“Steppin’ Out of the Shadows:” An Interview with Murder for Two’s Kellen Blair

By KWAPI VENGESAYI, 5th Avenue Community Engagement Specialist

Murder for Two is a hilarious musical comedy to die for. It received rave reviews during a record-breaking run at Chicago Shakespeare Theater prior to a critically-acclaimed run Off-Broadway at Second Stage Uptown. Called “Ingenious” by The New York Times, it is the perfect blend of murder, music and mayhem! In an interview with lyricist and co-writer Kellen Blair we get a little bit more insight into the show’s creation and success.

Joe Kinosian (left) and Kellen Blair (right)

Do you have any prior connections to The 5th and/or ACT?
I grew up in Seattle and most of my family still lives here (all proud subscribers at 5th Avenue, thank you very much). And interestingly enough, my very first theater experience was at ACT. I was two years old and my parents took me to see A Christmas Carol. It was a terrible idea because the sight of Jacob Marley had me screaming my head off and made everybody hate us, I’m sure. But I’ve been back every year since (and the screaming has definitely mellowed since then). So you can imagine, having my show here, the first theater I set foot in, is extremely meaningful to me. It’s also meaningful to my mom, who has been waiting for this day since our first reading seven years ago. Actually, when I found out Murder for Two was going to New York, I told my mom, and her response was, “Does that mean it’ll be coming to Seattle anytime soon?”

Continue reading ““Steppin’ Out of the Shadows:” An Interview with Murder for Two’s Kellen Blair”

Spotlight on Bob Fosse

By JORDAN LUSINK, Communications Coordinator

The Pajama Game is touted as THE show that catapulted Bob Fosse to stardom. It was his first solo choreography credit, and he won his first Tony Award© for Best Choreography for the original production in 1954; however, his legacy as a choreographer extends before and far after his involvement with The Pajama Game. Continue reading “Spotlight on Bob Fosse”

The Seven-and-a-Half Cent Solution: The Birth of the Labor Movement in America

By Gretchen Douma, Arts Writer

In 1955, The Pajama Game took home the Tony Award for Best Musical. Who would have thought that a musical humorously focusing on the labor troubles at a pajama factory would have been such a success?

But consider this. That same year, the two most powerful unions in the United States merged. The American Federation of Labor, founded in 1886 and the Committee for Industrial Organization, founded in 1935 joined forces to become the AFL-CIO, working to expand the country’s union movement and to more effectively champion workers’ rights. So maybe a musical about labor relations was a concept whose time had come. Continue reading “The Seven-and-a-Half Cent Solution: The Birth of the Labor Movement in America”

Alder & Ross: The New Boys in Town

adler-and-rossOf all the great songwriting teams that have flourished on Broadway, none appeared so unexpectedly, burned so brightly and vanished so quickly as that of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross.

Adler and Ross had only two big hits—but, to be fair, they wrote only two shows: The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. Their initial success was due to the support of one of the most prominent men of mid-century Broadway—composer-lyricist Frank Loesser, a great songwriter and a shrewd businessman.

After his triumphant 1950 musical Guys and Dolls, Loesser decided to build his personal publishing house, Frank Music, into a real competitor to the established firms that dominated the music business. But to do that he would need product, not just his own songs but those of up-and-coming, unaffiliated writers—talented youngsters he could put under contract, then publish and promote their songs.

In the early 1950s, aspiring tunesmiths peddled their wares in the Brill Building, the hub of the songwriting trade. They would spend their days taking their songs from office to office, floor to floor, looking for a receptive ear. When they needed a smoke they hung out on the sidewalk at Broadway and 49th Street—what they called The Beach— where they would swap stories and gripe about the music racket.

That’s where Richard Adler met Jerry Ross.

They were both young, they liked each other on sight and decided to try collaborating. They both wrote words and music, although all Adler could play was a toy xylophone.

One of their early efforts was a novelty about the hissing and clanging of a steam radiator:

steam-heat

Well, they knew this was a masterpiece, so they shopped it to Mitch Miller, the song chief for Columbia Records. He listened patiently and said, “Boys, save it for a show.”

That was Miller’s way of saying, “It’s crap.”  But, unintentionally, Miller was partly right. Adler and Ross’s songs were theatrical, more situation-specific than the usual Tin Pan Alley product.

And that stage instinct was what caught the attention of Frank Loesser—that and the chart success of their first solid record hit: Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches,” which sold over two million copies.

Loesser wasted no time. He “collected” the boys for his stable of writers and soon placed a couple of their songs in a now-forgotten Broadway revue. Their work was dismissed as “routine,” but Loesser believed in their talent and continued to mentor them in the art of theatrical song writing. After a few months Frank called them into his office and said “I think you’re ready to write a real show.”

