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More notes from New York: from a musical about Imelda Marcos to a one-man Macbeth from Scotland

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I’ve already reported on part of my New York week last week, when I wrote about seeing Once yet again there and Orphans (which shut on Sunday) and Old Hats (which on Sunday won this year’s Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revue, and continues to run at Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre).

I left town on Sunday morning, so missed the Drama Desk Awards myself, though a good friend Bill Rosenfield actually writes them (as he did my marriage vows last summer – he gets all the good gigs!), so I wished I’d been able to be there. As with all awards ceremonies, there are curious anomalies – Kinky Boots, which is emerging on the ground as a homegrown favourite to win the Tony Award from the more critically lauded Matilda, wasn’t even nominated for the Outstanding Musical category, an insult compounded by the fact that the category contained no less than seven nominations – four of them from Off-Broadway, and one of which I hadn’t even heard of! (But then I’ve not heard of any of the Drama Desk’s nominating committee, either, the chairperson of which turns out to be an editorial contributor to Broadway’s chat board TalkinBroadway; three others are academics. Clearly the ranks of theatre journalism in New York are now so decimated that they’ve had to look further afield even for their nominators).

The one I’d not heard of is The Other Josh Cohen – presumably not thus titled to distinguish it from the Josh Cohen I have heard of, the British actor and writer who once starred opposite Jerry Hall as the young man she seduces in the stage version of The Graduate in the West End! I also haven’t seen the nominated Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, first seen at off-Broadway’s tiny Ars Nova last year and which transferred to a bigger, site-specific space last week and saw ticket prices balloooning, too, as it did so from $30 last year to $125, and $175 for a seat at a premium table. Funny to see Off-Broadway catching up with Broadway in ticket pricing, too, nowadays – though the price tag now includes dinner.

But I had, at least, seen the other five nominees, which included Matilda (that walked off with the prize), Hands on a Hardbody (that quickly shuttered at the Brooks Atkinson, though its front-of-house is still forlornly up), A Christmas Story (that played a brief Christmas run last year at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne), and two musicals seen at the Public: Michael John LaChiusa’s Giant (now out on CD, and not to be missed even if the show isn’t running anymore), and Here Lies Love (still running there).

At least the Drama Desk Awards, unlike our Oliviers or the Tonys, look further afield than the commercial endeavours of the ‘main stem’ (as Broadway is called in Variety-speak). And so did I on this trip, though I often don’t manage to. Of the eight shows I saw, three were off-Broadway (but none off-off); and I also got to a late night cabaret, too.

Amongst them, I was delighted to catch the Drama Desk nominated Here Lies Love, an exotic, infectious riot of a musical that tells the biographical account of the rise and fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines. There’s no sign, though, of ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Imelda’ (or even any sign of her indulgence for shoes), though the show definitely has legs, or rather requires the audience to use theirs. Staged immersively as if in a nightclub, it keeps the audience as well the actors constantly on the move around a spinning series of platforms that it is staged upon.

It’s a lot of fun, though it also has a serious purpose beyond the jiving. By contrast, I went straight from the Public to Second Stage, the off-Broadway producing house on 8th Avenue for the last night of their revival of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last 5 Years, directed by the composer himself

This exquisite miniature of a musical – oft produced both for the showcase opportunities it affords its two singers but also the low cost of a cast of only two – has been given a quietly stunning production, with six onstage musicians on individual platforms behind the actors, and a series of sets that roll in and out seamlessly. But it can’t disguise how essentially static the show feels as it tells the story of a couple respectively drawing apart and together. That’s accentuated by the fact that I’d just come from Here Lies Love, with which it could share a title but far from the same kind of energy.

Another off-Broadway musical, but one with larger ambitions I’m sure, is Far From Heaven, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie’s latest show (with a book by the busy Richard Greenberg, also represented this season on Broadway by the already shuttered version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s he wrote and the ongoing – and Tony nominated – The Assembled Parties). It is now receiving its New York premiere at Playwrights’ Horizons, where Frankel and Korie’s Grey Gardens was also seen prior to moving to Broadway.

I saw it on Friday and though it is too early to review formally as it is still in previews, I loved its quiet understatement and emotional reach, and Kelli O’Hara, in the Julianne Moore role from the film, is just heavenly. In an interview in Sunday’s New York Times, composer Frankel noted of his use of music:

The songs are like the stage equivalent of a film close-up, where you can see on an actor’s face the longing, disappointment, pain or self-doubt — something that’s nonverbal and ruminative. What is Cathy Whitaker thinking when all her friends are talking about how much sex they’re having with their husbands? She’s thinking: ‘I’m not having so much sex with my incredibly handsome husband. Why is that?’ The songs were a great opportunity to give voice to the whole emotional topography of these characters.

Musicals offer a wonderful shorthand to emotion. But plays can do it, too, and by coincidence there’s another wounding portrait of the pain and ache of the gay closet on Broadway right now in Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance, a loving but tough tribute to gay men working in 1930s burlesque, and both the following and prejudice they faced. It is full of big, broad jokes – and a big, broad performance from Nathan Lane to match – not to mention some big broads, too, but there’s also a matching subtlety at play that makes it cumulatively heartbreaking, too.

The Broadway theatre relishes such star turns; and it is what has also turned Alan Cummings’s basically solo turn as Macbeth in the import of the National Theatre of Scotland production into a surprise hit. I wasn’t sure a Broadway audience would ‘buy’ such an adventurous show, but they are (and rewarding him with the customary standing ovation nightly). This quirkily watchable actor turns the play into an intriguing if not always comprehensible interior monologue. I’ve already seen one Macbeth this year (James McAvoy in the West End) and am looking forward to Joseph Millson’s next at Shakespeare’s Globe; I’d prefer to see the play done in full, but if you want an alternative (and far shorter) gloss on it, Cumming’s is the man.

And amongst a clutch of other one-person shows on Broadway this season, I missed Fiona Shaw in The Testament of Mary (because it closed before I got there), Bette Midler in I’ll Eat You Last (because I couldn’t get a ticket) and Holland Taylor as Ann Richards in Ann (because I just wasn’t interested).

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