Category Archives: Musical Theater

Social Issues and Broadway

Since the dawn of theatrical performances in ancient Greece, social issues have been a major theme. Theater lovers would be quick to note that musicals have never been removed from the world in which it exists. Why would we expect it to be in a time when social issues such as racism, human rights, and homophobia are still being debated. Let’s take a quick look at how Broadway has used the stage as a mirror to reflect the changing times and the issues that need attention in our society.

Hamilton: An American Musical

Since its first performance in February 2015, Hamilton: An American Musical has been inspiring conversations about the broad range of people who get to call this American founding narrative our own. This political musical attempts to reframe the way we envision partisan politics in America. In a time when American citizens are being put in travel bans and equal rights are being stripped away – sometimes slowly other times in large open ways – Hamilton is part of the dialogue of what it means to be American.

 

Rent

Rent opened in 1996 and, while it was never as popular as Hamilton, it still tackled issues such as the HIV/AIDS crisis in the U.S. Rent was the hottest, most groundbreaking musical in town in the 1990s. With a slew of Tony Awards and the elusive Pulitzer Prize, it was a cultural phenomenon of its time. Not only were we singing the songs but also discussing love, loss, and equality. Rent took the audience along for a ride through the struggles of those living under the threat of impending death and shows that love, respect, and friendship are the only things that matter.

In an article published by the Huffington Post, author Katherine Brooks points out that there are so many musicals that broach social issues in a way that gets theatergoers thinking and talking. She states that, “There are countless other, even more obviously politically charged plays and musicals worth discussing: “Assassins” (the hedonism of political culture in America), “An Enemy of the People” (whistleblowers), “The Crucible” (witch hunts), and, more recently, “Eclipsed” (civil war in Liberia) and “Allegiance” (Japanese prison camps). And those are just some of my favorites, cherry-picked from a long, long, long list of historically relevant titles.”

 

Maintaining an Organized Prop Space

In our last blog, we discussed creating a safe rehearsal space for all members of your theater group. This week we are discussing something related – organizing and maintaining your prop area. Not only can a well-ordered prop space add to safety, but it can keep your production on track.

Prop Masters or Mistresses have a hugely important job. Think about all of the props, both large and small that need to be used throughout the production. These items need to appear on stage seamlessly in between acts while actors scurry around to either change costumes or switch stage entrances. Here are some ideas on how to maintain an organized prop space for your spring or summer play.

Create a Master Prop List

One of the best ways for keeping track of what is needed (and when) is to create a prop list. Draft a list that names each item and for which act or scene it is needed on stage. This will not only give you a good sense of how long the item should be out on the stage but from what side (stage right or left) it will need to enter or exit.

 

Arrange the Props

This is, by far, the most challenging part of maintaining the items that are needed on stage, especially given that there is little light backstage to guide the crew. Whether you use a locker system, a prop table, or another method, arrange the props in a way that makes sense and still allows for movement to and from the stage. Take into account the size of each item, where they will be entering, and how long they will be out on the stage.

Small Props

Small props such as rings, coins, or anything smaller than a hand should be kept separate from the other props. These items are notoriously known for going missing right before they are needed on stage. Don’t be caught scurrying around searching for the items at the last second. Instead, keep them in a resealable, zipper bag pinned up right near the stage entrance.

Do you have any tricks that you use to keep your props organized? We’d love to hear from prop masters and mistresses. Tell us in the comments below what you do to keep things organized.

 

The Magic of Sound Effects on Stage

Sound and sound effects are an integral part of any storytelling art including television, movies and any live stage performance. We probably can all hear the sound of a shark approaching if we saw the movie Jaws. For viewers who like thrillers, the shower scene in Psycho is probably a soundtrack that you will never forget. And for our Star Wars lovers, the sound of a lightsaber is the hallmark of sound effects for that entire series.

The magic of sound effects carries over into live theater as well. Prop masters and sound effect gurus spend hundreds of hours trying to get just the right sound for wind, thunder, rain, footsteps, and monsters. The list could go on and on, as the number of sound effects is so varied and wide.

