Category: Arts and Entertainment

Image via NBC

I’ve been thinking a lot about NBC lately. I’m directing Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor this semester (shameless plug: come see it this weekend!), a hilarious and partly-true comedy that discusses the network’s decision to cancel the 1950’s SNL-like sitcom Your Show of Shows. In the play, NBC is depicted as a money-hungry corporate machine, and I’ve wondered about this every night when I finish running the show with my cast and return to my apartment to watch one of my many shows on none other than nbc.com.

Is NBC still a money machine? Some evidence would suggest that this remains the case. Take Dick Wolf, the procedural drama king, for example. He’s best known for SVU and Law and Order, but when he created Chicago Fire five years ago, he tapped into a niche market. A show about heroic firemen and women had everyone’s attention, and I was right there with the masses as we rooted for everyone at Firehouse 51– for Severide to defeat his drug addiction, for Casey and Dawson to finally get together, for everyone at the firehouse to save another life. At its beginning, Chicago Fire was extraordinarily entertaining, heart wrenching, and even inspiring (in 2013, I witnessed a car crash, and the first thought that ran through my head was to call 911 because I felt like I trusted the fire department more than I ever had before).

But then Chicago Fire took on a ridiculous plotline– Lieutenant Matt Casey was in a constant fight with crooked cop Hank Voight– and I literally cringed every time Voight took the stage. His character was completely unlikeable, and even since his spinoff Chicago P.D. began that year, I have yet to find a single reason to root for this abusive policeman. But I’ve been forced to watch Voight every week because I want to keep up with Chicago Fire, and crossovers are happening too often to ditch one of the shows.

In 2015, Wolf, always one to build on a franchise, added Chicago Med to the mix, which has surprisingly turned into the best in the Chicago series. Med’s staff has some of the most insightful characters of the whole Chicago franchise, and by now I really only watch any of these shows to see how Sarah helps her mentally ill patients, how Will continues to defy hospital policy, how April deals with her tuberculosis. But again, if I ever want to keep up with Med, I have to watch Fire and P.D.

About a month ago, Wolf iced off the cake with Chicago Justice, of which I could only get through two horrifically written (and acted) episodes before finally giving up. I get it– Dick Wolf wants to make more money– but is it really worth sacrificing this much quality? Chicago P.D. and Chicago Justice are probably two of the worst shows on television right now, and it’s an embarrassment to NBC to continue airing them.

Then again, NBC isn’t all that bad. They still produce Saturday Night Live, the best sketch show to hit TV since Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows itself. They host Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and The Voice. They were home to some of TV’s greatest shows like 30 Rock and The Office. And their biggest hit this season, This is Us, was exceptionally well-done. They thrive when they air comedies and variety shows, and for years Dick Wolf has been their go-to drama man.

NBC’s newest show, John Lithgow’s Trial & Error, also holds promise. I’ve only watched the first episode, but it left me laughing and wanting more. Whoever’s idea it was to pair Lithgow with Glee’s adorable Jayma Mayes deserves an Emmy for that alone. I wasn’t floored with laughter, but I was left hopeful, and the artistry behind the show made it clear that the producers weren’t in this for the money.

So I don’t think NBC has a money problem– I think they have a Dick Wolf problem. Maybe this time he has pushed the line between quality and quantity too far– and is on the verge of ruining NBC for everyone.

 

The Must-Binge List: After learning about the foundation of Mormonism in my religion class, I’m now three seasons deep into HBO’s Big Love, which follows a polygamist family in their daily lives. It’s a relatively old show, made especially poignant now by lead Bill Paxton’s recent death, but its messages still hold true today. While it has its ups and downs (you’ll have to bear with them as they drudge through the middle of Season Two), the show’s overall depiction of true human emotions is definitely worthwhile. Paxton plays the role of father/ husband/ patriarchal authority perfectly, and his three wives (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin) are equally impressive. Where other actors in the show lack (see: Amanda Seyfried as the painfully whiny daughter), the four leads are fantastic. My Grade: B

 

P.S.– Laughter on the 23rd Floor is playing Thursday, April 6th at 9pm, and Sunday, April 9th at 2pm and 7pm in the Kraft Center!

