Tuesday, November 8, 2011

10 FAVORITES (45) - Play On, America!

Now its time to talk about one of my first loves: the Theatre!  These days, the Broadway stage is illuminated with hit musicals that have been running for years, revivals of past hits that have proven their worth in the theatrical landscape, an uber-expensive musical that seems to have more critics the more money it makes and a smattering of new and revived plays that feature of the brightest stars of stage and screen.  Why are there so many plays where there once was almost nothing but musicals?  Well, three main reasons:

1) Plays are cheap.  In this tough economic crunch, the Theatrical community is really feeling a tightening of the purse-strings.  When it comes to an investor choosing to invest in a new play (with a known star) or a new musical (with an unknown score), the investor is more likely to choose the new play these days.
2) Plays get more critical attention, particularly from the top New York Theatre Critcs.  More good reviews and more attention from the critics means more attention from the several Theatrical Awards groups (i.e. Tonys, Drama Desks, Pulitzer, etc.).  The more awards means the more interest from audiences.
3) Among the stars currently in Broadway plays are Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Langella, Alan Rickman, Kim Cattrall, Marlo Thomas, Hugh Dancy, Stockard Channing and that's just to name a few!  With so many "name" people doing a play or two nowadays, the limited run of a new (or revived) play could net the same amount of profits that a short-lived run of a flop musical that cost twice (or even three-times!) as much to produce could.

Why am I talking about all this?  Well with so many plays popping up on the Great White Way, I thought this would be a good time to look at some of the masters of American plays (both Dramas and Comedies!).  This week's 10 FAVORITES is about the Greatest American Playwrights.


Thornton Wilder
Notable Plays include: Our Town, The Matchmaker, The Skin of Our Teeth
There can be no discussion of American Drama without mentioning his name.  Though I'm not a particular fan of his plays (hence his placement as "Honorable Mention"), they have become some of the most influential work in the American Theatre landscape.  Our Town is still the play that is taught to most first-year acting students and The Matchmaker served as the basis for one of America's most enduring musicals, Hello, Dolly!.

Sam Shepard
Notable Plays include: True West, Buried Child, Fool For Love
This Academy-Award nominated actor is first and foremost one of the most prolific and "out-of-the-box" playwrights of the last 30-40 years.  With a subversive edge and an unmistakable style, Shepard's plays revolutionized Off-Broadway and Regional Theatres.  Most notably, the landmark Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of his True West made stars out of Shepard and actors Gary Sinise and John Malkovich when it won several Obies and was filmed for PBS (Available on YouTube for viewing in 10 parts with Part 1 below!).

Terrence McNally
Notable Plays include: Master Class, The Ritz, Love! Valour! Compassion!
Trailblazing, controversial and a constant surprise are all adjectives that can be applied to McNally's long career.  He balances quite well between farcical comedies (The Ritz) to romantic dramedies (Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de Lune) to full-on character studies (Master Class).  Occasionally, he will throw in a bit of controversy just to stir the pot (Corpus Christi).  He is also one of the few playwrights who has had successes writing the book (re: script) for hit musicals (Kiss of the Spider Woman - The Musical, Ragtime, The Full Monty).

Wendy Wasserstein
Notable Plays include: The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosensweig, An American Daughter
She had the wit of Neil Simon and the style of Tom Stoppard.  Wendy Wasserstein could do it as well as the boys and had the humor to boot.  Her masterpiece comedy-drama The Heidi Chronicles changed the way female characters were perceived on Broadway.  She championed the Regional Theatre and even wrote children's books.  When we lost her to her battle with lymphoma in 2006, the Shiksa Goddess was mourned by many as the lights dimmed on Broadway in her honor.