There are three main purposes of sound effects that we should examine in order to understand the meaning behind the magic. Here are the top three motivations for using sound effects in live theater.

Creating a Mood

Audiences are counting on a production to take them to other places such as colonial times in Hamilton, a beachside home in Mama Mia, or the streets of France in Les Miserables. First and foremost, sound effects are meant to create a mood that can take the audience to another place – metaphysically speaking. Sound effects can create fear, anticipation, joy, laughter, or even overwhelming sadness. The mood that sounds can help create is quite amazing.

 

Simulating Reality

What would a sword fight be on stage without the sound effects and musical accompaniment? Or think about a scene where an actor is required to smash a dish, slam a door, or shoot a gun. Imagine how disconnected things would seem if the dish made no noise, the door was silent, or the gun went off without a shocking blast? Those sound effects can make or break a production especially in how they can simulate what is happening on stage and make it come alive.

Creating an Illusion

One area that sound effects become magical is how offstage sounds or soundtracks can create the illusion of something happening. For instance, in the musical The Lion King, the sounds of the jungle or other lions roaring can create the illusion that the theater is actually in a far away jungle. Or perhaps the play is trying to show a couple in an outdoor cafe. The sound effects could include a car horn, clinking dishes and glasses, or even the wind through the trees. All of this is done so the audience can buy into the illusion of the performance.

What are your favorite sound effects? We’d love to hear from you. Tell us in the comments below.

The Importance of Community Theater

As Americans, we love to be entertained. We visit sporting events, the movies, and concerts seemingly endlessly. Many Americans are hooked on theater, especially the bright lights and awe of Broadway theaters in New York City. We are here to tell you that, you don’t need to travel that far to find amazing theater productions. You can find them right in your own neighborhood, at a community theater. Community theaters are strong and vibrant!

There are so many reasons why community theater is important to our society both for the local economy and businesses as well as a place to nurture new talent. Here are just a few of the ways that community theater remains an important part of American culture.

Nurturing New Artists

Broadway stars had to start somewhere first! Just like with any job, most actors need to work their way up to the larger productions in major cities. Many successful actors, directors, writers, and choreographers have launched their careers in humble, small-town playhouses. Some have started in summer theaters or local acting workshops. By sponsoring shows and attending performances locally, you are not only supporting an important arts outlet but also providing encouragement to the cast and crew.

 

Provide a Creative Outlet

Young children have many strings pulling them in different directions. Some of those strings are unhealthy while others, like community theater, are a healthy way to act out! Community theatre provides a safe place for even the shyest or quirkiest of students. Everyone can find a place in a show whether you know how to act or build a set.

 

Business Advertising

Most community theaters have small budgets and require the help of communities, in particular, the businesses in those communities. For sponsors, community theater is a win-win situation. Not only can a business help an arts program but it can also get their name out there in the form of programs and other marketing materials to hundreds of people who visit the theater.

 

Lifelong Friendships

Not every actor who takes part in a production hopes to make it to Broadway. Many just enjoy the exhilaration of putting on a show or the lifelong friendships that are made due to long, hard hours working on something they are passionate about. You really can’t put a price on the importance of friendships in community theater.

Our backdrops have graced the stages on Broadway and the local church down the street. We understand the importance of community theater. Consider becoming a sponsor this summer or, at the very least, check out a show in your area to support the arts.

 

Recap of the 2019 Tony Awards

Did you watch the Tony’s Sunday night? What a magical and fun night! If you missed any of the action or fell asleep too early, here is a quick recap so you will know all the highlights.

The Tony’s are one of my favorite awards shows to watch not just because of the grandeur or amazing fashion statements, but also the direct and sometimes blistering acceptance speeches given by the actors, directors, and producers. Some call for greater racial and gender equality. Others point out injustices in our government and leadership. And still, others remind us what our hearts and minds should focus on in our country.

Some firsts for the Tony’s included: Ali Stroker, who won the award for best featured actress in a musical for her performance in Oklahoma!, became the first wheelchair user to receive a Tony. This year also saw the show Hadestown win the Tony for the best musical beating out film adaptations, a musical comedy, and a jukebox show. The adaptation on an ancient Greek myth touches on climate change, labor strife and, indirectly, immigration.