 

Image Courtesy of Clara Apostolatos, CC’20

In this modern climate, times are extremely hard for dreamers. Motion pictures released this past year, such as La La Land, have emphasized a level of escapism that is natural for us  to succumb to in such troubling times. Similarly, Amélie not only resides in a fanciful tale necessitated for this plight of escapism, but it also instills a lasting message of kindness and “doing the right thing”: a message that the cast wishes to impart to their audience and one that is more important than ever.

In this whimsical retelling of the Academy Award nominated motion picture of the same name, the life of the titular Amélie Poulain is catalogued from her secluded childhood in the outskirts of Paris to her eccentric yet isolationist adult life in a small apartment in the heart of the City of Lights. Amélie speaks to the shy introvert in us all who is bursting at the seams to try and make life a little easier each and every day.

Stellar performances are exhibited by Savvy Crawford, who plays Young Amélie, and Adam Chanler-Berat, who plays Nino Quincampoix. Nevertheless, Tony nominee Philippa Soo, who achieved fame through Hamilton and now plays the role of Amélie, stole the show as she delivers a radiant performance as the protagonist of this production. As soon as she runs onstage with the characteristic smirk of Amélie, she mesmerizes the audience member with her bubbly, mischievous portrayal of the character. Although Ms. Soo’s interpretation of Amélie is not as reserved as Audrey Tautou’s in the film, she does not have the luxury of a scene-by-scene narrator to illustrate her inner thoughts like Ms. Tautou did. Therefore, Ms. Soo relies on the company of Amélie to exemplify whatever odd thought strikes her.

In some instances, I found this incorporation of the acting ensemble into the mind of Amélie helped elucidate the scope of her inner motives. For example, the ensemble’s mimicry of heartbeats and their reveal of glittery hearts in dull briefcases gave the audience a taste of the tacit love that Nino and Amélie share. At other times, however, the ensemble’s participation was unnecessary and even awkward. For instance, different supporting characters would lose the identity of their own characters to narrate a life event of Amélie and then resume their individual nuances. I’ve seen some musicals that succeed in this aspect, but Amélie’s use of this tactic was a bit clunky, especially in comparison to the exemplary narration utilized in the movie.

With these differences, fans of the movie might gawk at the artistic liberties taken in regard to how the movie has been adapted for the American audience, including the absence of a narrator as well as the notable omission of the French language. There are some hints of this Romance language on the various set pieces, but barely any of the dialogue possesses any semblance of French. Some of the choices actually complement the musical experience extremely well. For example, the two cabines de télé that adorn the opposite ends of the stage mimic the experience of witnessing the telephone conversations in the movie Amélie perfectly. Nevertheless, the changes Amélie the musical utilizes make the musical its own.

Even with these small critiques, when comparing and contrasting the movie and the musical, the creative licenses the musical takes to tell the story of this eclectic heroine culminate in a pleasurable experience that the audience can enjoy.

Tickets to Amélie can be purchased from here. For more information on how to get rush tickets to the show, message LionBot “How can I get rush tickets to Amélie?”

MMC students and teachers pose for photos after the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

 

“Remember what we said about your princess posture!” No, this was not a line from Brave or The Princess Diaries. Rather, it was heard—of all places—at a music lesson.

Teachers from the Columbia University chapter of Musical Mentors Collaborative (MMC) have been giving lessons at P.S. 145 every week since 2008. Instruments taught—free of charge—include piano, violin, guitar, and voice.

Most of the over 50 students in the program would probably not be able to take lessons otherwise.

“We are a school where the majority of the population are working-class immigrants,” Carlos Salamanca, the Parent Coordinator of P.S. 145, explains.