David Mamet
Notable Plays include: Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Speed-the-Plow
Though censors and parent groups may redact every other word in most of his plays, David Mamet changed the way characters relate to each other in most dramas.  Characters like Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross (played perfectly by Al Pacino in the 1992 film version below) or Bobby Gould in Speed-the-Plow were willing to play both sides of any moral dilemma and were not afraid to curse up a storm doing it (ironically, both Gould and Roma were originally played on Broadway by Joe Mantegna!).

August Wilson
Notable Plays include: Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Fences, The Piano Lesson
Very few playwrights were able to connect their works together like links in a chain.  August Wilson was the most groundbreaking.  His "Century Cycle" of ten plays covered the African-American experience in America over the 20th Century.  Plays like Fences and The Piano Lesson (both plays won him Pulitzer Prizes) gave us characters that are transformed by the same things that transform any other person.  Wilson saw it as his mission to "humanize" African-American people for the audiences who normally would "look right through them."

Arthur Miller
Notable Plays include: Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons, A View From the Bridge, The Price
He was accused of being a Communist, he won countless of Theatre and Arts Awards AND he was married to Marilyn Monroe!  In his over 70-year career, Arthur Miller shaped what true American drama is.  He was controversial with plays like A View From the Bridge and The Crucible (which cleverly compared the HUAC hearings to the Salem Witch Trials!).  He was the first playwright to win what was considered New York Theatres triumvirate of Awards for his landmark work Death of a Salesman in 1949 (winning the Tony, the Pulitzer and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards).

Edward Albee
Notable Plays include: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance, Seascape, The Zoo Story, The Goat Or: Who is Sylvia?
When it comes to biting dialogue and true theatricality in American drama, there is no one better than Edward Albee.  He is a master at what is known as the Americanization of the Theatre of the Absurd where much of his work can be compared to the likes of Samuel Beckett or Tom Stoppard.  Just take a look at his brilliant masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which gets better with each viewing.

Tennessee Williams
Notable Plays include: A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Glass Menagerie, The Night of the Iguana
No playwright's style is more memorable than Tennessee Williams'.  Taking cues from those around him as he was growing up in Mississippi, Williams created some of the most enduring characters in American Theatre history.  Williams was especially adept at creating brilliant female characters.  Just take a look at Blanche DuBois or Stella Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire; or Maggie the Cat in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof; or Amanda and Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie; or Alexandra del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth.  Each woman represented a type of beauty that Williams saw in the world, but each woman was tainted with some kind of madness, brutality, addiction or even affliction, which made for great drama.

Neil Simon
Notable Plays include: The Odd Couple, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Barefoot In the Park, Lost In Yonkers, Plaza Suite
When it comes to American comedy, Neil Simon is one of the first names that comes to mind.  He started as a staff writer for the great Sid Caesar and his very successful TV variety shows.  But by the end of the 1960's, Simon had hit plays like Barefoot In the Park and The Odd Couple under his belt and had become one of the most praised comedy writers since George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart 30 years earlier.  With shows like Brighton Beach Memoirs and Lost In Yonkers (for which he won a Pulitzer!), Simon personalized the humor and mixed in a good dose of heartwarming drama.  Like McNally above, Simon was also a successful book-writer for many hit musicals (Sweet Charity, Promises, Promises and They're Playing Our Song to name a few!).

Eugene O'Neill
Notable Plays include: Long Day's Journey Into Night, Anna Christie, The Iceman Cometh, Mourning Becomes Electra, A Moon For the Misbegotten
This man changed the way American drama is done.  He was one of the first playwrights to have his characters speak in the vernacular.  His characters were often on "the fringes" of society and often involved tragic circumstances.  His use of realism in his techniques were comparable to the likes of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov.  He also explored other theatrical techniques (like Japanese Noh Theatre and ancient Greek themes) to use them in his dramas.  He was one of the first American playwrights to have a Broadway theatre named after him.  He holds the record for winning the most Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (winning four total for Beyond the HorizonAnna ChristieStrange Interlude and his masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night).  His work has become some of the most complex and the most enduring tragedies in American Theatre history.

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