'm not some dumb kid, who doesn't know anything - FUCK YOU!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 7th, 2007 06:40 am (UTC)
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I...appear to have missed something.
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From:golden_aurelia
Date:September 7th, 2007 07:06 am (UTC)
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Good on you for supporting live theatre.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 7th, 2007 07:07 am (UTC)
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It's preferable to dead theatre.
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From:electricmonk
Date:September 7th, 2007 07:59 am (UTC)

he shaved the faces of gentlemen/who never thereafter were heard of again

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My music teacher in 7th grade had us sing "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." It was kind of spectacular. Here we are, all of twelve or whatever, all impassioned, singing, "Swing your razor high, Sweeney!" Damn good times.

And the songs from Avenue Q are pretty great. My favorite part of "I Wish I Could Go Back To College," at least on the recording, is when he sings "and fuck my T.A." with such emotion. (My college experience was obviously deficient in this way.)

In conclusion, hooray for theater.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:September 7th, 2007 03:12 pm (UTC)

Re: he shaved the faces of gentlemen/who never thereafter were heard of again

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Yeah, I didn't get to fuck my T.A. either. But the rest was true.
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From:soundingsea
Date:September 7th, 2007 10:49 am (UTC)
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Heh. ironchefjoe loves Sweeney Todd, so that's definitely on our go-see list. And we've been meaning to catch Avenue Q ever since missing it in NYC last fall. Nice to hear you enjoyed both productions.

I must say, though, that minimalist stagings annoy me. I like COSTUMES! PROPS! SCENERY! I recently saw a production of Our Town, staged the usual way, and it did nothing, NOTHING for my suspension of disbelief.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 7th, 2007 03:13 pm (UTC)
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I enjoy costumes and props and scenery too! But sometimes, all you need are the words and music.
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From:dgriswold
Date:September 7th, 2007 10:51 am (UTC)
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A swing is a person who understudies several different roles within a musical. They are usually understudies (meaning they perform an ensemble role regularly) rather than standbys (who you only see when somebody is out), but in a show as small as Avenue, I'd bet the swings are standbys.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 7th, 2007 03:14 pm (UTC)
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Oooh. Thanks!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 7th, 2007 03:15 pm (UTC)
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I've seen Into the Woods on stage. It's all good. (So it's your fault!)
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From:horsefacehannah
Date:September 7th, 2007 11:29 am (UTC)
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A swing is like an understudy who covers the ensemble roles so that when an ensemble member goes on for a lead, the swing covers the ensemble track. Although in Avenue Q, since it's such a small cast, the swing might cover the leads too. (And some of the swings in Jersey Boys cover Frankie Valli, so I guess the definition isn't too strict). But oh my god, that's so cool!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 7th, 2007 03:17 pm (UTC)
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I freaked out when I read it in the program. Too bad we didn't actually get to see her, as far as I know.
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From:harper47
Date:September 7th, 2007 11:46 am (UTC)
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I adore Avenue Q. Did anyone answer your swing question? A swing is someone who plays the part with another actor and the swing (alternate) the role.

I adore Sweeney Todd even more. What great shows to see!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 7th, 2007 03:19 pm (UTC)
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Hee, I do have a few theatre people on my flist, so the swing question has been answered, so thanks! You all have given slightly varying definitions; it's amusing.
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From:shpyum
Date:September 7th, 2007 12:49 pm (UTC)
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Avenue Q always makes me stop and ask myself, what am I going to do with a BA in English?

I too am excited about the Sweeney Todd movie.

I know this is a boring comment, but I've been neglecting lj for things like work and sleep, and I felt like I should say something. ; )
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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 7th, 2007 03:18 pm (UTC)
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Is a whip too much to ask? Really?

I wondered about the original orchestration, since I imagined it would be somewhat of a fuller sound, but I was surprised at how effective the smaller orchestration was anyway.
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From:sophia_helix
Date:September 7th, 2007 02:10 pm (UTC)
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I'm seeing ST tomorrow night, actually. I am excited because I'm going with my extreme Sondheim-geek friend (among others), and I haven't seen live theater since... OK, since March, but before that not in like six years.

