Stan Friedman reports from BroadwayCon 2017 in NYC
DAY 1 - FRIDAY JANUARY 27, 2017
Flocks of theater kids heading west, dressed as Matilda or The Little Mermaid or a Newsie can mean only one thing: BroadwayCon 2017 has arrived. After launching the convention last year, during a blizzard, in the comparatively intimate Hilton Midtown, this year the organizers have gone full throttle, relocating to the Javits Center and offering more than 200 hours of programming with nearly 500 "special guests" spread across three days. Amid the cosplay and vendor booths (where one can play Pin the Ponytail on Hamilton) there are panel discussions on everything from stage fighting to building Tony-winning brands, lectures on Bollywood and on "Women in the World of Sondheim," tap and hip-hop workshops, as well as autograph sessions with the likes of Kelli O'Hara, Michael Cerveris and Melissa Errico. Ms. O'Hara, along with Danny Burstein, Judy Kuhn and Celia Keenan-Bolger discuss taking on iconic leading roles, and Chita Rivera plans to drop by for a 50 minute Q&A. So, with a baggie full of almonds, a bottle of vodka water, and the all-essential BroadwayCon app loaded onto my phone, I entered the fray on Friday. Here is what I found:
My morning was spent with on-stage talent, while the afternoon belonged to folks behind the scenes. At 10:00 the "Legacy Roles" panel convened with four stars who have appeared in a combined 41 Broadway shows and who have earned 19 Tony nominations. Despite their megawattage, they proved to be a sincere and down to earth gang as they reflected on their past performances and life priorities. To prepare for Tevye in the recently closed Fiddler on the Roof, Danny Burstein did a ton of research from which he "learned as much as he could then threw it all away," in order to arrive at his own unique interpretation of the role. Kelli O'Hara, though, usually takes the opposite approach, saying that "she tries not to watch anything at all — in fact I kind of fear it" lest she end up mimicking someone else's performance.
In discussing the dark characters she has played in Passion and Fun Home, Judy Kuhn says she maintains a happy life by "leaving [the darkness] at the theater," though she admits it does sometimes result in having "crazy dreams." All the panelists are parents and the difficulty of raising kids, along with the drag of getting older, was clearly on their minds "It's impossible to balance family life" said Mr. Burstein, and when he added that Tevye had made him a better father, the audience let out a collective, "Awww." Celia Keenan-Bolger reflected on her role as Laura in The Glass Menagerie. While finding it painful to play out the dysfunction of that particular mother-daughter relationship, it was also both beautiful and theraputic to go through the process and recite that classic Tennessee Williams dialog.
If the morning panel was a homey ensemble piece, the 11:00 (a.m.) number, "The Art of Perseverance," was a pure diva turn with a bravura performance by Melissa Errico. In proper hair and makeup, with a piano accompanest by her side, Ms. Errico offered up a one woman show that was half cabaret and half motivational lecture. She sang bits of several songs including "How are Things in Glocca Morra," and James Taylor's "Secret O' Life," provided a reading list of helpful books for mind and body, and conjured up entertaining tidbits about her family life and career. Though having starred in Dracula and Amour, and being married to tennis great Patrick McEnroe for nearly two decades, her early years were not quite as stellar. There was an awkward start, attempting to be a child gymnast, and then her first stage appearance in her Girl Scout years - playing a cockroach. Still, her wannabe stage mother was able to provide perspective, telling her to "move fast and don't let anyone step on you." It was a life lesson she has clearly taken to heart.
By 1:00 you couldn't swing a cast member of Cats without hitting a conference goer. A panel featuring five top Broadway producers was packed with curiosity seekers and future entrepreneurs. They spoke on how best not to throw money around (e.g a $350,000 elevator in Thoroughly Modern Millie) and how to keep in mind that, more often than not, the play is still the thing ("There are no chandeliers in Hamilton!") Ever wonder why there are so many revivals on Broadway? Well, look at it through a producer's eyes and the answer is clear: A previously produced play is a known entity and, in many ways, finished work from the start. That can save a producer millions of dollars and months, or years, of workshopping.
