Category: Arts and Entertainment

With an oddly coherent one-two punch of homey Canadian sensibility and electrifying Broadway wit, Come From Away has come to town. Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical has taken the musical world by a storm, wooing New Yorkers and out-of-towners like Justin Trudeau alike.

The New York Times dubs the musical “the catharsis we need in this American moment,” and it is not wrong, for Come From Away manages to lift us out of our modern political turmoil and transport us back to a time of astounding unity — albeit one that was extremely sobering. It takes place during the week after the September 11th attacks, in a remote Canadian town called Gander where 38 airplanes had to land unexpectedly after U.S. airspace shut down. A humanitarian crisis arises at the outset of the show: aboard these planes sit 7,000 people — a number equal to the town’s entire population — all of whom desperately need food, water, medication, and shelter. The musical captures a miraculous display of humanity in which the townspeople all come together, abandoning their personal responsibilities to spend an entire week tirelessly feeding, housing, clothing, and entertaining the passengers. As the small-town locals intermingle with these “Come-From-Awayers” from more than a hundred different countries, we lament that it takes such sadness to make people come together and celebrate life.

The cast of "Come From Away", Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2016

Particularly noteworthy is the musical’s ability to highlight the ways in which people of different identities experience their time in Gander. A gay couple, for example, initially feels the need to hide any trace of romance from potentially conservative locals and fellow visitors, but soon enough they find that everyone around them accepts them as they are. One of the pilots involved was actually the first-ever female captain in American history, and she spends the time in Gander ruminating about the last time she was not allowed to fly: when the all-male captains of her youth told her she was not fit for the skies. A Muslim chef experiences the most persistent intolerance, however, as some members of the group associate his religion with the terrorist attack and therefore do not want him to help out with the food preparation despite his expertise. These individual stories of hardship, and sometimes triumph, form a mosaic of humankind that could not stand out more from — or yet fit better into — the backdrop of Gander.

The space itself was a reflection of this mosaic superimposed upon rurality. For the musical, Gerald Schoenfeld Theater transformed into small-town Newfoundland, with thickets of evergreens bracketing the stage like the dense forest that frames rural Gander. On the stage itself, a rotating surface showcases each character from multiple angles, amplifying their individuality even during moments of solemn stillness.

The music served as the driving force behind this recurring paradigm of unification through individuality. The cast shone as a single entity in numbers such as “Welcome To The Rock,” while standouts like “Me And The Sky” sculpted the emphatically different characters in all of their joy, ambition, and desolation.

A grippingly beautiful take on a bleak moment in history, Come From Away is a must-see contemplation of what we can do in our darkest hours when we come together. Those who seek a fantastic feel-good musical that does not gloss over the trials of life should hasten to see it.

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

Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus.

Currently out on Broadway is August Wilson’s Jitney. This play is an intricate, multidimensional story about cab (jitney) drivers in 1977 and their worlds colliding after their jobs are threatened. Jitney encompasses the human struggle to deal with family, success, and love. Through extremely complex characters, Wilson creates a narrative that highlights themes of generational differences, failing your parents, and creating a better life for yourself. Below is an interview with cast member and actor Keith Randolph Smith, who plays Doub in the show. 

Photo Courtesy of jitneybroadway.com.

Photo Courtesy of jitneybroadway.com.

What is the role of August Wilson’s work in today’s society? Especially since Jitney is on Broadway now and Fences is in theaters.

This is an opinion, but August plays a part in expressing culture. He is a storyteller and poet. He has a poet’s ear for language and distilling feelings and thought into a rhythmic miracle language that is truly showing the dignity that these characters have. It allows people in the culture to recognize themselves and their parents, uncles, etc. It also allows people not within the culture to witness conversations and modes of behavior and topics that they wouldn’t be privy to. His work is a chance to share the culture of African Americans. Wilson had love for his characters and gave them such dignity in going about their daily lives.

This is the first time Jitney is on Broadway – why is now a good time?

You know how old folks say how things always happen in the right time? I could never understand it or explain it. There is a reason it is happening now – I don’t know why, but economics, theater availability, interest, etc come into play as well. It works right now because of the political landscape, where people are being marginalized, though they are part of the mosaic of the United States. Workers, these drivers in the play, create an industry for themselves. In this time, 1977, yellow cabs wouldn’t go everywhere, so these jitneys came into being in Pittsburg to get people to get groceries and get rides when you needed them.

Do you have a favorite line from the play?

The exchange between Doub and Sheila:

“Becker’s boy is getting out of the penitentiary today.”

“No kiddin’. Time goes along and comes around. It goes and never stops.”

