November 20, 2010

‘Harps and Angels’ play in new musical

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment at 3:59 pm by dinaheng

There may be no formal storyline to Randy Newman’s “Harps and Angels,” but Jack Viertel believes the new musical will share characters and stories aplenty through the witty, bittersweet, and often satirical lyrics of its songs.

Viertel, creative director of Jujamcyn Theaters and artistic director of the Encores! series at City Center in New York, has long wanted to work on a Randy Newman project. The two would often talk about creating a new musical, but nothing popped until Viertel came up with a unique idea.

“I came to the thought of using his songs to take the audience on a narrative journey,” Viertel says. “A couple of years ago, he came up with ‘Harps and Angels,’ which is a comedy song. I thought about using the different stopping points in life, which he’s written about, to take the audience from youth to age in different ways.”

So there’s no book for the musical, which premieres at the Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles on November 21. Instead, the audience will hear a collection of Newman songs, sung by character types who are not always the same person.

The show will share commentary on what it’s like to be born, grow up, fall in love, live, and die in America.

“The messages, such as they are, are all courtesy of Randy, who’s a keen observer of American politics and American characters,” Viertel says. ”Randy is a pop song writer of a certain age, and has always written for characters who are not him, which almost makes him a  traditional theater writer. He’s in-between, and the show is in-between.”

Some of the songs featured in the musical include “Sail Away,” “Marie,” “Feels Like Home,” and “You’ve Got A Friend In Me.”

Viertel fell in love with musical theater as a child when his grandmother and parents took him to see Mary Martin in “Peter Pan.” After working as a theater critic for a free weekly newspaper in the 1980s, he became a drama critic for The Los Angeles Herald Examiner. In 1985, he became the Mark Taper Forum’s dramaturg.

While he’s loathe to cite a single favorite musical, he says if he were marooned on a desert island and could only pick one to enjoy, it would be “Follies” by Stephen Sondheim.

“The really good ones that stand the test of time have universal themes,” Viertel says. “Music makes things bigger and one step away from reality, so musicals tend to be mythic. Up until the late 1980s, musicals weren’t all that different from the years before.

“But starting with shows like ‘A Chorus Line’ and ‘Dreamgirls,’ there’s a demarcation from the old form of the 1940s, with ‘Gypsy’ and ‘My Fair Lady.’ People still love the old form, but they’re also fascinated with new forms, like ‘American Idiot’ and ‘Next to Normal.’ “

He says the rock ‘n’ roll revolution in the 1950s didn’t catch up to Broadway until the 1960s, and then became a basic form of writing in musicals in the 1990s. The form, he adds, has evolved to a more serious, opera-based work, like “The Piazza,” and is no longer the classic storytelling of old.

“It’s also been influenced by the success of live concerts,” Viertel says. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s, rock events began to have spectacle, scenic elements, and pyrotechnics. That kind of entertainment has influenced Broadway a lot.”

In this respect, “Harps and Angels” will break new ground as well.

“It doesn’t feel like a concert, and the characters don’t have spoken dialogue,” Viertel says. “Each of the songs is a mini-portrait of a person and a particular kind of world. They’re fun, funny, satirical, and some are heartbreaking. I could listen to them all night long.”

 

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