A discussion of shows that started out as books or films made for a fine finish to the afternoon. "From Page to Stage" introduced us to five producers and writers, all well versed in the business. Stealing the show, for the most part, was Doug Wright, the Tony winning playwright of I Am My Own Wife. His upcoming production is War Paint with Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. Marveling at his luck, he equated it to being asked to write a play for both Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. Mr. Wright also wrote the book for The Little Mermaid and Grey Gardens. From the experience, he concluded that writing for an audience of young girls required pretty much the same skillset as writing for an audience of older gay men.
With that pearl of wisdom filed away, it was clearly time to call it a night.
DAY 2 - SATURDAY JANUARY 28, 2017
I arrived earlier than planned to BroadwayCon on Saturday morning, so I snuck into the end of a discussion on cosplay because, really, how could one not? On the dais, a princess, a cat, and a Phantom of the Opera held forth. The audience was full of assorted Schuyler sisters, and various characters from Wicked. The conversation was a rather fascinating mix of gender politics and tips on buying fabric; surely it was the only outlet at BroadwayCon where Goodwill shops and transgenderism were simultaneously getting proper recognition for their merits.
Thus fortified, I next got down to business at a panel on social media marketing for Broadway, featuring five experts on all things Twitter and Facebook. The session itself was interactive with questions and real time polls taking place on Twitter under the hashtag #BwayConSocial. Steven Tartick of SpotNYC led things off with an amusing anecdote about marketing the revival of Cats. At first, his PR firm thought they were in for a social media disaster since Twitter is constantly saturated with tweets about actual cats. But, embracing the dilemma, they found that through the use of animated cat graphics and the creation of fun cat memes, their problem was actually a godsend.
Mark Seeley, of Situation Interactive, offered an example of how personalized Twitter can be. To help market Dear Evan Hansen they offered free access to one of the show's songs. But the link to that song was sent only to fans who had, at one time or another, tweeted at the Dear Evan Hansen account. The bottom line for Broadway social media, they all agreed, was to do whatever was possible to decrease the distance between potential future audience members and their favorite shows. Right now, this also includes the live streaming of some opening nights and intermissions, and in the near future fans will be taken even closer. Social media phenom Snap has recently released Spectacles, eyeglasses which, with the press of a button, records 10 seconds of video and streams it to Snapchat. There are plans afoot for actors to occasionally don a pair and click off a quick recording during a performance. And once virtual and augmented reality becomes widespread and affordable, the sky's the limit.
For something completely different, the next session offered three Broadway casting directors (out of a total population of about 20) who work with long-running shows. Eric Woodall divulged that Hal Prince and Andrew Lloyd Webber still get involved whenever one of the leads in The Phantom of the Opera is being re-cast, even after 29 years. Benton Whitley offered advice on auditioning for Chicago. He observed that there are Bob Fosse proteges out there teaching dance, and it wouldn't hurt to take lessons from one. And, whatever you do, do not emulate the movie version of the show, its arrangements are not the same. He also pointed out that celebrities are often cast as Roxie, but never as Velma, the more difficult role. Auditioning celebs who have never sang or danced before is perilous enough without the high notes and high kicks. Meanwhile, Mark Brandon, who casts The Lion King, has had to put up with auditioners rolling on the ground like animals, and an inordinate number of actors, for reasons unknown, fainting during their auditions.
In the afternoon I attended two writerly sessions. First up was a massive ten person panel sponsored by the Drama Desk; five critics, four playwrights and a press agent, discussing the state of criticism. Not to be critical, but it was too large an assembly to allow for much in-depth analysis. Mostly, it was good-natured ribbing, but the occasional gem did surface. Helen Shaw, critic for Time Out New York and a teacher of criticism, had perhaps the most pertinent observation when it came to the merits of a written review: "The action of writing is the action of slow thinking." Amen. Also of interest were comments by the playwrights on what type of critics they prefer. Best answer: Critics who review what they saw at the performance, not what they would have liked to see.
A panel of playwrights ended my afternoon. Joe DiPietro (Memphis, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change), Jenny Racel Weiner (resident playwright at the Roundabout Theatre Company) and Lindsey Ferrentino (Ugly Lies the Bone) provided some great tips for the aspiring scribe. All three are firm believers in establishing deadlines. Mr. DiPietro makes up imaginary deadlines to keep him on schedule. Ms. Weiner does one better by promising to send out a finished play by a specific date. And Ms. Ferrentino tops them all by scheduling a date for a public reading long before she has finished a script. When it comes to receiving feedback on a work in progress, Mr. DiPietro only wants to hear three things: what didn't you understand, where did you get ahead of the play, and where were you bored. Excellent words of wisdom with which to head home.
