THE BLOG
12/29/2016 12:24 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2017

On the Culture Front: Falsettos, Stephin Merritt, Andrew Bird, and more

I saw "Falsettos" the day after the election in a haze of despair. The woman sitting next to me quietly sobbed throughout the show, and I felt tears welling up when Stephanie J. Block sang, "I'm tired...of all the happy men who rule the world," in her rousing rendition of "Trina's Song." Trina's world is falling apart. Her marriage has been shattered by the news her husband is gay, and her mind is spinning to find a scenario that keeps her family intact. The thought jumps one step further in the chorus' refrain that laments the patriarchy. William Finn's frantic score matches the intensity of the neurotic characters. Multiple thought lines often run parallel through the dynamic and frenzied songs until they clash in a moment of color clarity. A tragedy wrapped in farce, "Falsettos" makes a vivid case for the value of families outside the traditional nuclear ones extolled by social conservatives. While William Finn and James Lapine wrote "Falsettos" at the beginning of the Reagan administration amidst the AIDS crisis, the musical feels utterly relevant and a vital blueprint for asserting one's humanity. Andrew Rannells stopped the thunderous applauds during curtain call to say that they felt particularly grateful to perform the show on that night.

I first saw "Tick, Tick...Boom!" at the Jane Street Theater with Raul Esparza playing the talented composer Jonathan Larson as he struggled to make his mark on the musical theater world. Larson initially performed the show solo under the title "Boho Days," and while rough around the edges particularly regarding the dramatic arc and structure, it's a far more vivid glimpse in the world of starving artists than his yet-to-be-written-at-the-time epic "Rent." The Keen Company's revival under the direction of artistic director Jonathan Silverstein retains the show's raw visceral core though the Jane Street production is hard to top. Nick Blaemire does a good job of maintaining the incessant fear that time is running out. It begins with a furiously rhythmic piano phrase he pounds out at the opening of "30/90" and continues through the profound if sentimental "Louder than Words." Many see the show as an artist still in search of his voice, but to me this is the show that captures the essence of Jonathan Larson.

Steven Levenson's book for "Dear Evan Hansen" is one of the most vividly constructed texts for a musical in recent years. His characters are far more contradictory than typical archetypes, and the dialogue they utter resonates with quiet wit and a greater heartfelt resonance. Centered on a high school student suffering from crippling anxiety who discovers a confidence inside him after a brief encounter with a troubled outcast. The morality of the show is hardly set in stone, imbuing this anti-hero musical with a weighty complexity. The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul provides soaring melodies that burrow in the subconscious but unfortunately the lyrics too often fall victim to simple rhymes. With Michael Greif at the helm though, these can be shrugged of as the world of "Dear Evan Hansen" is truly enthralling.

I was intrigued when I heard that Classic Stage Company was staging a play adaptation of "Dead Poets Society" helmed by the theater's new artistic director, the inventive John Doyle. His take on Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Allegro" was a thrilling highlight of 2014. Unfortunately, DPS feels like it's always a couple notches below its desired emotional resonance. Part of this has to do with the sheer numbers discrepancy between the stage and screen. Tom Schulman wrote both the screenplay and this adaptation but fails to find the theatrical equivalent to an army of young actors belting "O Captain! My Captain." Jason Sudeikis does a fine job as rebel-in-tweed professor John Keating, and Schulman has many thoughtful lines of dialogue for him and the talented cast. There's nothing particularly bad about this production just the persistent thought that the endeavor was unnecessary.

"In Transit," on the other hand, is a train wreck (pardon the pun) of clichés. Set in the New York City subway and focusing on the commutes of a handful of New Yorkers who just happen to know each other - from coincidental acquaintances to close friends, there's a complete lack of organic moments. Stephen Sondheim captured more in his song "Another Hundred People" than Kristen Anderson-Lopez and co. have managed to do in nearly 100 minutes. That the show moved through several incarnations from the Fringe Festival to Broadway without fleshing out a single character is astonishing.