The full list of winners is below.
Best Musical: “Hadestown”
Best Play: “The Ferryman”
Best Revival of a Musical: “Oklahoma!”
Best Revival of a Play: “The Boys in the Band”
Best Book of a Musical: “Tootsie,” Robert Horn
Best Original Score: “Hadestown,” music and lyrics: Anaïs Mitchell
Best Direction of a Play: Sam Mendes, “The Ferryman”
Best Direction of a Musical: Rachel Chavkin, “Hadestown”
Best Leading Actor in a Play: Bryan Cranston, “Network”
Best Leading Actress in a Play: Elaine May, “The Waverly Gallery”
Best Leading Actor in a Musical: Santino Fontana, “Tootsie”
Best Leading Actress in a Musical: Stephanie J. Block, “The Cher Show”
Best Featured Actor in a Play: Bertie Carvel, “Ink”
Best Featured Actress in a Play: Celia Keenan-Bolger, “To Kill a Mockingbird”
Best Featured Actor in a Musical: André De Shields, “Hadestown”
Best Featured Actress in a Musical: Ali Stroker, “Oklahoma!”
Best Scenic Design of a Play: Rob Howell, “The Ferryman”
Best Scenic Design of a Musical: Rachel Hauck, “Hadestown”
Best Costume Design of a Play: Rob Howell, “The Ferryman”
Best Costume Design of a Musical: Bob Mackie, “The Cher Show”
Best Lighting Design of a Play: Neil Austin, “Ink”
Best Lighting Design of a Musical: Bradley King, “Hadestown”
Best Sound Design of a Play: Fitz Patton, “Choir Boy”
Best Sound Design of a Musical: Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz, “Hadestown”
Best Choreography: Sergio Trujillo, “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations”
Best Orchestrations: Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, “Hadestown”
Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater: Rosemary Harris, Terrence McNally, Harold Wheeler
Isabelle Stevenson Award: Judith Light
Regional Theater Tony Award: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Special Tony Award: Marin Mazzie, Jason Michael Webb, Sonny Tilders and Creature Technology Company
Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theater: Broadway Inspirational Voices — Michael McElroy, Founder, Peter Entin, FDNY Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9, Joseph Blakely Forbes

Creating a Safe Rehearsal Space

Being a part of a theater production can be exciting and somewhat demanding. As a backdrop company, we at Charles H. Stewart understand how easy it is to get caught up in the excitement of a new production. One thing we also understand is that a safe rehearsal space is paramount to any production.

Let’s take a look at both the physical space and emotional space that can provide safety and comfort for actors no matter if it is at a community theater or under the bright lights of a Broadway production.

 

Physical Safety

First and foremost, the physical safety of a rehearsal space should be considered to keep all actors, directors, producers, and crew out of harm’s way during a production. One of the biggest threats to injury is keeping walkways and stage entrance/exit areas clean of debris. This means that props that could be bumped into or tripped over should be kept in specially marked areas. Keeping the floor clean, even down to small things like an errant nail on the floor is important since most actors must find their way in the dark when a production is underway.

Along with having props put in safe places, it is important to communicate with each team member about potential issues with staging, curtains, backgrounds and other large items that could fall or hurt an actor if things do not go as planned. Always have a first aid kit well-stocked backstage and an emergency exit to ensure that, if something does go wrong, it can be dealt with appropriately.

 

Emotional Safety

Acting means taking risks with your emotions and your level of confidence. That is why we are including emotional safety as a category for this particular blog. Have the members of your theater group come up with a code of conduct that can rule what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Many plays and musicals have physical encounters that could make for uneasy moments. Talk through these scenes prior to blocking them out so that everyone knows what to expect. Encourage a positive environment where every voice is heard and people feel comfortable enough to do so.

At Backdrops by Charles H. Stewart we know the importance of safety of all who are taking part in a production. Talk to our specialists about how our backdrops can be used safely in your production.

