In Lee Hall’s drama The Pitmen Painters, Christopher Connel plays the key member of a group of British miners who gain the art world’s attention with their paintings. Although Connel’s Oliver is the most talented of the miners, he fears both his newfound abilities and the consequences of overstepping his socioeconomic status. In this play based on actual events, Hall (the Tony-winning writer of Billy Elliot the Musical) has assembled a group of actors that hail from the same area of Britain as the characters. A further parallel Connel and the cast share with the close-knit miners is that the actors have known and worked with each other for decades.
The production, which has been playing with the same cast for the past three years at engagements in the United Kingdom, closes December 12. Connel sat down with Stage Rush to discuss the show’s successful run, performer camaraderie, and what happens when actors are late to the theater.
To see more of Chris Connel’s interview, tune into Stage Rush TV this Friday!
So the show closes this Sunday. What kind of run has it been?
It’s been fantastic. It’s been different to do it in a different country, to a different culture. Everybody’s had a great time. It’s a wonderful city, New York. That’s when it’s a wonderful thing to be an actor, because you have the daytime to yourself and you can go explore. To be here for three or four months, you don’t feel like a tourist, you feel like you live here.
Is this your first time in New York?
It is my first time in the States, never mind in New York. It’s great. I’ll be coming back. Maybe not professionally, but who knows.
How has this experience been different from your previous runs with the show?
The play is a bit shorter. We’ve calibrated the accents ever so slightly, taken a few of the vernaculars and slang words out. There’s no point in putting a play on if people have to spend the whole play thinking, “What, what?”
Video: Christopher Connel recalls a traffic-delayed performance and onstage mistakes.
The holiday season truly has begun, because one of my favorite Broadway events has announced its return. The ASTEP New York City Christmas concert will play its third annual show at Joe’s Pub on December 20 at 7 p.m. The brilliant Lynne Shankel will again play host and music director to a night full of some of our favorite Broadway stars singing holiday tunes in creative, new arrangements. If this year is to be half as amazing as last year’s concert (and I know it will), all you Rushers should be buying your tickets now.
From the performer lineup this year, I can tell you the names I’m most looking forward to are Chestor Gregory, Andy Karl, Lindsay Mendez, Orfeh, and Elizabeth Stanley. Stanley is the only actor in that group who has not performed at the ASTEP New York City Christmas concert before. The rest of the spectacular list includes Michael Buchanan, David Josefsberg, Anya Singleton, Sally Wilfert, and Betsy Wolfe. Read more
The Paper Mill Playhouse is soon to be at the center of national theatrical attention when it hosts the US premiere of Cameron Mackintosh’s revived production of Les Miserables. Essentially a reboot of the classic Boublil/Schonberg/Kretzmer musical, the production features new staging, set design, costumes, and orchestrations. Simply translated: there’s no turntable. Most musicals don’t have to explain themselves when undergoing a reimagining, but Les Miserables is like a Fourth of July hamburger—people have a clear idea of how they want it.
(Click here to watch the video interview with the cast and creative team of Les Miserables on Discover Jersey Arts)
“It’s a completely new wrapping of what people who have become accustomed to the show already know,” Mark S. Hoebee, producing artistic director of Paper Mill Playhouse, said. “It’s almost like seeing it for the first time.” If asking audiences to embrace a new incarnation of Les Miserables is a risky move for Paper Mill, managing director Todd Schmidt doesn’t think so. “I see a lot of original productions. Nothing is more exciting to me than seeing something redone that works,” Schmidt said. “We’ve all seen productions reimagined that don’t add anything to the original. This new production really adds to the whole experience. It’s the same beautiful score done in a new and exciting way that really enhances what always has been.” Read more
Late last September, it would probably have been difficult to find a Broadway actor who was more engulfed in the music of John Kander and Fred Ebb than James T. Lane. The Philadelphia native was concluding his commitment to the Kander and Ebb classic Chicago and rehearsing for the famous duo’s final show, The Scottsboro Boys. Last April, Lane kicked off Stage Rush’s Ensemble Watch series while he was part of Chicago’s company. He now plays the key, dual role of Ozie (one of the Scottsboro Boys) and Ruby, a white woman (yes, white woman) who falsely accuses the nine black men of raping her and her friend. Lane sat down with Stage Rush to discuss his Scottsboro transition, his new spotlight, and ladies hats.
The last time we spoke, it was April and you were in Chicago. How did The Scottsboro Boys come about?
I had done a reading of The Scottsboro Boys in June 2009. But before then, I auditioned at the end of 2008 for a reading of the show and I didn’t get it. I had a horrible audition, actually. I accidentally made cuts in the song, so obviously the accompanist and I didn’t gel. So when it came around again, I was like, “I’m doing the whole song!” I sang “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” and then they asked me a funny question: “Do you think you could sing it as a girl?” I said, “Do you mean in my falsetto?” and they said, “No, as a female.” So I did it 1920s, flapper style, very cutesy with shoulders and knees. I didn’t know what they were getting at! I got the reading.