There is a scene in the play that discusses two wrongs not making a right and how that statement loses meaning when you are continuously wronged. What do you think about this statement? How does it apply to today?

Booster and Becker have a discussion of just epic proportions, spiritual matters, moral, and ethical matters. Booster comes out of a place after killing this girl by thinking more with his heart than his head. He tells his father he was wrong and that he did it. He’s debating morals and ethics and says there’s a reason he did it. They have a point of view and both feel they are right. It’s the definition of a tragedy. On one hand, Becker believes Booster is wrong for taking a life — that it’s not in your realm of power — but Booster thought he was right, he didn’t want to go to prison for something he didn’t do. He would rather go to prison for something he did do, rather than a lie. August gets you to understand the other side and presents it to you. It’s tough because many people are spiritual, philosophical, ethical, etc, but you can’t justify it even with telling me your thought process. So, August isn’t getting into that – but is highlighting the relationships both of these men had and that they both lost the women they love and blame each other for that loss.

What is the message you think families should take away from this show?

Family was big for August. I try to talk to people after the show. They say they’re are going to call their father on the train. The past couple of weeks, people have lost people, and it was felt at the theatre. There was an actor who just saw it, and he died. So, that’s why people want to do that. Generational differences have been around forever. The parent’s job is to teach you things so you can live on your own. Then, when they get older, the circle of life comes around, and you take care of them. The young have to help them with technology. The people in the play in the station make a family. You are born into a family, and then there is the family that you choose. We all play various roles like that with each other. There are so many levels to it — generational and familial. I love the play, not just because I’m in it.

Do you have any advice for the Columbia community?

I mean, I was a theatre major. I just like the fact that you guys are in school. As corny as it sounds, you are the future and the world. It’s good to know that a lot of bright people are at Columbia getting prepared to change and love the world and help everyone else, no matter in what field. But, especially in politics. I saw a bit of what recently happened at UC Berkeley. It brings up a question of: do we shut down what we don’t want to hear? Should we present many viewpoints? We don’t want to be the ones on the wrong side of history where we could do something but we didn’t. I just hope that everyone at Columbia is living consciously about the world they live in, especially those in the arts. Your work and all of our art is a reflection of what we are going through and the world: that goes into all of your choices. I have less years ahead than you do, so I really want your peers to stand up. Like Bob Marley said, “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!”

August Wilson’s Jitney is playing at the Samuel J. Friedman theatre. Tickets can be purchased here, and $30 rush tickets are available for purchase on the same day of each performance.

Professor Fred Lerdahl Reflects on His Time at Columbia

After 33 years of teaching music composition and music theory at Columbia University, Professor Fred Lerdahl will be stepping down at the end of this semester.

“I’m the—by now—oldest member of the department. So I’ve institutional memory,” Lerdahl recalls with a genial trace of his Midwestern roots.

Lerdahl has been an active member in the development of a department: from two disciplines in 1979—Historical Musicology and Music Composition—to four—Ethnomusicology, Music Theory and the aforementioned two—in the present-day. Nowadays, thankfully, old contentions have cooled: the composers and historians apparently couldn’t get along in Lerdahl’s early years at Columbia.

The burgeoning disciplines have affected Lerdahl’s composing. For example, after reading an article on scale types in an ethnomusicology publication, he was inspired to rework these ideas rhythmically in his composing.

Lerdahl’s career bridges music theory and music composition. His 1983 Generative Theory of Tonal Music, co-written with the linguist Ray Jackendoff, is regarded as a seminal text in the field of music cognition.

Exploring tonal theory in that book influenced Lerdahl’s composing. He developed his own syntax of harmony, voice leading, and what he calls “expanding variations” or “spiral form,” a compositional structure that he created.

Admittedly, I was surprised when I learned that he was interested in tonal music, which is perceived as outdated in the world of contemporary composition. When asked about the negative perception, Lerdahl clarified the definition and implications of his tonality.

“I wanted to recover a sense of centricity—being able to depart and to return—to me that’s very expressive and very powerful,” Lerdahl explains.

“My own harmonic and, broadly speaking, tonal syntax is different than the classical kind; I’ve been influenced by certain composers of course, but I’ve tried to make these things new.”

Centricity focuses on departing and returning, difference and familiarity. Like centricity, Lerdahl achieves unity in his favorite instrumental ensemble: the string quartet. Lerdahl observes that the quartet has cohesiveness because of the instruments’ similar sonic realms, yet variation in tone color because of the adventuresome sounds that can be created.

