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Howard Sherman: The rising stars keeping their family flame alive

Lily Houghton and MCC artistic producer Jessica Chase. Photo: Da Ping Luo Lily Houghton and MCC artistic producer Jessica Chase. Photo: Da Ping Luo
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Surprising as it may be, I never really stopped to think, until now, how many young artists must be making their New York debuts every night, every week on stages around the city.

Not necessarily on Broadway, but in an array of smaller venues, probably too many to catalogue or for anyone person to see.

I came to this belated realisation because I spent each of the past two Mondays watching New York debuts.

One was the reading of a new play at a downtown theatre, the other a concert of songs at a midtown cabaret.

As I’m not someone who is in a position to hire artists and offer young creative voices a step up the ladder in their careers, I don’t frequent these type of events.

In both of these cases, I was there because I was very aware that these two emerging artists, both in their 20s, are each part of a theatrical legacy, though neither traded upon the fact to promote their debuts.

The reading I saw was Dear, by Lily Houghton, presented as part of the PlayLabs reading series of MCC Theater.

The concert, Songs for the Dead, was made up of songs written by Matthew McCollum, presented at Feinstein’s/54 Below, the nightclub of choice for theatre music aficionados.

In both cases, the houses looked full to me, a notable achievement for two artists in their debuts.

Lily is the daughter of Jim Houghton, the founding artistic director of Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre Company and, from 2000-2003, my colleague at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, and a friend ever after.

He died of cancer a little over a year ago. Among many, I prize my memory of walking with Jim through the three-theatre Pershing Square Signature Center – his great contribution to Manhattan theatre – when it was nothing but an expanse of poured concrete, and he described to me how each space would be defined and fitted out as construction progressed.

For four summers, Lily was the rambunctious child who dashed in and out of her father’s meetings and had the run of the grounds at the O’Neill, charming everyone and reminding us that the making of theatre might, at its best, achieve the inquisitiveness and innocence of a youth.

While she has probably forgotten it – and me as I haven’t seen her in years – I took Lily to what was probably her very first professional baseball game, putting me in the unlikely position of explaining sports, a rare task for me.

Matthew is the nephew of Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent. I did not know Jonathan, but did come to know his sister and parents during my time at the American Theatre Wing.

I arranged with them for the Wing to take over the awarding of the Jonathan Larson Grants, taking over for the Jonathan Larson Foundation, which they had run.

In more recent years, I’ve communicated with the Larsons over instances when Rent faced censorship, and I’ve worked to ensure the productions went on, with varying success.

I had less direct exposure to Matthew than I did to Lily, but the time in which I came to know his family coincided with his undergraduate and graduate years at the Yale School of Drama.

His mother would often let me know what he was up to in my hometown, working in some of the spaces where I first came to deeply love theatre. I felt a connection, even if at a remove.

So as someone without children, I felt a bit paternal as Lily and Matthew each had their work showcased in New York for the first time (though to be clear, Matt’s dad is alive and well).

Because one doesn’t review readings or one-off concerts, and because I was predisposed to enjoy whatever I saw, I won’t say anything about what I saw of their work.

What I can say is that I genuinely want to see more of what they do, and to the degree possible, I will.

I can presumptuously say that they did themselves and their families proud as they emerged in New York as the next generation of Houghtons and Larsons creating work for the stage.

I can also say that I sat with a smile on my face throughout both shows, thinking not just of those present but those gone too soon, both men my age, one a friend I miss, the other someone I wish I’d known.

Because I wasn’t attending either event intending to write about them at all, I wasn’t taking notes. But late in Matthew’s concert, a snippet of lyric struck me and I scribbled it down with the pen meant for signing my credit card slip. If I heard it correctly, it was, “Preserve in love who you really are”, a lovely sentiment.

For Matthew and Lily, they are at the start of preserving not only who they are in their work, but those who came before them as well. Through their families, Jonathan and Jim have theatrical legacies that will live and grow in new and perhaps unexpected ways for many years to come.

This week in US theatre

A piece of the Public Theater’s own history is the focus of Richard Nelson’s new play Illyria, which opens officially on Monday night under the playwright’s direction. It examines the efforts of the theatre’s founder, the late Joseph Papp, to establish a free outdoor Shakespeare theatre in Central Park, rousing the opposition of the city’s elites.

Tectonic Theater Project, the company behind such works as Gross Indecency and The Laramie Project, debuts its newest work, Uncommon Sense, about living on the autism spectrum, on Thursday night Off-Broadway at the Sheen Center. It’s written by Anushka Paris-Carter and Andy Paris, the latter also directing.

Ayad Akhtar returns audiences to the days of high-flying bond traders in the 1980s with his new play Junk, opening Thursday at Lincoln Center Theater. Steven Pasquale plays the central master of the universe under the direction of Doug Hughes.

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