I am sooooo leery about that movie though. Who says Johnny can sing?? And I am extremely tired of Helena, not to mention the Tim+Helena show.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 7th, 2007 03:21 pm (UTC)
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Apparently, Johnny can sing, according to a link that cleolinda posted yesterday that I didn't click.

And, oooh, hope you enjoy Sweeney! Let me know what you think.
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From:maka2000
Date:September 7th, 2007 02:36 pm (UTC)
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I really loved the version of Avenue Q I saw! Did you laugh a lot? I nearly cried, for laughing. I'm sure it has a lot to do with how the actors perform, but our puppeteers were excellent. I was wondering about this one thing that CRACKED me up in our show - I wondered if it was something that all productions do, or if it was touch our particular Kate Monster puppeteer added in: You know right before the big puppet sex scene, the Bad Idea Bears go to Princeton and sing, "Take her home! She's WASTED!!" While they say that, I noticed our Kate Monster had her head down on the table obsessively flipping her hair back over and over really fast. It was hilarious. Did you notice if your Kate Monster did that?

The really interesting thing about watching them perform is their faces: they must remain emotionless while still emoting vocally. They must control the puppet's physical acting while not physically acting themselves.

That wasn't the case in our production. The actors did emote sometimes, in sympathy with their puppets, but it didn't distract from the storytelling. It just added another interesting thing to watch. Course, I was front row center on Broadway, so it was easy to see the actors getting into things.

I think my favorite songs are "You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)" and "Mix Tape".

I loved how you DID get to feel for the puppets, and really root for them. After Kate sings "Mix Tape" - she ends it all happily sighing, "He DOES like me!" and everyone in our audience went, "Awwwwwww." Like, a genuine, "She's so cute, I hope she gets who she wants" sort of aw. It was lovely.

I'm not a fan Sweeney Todd personally, but I'll still go see the movie version. Though I don't know if it's full musical or not. I like Tim Burton flicks most of the time though.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 7th, 2007 03:24 pm (UTC)
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Did you laugh a lot? I nearly cried, for laughing.
I laughed a lot, but my face didn't hurt from laughing, sadly.

While they say that, I noticed our Kate Monster had her head down on the table obsessively flipping her hair back over and over really fast. It was hilarious. Did you notice if your Kate Monster did that?
I don't think I recall that, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen.

she ends it all happily sighing, "He DOES like me!" and everyone in our audience went, "Awwwwwww." Like, a genuine, "She's so cute, I hope she gets who she wants" sort of aw. It was lovely.
Hee.

Though I don't know if it's full musical or not.
I'm pretty sure it is. I mean, I don't know if it's, like, 90% music like the actual show, but it's a musical.
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From:janedoe4
Date:September 7th, 2007 08:37 pm (UTC)
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I'm entirely jealous of all your theater-going. I've been wanting to see Avenue Q, and have heard good things about that production of Sweeny Todd.

From an above comment:
Though I don't know if it's full musical or not.

I'm pretty sure it is. I mean, I don't know if it's, like, 90% music like the actual show, but it's a musical.


I don't know anything about this movie in particular, but I remember interesting discussion about the movie version of Rent being much more spoken than sung while the stage play is the reverse. I think we concluded that this is the case with essentially all film adaptations of stage musicals and there are probably technical or audience expectation/artistic barriers to sung-through films. (Trivia: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is the only sung-through film anyone I know can name. It might be the only one there is, but I'm sure someone will come along here with an example to prove me wrong.)
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From:miss_katelynne
Date:September 8th, 2007 02:57 am (UTC)

Avenue Q

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I often find myself singing "I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today" at some of the most inopportune times.
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From:beeker121
Date:September 8th, 2007 05:08 am (UTC)
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I saw this Sweeny on Broadway. I'm astonished at the orchestrations, especially since the musical conductor occasionally had to contend with "you can't have that instrument now, they have to sing". Never having seen Sweeny before though, I think I missed some of the story pieces when people weren't talking to each other, or having many actions other than playing insruments. I've always wondered how they understudy it, does someone need to walk in already knowing all of the instruments, or do they find someone who can sing and play cello and then teach them everything else?

Your swing question was already answered, and as you have discovered the definition is a bit fluid, it depends a bit on the company.

Yay for live theatre!

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