When composing, Lerdahl begins by thinking about the piece’s expression. He calls this opening phase a “dream state,” adding that “it’s like you’re in the dark.” After mentally grappling with his ideas, Lerdahl reaches an “Aha!” moment.

“The really critical moment for me in composing is when I find the good match between the expressive nature of what I’m trying to do and the formal procedures that I’m using,” Lerdahl describes.

“I know after that I may have good and bad days but that it’ll all turn out alright.”

From his theory and composition work, it is apparent that Lerdahl has developed his own artistic voice—he did not just accept what someone else told him to do.

Lerdahl’s path is a model young composers can follow. When asked to give advice to aspiring composers, he emphasized a foundational motivation.

“The most important thing is that you have to really love what you’re doing. You have to—it has to be a necessity for you,” Lerdahl strongly asserts.

“Otherwise don’t do it.”

The next step, like any other profession, is to develop your skills. For composers, this translates to moderate piano abilities, good ear training, conducting experience, score study of both contemporary and past works, and the essential courses in music theory.

A composition teacher is of course beneficial for a growing composer. Lerdahl’s teaching has a twofold focus: craftsmanship concerns—from notational strategies to bass line movement to rhythmic interest—and artistic vision. Lerdahl notes that finding your voice as a composer is a mysterious, variable process: It takes some years to mature it while for others it comes easily.

Soon, Lerdahl will be moving out of Dodge 602, tucked away in the corner of the hallway, so close to the theatre department’s office that he has probably received many an errant knock from mistaken dramatists, taking his numerous articles and books and scores off of the over-filled shelves with him.

Lerdahl will use his newfound time to finish two in-progress books (Composition and Cognition, based off of his 2011 Bloch Lectures at UC Berkeley, for example) and complete composition commissions. In the coming weeks, a duo for cello and piano will be premiered, a series of CDs from Bridge Records will be released, and his “Chaconne”—recently written for the Daedalus Quartet—will be performed. Obviously, Lerdahl will continue to lead an active musical life.

Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus.

The demon barber of Fleet Street has arrived in New York, and he’s come with a vengeance. With performances starting on February 14th, the Tooting Arts Club Production of Sweeney Todd has opened off-Broadway after previously playing in London. In following the style of the London production, which was hosted inside of Harrington’s Pie shop, the team has completely redecorated the Barrow Street Theatre in a similar fashion.

Indeed, upon entering the small theatre, one goes from a standard entrance into what looks and feels like an actual pie shop. This experience is intensified with a special addition: the option to purchase a pre-show pie and mash. Best of all, the pie and mash is created by none other than owner of The Perfect Pie company and former White House pastry chef, Bill Yosses. The pies come out hot and fresh and were a fantastic experience as audience members get ready for the show.

“Whatever pie you like, he will make it, and it will be the best pie you have ever eaten.” – President Barack Obama. Photo courtesy of Sweeney Todd NYC.

“Whatever pie you like, he will make it, and it will be the best pie you have ever eaten.” – President Barack Obama. Photo courtesy of Sweeney Todd NYC.

As quick as Yosses dishes out his signature pies, the pie shop quickly switches into performance mode as the actors begin mingling with the audience and preparing to take over the kitchen.

After clearing customer dishes, the lights dim and the actors get ready to start the show. For this production, the orchestra is pared down to the bare necessities: a piano, a violin, and a clarinet. Even though they were small in number, the orchestra performed beautifully, adding the perfect musical flair that helped to convey the tones of any given scenes.

The show’s interactive format worked fantastically with this Sondheim classic: actors walk along pie shop tables and are entering the theatre from numerous entrances. From the start, the viewer feels as if they themselves have been thrust into the lives of these character struggling to seek revenge and find love in an unforgiving world. In this musical thriller, Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker) is a loving husband and father and professional barber until a Judge Turpin, enamored with his wife, sends him off to Australia. Upon his return several years later, he learns his daughter, Johanna, is a ward of the Judge and, after finding his old shaving razors, enacts a plan with nearby pie show owner, Mrs. Nellie Lovett, to kill many of his customers and turn them into pies as he waits to seek revenge on the Judge that ruined his life. Indeed, the show represents many of these horrific scenes with a stunning combination of music and lighting in order to showcase the power of the characters and add significance to the scenes in which these people–who have their own lives and experiences–are turned into cheap pies sold to anyone.

Within the show, the actors themselves phenomenally portray the characters they play. In particular, Siobhán McCarthy plays her character Mrs. Lovett astonishingly well as she effortlessly develops the character from a optimistic pie shop owner to a woman clearly gone mad, clinging at anything she can to keep her devious plan with Todd alive. 