He brought in director George Abbott, the veteran hitmaker whose motto was “LOUDER, FASTER, FUNNIER!”  Abbott said, “Boys, I have a property I’m going to direct. It’s about a strike in a pajama factory. I know it doesn’t sound like Rodgers and Hammerstein, which is why they’re not writing the score.”

The show was The Pajama Game, and “the boys” finished the songs in five weeks.

And it wasn’t a Rodgers & Hammerstein show, it was a musical comedy. But it was a rational musical comedy, in the new “musical play” style, with a few elements thrown in “just because”—for example, an irrelevant novelty (their old trunk song “Steam Heat”) which became a legendary showstopper.

The Pajama Game was a show about real, everyday people, the kind of folks you’d meet on the job or at the ball game. Audiences saw themselves on stage, and responded with gusto. It had a pop score; the songs sounded like current jukebox hits, which many of them became: “Hey There,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” even “Steam Heat.” The Pajama Game established Adler and Ross as 1954’s most promising new team, and they delivered on that promise one year later with Damn Yankees, the Faust legend translated into the world of pro baseball.

Like The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees won the Tony for Best Musical. It gave the Broadway Songbook a few more standards: “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets,” the locker room anthem “Heart” and the slithery duet “Two Lost Souls.”

It’s hard to imagine Adler and Ross adapting their Hit Parade style to a period show, or adjusting to the new sound that would take over the record charts in 1956: rock ’n’ roll.

But we’ll never know. Jerry Ross suddenly died in November 1955 from a lung disease that had been dormant since childhood. Richard Adler continued to write musicals and pop songs, but he never found a partner to reignite his writing talent and ended his career as a successful producer and director.

By ALBERT EVANS, Artistic Associate

The History of Pajamas

By JORDAN LUSINK, Communications Coordinator

When you think of pajamas, probably the first think you picture is the two –piece model, with a buttoned and collared shirt and matching drawstring bottoms. Perhaps something like this:

vintage-mccalls-pajama-sewing-pattern

While the term “pajamas” has become something of a catch-all to refer to any type of sleepwear, that word wasn’t part of the English vernacular until the early 1800s. In fact, it’s origins specifically referred only to the pants portion of sleepwear. The worldwide use of pajamas (the word and the clothing) began in the late 18th and early 19th century as a result of British colonization in India. The word “pajama” first appeared in the English language with the spelling “pyjama,” adopted from a Bengali word (which was adopted from the Persian word “paejama”) for leg-garments. The word referred to loose, lightweight pants, usually with a drawstring waist which were worn by Muslims in India. Along with the term, Europeans adopted the style as well, though initially for lounging rather than sleepwear.

muslim_girl_india1844cheetahs_nawab_oudh1844

This adoption was made possible by the technological advances that were made in the early 19th century. In 1829, the first practical and widely used sewing machine was created by a French tailor. In conjunction with the advent and increased use of sewing machines, the traditional Muslim pajamas became much easier to make. In fact, all types of sleepwear became possible, and they gradually became more diverse and intricate.

Until the advent of the sewing machine, sleepwear was focused on function over fashion. Essentially before that point, everyone wore shapeless and colorless nightshirts and nightdresses. Most of these were made with white linen. The purpose for this was mostly practical; in addition to being easier to produce via hand sewing, the plain sleepwear simplified the laundry process, and linen absorbs body oils and perspiration. Laundry was a time consuming and difficult process, often using harsh chemicals. Colored dyes wouldn’t have been able to survive the constant boiling and bleaching, not to mention that night clothes were not worn publicly, so why waste time, effort and resources?

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Once the Muslim style of pajamas was adopted, it quickly became a staple of the male wardrobe. Both two-piece pajama sets (as we often picture) and union suits were versions of this more close-fitting approach at sleepwear. The union suit, named for its use by Union soldiers during the Civil War was what we might today term long johns. It was a one-piece knitted thermal undergarment that covers legs and buttons in the front. Women also wore the union suits, as you can see in this Lewis Union Suit ad from 1898.

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While nightgowns still continue to be popular for women as sleepwear today, the trend away from the nightgown and towards the two piece pajama set and a more tailored approach was solidified by the 1920s. Here’s an example of Ginger Rogers wearing “lounging pajamas” in the 1940s.

