Tony pre­view

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - Charles.mcnulty@la­times.com

Go be­hind the cur­tain as Broad­way cel­e­brates the­ater’s big­gest night of the year.

CHARLESMCNULTY THE­ATER CRITIC >>> NEW YORK — Who’s the toast of Broad­way at the mo­ment? While fans of Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O’Hara duke it out, let’s raise a glass to Oskar Eustis, the Pub­lic The­ater’s game-chang­ing artis­tic di­rec­tor who, since he be­gan his ten­ure 10 years ago, has been re­tool­ing the Amer­i­can mu­si­cal at the his­toric off-Broad­way venue founded by Joseph Papp.

Two of the most-talked-about pro­duc­tions of the year—“Fun Home,” which re­ceived 12 Tony nom­i­na­tions, and “Hamil­ton,” the show that will likely sweep the Tonys next year af­ter it opens on Broad­way this sum­mer— be­gan at the Pub­lic. To call these mu­si­cals im­prob­a­ble hits is an al­most lu­di­crous un­der­state­ment.

“Fun Home,” writ­ten by play­wright Lisa Kron and com­poser Jea­nine Te­sori, is based on Ali­son Bechdel’s graphic mem­oir about com­ing of age as a les­bian in ahome with a clos­eted gay fu­neral di­rec­tor fa­ther, whose death ap­pears to have been a sui­cide. Even Stephen Sond­heim might have balked at the sce­nario.

“Hamil­ton,” a rap mu­si­cal about the Found­ing Fa­thers, por­trayed by amul­ti­cul­tural cast, is even more un­likely. Writ­ten and com­posed by

Lin-Manuel Mi­randa, the show tells the story of Alexan­der Hamil­ton (played by Mi­randa), the feisty, bril­liant Caribbean-born scrap­per who shaped what kind of coun­try America would be be­fore his in­fa­mous fa­tal duel with Aaron Burr. What mu­si­cal the­ater buff pag­ing through Ron Ch­er­now’s biog­ra­phy of Hamil­ton would have come to the end of the book and ex­claimed, “This has got tobe a hip-hop mu­si­cal!”

Rac­ing into his of­fice from a staff meet­ing last month, Eustis should be on top of the world, but his heart is heavy. In Novem­ber, he and his fam­ily suf­fered the loss of his 16-year-old son, Jack. When I asked Eustis how he’s bear­ing up, he said he and his fam­ily are do­ing as well as can be ex­pected un­der the­worst of all pos­si­ble cir­cum­stances.

Sur­rounded by pho­tos and im­ages of the Pub­lic’s il­lus­tri­ous his­tory — Papp urg­inghi­mon from the shelf, Ham­let hov­er­ing sagely on the wall— Eustis is grate­ful for the dis­trac­tion of work and grew an­i­mated when talk­ing about this re­mark­ably fruit­ful sea­son.

An ar­dent in­tel­lec­tual and old-school lefty, he has been un­wa­ver­ing in his de­ter­mi­na­tion to broaden the au­di­ence of the Pub­lic’s mul­ti­plex op­er­a­tion by re­flect­ing on stage the de­mo­graphic rich­ness of the city. His re­ward — and the Amer­i­can the­ater’s — has been a se­ries of crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial suc­cesses that have de­fied the scare­mon­gers and naysay­ers whose mis­sion is to pre­serve the con­ser­va­tive sta­tus quo.

“Fun Home” and “Hamil­ton” weren’t happy ac­ci­dents. They are the prod­uct of a care­fully worked out in­sti­tu­tional vi­sion that Eustis said be­gan with Joe’s Pub, the Pub­lic’s ad­ven­tur­ous night­club, and “Pass­ing Strange,” the mu­si­cal by Stew and Heidi Rode­wald of the band Stew & the Ne­gro Prob­lem.

“We were ac­tively search­ing for ways of tak­ing the mu­si­cians at Joe’s Pub and re­lat­ing them to the drama that was hap­pen­ing on stage,” Eustis said.“The­first se­ri­ous at­tempt to do that was with Stew. I thought I was do­ing some kind of wildly ex­per­i­men­tal mu­si­cal the­ater piece, but ‘Pass­ing Strange’ wound up win­ning theTony for best book. Iwas very sur­prised by the reach of it.”

Amu­si­cal re­vi­sion

Eustis, who com­mis­sioned Tony Kush­ner’s “An­gels in America” when he was at San Fran­cisco’s Eureka The­atre Com­pany and di­rected its two-part world pre­miere at theMark Ta­per Fo­rum (where he spent five years as an as­so­ci­ate artis­tic di­rec­tor un­der Gor­don David­son), wasn’t re­ally known as a mu­si­cals guy. His love af­fair, he said, be­gan at Rhode Is­land’s Trin­ity Reper­tory Com­pany. It was there, as artis­tic di­rec­tor just be­fore his ap­point­ment at thePublic, that he started “re­think­ing clas­si­cal mu­si­cals, try­ing to tear them apart and make them speak to our mo­ment.”