Jeremy Secomb and Siobhan McCarthy star as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett respectively in the production of Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theatre. (© Joan Marcus)

Jeremy Secomb and Siobhán McCarthy star as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett respectively in this New York City production of Sweeney Todd. Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.

Her performance is equally matched by Jeremy Secomb, who drives fear into even the audience in his chilling take on Todd. Within every scene he appears, Secomb quite easily asserts his character’s dominance in the theatre while also beautifully revealing the complex layers of Todd, a man heartbroken over the loss of his family yet driven by anger and blood hungry revenge.

With its intimate environment, phenomenal casting, and great pie to boot, this show is one that every person should run and see.

Tickets to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can be purchased at sweeneytoddnyc.com with tickets currently being sold through August 13th.

                                Image via DailyMail

That now infamous mess-up at the Oscars literally made my heart stop.

For some context, I had been anxiously awaiting 7pm all day. I stayed up late the night before, I finished all my work, I showered and ate dinner– nothing was going to come in my way of Hollywood’s most important night. As movie lovers will understand, the Oscars are the Superbowl of all things entertainment. And you don’t miss the Superbowl.

The night was going very well. I thought Jimmy Kimmel was an extremely tasteful host with a nice balance of political (but non-offensive) jokes and your average dig at Matt Damon. At one point, he even surprised a real LA tour group with a trip to the Oscars, a move which had me cursing my parents for planning our family vacation to LA at the completely wrong time. There hadn’t been any real surprises of the night by the time we got to Best Picture, with Emma Stone and Casey Affleck taking home the night’s top acting prizes, Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis taking supporting actor awards, and La La Land’s Damien Chazelle becoming the youngest person ever to win Best Director (he’s 32, even though you might think from first glance that he’s 15). Even though Lin-Manuel Miranda lost the Best Song award he so clearly deserved, the night went on pretty much without a hitch– until Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway took the stage to announce the night’s most coveted award, Best Picture.

From the start, Best Picture was really the only contended race of the night. La La Land was the early favorite, but Moonlight had recently begun to clean up at award shows, which left many wondering if it would steal the Oscar at the last minute. Plus, with all the backlash from last year’s #OscarsSoWhite, could the Academy really get away with awarding its top prize to an all-white film over an all-black one? Would they dare?

So when Dunaway announced La La Land as the winner, everyone took in a breath of confused emotions: Did Moonlight ever really have a chance? La La Land was great, but I guess I was kind of hoping for an upset. Is this racist? Am I happy right now? And then, when Oscar producers stormed the stage and we saw Emma Stone gasp and mouth the words “oh my god,” it was a whole different range of emotions entirely: Holy crap, did they say the wrong name? Holy crap, did La La Land not win? Holy crap, this is so awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved. HOLY CRAP.

Okay, maybe that was a little specific to my thoughts, but you get the picture. Next thing we knew, the poor producers of La La Land had to stop in the middle of their speeches and announce that in fact Moonlight had won, and then we all sat uncomfortably, not knowing how to feel, as the Moonlight crew took the stage and gave their own speeches. Luckily, Jimmy Kimmel was again extremely suave, jokingly taking full responsibility for the blunder and easing the tension. But holy crap, was that a way to end.

I’ve always looked up to the Oscars, as has anyone who’s ever dreamed of working in the entertainment industry. It’s the ultimate goal, the final sign that you’ve made it. It’s glittery dresses and fancy sets and funny hosts and golden trophies– it’s literally the night at the ball that every Cinderella dreams of. So it was a shock for everyone watching this year to find out that, in fact, the Academy Awards are not perfect. They are run by human beings– accountants who, like anyone else, could accidentally give Warren Beatty the wrong envelope. Famous actresses like Faye Dunaway could ramble off the name from a card which was clearly wrong, and just like that the magic of the night is lost.

I think, really, that my heart stopped that night because I was struck with this reality for the first time as well. Despite being twenty years old, I still thought the Oscars were a glittery and perfect night at the ball. Obviously, the Oscars remain a (likely untenable) dream, but this past Sunday, some of the ethereality and perfection dissipated. Now, when I look at the industry I dream of going into, I am reminded of its humanity, and that pushes me to work harder, but in a different way than I did before. Instead of striving for perfection, I’ve realized I have to strive for realness.

And, honestly, maybe that’s for the better.

The Must-Binge List: It’s flu season, so if you’re stuck in bed for a couple of days, try out Netflix’s Grace and Frankie: a comedy about two older couples who divorce upon discovering that the two men have been having a secret affair for years. It’s hilariously written and has an all-star cast (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, AND Sam Waterston!!) Check out the first two seasons online! My grade: A-