“It’s important for the Latino and Black communities to have the opportunity to play musical instruments. This is the chance that they have–this Musical Mentors teaching.”

The MMC program leads to many exciting learning experiences. Last Saturday morning, Stephanie Rager, a sophomore in SEAS who is a Co-President of MMC, taught Sophia–after reminding her to stand like a princess, of course–what a half note is.

Stephanie Rager, CC ‘19, with her student, Sophia

Stephanie Rager, SEAS ‘19, with her student, Sophia.

First, Stephanie clapped quarter notes with Sophia. Then, she sang the last three notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”–quarter note, quarter note, half note–while Sophia continued to clap. Stephanie explained that the last note she sang was twice as long as the two prior. After some time of working on the measure–both with and without her bow–Sophia’s face lit up: she had “got it.”

Watching students’ reactions made me smile more times than I could count. I now understand why James Valentini often talks about “Beginner’s Mind”: these elementary school students were incredibly eager to learn and bubbled with joyous excitement when they did.  

Music lessons can even be mathematical. This week, Alexia Le, a junior music major in CC, taught Vanessa 3/8. Explaining time signatures can be complicated: it oftentimes involves fractions, which some students have not yet learned.

Alexia solved the difficulty by finding a different way to explain it. She described how it was similar to 3/4–which Vanessa played earlier in the lesson–in that there are three beats per measure, yet different because the eighth note gets the beat.

These challenging pedagogical moments are rewarding for teachers. Julian Vleeschhouwer, a sophomore in Columbia College, values his new role as piano teacher.

“I really enjoy teaching—prior to this I never really taught music before, I’ve always been the one taking lessons—so to be able to give back a little is really fulfilling for me,” Julian says with an assuring nod.

“It’s helped me to realize the role music can play in different people’s lives; I think that I always took it for granted in my life.

Julian Vleeschhouwer, CC ‘19, and Nicole at the winter recital (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Julian Vleeschhouwer, CC ‘19, and Nicole at the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

However, despite the positive interactions I witnessed, the realities of the program are sobering. Some pianos are extremely out-of-tune (almost a half-step flat). The school’s music program does not include band or orchestra, so most students are unable to develop their instrumental skills during the school day. Instruments are provided by P.S 145, which means there’s a what-we-have-is-what-you’ll-play policy.

Perhaps most disheartening of all: MMC ends after elementary school. Without an instrument, let alone a teacher, many students stop playing.

“Vanessa’s older sister was also in the program, but now that she is in middle school, she doesn’t play violin anymore and doesn’t remember how to play,” Alexia recounts—her voice diving down, crestfallen, at the end of her phrase.

With more teachers the program could expand to the local middle school, ensuring that students can continue making music after graduating.

An increase in instructors would also help at the elementary school level: P.S. 145 often has more interested students than available instructors.

“We always need more!” Salamanca emphasizes.

Recent fundraising from the Columbia Festival of Winds will definitely assist the program: MMC anticipates using the several thousand dollars collected for new classroom pianos.

However, the larger problem–governmental support of art and music programs in public schools–is insurmountable for MMC. Despite written acknowledgement (see page 2) of the arts’ educational value, the Department of Education (DOE) is clearly not doing enough to foster art in schools, which MMC’s very existence and the sad story of Vanessa’s sister illustrate.

These MMC lessons demonstrate, though, just how beneficial and necessary music making in schools is; they show why additional and continued governmental support of the arts is a good—to put things in blunt financial terms—investment in a child’s future.

How do these lessons prove why music has educational value? Take, for example, Alexia’s relationship with Vanessa.

In the lesson that I observed, Alexia spent nine minutes working with Vanessa on just one measure because of its rhythmic complexity. Alexia’s focus on the passage demonstrates her great commitment toward Vanessa’s learning.

Their determined work leads to success: Alexia beamed when describing how proud she was while watching Vanessa’s end-of-semester recital. Throughout our discussion about Vanessa, Alexia’s voice oozed with warmth and care.

