By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
A whole lot of black people are making Broadway alive again! First off, Passing Strange is "the moving and hilarious tale of a young black bohemian on a journey of escape and exploration." (That's from the press release written by white people.) When the show played the Public last year, the audience apparently wasn't on a journey of escape and exploration; the show got great reviews, so now it's coming to Broadway to compete with jukebox musicals and Disney extravaganzas featuring shredded shower curtains and skatefishI mean skating fish. At a recent meet and greet, Strange's star, Stew (not to be confused with Stewie from Family Guy), didn't pant and sweat the way I like to see new Broadway stars do. "We're a rock band," he told me, calmly. "For me, Broadway is another gig. We're excited by it, but it's the same as playing a really cool rock gig.
"We're an actual band," he went on, all blasé and shit, "not one of those simulated bands playing in the pit. We play loud! Some of us have former drug problems. That's a joke, but you can print it. No, that's not a joke, but you can print it." Got it, it's printed. But what was the band's low point, the kind of moment that would really make you want to reach for the bong? "We once played a punk-rock club in Pittsburgh," obliged Stew, "that turned out to be an AA meeting." Wait, no open bar? "Yeah, that was the problem!" he said, laughing. And now . . . the big oy vey meeting known as Broadway! Come on, Stew, aren't you shitting yourself? "I haven't liked any musical since Hair," answered the Out 100 honoree, unfazed. "I did not like Rent, I'm sorry. It didn't sound like rock music to me. I think we're the first rock musical because we're a rock band!" Yeah, an actual one!
On dry land, an all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is heading to Broadway, and it's neither passing nor strange. But this production recalls the monochromatic revamp of Hello Dolly! starring Pearl Bailey in the '60s, when the concept made sense as more of a jolting novelty. Besides, that show wasn't about people owning a plantation. Maybe this will be a Twilight Zone reversal in which blacks reclaim the old South they deserve. Whatever the case, objections dissolve when greeted with the cast, which includes biggies like James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, and Terrence Howard (as the gay on the down-low). These people can play whatever the fuck they want.
At a recent promotional panel I went to, director Debbie Allen was asked why they're doing an all-black Cat, but she dodged the question the way she avoided Leroy's machinations on Fame. (Y'all remember Fame, right? Show of hands.) "I'm a big fan of Tennessee Williams," Allen cooed. "He's one of the most glorious writers to come out of the American diaspora." Pause. "Honey, he's from Mississippithey all got a touch!" And you can print that, honey.
A reporter noted that in the 1974 revival that came out of the American diaspora, they had two Negro servants. "We still have Negro servants!" said Allen, cracking up. Serving some zingy self-assurance, Anika Noni Rose was asked how she feels about doing the Liz Taylor role and she replied, "I'm gonna do the Anika Noni Rose role!" And when another reporter wondered if the cast feels pressure about having a hit, Phylicia Rashad (doing the you-know-who role) mesmerizingly responded, "We don't think about that! Theater is about disciplinethe discipline of having your entire instrument available at every moment." James Earl Jones perked up right then and gurgled, "I liked that answer so much I've got to hear the question again!"
William Inge's own prize domestic drama, Come Back Little Sheba, is also coming back with an African-American touch, thanks to star S. Epatha Merkerson (or just S, as I call her; yes, we're that close). I recently asked S what Sheba, the lost dog on a hot tin roof, represents. "Sheba represents Lola's happiness, her youth, all of that," she responded as I wittily retorted: "Now I know how Ellen DeGeneres feels!"
The whitest show on earth, Young Frankenstein, was the subject of a New York Times Arts & Leisure Week panel, in which Mel Brooks and company bizarrely went into 90 minutes of detail about how they created a musical the Times loathed. This was the most ironic theater event until Rent couldn't afford to renew its lease. "Why don't you say anything nice about Young Frankenstein?" an agonized Mel asked the moderator, Times reporter Campbell Robertson (who didn't want to hear the question again). "I'm not Ben Brantley!" reminded Robertson, smilingly squirming. "Holy shit!" said Mel, faking surprise. The audience laughed, then prepared for more of Mel's relentless defense strategy. "Look, critics want to support a green caterpillar inching towards the sun," said the irascible old Jew. "They want to play God. But we're a butterfly!" And a fairly mediocre one, though quite funny in spots. The lovable egomaniac went on to wildly overpraise his stars and to interject self-adoring things like how an arrangement of one of his songs made him cry, but I was relieved to learn he's an equal-opportunity offender. "The Post is a piece of crap too," he conceded, "but the Times at least puts up a nice appearance."