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Tuesday, May 06, 2008


Stage Addiction: The 20 Best Moments On Broadway Right Now

We've got only a few days until the Tony nominations, so I thought I'd take a minute before they hit to look at the Great White Way in a different sense...not great performances or design, direction or composition. Instead, I'm looking at Moments: singular scenes or songs or bits that are unparalleled, that make a viewer sit up, take notice, and become a fan. Far too often, we dismiss entire shows wholesale, or praise worthy ones without notating their minor flaws. Theatre's an imperfect art, but here, in these Moments, one can very nearly touch perfection.

A caveat: I haven't seen everything. I mean, a boy occasionally has to do something else. Specifically, I've yet to see The 39 Steps, Boeing-Boeing, November and Thurgood, and due to laziness or lack of interest, I've never made it to Curtains, Grease, The Little Mermaid or (kill me now) Wicked. Had free tickets for it, and passed. It just ain't my thing.


20. Dancing on the Ceiling (Mary Poppins, New Amsterdam Theatre)
My joy didn't dissipate one bit when I learned how Gavin Lee pulled off this magic trick. It's one of the far-too-few flights of fancy that save Poppins from its own dark, heavy weight.

19. The Mini-Concert at the End of Mamma Mia! (Winter Garden Theatre)
My hatred for this craven show is well-known...but it invented the modern jukebox musical, so let's give dubious credit where it's due. Mamma Mia understands that its strength is familiarity, and it gives it up in spades by providing a hit-strewn medley, sung and danced by the entire cast, at the end of the show. And after you've heard "Waterloo," "Dancing Queen" and the title song in rapid, energetic procession...well, it's quite easy to forget how painful the last two hours have been. You might even think that you had a good time. Now THAT's a medley!

18. The Opening Sequence of In the Heights (Richard Rodgers Theatre)
Lights up on Washington Heights...and boy, are those lights brilliant. Introduced by Lin-Manuel Miranda's creative rhymes, the characters of our tale are introduced like any standard musical might do. But it's done with such a spectacular sense of detail and love -- and with jaw-dropping choreography by Andy Blankenbuhler, the show's secret weapon -- that in just a few minutes, you feel not only like you're in their world, you're a part of it.

17. Everyone's A Little Bit Racist (Avenue Q, Golden Theatre)
Initially, you may not know what to do with the smut-talking puppets, the cutesy banter and endless slacker irony...until this song, the third in the show, where Marx and Lopez's sassy, savage, and salient lyrics start to crackle with social commentary. It's the moment where Avenue Q becomes more than a comedy, more than a lark...it becomes extraordinary.

16. Patti's Turn (Gypsy, St. James Theatre)
Love her or hate her, but admit the facts: there are few closing numbers in theatre history with more effect than "Rose's Turn," and Patti LuPone is singing the hell out of it. Sure, she might not have the vocal blast of Merman, the dramatic nuance of Daly, or the character sense of Lansbury. But she doesn't need to, because she's got her own take on the character, a woman fatigued by disappointment and angered by the cheat of life. Brava diva.

15. The Reprise of "I'll Cover You" (Rent, Nederlander Theatre)
In the first act, the song is a call to pansexual joy, a statement of love in its most effervescent terms. But in Act Two, it becomes a eulogy for Angel, a cri de coeur for Collins...and a heartbreaking dose of reality for the audience. I sob like a little bitch every. single. time.

14. George's Mother Sings "Beautiful" (Sunday in the Park with George, Studio 54)
One of the most underrated actresses of the American theatre, the sublime Mary Beth Peil, morphs the sorrowful soliloquy about the inexorable passing of time into a conflicting, confusing cornucopia of emotions: fear, love, sadness, and above all, urgency. "Quick, draw it all, Georgie," she breathlessly demands of her son...and we feel her pain, her passion, and her need to stop the world and get off.