The “fan­tas­tic pop­ulist” ap­peal of these shows ex­cited Eustis, who nat­u­rally grav­i­tates to­ward weighty po­lit­i­cal dra­mas, such as Kush­ner’s “The In­tel­li­gent Ho­mo­sex­ual’s Guide to Cap­i­tal­ism & So­cial­ism With a Key to the Scrip­tures,” which the Pub­lic pro­duced in 2011. “Kush­ner ismy best friend, and that is my Pla­tonic ideal of a play ti­tle, just as the idea of a com­mu­nist and his fam­ily ar­gu­ing for 31⁄ hours about whether

2 it’s worth liv­ing in the era af­ter com­mu­nism has failed is my idea of the per­fect play,” he said. “But for­tu­nately, that’s not allwe do.”

The Pub­lic’s 40th-an­niver­sary re­vival of “Hair,” a pro­duc­tion di­rected by Diane Paulus that be­gan in Cen­tral Park and won the Tony for mu­si­cal re­vival, opened Eustis’ eyes fur­ther to the ex­pan­sive po­ten­tial of shows that ex­press their po­lit­i­cal con­science through song. He also sawhow re­mu­ner­a­tive they can be.

“I don’t con­sider that sell­ing out,” he said. “Mu­si­cals are the only form that ac­tu­ally holds up the pos­si­bil­ity of artists mak­ing a liv­ing in the the­ater. It is di­rectly re­lated to the fact that you can reach many more peo­ple with a mu­si­cal than you­can with a play. That has felt very mis­sion-cen­tric to us.”

Two years af­ter “Pass­ing Strange” made it to Broad­way in 2008, “Bloody Bloody An­drew Jackson,” the Alex Tim­bers-Michael Fried­man mu­si­cal that ran at the Pub­lic The­ater (af­ter its pre­miere at the Kirk Dou­glas The­atre), had its turn. These shows weren’t box-of­fice jug­ger­nauts, but they cleared the way for new pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Of course Broad­way isn’t the only mea­sure. “Here Lies Love,” the David Byrne-Fat­boy Slim mu­si­cal about Imelda Mar­cos staged by Tim­bers as a float­ing disco ex­trav­a­ganza, was so suc­cess­ful that it had a re­peat en­gage­ment at the Pub­lic.

A sharp change

Mu­si­cal tri­umphs are noth­ing new at the Pub­lic. Ge­orge C. Wolfe, Eustis’ pre­de­ces­sor, un­leashed the me­te­oric “Bring in ’daNoise, Bring in ’da Funk,” while Papp’s busi­ness plan hinged for years on “ACho­rusLine,” the Broad­way block­buster that started as a down­town ex­per­i­ment and wound up serv­ing as the Pub­lic’sATM.

“Fun Home” and “Hamil­ton,” how­ever, rep­re­sent some­thing of an aes­thetic break­through, ex­tend­ing the work of “Caro­line, or Change,” theKush­ner-Te­sori mu­si­cal di­rected byWolfe, of clos­ing the dis­tance be­tween dra­mas and mu­si­cals.

When asked if “Hamil­ton” (rap­tur­ously en­dorsed by First Lady Michelle Obama af­ter her visit to the show) might be the Pub­lic’s new­cash­cow, Eustis replied, “No one will ever make as much money from a Broad­way trans­fer again as the Pub­lic made from ‘A Cho­rus Line.’ Be­cause of the pe­cu­liar na­ture of Broad­way, which was dy­ing at that mo­ment, wew­ere­able tomakea deal with the Shu­berts that no­body will ever be able to make again.”

He ac­knowl­edged this might not be such a bad thing: “It’s a lousy busi­ness model to de­pend on one great com­mer­cial hit to fund your en­tire op­er­a­tion. The Pub­lic will re­ceive in­come from both ‘Fun Home’ and ‘Hamil­ton’ that will help us, but there’s never go­ing to be a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of money. What we had in Joe’s the last 15 years is this very strange re­al­ity of the most non­com­mer­cial the­ater in America com­pletely liv­ing off of com­mer­cial in­come. That pro­duced in the decade fol­low­ing a lot of up­heaval we are try­ing to avoid.” (The the­ater’s solid foot­ing is one rea­son Eustis and­his wife, Laurie, aformer pro­ducer at the Ta­per, are be­ing hon­ored at a Pub­lic gala onTues­day.)

As eco­nomic in­equal­ity has grown in this coun­try, so too has the cul­tural gap be­tween hits and the vast ma­jor­ity of other shows — the 99%, if you will. Could a run­away suc­cess like “Hamil­ton,” the dream of so many non­profit the­aters, es­tab­lish a dan­ger­ous prece­dent? Eustis, who ad­mit­ted it hasn’t been easy to work out a tac­ti­cal yet prin­ci­pled stand to­ward the com­mer­cial world, didn’t need much coax­ing to elu­ci­date the pit­falls.