 

The Power of Student Theater Productions

Were you ever a part of a student production during middle or high school? If you were, just the mention of it probably brings back some fantastic memories of plays and musicals that your school presented. Friendships are formed, lines are memorized, and the group bonds over the excitement and anxiety of opening night!

Musical theater is a powerful art form that can transform the lives of those who take part in it, but its power is often overlooked. Many students who take part are often not aware of its impact until years later. Even students who don’t aspire to perform on Broadway can learn new skills and hone skills they already have. Compassion, problem-solving, and self-confidence are just a few of the powerful characteristics that students can improve upon during their time in theater classes or productions.

Think about the concept of playing a part in a school play. A student must not only learn the role but learn the motivation and inner thinking behind the character. This means that students learn empathy and compassion for the person they are portraying, even if that character is the antagonist.

In addition, students need to work with the entire theater group to “block out” movements on the stage, know when and where props are to be placed, and how actors should move on and off the stage. This all takes cooperation and problem-solving. These two skills will serve students well into their careers and family life later.

Improving self-confidence is another spin-off of working on the stage. Students learn to trust themselves and how to conduct themselves on stage. This definitely spills over into school life and eventually career life.

One area that we have not touched upon, and which is vital to learn, is how to accept criticism or feedback in a positive manner. In today’s social media world where it is far too easy to block people who disagree with you, learning how to take feedback from a producer or director is a critical life lesson.

The power of theater can be felt by students in so many facets of their lives. How has theater improved your life? Did it help you hone a skill or get over a fear? Tell us in the comments below.

 

Theater as a Political Artform

Since the dawn of the earliest Greek performances, the stage has forever been a place where political issues have been examined. Aristophanes was known to be one of the earliest Greek comical satirists, bringing up issues of morality, Athenian politics, social life, and law into his plays. Today, our theaters are a reflection of the myriad of issues in our society such as respecting people of different colors, creeds, and orientations. Let’s take a closer look at theater and how it can, for better or worse, raise red flags about the nature of politics in our lives.

Since our current administration took office, there have been political statements, both outright and subtle, about the legislation that has been embraced regarding immigrants, Muslims, women’s rights, and the list goes on and on. Theatergoers have long since expected and, in some cases, demanded that performances take note and address these issues.

Whether you agree with political happenings or not, theater has always been, and probably always will be, a voice for those who are disenfranchised. Theater performances have a way of holding up a mirror to society and showing the majority the inner thoughts of the minority. Broadway is famous for calling out issues and societies mistakes in play or musical form.

Take, for example, the cast of Hamilton, a wildly popular Broadway musical lauded for telling the Founding Fathers’ story with a deliberately multi-cultural cast and compassion for immigrants, calling out Vice President Mike Pence. The Vice President, who openly opposes LGBTQ+ rights, took his seat at a Hamilton production to a chorus of boos.

According to Vox online, “the booing would’ve been noteworthy on its own — but it was only the beginning. The real coup de grâce came when the Hamilton cast remained onstage well past their curtain call to address Pence directly.”

As Pence was walking out of the theater, Hamilton cast member Brandon Victor Dixon — who’s currently playing Aaron Burr — called out to him, asking him to stay and listen what they had to say. He then pulled out a piece of paper and delivered the following remarks, as the cast linked arms in solidarity behind him:

Vice-president elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us at Hamilton: An American Musical. We really do. We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. We truly thank you for sharing this show — this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men, women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.

The moment was top billing on the news for days to come. Some Americans were shocked at the actions of the actors while others were quick to point out that political satire and accountability have been a hallmark of theater productions since the first plays in the marketplaces in ancient Greece.

While this event took place in 2017, the question has still remained about the role of theater in political expression. What are your thoughts about theater as a place for political art? Leave your comments below and let us know how you feel.

 

The Curtain is Rising on Summer Theater

Are you ready for summer? For some people, it is a time to get ready for vacation or a trip to the beach. For theater lovers, it means the chance to see or be a part of a summer production in some of the amazing Off-Broadway theaters that come to life every summer.