You weren’t involved in the production at the Vineyard Theatre last February. How did the Broadway opportunity come your way?
When they announced that Scottsboro was going to go to the Vineyard, I had obligations with Chicago and some concert work that I had already agreed to. So the Vineyard happened and then they announced it was going to Broadway and I felt, ugh, like I really missed my opportunity. My chance came around again midway through the tryouts in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theater over the summer. September 20 was when I started rehearsals, and our first preview was October 7. So much had changed since that reading I did.
What is the process of switching shows like?
I did double duty on Chicago and Scottsboro Boys for about a week and a half from September 20 to sometime in October. I was doing rehearsals for Scottsboro during the day and performing Chicago at night. Luckily, both shows have the same producers. I had to put my four-weeks notice in, but they knew what I was doing and were lenient.
Video: James T. Lane talks spotting Kristin Chenoweth at Scottsboro‘s opening night
In early September after a full day of rehearsal, Patrick Stewart, T.R. Knight, and director Neil Pepe met with journalists at a midtown pub to discuss their upcoming show, A Life in the Theatre. Written by David Mamet in 1977, the play is making its Broadway debut (it ran off Broadway the year it was published) and focuses on the backstage life of two actors in a repertory theater company—one whose career is nearing its end and the other’s whose is just beginning.
Pepe, who last directed Speed-the-Plow on Broadway, describes the play as a “love letter to the theater,” due to its focus on the behind-the-scenes lives of actors. Stewart says taking part in the production is an appropriate move, given his shared affection for theater that he and his character Robert have. After a long string of years working on the X-Men film franchise, Stewart noted that he has since worked almost exclusively in the theater, getting back to the medium he prefers. “My life has been spent in dressing rooms back stage, where every scene of our play takes place,” Stewart said. “All I ever wanted to be was a stage actor. Everything else that has happened to me was an accident. A happy accident; but an accident nonetheless.”
Video: Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight talk last-minute checks before going on stage and kooky mentors
Gregory Jbara might not be cold and stubborn like Jackie Elliot, the role he won a Tony for in Billy Elliot, but they both have families that are separated by work and dreams. In the musical, Jackie’s son Billy yearns to enroll in the Royal Ballet School in London, while conversely, Jbara’s Billy commitments keep him in New York while his wife and two sons reside year-round in Los Angeles. After a three-month sabbatical from the show in LA where he spent time with his family, Jbara returned to Billy in April with renewed energy and new plans for his Billy future. The film and commercial actor sat down with Stage Rush to discuss balancing work and family, morphing Billy actors, and being mobbed by Robert Pattinson’s groupies.
Do you get to go back to Los Angeles and see your family often?
I don’t. We iChat every night. When they’re on vacation from school, they come to New York. Although, my producers have been very generous. I just extended for another nine months, which will be announced soon I imagine. They’ve given me almost one week off every month to go back home. Being away from my family—it’s lousy. It’s absolutely lousy.
Being that you live so far from your kids and you play a father in Billy Elliot, does that affect your performance at all, make it more emotional? Does it become an advantage?
On a daily basis, it doesn’t really influence what I do. There are some nights, like the day before my family arrives or the evening I say goodbye to them, I find that my own personal reality kind of creeps into the performance at times, especially around Dad’s song. But for the most part, the reality of the characters and the show is based on imagination and fiction. Read more
When Jennifer Damiano departs Next to Normal tonight, she will be beginning a new chapter in her career: the next big project. While no official statement on casting has been made, the New York Times reports that Damiano has signed on to play Mary Jane in the upcoming mega musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Despite the mountain of publicity this will bring her, is becoming Spider-Man’s girlfriend the best move for a Tony-nominated actress known for playing three-dimensional women?
Since debuting on Broadway in the original cast of Spring Awakening in the ensemble and as an understudy, Damiano’s career has included co-headlining concerts at Joe’s Pub and her acclaimed performance as Natalie in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal. These are tremendous accomplishments for a 19-year-old actress. Her involvement in Spring Awakening and Next to Normal, both Tony nominees for Best Musical (Spring won in 2007), both box offices successes and beloved by critics, has established her as an artsy-type actress. Starring in Spider-Man will shake up this trend.