Jonathan Herman, SEAS ‘18, looks on after Angel’s performance at the winter recital (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Jonathan Herman, SEAS ‘18, looks on after Angel’s performance at the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Alexia has helped ignite Vanessa’s passion for music. Nowadays, Vanessa often seeks out pieces to learn from YouTube and even composes her own music.

In reality, Vanessa would not have been able to work with–let alone discover–her musical interests without the MMC program. Because of the opportunity, Vanessa has developed not only her musical abilities but also the virtues intrinsic to learning an instrument: independence, patience, and a strong work ethic.

Vanessa’s growth illustrates the benefits of a music education. Her story speaks directly to the NYC Department of Education, proving that music programs are needed in schools.

“I feel like I’m making a difference; I see the progress,” Alexia confirms.

“I think that I’m helping her realize, hopefully, a lifelong love of music.”

 

 

Image courtesy of Meghna Gorrela, CC’20

Dear Evan Hansen, TIME magazine’s “#1 New Musical on Broadway,” is at once a sentimental coming-of-age story and a powerful deliberation of social media and mental health. The musical follows the tumultuous life of a high-schooler named Evan Hansen, played by General Studies student Ben Platt, who must navigate his social anxiety in the painful aftermath of a fellow student’s death.

The Lion had the privilege to ask two Dear Evan Hansen stars about their theatrical lives and their thoughts on the musical. Here is what Kristolyn Lloyd (who plays Alana) and Mike Faist (who plays Connor) had to say:

Question: Many of Columbia’s Drama and Theatre Arts majors dream to make it to Broadway someday. Given that you studied drama at another top university (Carnegie Mellon), before becoming a Broadway star, what advice can you personally offer to these particular students?

Lloyd: One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that being an artist is more than just knowing every play that’s ever been written. You can know the whole history of theater and still be lacking as an artist. In terms of people who I really admire and their successes, part of what I really admire about them is that they’re human beings with so much life experience. I took a year off of acting in 2009 and did missionary work in Southeast Asia, and afterward my agent said to me, “This was the best decision you’ve ever made as an artist, to go do missionary work.” One thing I always encourage young people who want to go into theater to do is, after high school, go take a year off before going to conservatory doing aid work somewhere, or travelling the world, or just doing something big and scary and adventurous so you can learn more about who you are. That’s going to influence you as an artist.

Question: According to your bio on the musical’s website, your theatrical career actually began offstage, when, at the young age of 17, you sold Broadway tickets on the streets of Manhattan to make a living. What kept you going through those harder times, and allowed you to make it to where you are now?

Faist: I had friends in similar shoes similar shoes as me, who were also scrambling trying to make ends meet. I wasn’t even auditioning; I was too nervous going through whatever I decided I was going through at the time to really put myself out there. But, I had friends who were, and luckily they dragged me places kicking and screaming. They kept saying, “Just shut up and do it!” Those people took me to those auditions and motivated me, and I now feel like you just need to book that first thing. You need to get a confidence boost, essentially. I booked a dinner theater in Springboro, Ohio — it was nothing, and I got paid like $250 a week, but I was a professional performer and that gave me enough of a confidence boost at that age to say, “Well, if I can do this, why can’t I do that?” This led to more regional non-union theaters, which led to me eventually having enough confidence to go in and audition for a Broadway show.

Question: What is it like to be a person of color on Broadway, in a space where people of your background have traditionally faced underrepresentation? How has your identity shaped and affected your experience?