13. The Reveal Of The Enormous Orchestra Pit (South Pacific, Lincoln Center Theatre)
Before Lincoln Center's gorgeous revival of South Pacific even begins, it starts with a bang. As Richard Rodgers' sublime overture starts to waft across the Vivian Beaumont's vast expanse, the entire stage retracts, grandly revealing the orchestra pit (and the 30 musicians playing away with utter precision). It's a surprisingly dramatic statement, one that drew applause at the performance I saw...and quietly underscores LCT's funding priorities in this production. Worth every penny.

12. The Cell Block Tango (Chicago, Ambassador Theatre)
Musicals may come and go, but Chicago is (probably) forever. And in my way of thinking, it's still got the most electrifying choreography on Broadway...even if it's now a little long in the tooth. Sexy, austere, powerful and dramatic. Poor Lipschitz.

11. Marlene's Trip Home (Top Girls, Biltmore Theatre)
In the third act of Caryl Churchill's gloriously difficult play -- which will confuse and frustrate many who can't parse the badly-assigned doubling, not to mention its complex themes that are rarely found on Broadway -- the career woman, Marlene (beautifully played by national treasure Elizabeth Marvel), returns to her hometown for a visit...or a showdown, depending on how you look at it. The quietly intense revelations with her sister (Marisa Tomei, in the third of her compelling roles in the play) are sleep-inducing for those who don't pay attention. But for fans of serious theatre, it will feel like little earthquakes going off every ten seconds.

10. "Welcome To The 60's" (Hairspray, Neil Simon Theatre)
The central showpiece of Shaiman's bubbly, charming score, this candy-coated paean to modern living is a minor miracle of showmanship. Since when have message songs been funny, energetically dances and sung...and furthered the plot, all at the same time? I'll never forget Harvey Fierstein's big reveal in the middle of the number...or the enormous smile I had on my face when I heard the lady from Wisconsin behind me whisper to her friend, "that woman has such a low voice!"

9. Cecille's Seduction (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, American Airlines Theatre)
I'm not as big a fan of this show as most are, but I'm in total agreement about the magnificent performance by Ben Daniels, whose sex-fueled aristocrat Valmont is the very definiton of tour de force. He's got many moments I loved, but his psychological twists with Cecille (Mamie Gummer) were the best by far. If you have never believed that you could be talked into giving up your virginity to a man you don't even like...you'll believe it now.

8. The Witches' Possession (Macbeth, Lyceum Theatre)
There are many fascinating updates made by director Rupert Goold to the Scottish play in its current Broadway incarnation: video-enhanced forests, radical character reinterpretations, and a Russian setting. But far and away, Goold's best touch is the Witches, who turn into nurses, maids, servants, and handmaidens from hell throughout the play. In the latter sequences, the Witches speak prophesy...and do so while communing with the dead in a startling, mesmerizing fashion. (I won't spoil it...go see.)

7. The Curtain Call of Xanadu (Helen Hayes Theatre)
After what has to be the silliest musical on the main stem (and also, perhaps, the most ebulliently entertaining), the cast -- reunited after following its inane story through to the bitter, hilarious end -- comes together on stage to take bows while singing the title track. And then...all gay hell breaks loose. Disco balls by the dozens drop from the ceiling, glow sticks are waved, polysexual dancing occurs...and don't forget the roller skating chorus boys. All in all, it's more homosexual than cocksucking. But it's also why our people are great at the business we call show.

6. Faith Prince Stands Perfectly Still (A Catered Affair, Walter Kerr Theatre)
In the final moments of the most unlikely of musicals, Ms. Prince -- well-known as a comedic talent -- puts the finishing touches on arguably the most dramatic (and impressive) turn of her long career. Having exploded in rage at her husband for their marraige's failures and her life's missed chances, she sits quietly. QUIETLY. (This is a musical remember.) Then, with dignity and poise and a hint of resignation, she climbs the fire escape of her apartment and watches the sun rise...all infused with nothing more than the strength of her personality. It's dazzling in its minimalism, heartbreaking emotionally...and a surprise to me, a lifelong fan of musicals. Superb.