“The hit men­tal­ity is the ex­pres­sion in show busi­ness of the in­creas­ing hege­mony of cap­i­tal­ism,” he said. “There’s a ten­dency to fo­cus on the sin­gle show and con­sign ev­ery­thing else to the trash heap. ‘Fun Home’ and ‘Hamil­ton’ are prob­a­bly the two most suc­cess­ful mu­si­cals we’ve had since ‘A Cho­rus Line’ and ‘Bring in ’da Noise,’ but they are the prod­uct of abunch of other things — a whole his­tory — we’ve been de­vel­op­ing here.”

The so­lu­tion to the­ater’s com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion, Eustis said, is to “trans­form it back into a set of re­la­tion­ships.” Pub­lic Works, the pro­gram led by Lear de Bes­sonet that part­ners with or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Chil­dren’s Aid So­ci­ety and Do­mes­tic Work­ers United does just that by invit­ing mem­bers of marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties to share the stage with the­ater pro­fes­sion­als. “The Tem­pest” and “The Win­ter’s Tale” were the first of­fer­ings, and this sum­mer there will be a mu­si­cal adap­ta­tion of “The Odyssey.”

Eustis said he knew that the pro­gram would be ex­hil­a­rat­ing for par­tic­i­pants, but he wasn’t sure about the qual­ity of the pro­duc­tions. “But it has turned out to pro­duce fan­tas­tic art,” he said. “I don’t like to com­pare chil­dren, but the pro­duc­tions were as thrilling to me as ‘Hamil­ton’ and ‘Fun Home.’ For ‘The Tem­pest,’ we had lit­tle kids next to se­nior cit­i­zens from Brownsville next to Laura Benanti next to guys who re­cently got out of prison af­ter 20 years — all per­form­ing Shake­speare to­gether. This is the mix that makes this place vi­tal.”

A utopian in the Pap­pian mold, Eustis is try­ing to fig­ure out howto ex­pand the box of­fice pol­icy for Shake­speare in the Park. He’d like the ma­jor­ity of tick­ets for shows at the Pub­lic, which op­er­ates five the­aters and Joe’s Pub down­town as well as Cen­tral Park’s Dela­corte The­ater, to be free while mak­ing a per­cent­age of seats avail­able at pre­mium do­na­tion prices.

Deeply con­cerned about the “cri­sis of artis­tic com­pen­sa­tion,” he’d like to be able to do for other artists what the Pub­lic has done for Suzan-Lori Parks, who wrote “Fa­ther Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1,2 & 3),”a fi­nal­ist for the Pulitzer this year, while in res­i­dence. “That play came about be­cause she had a salary and a se­cure base at the the­ater over an ex­tended num­ber of years,” Eustis said.

As for the crit­i­cism that the Pub­lic has been more loyal to the old guard than open to the new, Eustis pointed to the Emerg­ing Writ­ers Group, the two-year fel­low­ship pro­gram that was an im­por­tant step­ping­stone for the nowred-hot Bran­den Ja­cobs-Jenk­ins (whose play “Ap­pro­pri­ate” will be pro­duced at the Ta­per in the fall). But he ac­knowl­edged that there was more to be done: “There aren’t as many Tarell Alvin McCraneys as I wish there were, younger artists who we’ve made a re­ally long-term com­mit­ment to.”

With “Hamil­ton” and “Fun Home” gal­va­niz­ing new au­di­ences— not even a cell­phone-fondling Madonna could re­sist the siren call of “Hamil­ton” — it’s hard to com­plain. is there a cost to such far-reach­ing ap­peal? Do the pol­i­tics have to be di­luted for the masses to flock?

“Peggy Noo­nan, Lynne and Dick Cheney and Bar­bara Bush all loved ‘ Hamil­ton,’” Eustis said. “These are not my nor­mal po­lit­i­cal bed­fel­lows, and I had a cri­sis of con­science. But my wise friend Tony Kush­ner pointed­out to me that the suc­cess of ‘Hamil­ton’ is pre­cise­lyem bod­ied in the fact that it is con­vinc­ing ev­ery­body of the fun­da­men­tal ac­cu­racy of the need to see this na­tion as a na­tion of im­mi­grants — the need to see peo­ple of color as cen­tral to own­ing the na­tion. I think the show is ac­tu­ally go­ing to move the nee­dle on how we think about im­mi­gra­tion pre­cisely be­cause it’s reach­ing peo­ple.”

“Fun Home,” Eustis be­lieves, has the po­ten­tial todo for les­bians what “An­gels in America” did for gay men: “Take a marginal­ized group and say, ‘No, you are ac­tu­ally cen­ter stage.’”

“The art form, con­tra Brecht, de­pends on em­pa­thy,” Eustis said. “It has been mag­i­cal watch­ing Broad­way au­di­ences at ‘Fun Home.’ No one is think­ing, ‘Oh, I know a les­bian.’ They are iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves with the story, and that changes you. Once you’ve iden­ti­fied with some­one, you can’t think of them as the other any­more.”

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

OSKAR EUSTIS, artis­tic di­rec­tor for New York’s Pub­lic The­ater, is be­hind the im­prob­a­ble hits “Fun Home” and “Hamil­ton.”

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

OSKAR EUSTIS says it is para­mount for the Pub­lic The­ater to reach a broader and more di­verse au­di­ence.

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