If you’re looking for quality summer stock theatre, a road trip to New England should be on your summer bucket list. Some of the best summer playhouses and theaters call the six New England states home. According to New England Today Travel, the region is home to some of the oldest and most-respected summer playhouses in the country, and these theaters put on a wide range of shows – from comedies to operettas.

Let’s start our summer theater tour in the lovely state of Maine in the town of Ogunquit. The Ogunquit Playhouse is one of the oldest summer theaters in the nation and is nestled in a beach town along the rocky Maine coast. The beautifully unique playhouse, combined with the excellent productions put on within it, make for an unforgettable theater experience. Check out what they have going on this summer on their website.  

Moving from the northern coastline of New England to the sandy beaches of Cape Cod and you will find another summer theater that will take your breath away – The Cape Playhouse. Since 1927, the Cape Playhouse has been home to some of Broadway’s most famous actors who are practicing their craft. Imagine catching a show after the beach only to see actors who have been gracing the stages in Manhattan!

Swing on over to Rhode Island to find a quaint seaside summer theater aptly named Theater By the Sea. This smaller theater is just minutes from the coast and puts on many musicals and summer children performances.

Head north to Vermont and New Hampshire to find some of the summer theater festivals that will have you never wanting to leave. Located in a rustic theater, the Dorset Theatre Festival boasts some engaging summer theater from June to September. New Hampshire’s Barnstormers is one of the oldest summer theaters in the country. This will be their 89th Season of bringing live professional theater to the Lakes Region and the White Mountains.

If you are looking for some outdoor theater, head to Connecticut where the Sharon Playhouse presents acclaimed plays and musicals on its stages throughout the summer months. After each performance, late-night cabarets are offered outside on the theater’s open-air patio.

 

No matter where you’re headed, theater in New England is alive! Check out some of the shows when you get a chance and who knows, you may see some familiar and famous faces out there!

 

Looking Toward the Tony Awards

Every year, the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League host the Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Broadway Theatre. You may know the awards by its more common name, The Tony Awards. We know the awards aren’t until June 9th, but we just heard about the three amazing theater veterans who will be honored that night with Lifetime Achievement Awards.

These are non-competitive honorary awards that recognize an individual for the body of his or her work. This year, the three Lifetime Achievement Awards will be going to musician Harold Wheeler, actress Rosemary Harris, and playwright Terrence McNally. Nominees for the competitive awards were announced at the beginning of May but, in this blog, let’s focus on these three and their remarkable lifetime commitment to theater.

Heather Hitchens, President of the American Theatre Wing, and Charlotte St. Martin, President of The Broadway League, stated that these Lifetime Achievement recipients, “are pioneers in each of their crafts and their contributions to American Theatre and culture has been immeasurable.”

Actress Rosemary Harris was a past Tony Award winner with 26 Broadway credits including Tony-nominated performances in The Royal Family (2009), Waiting in the Wings (1999), Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1996), Hay Fever (1985), Pack of Lies (1984), Heartbreak House (1983) and Old Times (1972). She won the Tony for Best Actress for The Lion in Winter (1965) and is currently starring as Mrs. Higgins in Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of My Fair Lady. At 91, Ms. Harris is still doing what she loves. She is beloved by all who get the opportunity to witness her on stage.

 

Playwright is a four-time Tony winner, for the plays Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class, and for the books of the musicals “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Ragtime.” It’s hard to believe that at the ripe age of 80, McNally’s writing has been the basis of 24 Broadway productions! In honoring McNally, the Tony committee noted that the playwright has had at least one new work on Broadway in each of the last six decades. A revival of his Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune begins its Broadway run on May 4.

 

 

Composer Harold Wheelers career as an orchestrator, composer, conductor, record producer, and arranger spans more than five decades, from being the youngest conductor on Broadway with Burt Bacharach’s Promises, Promises, to 17 seasons as musical director for the ABC’s Dancing with the Starsˆ. His Broadway credits include Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, A Chorus Line, The Wiz, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, and Dreamgirls, with six Tony Award nominations for The Life, Little Me, Swing, The Full Monty, Hairspray, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Are you looking forward to Tony Award night on June 9th on CBS? We can’t wait to see our favorite thespians all dolled up and ready to celebrate.