5. The Boys Sing "Sherry" (Jersey Boys, August Wilson Theatre)
There comes a moment in Jersey Boys where we leave the realm of jukebox musical, and depart from mere biography and hagiography. It's when the band has come together finally, and they are onstage at Caesar's Palace or a nightclub or somewhere...my memory of the details are fuzzy. But what is NOT fuzzy is the reaction of the audience, filled with baby boomers (or older) who remember Frankie Valli like I remember Duran Duran, or how twentysomethings remember N'Sync. And when the actor playing Frankie hits the first note of "Sherry," the audience transforms. Suddenly, we're no longer at the August Wilson Theatre...a transmogrification occurs, and we're live, at a Frankie Vallie concert, experiencing their genius like a group of fanatic teens. It's magical, it's tangible, and it's what makes an otherwise overpraised piece of audience-pleasing pap substantial.

4. Welcome To Amsterdam! (Passing Strange, Belasco Theatre)
Composer/creator/narrator Stew's rite of passage kicks into high gear when his story of self-realization hits European shores, leaving behind his empty teenage years in California for the social, sexual and spiritual transformation in Amsterdam. His paean to the city, an effusive tune for the entire company, will have you dreaming of paradise...if paradise has nubile Dutch women and hashish on every corner, that is.

3. Bla Bla Bla-Bla Bla Bla Bla Blah (Spring Awakening, Brooks Atkinson Theatre)
You're thinking: It can't get any better. You've already been wowed by Spring Awakening's delicate handling of its material, the piercing insight of its songs, and the blistering talent of its young cast. And then, in the middle of Act Two, comes a moment you'd never expected. As the angst-ridden teens lament their fate in "Totally Fucked," a song racked with despair about modern morality and the double-bind of adolescence, the entire ensemble reaches a crescendo...and then, for the first time, they let loose. They dance. They cheer. They smile and jump around. They sing a lyric of meaninglessness and joy, "Bla Bla Bla." And you realize, for all their youthful trials and struggles...it's the first time you've seen them just be kids, innocent and carefree. The way they're supposed to be. The way they should have been from the start, which the adults can't see and the kids can't speak. It's brief, only 16 bars, but it's the moment you never knew you were waiting for all along.

2. The Dinner Scene From Hell (August: Osage County, Music Box Theatre)
If you've seen it, you know. You know how Amazing This Moment Is. A triumph of staging by director Anna Shapiro (who invited the cast to create their own ad libs, and work them in to the timing of the scene), it's the dramatic crucible where the seething bile of the Weston clan boils over. Tracy Letts' writing has never been sharper, or more entertaining. 200 years from now, they'll still be studying this scene in playwriting classes across the galaxy.

1. The Animal Parade in "Circle of Life" (The Lion King, Minskoff Theatre)
For my money, it's still the singular moment unlike any other on Broadway: the procession of Julie Taymor's puppet animal kingdom, careening down the aisles of the theatre with grace, beauty and wonder. If you've ever attended The Lion King with a child, you know how priceless this moment is...unforgettable. The last time I saw it, though, I was with my aging father, who sat unaware in an aisle seat of what was about to occur. And when the elephant brushed his shoulder, I saw a childlike awe in his eyes that I'd never seen, before or since. The rest of the musical is a downhill slide from this opening moment, but boy...what a way to open a show.

Those are my favorites...what are yours?

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Blogger will g said...

Funny you mention passing up free tix to Wicked (but saw Mary Poppins?? does not compute), because I had to be dragged to that show and it provided the moment I thought of for this list -- "Defying Gravity," which against all my cynical instincts had me utterly tingly and weepy. (I can't believe I'm admitting this in print.) Anyway, it still does when I hear it; the rest of the show has faded from memory.

5/6/08, 1:34 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Lots of those moments are ones i cherish - dancing on the ceiling is a lovely moment in Mary Poppins as is the dance routine at the end of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! And I'm a sucker for the schmaltzy Anything Can Happen.

Yes again to the aces mini concert at the end of mamma mia (which i was underwhelmed with up to that point!) And Chicago! Everything about that is a winner but cell block tango just oozes broadway - i love the "one of those mormons don't you know" line!