DAY 3 - SUNDAY JANUARY 29, 2017
For the second year in a row, BroadwayCon coincided with a severe storm. But this time, instead of a blizzard, a fierce political wind raged through the city, with thousands taking to the streets in protest. At the Javitz Center, in keeping with theater tradition, the show went on. And what a show it was. Sunday morning brought out a dozen of the industry's most talented artists. First, there were the choreographers. Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton, In the Heights), Lorin Latarro (Waitress) and Spencer Liff (Falsettos, Spring Awakening) discussed their craft. After all three admitted that their first choreographic efforts were near disasters, they shared their hard earned wisdom. Andy noted that the key to creating a dance is finding the "tension that leads a character to make a decision," and observed that the purpose of dance is not only to physicalize internal emotion, but also to glamorize it. Romanticism, he said, validates how an audience feels. When a number, for instance, affects how a man feels about his wife, choreography suddenly becomes a large responsibility. Lorin, meanwhile, demonstrated how dance is constructed from psychological gestures as she called on audience members to come up with physical manifestations of loneliness which she then sculpted into a dance move. Spencer was asked how a choreographer finds his signature moves and sagely pointed out that his job lies elsewhere. An audience should fall in love with the show's characters and not be busy observing a choreographer's style.
Next came a session featuring Broadway photographers. There was The New York Times veteran Sara Kulwich, Kinky Boots and Hamilton photographer Matthew Murphy, and the two women whose photos can be found everywhere on this website, Joan Marcus and Carol Rosegg. Having typed their names into the photo credits of my reviews numerous times, it was a treat to connect them to faces and voices, and to hear the entire panel speak about their profession and the way that digital cameras have changed their work. We were also treated to slides of some of their most interesting photos, many of which are now iconic, including Mr. Murphy's shot of Lin-Manuel Miranda that was incorporated into the Hamilton logo.
The capper to the morning was a gathering of five mega-directors. It would be easier to list the shows that they have not directed (Hamilton. That's about it.). Diane Paulus, Des McAnuff, Kathleen Marshall, Pam MacKinnon and Tina Landau captivated a huge crowd with their insights. In discussing musicals, Mr. McAnuff confessed that he had actually directed more non-musicals over the past decade, but that musicals "tend to nullify other work." He also leaked some news: he's currently working on a show about Donna Summer. Ms. MacKinnon came to New York especially to direct musicals but, after working with Edward Albee, fell into straight plays instead. Now, 22 years later, she is directing her first musical, the upcoming Amélie. Meanwhile, Ms. Landau, who is also a playwright, waxed poetic, saying that she thinks of directing as forming sentences, paragraphs and punctuation that are written "in the language of the theater."
If the morning was a study in confident creatives, the afternoon was a story of actors and their egos. A panel of performers who have stepped into roles in long-running shows found Frankie J. Grande and his ovesized personality carrying on about his role in Rock of Ages at one end of the dais, and stage veteran Marc Kudisch, no shy guy himself, giving Grande death stares from the other end, when not extolling his own virtues. Trapped in between were Deirdre Lovejoy, Luba Mason, and Wicked's Julia Murney and Arielle Jacobs. Once Mr. Grande had finished taking selfies with his numerous young fans, the next session was able to take the stage: the very funny Ann Harada, Allison Guinn and Todd Buonopane discussing what it's like to be a character actor. In listing their influences, Ms. Guinn mentioned both Imogene Coca and Chris Farley, while Ms. Harada said that she always wanted to be an "Asian Nancy Walker." Mr. Buonopane showed keen insight in defining the purpose of a character actor as, ultimately, telling the story of the lead characters, and also observed, that when auditioning, joking around with the director may be as useful as the actual line reading because, after all, they are being hired on their ability to provide comic relief. All three panelists are large bodytypes, which proved an unfortunate distraction as questions from the audience threatened to turn the hour into, as Mr. Buonopane quipped, "a Weight Watchers meeting." The moderator found himself asking the audience to refrain from weight-related questions after a brief and awkward sidetrack on whether "character actor" is really code for "fat actor." No, advised the panel, character actor is code for not the lead actor. Food for thought.
Originally published on