Lloyd: What a huge question. It’s a very convoluted answer because, you know, I can speak from being a black person, but it’s going to be different for someone who is asian, and different for someone who is middle eastern. But as a black woman I’ve found that there are things that you’re going to come head-to-head with that are frustrating. I’ve found that with African American women in theatre, especially in musical theater, our biggest struggle is being seen outside of character roles, or the antagonist. What does it look like to have a black woman on stage who’s a hero? We see that musicals like The Great Comet and Hamilton are allowing women of color to be seen as heroines. The social stance that theater is going to be able to take to communities– and the world– is saying that women of color can be heroes, and that they don’t always have to be the sidekicks. And I’ve found that as an artist it’s only made me more interested in the types of writers, playwrights, and composers who are interested in stories like that, who are interested in complex characters like that. It has inspired me as a writer as well.

Question: What is your favorite scene involving your respective character, and what did you personally add to the scene to make it “uniquely yours?”

Faist: Luckily, I’ve been with the show since the very beginning stages of it, so I’ve been with the show for 3 years. The creative team gave me the maps for these characters, and as writers got more specific about what they wanted, I was able to get more specific — so we were all feeding off of one another. So all of my character is mine, in a way, and that’s something I can say that you do when you’re originating a role or a character: you end up tricking yourself into thinking “I am this person.” And that’s when unique, cool things come alive — when you are able to fool yourself and say “what if?” But, my fave scene is the computer lab scene at the very beginning, before Connor passes away. You get to see Connor and Evan in two parallels and you actually see the similarities more than the differences.

Question: What do you think is the most important lesson we, as students and also world citizens, can learn from the respective character you played?

Faist: When I was doing research for the role, I looked through this website called livethroughthis.org. Basically, it’s a series of interviews with people who are suicide attemptees. They’re all in recovery, and they talk about it. The biggest thing they talk about is stigma, and how they’re portrayed and looked at by society, and how they’re shamed for having those thoughts, and how they’re diminished and marginalized in a way that’s in some ways different — but also not — from others who feel marginalized. What I’ve noticed in how people look at Connor is that they immediately put him in a box as well, because they see a guy wearing all black, and he says “fuck you” a lot, so they think he must be a bad guy or he must be a bully — or he shoves the main character so he must be a bully. But that’s not the case at all. He’s a kid who’s really hurting, and that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned: we’re all similar and we’re all closer than I think we realize.

Question: Part of the significance of Dear Evan Hansen is its candidness about the issue of mental health. Currently, around the nation and especially on college campuses, many people want to see a greater effort to destigmatize mental illnesses. Do you have any suggestions about how we can collectively achieve this goal?

Faist: The first thing you can do is start talking about it. The minute you start regularly talking about bipolar disorder or suicidal thoughts or depression, it becomes something that everyone can relate to or listen to or empathize with, and it becomes less of a taboo issue. That’s the biggest thing: a lot of these ppl who’ve attempted suicide want to talk about it because they don’t want other people who might be going through what they went thought to not feel like they’re able to talk about it — because that’s when bad things happen. The minute you start talking about it, you start to see connections with other people. Everyone can empathize with feeling sad or lonely from time to time; that’s just a part of life and some people just feel too deeply. And that’s okay, but we just need to talk about it. That’s really where you need to start: having conversations and dialogue.

Question: Is there anything else that you would like to share with the Columbia community?

Faist: Go check out livethroughthis.org.

Lloyd: Come see Dear Evan Hansen! Be a part of the conversation, be a part of the theater community, and see stuff that’s Off-Broadway and stuff that’s on Broadway. That’s where art and ideals are cultivated: within the theater. Let’s see how we can take these wonderful pieces that are being shown in New York City and get them to places where people don’t get to see these kinds of controversial pieces of art!


For tickets and more information about Dear Evan Hansen, visit dearevanhansen.com.

The ending scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

 

On Thursday night, the Met opened its season’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio.

The protagonist, Leonore, is the most positively impactful woman in all of opera. Disguised as a man named Fidelio, she earns the trust of Rocco, the prison warden. He brings her to her husband Florestan, a prisoner locked in a cellar cell. Once there, Leonore defends Florestan from Don Pizarro, the governor of the prison, by threatening him with her gun. Because of her actions, Leonore is hailed as a heroine of “noble courage.” Joy reigns as the couple is safely restored when Don Fernando, the minister, arrives.