Spring Awakening and Next to Normal were both “indie” musicals that began off Broadway. Neither were expected to achieve the level of success that they did when they transferred. Granted, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has been plagued by production and financial issues. It’s original big-name stars—Evan Rachel Wood, who was originally supposed to play Mary Jane, and Alan Cumming as Green Goblin—dropped out. Just this Friday, Broadway’s largest PR firm Boneau/Bryan-Brown resigned from Spider-Man’s account. Nevertheless, the show has Marvel Entertainment backing it. It has been reported that the undertaking of this musical has cost upwards of $50 million. This is no Spring Awakening or Next to Normal. Read more
As you might know from last night’s live blog, Stage Rush was reporting from the press room of the 2010 Tony Awards. After they gave their acceptance speeches, most of the night’s lucky winners made the long journey from Radio City Music Hall across the rainy plaza of Rockefeller Center to the LA Sports Club, where the press room was stationed. (We missed you, Scarlett Johansson and Catherine Zeta-Jones!) Among the Tony winners were Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Katie Finneran, Levi Kreis, and the Memphis creative team. Here are the highlights from those interviews.
Welcome to the 2010 Tony Awards! Please join me as Stage Rush reports live from the Tony Award press room in Rockefeller Center! This is where all the night’s lucky winners come after they give their acceptance speeches. Follow the live blog below for all the details on what the winners are saying, what’s going on behind the scenes, and show commentary. You can even interact with me by sending me your comments and questions. Let’s enjoy Tony night! Read more
Theater journalist Patrick Lee, creator of Just Shows To Go You and Theater Mania contributor, passed away this week at age 47. The news brought great sadness to many in the theater community, myself included. When I think of Patrick, I think of the beginning of my passion for theater writing. Patrick was the first person I met when I set out on this journey.
It was April 2009. I had just created Stage Rush and had been invited by Broadway producer and Producer’s Perspective creator Ken Davenport to attend a theater blogger meet up. It was at the Planet Hollywood in Times Square and I arrived with such a pit in my stomach, I almost turned away at the entrance. Starting this site, this endeavor, felt like a huge risk to me and I didn’t carry myself with much confidence about it. Ken’s invitation to meet up with real, live theater writers who were already established in the field was incredibly intimidating. Who was I to talk to them? Everything out of my mouth was sure to sound stupid. They’d surely laugh when I told them my site was hosted by Blogger.
I sat down at a table with a platter of nachos on it. I picked at it with one hand and dug the nails of my other hand into my leg as the bloggers began to arrive, everyone schmoozing. They all knew each other—damn.
And then Patrick plopped himself in a chair next to me. I turned my head to him with a jolt, as I knew some social interaction was inevitable. He smiled, introduced himself, and I instantly began to feel at ease. It might sound corny, but Patrick seemed so jolly. That’s really the word to describe how he was. He asked me about my blog and as I talked, he continued to ask follow-up questions. He wasn’t looking at me with disgust—he was interested! I told him I was so proud of myself, because I hadn’t even lived in New York for a year yet and I had already seen 40 shows. Patrick looked at me with a big smile and said, “I see over 200 a year!” But he wasn’t mocking me; he was laughing at the hilarity of it. We both had a big laugh. As we talked, we discovered that we both loved Spring Awakening, John Gallagher Jr., and Passing Strange. He told me that he had tickets to a screening of the Passing Strange movie and I pretty much wanted to gouge his eyes out, I was so jealous. I went home that night feeling more confident about my new project, all thanks to Patrick.
That theater blogger meet up lead to the formation of the Independent Theater Bloggers Association (ITBA), for which Patrick served as awards director. When the ITBA was deciding on nominations for this year’s awards, we met at a Hell’s Kitchen pub to discuss candidates. It was a Broadway nerd’s dream—sitting at a table with a group of people with the same interests, discussing who gave the year’s best performances and arguing about them. Patrick was so funny that day. He kept inserting his humorous, sarcastic opinion, then pulling back, because he was moderating the meeting and it was obvious that he was trying to be democratic.
But I am lucky that that was not my last meeting with Patrick. A few weeks ago, Patrick asked me if I would help him film the off-Broadway cast of The Kid reading the winners of this year’s ITBA Awards. We sat there at Theatre Row with Susan Blackwell and Ann Harada and Patrick just got along with them so well. I envied his ease and calming nature. After we filmed, we talked shop for a while outside the theater. He answered a lot of burning questions I had about the theater-writing field. I remember being so grateful to get that time with him. We shared laughs and had a really good time with that errand for the ITBA. We left that night saying we’d meet up for coffee soon, but we didn’t get the chance.
Patrick’s passing is a strong reminder to me that we all have to harness the joys of life while we still have it. Patrick loved theater and was passionate about LGBT rights. In his life, he made quite a mark in both worlds with his own theater site Just Shows To Go You, his bylines for Theater Mania and other sites, and by being a juror for the GLAAD Media Awards. Patrick is an example of following your passion—a lesson we all should learn from him.
On my Facebook homepage, there’s a notification that says “Patrick Lee has poked you. Poke back.” It’s from the night we first met. I never did “poke” him back. But I’m going to keep that message there as a reminder of what Patrick stood for. It just shows to go you the impact theater can have on a person’s life.