Throughout the New Group's revival of "Sweet Charity" I kept thinking of Leonard Cohen's final album "You Want It Darker," not for content but for the title. Leigh Silverman's pitch-black production starring Sutton Foster highlights the lack of opportunity for women in the 1960s in a way that makes it hard not to think about current discrepancies with equal pay, and of course, the big orange monster who's about to step into the White House. Neil Simon's tightly constructed book holds up though the humor comes off much more uneasy than initially intended. Charity only sees her value through the eyes of men and will subjugate her desires for theirs without thinking. She pins her happiness to winning the affection of a man and suffers abuse to maintain it. We're shown this from the opening moments but a particularly painful moment comes when she catches the eye of a movie star for a brief moment. What could be frivolous entertainment is haunting in the hands of Silverman, the talented cast and equally impressive all-female band - a rarity for Broadway or Off-Broadway.

At his best and most memorable, Stephin Merritt is an epic wonder. His triple album with his band The Magnetic Fields has become the soundtrack to the love lives of many generation x-ers and millennials. When I saw he was doing a pair of shows at BAM where he would play a song for each of his fifty years on earth, I knew I had to go. The shows turned out to be a fusion of monologue and laid-back folk rock show, performed in the gleaming Howard Gilman Opera House amidst an array of instruments and an overhead projection of offbeat animations. Merritt sat in the center, cocooned in a colorful enclosure somewhere between a makeshift recording studio and an indie artistic Pee Wee's Playhouse. His band formed a semi-circle behind him as he sung in his signature deadpan baritone, leaving most of the emotional expressions for the animations. Highlights included "No," which documented his mother's hyper-spirituality, their life on communes, and Merritt's rejection of it. "My mother believes that this physical universe / is a big holographic show / and she says someday science will catch up with her / has she a shred of evidence? / No." He tells of his eclectic array of roommates on the Lower East Side in "Me and Fred and Dave and Ted." The cyclical melody that anchors the song is insanely catchy while "Be True to Your Bar" is an offbeat epic but the arc of the show might be summed up in a line from the final song "Somebody's Fetish." In it he croons, "Nothing's too weird that nobody does it."

I've seen Andrew Bird perform four times and each one feels like its own unique experience. His show at Carnegie Hall the other week felt like four concerts in one and lasted almost three hours. The first was a solo set featuring Bird playing melodic lines and then looping them to provide his accompaniment. As the layers increase so does the wonder. While he plays guitar, his instrument of choice is violin, and he alternates between using a bow and strumming with his fingers. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that he plays violin and fiddle because he fuses the sensibilities of a classical violinist and the bluegrass fiddler into one musician. The second concert was filled with duets with emerging avant garde pianist Gabriel Kahane and virtuoso mandolinist Chris Thile. Thile, who's now the new host of "A Prairie Home Companion," defies and expands genres much in the same way as Bird. I'd love to see a concert with the two of them. The third show consisted of his best-known songs like "Plasticities" played with his quartet, and the fourth show was as eccentric and eclectic as they come: a tribute to the songs of School House rock with their composer, 93-year-old Bob Dorough, accompanying on piano.

The Bad Plus are the ultimate modern jazz band. Instead of relying on well-worn classics from over half-a-century ago, they draw on songs from a more recent canon of popular music like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for inspiration. That particular song put them on the map more than a decade ago and gave them a reputation for doing jazz covers of pop songs, but when a jazz musician plays a song it's not really a cover. It shouldn't come as a surprise that they've penned numerous original compositions as well. A recent concert at Rough Trade included several of these including "Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass" by drummer Dave King. Incidentally, the main melody of the song has a well-worn folksiness that would be at home in a Cole Porter musical. I used to think of Ethan Iverson as the band's leader but this concert showed both King and bassist Reid Anderson in equally prominent roles. With a standing room crowd, the vibe was a little more laid back and the catalogue of songs extensive. Of the new tracks, their renditions of "Walk the Line" and "Staring at the Sun" stood out as did "Time After Time" though the Miles Davis version will always be etched in my mind.