Anything to do with Hairspray and Spring Awakening is fine with me, ditto any Disney musical that isn't Tarzan. But no Wicked? Boo you whore :)

5/6/08, 4:55 AM  
Blogger Ludlow Lad said...

Nice Stage Addiction today! I think we all too often trow out the baby with the bathwater when giving a generic thumbs up or thumbs down to a show. If you'd included shows alt.Broadway, I'd include the bar pick-up scene in God's Ear.

5/6/08, 7:30 AM  
Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

ModFab, What a wonderfully inspired list. Somehow, you've managed to capture just about every thrilling moment of all the shows I love and more.

And I completely agree with you on Mary Beth Peil, who delivers one of the most absolutely poignant performances this entire season. Brava!!

5/6/08, 9:17 AM  
Blogger Manuel B said...

Since you covered most of the moments I would have isolated, let me add two for a show you (intentionally, I would assume) left out: Spamalot.

His Name is Lancelot
& You Won't Succeed on Broadway did it for me (the first one for its gayness and the second for its meta-commentary on B-way)

5/6/08, 10:00 AM  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

My favorite Broadwaything of the moment is this entry: so detailed and evocative, mixing in the iconic with the unexpected. I love when you do stuff like this!

5/6/08, 7:25 PM  
Blogger ShoNuff said...

as amazing as the dinner scene is in august: osage county, amy morton's transformation in the closing minutes is truly heartbreaking and breathtaking. the dinner scene is maginificantly written, the transformation is gloriously performed. hard to pick one over the other, to be sure.

all in all, though, an excellent collection of almost-full price worthy moments.

5/6/08, 9:10 PM  
Blogger Vance said...

Wow! Nice list. I would pretty much agree with everything I've seen, though I would switch You Cant Stop the Beat for 60's in Hairspray (uh, sorry but it didn't really catch me until that last song). (Also, Spring Awakening is at the Eugene O'Neill theatre).

and maybe (though i guess it's more obvious) Sunday in Sunday in the Park. In both acts. That's when I got the chills.

You should probably give Wicked a retry. I did and I actually quite liked it the second time.

You never saw Curtains? I thought you loved DHP's performance?

5/6/08, 11:54 PM  
Blogger Esther said...

Great list! Of course, I love the way Bert dances across the proscenium and the way Mary Poppins flies through the air. Those are magical.

And seeing the orchestra in South Pacific was definitely a highlight. I also want to add the coda that appears on the scrim at the end of South Pacific. It just tied together everything I'd seen on stage and made it all that much more poignant. I'm afraid alot of people miss it because they think it's the same James Michener quote that they see at the beginning.

One of my absolute favorite moments is in Passing Strange, when Stew says this isn't going to be a traditional Broadway musical, and Daniel Breaker's Youth leaps across the stage in imitation of a Broadway dancer. I'd pay just to see that moment again. It was awesome!

When we finally see Laura Benanti's Louise in an evening gown, completing her transformation from awkward teenager to glamorous, self-confident stripper, wow, that was pretty memorable, too.

Also, I love David Hyde Pierce's entrance right at the end of Curtains. It's one of the most hilarious things I've seen.

While I love "Welcome to the Sixties" and "You Can't Stop the Beat," for me, one of the most mesmerizing and spine-tingling moments in Hairspray is when Motormouth Maybelle sings "I Know Where I've Been." I saw Hairspray on tour, and I wanted to stand up and cheer at the end of that song. It's so brilliant, it sounds like it really could have been an authentic 1960s civil rights anthem.

Finally, there's a moment in August: Osage County when the child becomes the parent that's amazing. When Amy Morton's character announces that she's in charge, she does it with so much force and so much emotion. You realize that the dialogue is just lines on a page until an actor makes it come alive.

5/7/08, 1:46 AM  
Blogger ZenDenizen said...

Thanks for reminding me I need to see In the Heights!

5/7/08, 3:27 PM  

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