Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Abominable Showman, May 27, 2012

The song remains the same
The Obies vs The MECCAs highlights some of the real differences between New York and Montreal —but the anglophone theatre scenes of both cities actually have much in common 
By Richard Burnett
Like they say, good boys and girls go to heaven, bad boys and girls go to Montreal. 
You should’ve seen Montreal during her jazz era Sin City heyday, a wide-open scene fuelled by Prohibition stateside. Quebec was the only jurisdiction in Canada and America where alcohol was legal. 
So the thirsty came to Montreal from all over the continent: gamblers and racketeers followed by the world’s most famous entertainers, everybody from Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra, who held court at the Chez Paree nightclub. 

The city also was second after only New York and ahead of Chicago on the vaudeville circuit. The late Bernice “Bunny” Jordan Whims – who was a showgirl during Montreal’s Sin City era (check out Whims in the terrific 1998 NFB doc Show Girls: Celebrating Montreal’s Legendary Black Jazz Scene) – once told me about meeting Sammy Davis, Jr when the Davis family lived six months of the year in Montreal (on my old street, Rue de Bullion) when seven-year-old Sammy (who died of complications from throat cancer at the age of 65 back in 1990) tap-danced in a cabaret with a young girl from St. Henri.
There were over 100 whorehouses along Rue Ste-Catherine between Bleury and Berri Streets during this Golden Era and right smack in the middle of it all was the city’s famed Gayety Theatre where hostess Texas Guinan greeted visitors with her trademark “Hello, suckers!” 
The Gayety was also the home base for Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St-Cyr for several months of each year.
But as Concordia sociology professor Anouk Bélanger – a Canadian co-investigator in the five-year Culture of Cities project that looked at urban life in Toronto, Montreal, Dublin and Berlin – notes in Concordia University Magazine, the third component of Montreal’s cabaret tradition was variety theatre, what Bélanger calls “a mix between musical and dance performance, burlesque theatre, and what would be the ancestor of skit comedy.”
The Main during the Jazz Era
Bélanger adds, “At the core of variety theatre history there’s not so much of the ethnic relations found in jazz, and not the same moral issues as you had in a Lili St. Cyr-style performance. It was clearly a tradition affiliated with the popular, with the working class, and one that demarcated itself from more classical theatre. Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde [which took over the Gayety Theatre in 1972] would not do variety theatre. Variety theatre was for a different clientele, and embodied the class difference between culture — as in popular culture — and culture with a capital C — as in something for someone cultivated, educated and politicized who goes to see classical pieces performed in a classical theatre.” 
There were a great many theatres in primarily English-run Montreal catering to English-speaking locals and tourists who flocked to Montreal during prohibition and for many more years afterwards. But with Quebec’s Quiet Revolution – symbolized in the city’s theatre scene by the rise of Le Théâtre du Nouveau Mondeanglophone theatre began its inevitable and inexorable decline. But even before the Quiet Revolution Montreal-raised actors like Christopher Plummer and William Shatner would leave the city to conquer the world.
Only in the past year has Montreal really seen the return of traveling Broadway musicals to the city (thanks mainly to the exit of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra from Salle Wilfred-Pelletier to their own hall, thus liberating the 2,990-seat Salle Wilfred-Pelletier for visiting shows), while the number of local working professional actors, writers, directors, etc. in that city’s homegrown anglo theatre scene now numbers – what – 500 or so?
It’s a small, tough scene that for the most part seasonally works with little or next-to-no money and gets few props, especially in the local media. Which is why I have long hoped that the Montreal English Critics Circle Awards (or The MECCAs, founded in 1998 by Charlebois Post publisher Gaëtan Charlebois and the late renowned Montreal theatre critic Myron Galloway) would become more relevant. 
Gallant in Lies
After all, last year’s 14th annual edition of The MECCAs snubbed Montreal’s famed 1970s disco siren Patsy Gallant, not even nominating her for Best Actress for raising the roof and bringing down the house night after night in Lies My Father Told Me with her ballsy musical number to kick off the second act in late Montreal playwright Ted Allen’s hit play Lies My Father Told Me. In fact, Allen – who earned the Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) for Lies My Father Told Me in 1976 – was not even nominated for a MECCA Best Text award.
Also notable for its omission was The Lion King which – say what you will about it – made its long-awaited and much-anticipated Montreal debut last August: It was not nominated for Best Visiting Production even though it sold out the 2,990-seat Salle Wilfred-Pelletier for four straight weeks. 
Worse, when it came to Best Visiting Production, the MECCAs stated in their list of nominees, “No award to be given as there were no clear nominees or winners.”
The MECCAs also did not give an award for Best Sound for the same reason. 
Now I know Montreal’s local anglo theatre scene is tiny, but it ain’t that fucking small.
Lavin (courtesy Vineyard Theatre)
So I checked out The Village Voice’s 57th Annual Obie Awards (or The Obies) that were given out at a May 21 ceremony at Webster Hall in New York. The awards honour Off-Broadway theater and were presented by acclaimed stage actors Eric McCormack (Will & Grace), Grace Gummer, Hugh Dancy, two-time Tony winner Jonathan Pryce (Pirates of the Caribbean), Justin Bartha, Leslie Odom Jr., Lily Rabe, Michael McKean, Tonya Pinkins, Topher Grace (That 70s Show), and Tracee Chimo. 
This year’s winners included the great Tony-winner Linda Lavin in The Lyons at The Vineyard Theatre.
So: The MECCAs or The Obies? I just about threw up my hands.
Then I read a more telling story in The Village Voice that asked local New York theatre professionals what their city’s theatre scene is missing. 
“It would seem churlish to say that Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway lack for anything,” the Voice says. “We have more than 200 brick-and-mortar theaters (to say nothing of parks, repurposed churches, and semi-legal lofts), producing nearly 2,000 shows per year. We have comedies, tragedies, experiments, aerial acts, and the occasional cat circus. Who could ask for anything more? Well, nearly everyone.”