1940s-ginger-rogers-lounging-pajamas

In the early- to mid-1900s, the union suit idea was adapted specifically for children into what were called blanket sleepers (or footie pajamas, as we might know them). While the union suit would often have shorter legs and no sleeves, blanket sleepers offered full coverage, often adding jiffy gripped foot coverings and drop seats (aka the butt flap). For most of the early twentieth century, they were manufactured exclusively by Doctor Denton Sleeping Mills, and were marketed as “covers that can’t be kicked off.” While their popularity waned a bit in the 1960s and early 1970s, they got a boost in the later 1970s and early 1980s due to the energy crises. Advertisements from that time often emphasized that thermostats could be set lower at night when children used blanket sleepers.

denton

Housecoats and bed jackets were also popular in the 1940s, over both two-piece pajama sets and nightgowns, and were frequently designed with “kangaroo pockets,” allowing women to grab and stash a few important things should she have a need to leave her house unexpectedly in the middle of the night.

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While there are many options for your sleepwear needs, we recommend you consider the wise words from The Pajama Game about the good old-fashioned two-piece pajama set:

Married life is lots of fun,
Two can sleep as cheap as one.

doris-day-john-raitt-pajama-game

Ashman and Menken: Disney’s Renaissance Men

By ALBERT EVANS, Artistic and Education Associate

Fairy tales might seem like effortless magic—all you need is a storyteller and an audience—but bringing the magic to life on stage and screen requires the combined efforts of a small army of artists and craftspeople.

Look at the credits of a Disney animated classic like The Little Mermaid and you’ll see the names of hundreds of folks who labor, sometimes for years, to create all of the elements of a fantasy world.

Continue reading “Ashman and Menken: Disney’s Renaissance Men”

More Than a Fairy Tale: An Interview with Diana Huey, Matthew Kacergis and Glenn Casale

By KWAPI VENGESAYI, Community Engagement Specialist

Disney’s The Little Mermaid has enthralled international audiences across generations and cultures. Its score is enchanting and visuals captivating, but it’s more than just a fairy tale about a beautiful princess who falls in love with a dashing prince. In an interview with Director Glenn Casale and actors Diana Huey and Matthew Kacergis, we discuss this beloved story and our own spectacular production.

WHAT DREW YOU TO DISNEY’S THE LITTLE MERMAID?

blog_qa_dianaDIANA HUEY (DH): Singing “Part of Your World” as a child is one of my earliest memories. I vividly remember knowing every word and mimicking each intonation while daydreaming that I was a beautiful mermaid princess. The opportunity to live out one of my childhood dreams is incredible!

Continue reading “More Than a Fairy Tale: An Interview with Diana Huey, Matthew Kacergis and Glenn Casale”

NextFest Artist Spotlight – Christine Sumption, Dramaturg

Christine served as a dramaturg for the writing intensive of Stanford Story (working title) which was workshopped last week.

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  1. What is a dramaturg’s job in the theater – in general?

In the new play process, a dramaturg is like a midwife. I support the playwright through the process, provide historical context, consult on the development of the dramatic action, serve as a sounding board and work to make sure that the writer has the circumstances that he or she needs in order to do their best work. I share ideas, ask questions, listen to the playwright’s intentions and mirror back what I see emerging from the work. While also being very clear that it’s not my play. I’m not the writer (it’s not my baby).

Every playwright is different. Every project has different needs. It’s the dramaturg’s job to be flexible in the service of the play and the playwright. Sometimes it’s a deeply collaborative process, while at other times it takes place at a bit more of an arm’s length. It depends on the relationships and the specific requirements of the project at each step along the way. There’s an intangible element of chemistry involved; playwright and dramaturg have to be a match, have to trust each other and find value in the working relationship.

In the production process, the dramaturg’s work continues to be about supporting the playwright, but may also extend to supporting the director and cast. I work in consultation with the playwright and director, provide concise written material that contextualizes the work (and may be useful to the theatre’s marketing and development staff as well as the Board). I serve as an extra set of eyes in the rehearsal process, keeping the playwright’s goals front and center and offering constructive feedback as needed. Just how active the dramaturg is in the production process relates significantly to the specific personalities of the artistic team and the particular needs of the project.

There are certain playwrights I would drop anything to work with, and Cheryl L. West is at the top of that very short list. She’s an amazing writer, a keen intellect and a genuinely good person, and her work is full of joy, dignity and deep exploration of human complexity. I always know when I work with Cheryl that we will roll up our sleeves, work hard, ask tough questions, tell the truth and have a ball. Laughter is a big part of the process.

  1. As a dramaturg, how does your job differ when working on a piece in the early phases of development- like Stanford Story – from working on an already-complete play?