Representations of constructively influential women in opera are rare. Most are throwing themselves off of castle parapets (Tosca), displaying a deranged, febrile madness (Lucia di Lammermoor), or even stripping for kings (Salome). The Met picked an important moment to portray an antithetical example. Adrianne Pieczonka, a Canadian soprano playing Leonore, said, “And with what’s going on in the world, I think it’s great to have a strong woman—a brave, courageous woman on a mission.” The only thing missing is a direct reference to Trump.

Given its backdrop, how was this politically charged opera vitalized? Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter—performed by Hanna-Elisabeth Müller in her Met Opera debut—sang wonderfully. Her voice had a sweetness that was maintained throughout her range. Jaquino, Rocco’s helper—played by David Portillo—sang with appropriate anguish over Marzelline’s spurning of his love.

In the subsequent ensemble number, Rocco and Leonore (Fidelio to these folks) joined Marzelline and Jaquino. Rocco—sung by the role-switching Falk Struckmann (formerly Don Pizarro in the Met’s 2000 production)—rang richly in his low register, but thinned out up high. As the night went on, however, his upper tones took on a rounder, fuller shape. Rocco’s employer, Don Pizarro—invigorated by Greer Grimsley—sounded diabolical in his “Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick!” aria. Grimsley’s repeated “Ha’s!” menaced his adversaries (and the audience!).

After Pizarro’s aria, Pieczonka presented her “Abscheulicher!” solo. Here and elsewhere, I observed her physically reaching upward for climatically high pitches. Her action affected her sound quality: her high register was quavering, forced, and over-vibratoed. In contrast, Müller visibly sunk down into her upper range. As a result, her highs maintained depth and quality. A casting switch between these two sopranos would be beneficial—but admittedly impossible—for this production.

Act 2 starts with a jolt: Florestan calls out “Gott!”, a desperate heavenly plea. Florestan—enlivened by Klaus Florian Vogt—has a many-colored voice: his timbre sounds like the mixing palette of a master painter. His unique hues transmitted the hopeful content of his singing.

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Klaus Florian Vogt as Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Some of Sebastian Weigle’s tempo choices detrimentally affected tonight’s performance. In “Gut Söhnchen, gut, hab immer Mut” the tempo was inappropriately slow. I have courage—“Ich habe Mut!”—but apparently not enough to show any vigor. And, in Pieczonka’s “Abscheulicher!” aria, the orchestra sounded safe, even calculated, during accelerandos. The correct energy can be achieved in upcoming performances by a reconsideration of phrasing and articulation.

The horns, however, turned in an excellent performance in the “Abscheulicher!” obbligato. Their tone was pure and their phrasing smooth and effortless.

The singer’s performances were framed by Jürgen Flimm’s production. Flimm’s work, staged for the fourth time at the Met, effectively recontextualizes Fidelio in the mid-20th century. In the first act, the principal themes of hope and freedom are juxtaposed against a starkly bare prison. For the final scene, Robert Israel, the set designer, depicts triumph with a backdrop of wispy clouds strewn across a light blue sky: it is little wonder that the words for heaven and sky are the same in German.

At this euphoric ending, Don Fernando has arrived, ousting Don Pizarro from the stage. The role was performed by Günther Groissböck with an imperial, declarative style, suiting the character well.

After, the chorus, winds, and low strings exclaim joyfully. Freude und Freiheit—Joy and Freedom: Beethoven affirms cherished values with his distinct emotional directness.

During the curtain call, I saw that the bronze heroic figure—which looms in the background of the ultimate scene—was taken off of his horse, placed dejectedly on the ground. To complete the coup, I think, appropriately, Leonore should be put in his former position—a nobly “nasty woman” who deserves her high praise and honors.

 

Beethoven’s Fidelio runs through April 8, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live April 1, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org