Category: NYC

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

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.

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.

Photo courtesy of Marilyn Nonken

Marilyn Nonken’s Fight for “New” Music

As two star-crossed lovers sang pleading lines of despair, I took a survey of the audience around me. Besides the gentleman fast-asleep on my right (he got started five minutes into Act I) and the three composition students I recognized from Music Theory III, there was a noticeable dearth in the Met Opera’s seats. Maybe it had something to do with it being a lethargic Wednesday night, or perhaps it was indicative of declining ticket sales. More likely, though, the timeliness of the opera was to blame: it – Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin – was written in 2000.

Contemporary music is thwarted by negative stereotypes. Concert-goers think of it as generally unpleasant and discordant – something to be avoided as much as possible. Concert programming confirms these negative beliefs. “Beethoven, Mozart, and ever more Beethoven!” ticket sales scream.

So, what is a contemporary performer to do? The pianist and musicologist Marilyn Nonken (GSAS 1999, Historical Musicology) believes acceptance problems can be solved through education.

Nonken’s recent book, The Spectral Piano: From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age, challenges the “unmusical” claims about modern music.

“I think there are misconceptions about what contemporary music is, that newer music simply isn’t musical in the same way,” she explains with a tone that shows her passion for the music.

“I suppose why I talk so much historically about contemporary music relating to the past is to try to get away from that idea.”

Nonken presents challenging ideas in her work. She believes that musicians can look back at composers such as Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy and find “through-lines” to the present-day. Their music works through ideas similar to the ones electronic music composers are grappling with today; “New” Music is not as new as some may think.

Not many musicians see “New” Music the same way that Nonken does. Instead, most musicians prefer to play what she calls “great” music, i.e. the standard, traditional repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven et al. Nonken believes pedagogues are responsible for this trend.

“Within any music school there will be teachers who will tell their students don’t waste your time [playing contemporary music]. Don’t do that, it’s not worth it,” she tells me, sarcastically pantomiming the uneasiness of teachers telling their students not to touch “New” Music.  

“There’s this idea that if the player is really gifted and really talented that they should be playing ‘better,’ older music.”

What Nonken describes as the “business of piano” – to prepare for and win competitions – is the culprit for these teachers’ beliefs.

“You can’t play Feldman for the Van Cliburn,” Nonken jokingly gibes.

Pianists will not prepare programs including much music written post-1945, such as Feldman’s works, for the Van Cliburn competition because of the ideas on what “great” music is. They simply won’t win if they do.

As the Director of Piano Studies at NYU, Nonken fights against misconceptions about contemporary music. For instance, she requires graduate piano students to play a work written after 1945 for their auditions. One student, who did not have any music post-1945 in their repertoire, suggested “playing” an especially famous silent work.

“Someone wanted to bring in Cage’s 4’ 33” — I would take it!” Nonken enthusiastically yet with a hint of frustration exclaims.

“Bring that to your audition just to make that statement — if that’s the best you can do, play that! It’s the mindset, so I think that’s something always to fight.”

Nonken’s interest in championing new works began while she was at The Eastman School of Music. Unlike many of her peers, who were spending hours practicing “great” music, Nonken was giving life to the scores of her classmates — in practice rooms, dorm rooms, and cafes. She was excited by these collaborations.

“I actually found that this music was really interesting — this process of working with composers is interesting. You can actually make a difference, you could play a piece that’s never been played,” Nonken fondly recalls.

Without her, their music would have remained black dots and lines on a page. By realizing their works, Nonken gave her classmates the chance to develop their skills.

She even won competitions for her peers with her recordings. Nonken found value and meaning performing their works — an importance she says she would not have felt as “the nine-millionth person that year playing” famous, traditional repertoire.

Nonken has continued performing and premiering new works since her years at Eastman. When I walked into the lobby of her East Village studio, I was amazed by the number of CDs on display. Recordings of modern works by Morton Feldman, Tristan Murail, and Joshua Fineberg stared back at me – all physically representing Nonken’s support for modern music.

CDs on Shelf

Nonken’s recordings become the definitive versions of each new work. With that she sees a definite responsibility – a duty perhaps not as apparent in playing the standard repertoire.

“I don’t think that responsibility is there when you’re playing music of Chopin or Beethoven because there’s a million recordings out there,” she explains to me, recognizing that that may sound sacrilegious to many musicians.

“But if you go out there and play a piece that people might not have another chance to hear and don’t really do it well, in a way that’s representative – if you turn people off – you’ve blown that opportunity for that composer to make their case.”


Recent portents seem to indicate newfound acceptance. Despite Nonken’s quip, the 2017 Van Cliburn competition is commissioning Marc-André Hamelin to write a piece for the preliminary round. Miller Theatre is continuing their “Composer Portraits” series this season, which highlights the works of living composers. And the Met Opera, ever a bastion of “great” music, has staged works by contemporary composers, such as John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, and the aforementioned L’Amour de loin, in recent years.

Yet, these are exceptions. Musicians and audiences still maintain a preference for “great” music. They want it to be played as much as possible in concert halls, with “New” Music ousted as a distantly removed, unapproachable Other.

Nonken continues to crusade against the notion that “New” Music is not worthwhile to listen to – in her teachings, writings, recordings, and performances. Championing the music of today, Nonken is building the “great” repertoire of tomorrow.

She encourages you to hear her play music by Tristan Murail at Spectrum on February 11 at 7 PM. Come listen as she continues her fight against misconceptions about “New” Music.

“How Eye Hear It” runs alternate Sundays. To contact the writer or submit a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com