I’ve done a substantial amount of work on Ibsen, Shaw and Shakespeare, as well as on the work of contemporary writers whose plays are being produced for the second, fifth or tenth time. In those circumstances, the primary working relationship is generally with the director of the production. I analyze the play in depth and detail, investigate its production history and research its historical and cultural context in an effort to provide a solid foundation for the director in developing his or her approach. Sometimes the research is primarily text-based, while at other times it’s mainly visual or auditory.

I do my best to anticipate the questions that may arise in the rehearsal process, making active use of traditional research methods (libraries, archives, online databases, etc.) as well as seeking out the input of experts in various fields. In 2002, for example, I was the production dramaturg for Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen at Seattle Repertory Theatre, a play about the relationship of physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Since I possess only the most modest understanding of physics, I sought out Mott T. Greene, a MacArthur Award winning science historian, who was able to not only enlighten the artistic team about the scientific principles explored in the play but to help us all understand why this meeting of Bohr and Heisenberg was so significant. He helped us see them not only as icons but as men.

Through the rehearsal process on an existing play, I keep my eye on the big picture, noticing how the story unfolds onstage, and offering observations as the work progresses toward production. It’s useful for the director to have a fresh set of eyes on the work, to get response from someone who understands what he or she is aiming for but hasn’t been in the room every day.

  1. Why do you do dramaturgy? What aspects of the work excite you?

As a dramaturg, I’m a kind of professional question-asker. I love the pursuit of understanding through research, discussion, and the exchange of ideas. I spend my days exploring history, literature, art, music and humanity, and discovering how much more there is to learn. What could be better than that?

And I love playwrights. I love their ability to make language sing, to take human experience and mold it into a dramatic form that has the power to inspire, move, challenge, offer insight or call us to account. I consider it a privilege to support the work of artists who are engaging in meaningful questions about the world we live in.

  1. What was your preparation process for this writing session?

When I joined the project in late June, early July, my first task was to dig into the factual background of the play. I read whatever I could find about the ATO fraternity at Stanford and the furor that erupted when they challenged the white, Christian clause of the national organization in the early 1960s. Lucky for me, Stanford has excellent libraries as well as generous archivists who shared documents from the period. From there, I branched out into the history of American fraternities and the process they went through in the mid-20th century to become more inclusive. That naturally turned to a larger exploration of what was happening in the U.S. during that time period, in society, politics, music, television, you name it.

Cheryl and I met regularly to talk about the aims of the project and what would help her create a dynamic world for this play. It was important to her from the beginning that this not be a superficial, self-contained story. (“Gee, isn’t it great that these fraternity guys at Stanford in the early 1960s invited Jewish men to pledge?”) She wanted to create an experience that would not only tell the story of what happened at Stanford, but what was happening in the country as a whole during that time. She wanted to spark audiences to consider how events then relate to the world we live in now.

In April of 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a huge crowd at Stanford, urging them to join the movement for racial and economic justice. “Human progress never merely rolls in on the wheels of inevitability,” he said. “There is always a right time to do right . . . and that time is now.” It was a galvanizing moment for students, many of whom joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi for Freedom Summer that year. For Cheryl, those historical events provided a crucial foundation for the combination of heightened stakes and purpose to drive the characters in her play. The events of 1964 provided an opportunity for her to speak to the idealism of the Stanford students as well as their relative innocence about the world beyond their relatively privileged existence.

I compiled the highlights of my research into a booklet for the artistic team to prepare for a trip to Stanford organized by Stanford alum Jim Towne, so they would be prepared to meet with ATO alumni and learn about their experience in the early 1960s. Then, when they returned from Stanford, I supported Cheryl as she developed a preliminary outline of the play and some scenes to launch the work. We walked into the writing retreat with a framework for the project and open minds about how it might grow and change.

  1. Any time periods you love to work in? Any you despise?

For me, it’s less about time period and more about the people involved in the project and the depth of their thinking. I’m interested in work that embraces the full expanse of humanity.


Interview conducted by CHARLIE JOHNSON, NextFest Media Manager

To find out more about NextFest, and other New Works programs at The 5th, click here.

The Impossible Musical

By DREW LICHTENBERG, Literary Manager/Resident Dramaturg at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, D.C. (Reprinted with permission.)

dale-wassermanOne of the first things to know about Man of La Mancha, perhaps the most popular adaptation of Don Quixote, is that it isn’t an adaptation at all. During a 1959 trip to Madrid, playwright Dale Wasserman read the book (or parts of it, it isn’t entirely clear) and came away convinced that this book, considered the greatest novel of all time, this “monument to human wit and folly could not, and should not, be dramatized.”

Continue reading “The Impossible Musical”