Here is a sampling of some of the responses:
Mark Russell, artistic director of Under the Radar:
“The pioneer spirit that started the scene back in the Caffe Cino, La MaMa days—a diverse, subversive theater that really takes risks and really speaks to our time.”

Young Jean Lee, playwright/director:
“More female playwrights and directors, and more people of color. Also: more farting dwarves.”

David Henry Hwang, playwright:
“A healthy commercial scene, for plays and musicals that deserve longer lives, but are not blatantly commercial enough for Broadway.”

Qui Nguyen, co-artistic director of Vampire Cowboys:
“Asian actors with no accents. Black actors with British accents. British plays with people of color in roles other than housekeepers. Women in lead roles where they don't fawn over any men. Latino actors in lead roles where they don't have to be downtrodden. Gays and lesbians in lead roles where they don't have to cry. South Asian and Middle Eastern actors in lead roles not about terrorism.”

Ken Rus Schmoll, director:
“Asian-American actors. Ten-hour plays. Working-class audiences. Also, someone needs to bring the productions of Unga Klara over here from Sweden.”

Elizabeth Marvel, performer:
“A living wage and child-care support for working parents.”

Anne Kauffman, director:
“Vaudeville acts. Reliable and quiet air conditioning. Reliable and quiet projectors. I guess I'm just nostalgic for the old days but with modern conveniences.”

Pam MacKinnon, director:
“Boring but important: Clear websites that tell you curtain times and location of the theater. I've missed things because the website requires either a programming degree or strong familiarity with the graphic novel art form.”

Lear DeBessonet, director:
“An audience as diverse as a subway car (or jury duty!).”

Kristin Marting, artistic director of Here Arts Center:
“More work with women as the lead artists. More experimental work by artists of color. More participatory work: I would love to see more artists really thinking about their communities and how to actively engage them.”

J.T. Rogers, playwright:
“Venues for open-ended runs.”

Alec Duffy, artistic director of Hoi Polloi:
“A downtown theater that reflects the diversity of the surrounding city.”

Michael Gardner, artistic director of the Brick:
“What’s missing? Funding, certainly. As I write, the Living Theatre and Theaterlab are fighting to keep their homes, and Center Stage has recently lost such a battle.”

Quiara Alegría Hudes, playwright:
“I wish more plays had live music.”

Taylor Mac, performer/playwright:
“I’d like to see more Off-Off Broadway productions transfer to Off-Broadway runs. Every year much of the best work in the city dies after 16 performances.”
Does any of this sound familiar? I thought so. 
In fact, this New York wish-list actually makes me feel better about the state of Montreal anglo theatre. It also gives a new spin to that line from the classic song New York, New York, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”
All that said, it’s still cool to win an Obie award. 
And a MECCA.
Click here for pictures from the 2011 MECCAs.
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