the traveler's resource guide to festivals & filmsa FestivalTravelNetwork.com site part of Insider Media llc.
Olivier and Tony Award winner, “Disney princess,” recording artist, and international concert star Lea Salonga has returned to Broadway in the breathtakingly imaginative revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Once On This Island, set on a Caribbean island “at the mercy of the wind and sea” with the lure of tropical and voodoo rhythms..
Lea’s birthday on February 22 will mark 40 years in show business. In her return to Broadway in the one-act musical, based on a novel by Rosa Guy, which tells of the unbridled joy of first romance, hope and faith, and the inevitable broken heart. In addition to and myths, there’s a telling sub-plot on class bias. And there are gods: God of Water, Mother of the Earth, Demon of Death. Salonga makes an enviable transition from a poor villager named Erzulie to becoming the Goddess of Love.
Lead producer Ken Davenport notes, “Lea is a Disney princess and Tony and Olivier actress, not to mention an inspiration to people, especially young girls, around the world. Her voice is what love sounds like, so when [director] Michael [Arden] and I were looking for a Goddess of Love, we didn’t have to think too long. She is the perfect choice!” Arden first bonded with Salonga when they were cast in a concert of Ahrens/Flaherty’s Ragtime in 2013 at Alice Tully Hall.
Salonga has high praise for her co-stars, which include golden-voiced Tony-nominee Philip Boykin (Crown in 2012’s Porgy and Bess revival) and marvelous Kenita R. Miller [who become Ti Moune’s guardians]; and megabelter Alex Newell [Mother of the Earth].
In a casting coup, similar to Salonga’s, Hailey Kilgore, 18, as Ti Moune, the show’s lead, segues from a mere orphaned human [involved in a bittersweet love triangle] to a goddess. She was cast at the last minute right out of acting school after months of talent searching. “It’s a real Cinderella story,” states Lea. “She’s from Oregon, where Hailey did her first equity role at 12. It’s a thrill to watch her. She’s a raw talent with a terrific learning curve.”
Salonga says the composers’ musical deserves an intimate setting, “so Circle in the Square is ideal.” But don’t come expecting a copycat of the original. Except for new arrangements, there’s nothing that’ll remind you of it. “When you enter, you feel you’ve left New York City for the tropics. The design is a great way to tell this enchanting story. There’s a different rhythm with movement and dance from beginning to end and a beautiful visual language.” [The 1990 premiere Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizon moved to the Booth Theatre, where it ran 469 performances.]
Dane Laffrey’s set design is at once idyllic and stark. Audiences meet the cast as they recover from a hurricane. Tropical breeze sift across a lagoon. On the sandy beach, as tropical breezes drift across a lagoon, the islanders go about picking up their lives again. There’s a huge, defunct truck, fallen utility pole, an overturned boat, a hungry goat, storm debris of all kind.
Though you’d never know it from their sound, the show only has five band members. However, much of the music is provided by the cast, who pick up broken glass and items displaced by the storm and create instruments. You might also catch Salonga on percussion.
Lea explains that performing in the round delivers a new dimension to the story as the cast, often going into the audience, draw members into the story. But there are challenges: “You have to favor everybody 360 degrees. You can’t be still for too long or three-fourths of the audience won’t see you.”
Lighting for a show in the round can also be a challenge. To avoid light glaring into cast members faces as well as the audience, multiple award-winning lighting pros Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer have lighted with banks of overhead light grids.
Lea particularly enjoys the pre-show routine of the company onstage to clean up their ravaged town. “We’re all over passing the baton from one to the other. It’s serious, but we have fun -- especially when I spot people I know out there and get to play a little. It’s a great way to get rid of pre-show jitters.”
Stardom: From Manila to the West End and Broadway
At 17, Lea Salonga was plucked from hundreds of talented hopefuls auditioning for Cameron Mackintosh and director Nicholas Hytner for the coveted role of Vietnamese war orphan Kim in Claude-Michel Schónberg, Alain Boublil, and Richard Maltby Jr.’s Miss Saigon.
Lea could never forget her last call back in Manila when she sang again for Mackintosh, Hytner, Schónberg, and Boublil. How could she perceive what was about to transpire – and change her life forever? Arriving beautiful and calm, she casually asked Schónberg for his autograph on a promotion sheet from Les Misèrables. In a sheer moment of inevitability, no mere pianist accompanied her. As Schónberg played, the team hung over the piano on every word as if history was in the making. Salonga came prepared. She sang the poignant “Sun and Moon,” with the composer singing the role of Chris. It was magic. When she finished, they’d found their Kim.
She may have arrived an unknown to London but, “I was far from a greenhorn.” Lea had been performing since age seven, and had her first album at 10. "We peddled my music, going from music store to music store. It didn’t happen overnight. What does? Then, the orders were coming in – more than we ever imagined."
With best-selling records, she had the name recognition to host her own TV variety show, Love, Lea. She played concerts to Filipino fans on the West Coast. On home stages, she was cast in The King and I, the lead in Annie, and one of the tots in The Sound of Music. The shows were presented in English which, because of the World War II American occupation, has become the country’s second language [the first in urban areas, such as Manila].
In Miss Saigon, Salonga received her first kisses. “One of my Chrises said he had to have his lips replaced every week after I was done with him, but that’s not true. He exaggerates, but I admit that all my Chrises were good kissers.”
The show brought critical acclaim. Suddenly, she was “The Pride of the Philippines” and a national treasure. However, “nothing prepared me for overnight stardom. There was a lot of hard work, and pressure. What could compare to opening a major musical on London’s West End; then, performing before the Queen of England? But I was disciplined, thanks to the theater back home. The culture shock was the big thing. I had my Mom with me. Still, homesickness set in.”
Lea and co-star Jonathan Pryce captured Oliver Awards, “I never thought I’d win,” she states. “The competition was tough: Elaine Page and Judy Kuhn. I was a fan of both. It was a nail-biter. I was flabbergasted. It took days before it all set in. Heading to New York and Broadway, there was some fear. I’d heard stories of how fast-faced and notorious it could be. But the minute I stepped off the plane I knew it was where I belonged. I didn’t have a life, however. I did the show, took my bows, and went home to bed." More acclaim, and a Tony for her and Pryce followed.
Lea credits her mother Ligaya [Joy] for guiding her down the right career and life paths. "Mother never heard the word ‘impossible.’ She shaped my determination to succeed at what I wanted to do, and helped turn me into a strong-willed person. I believed I had talent, and was ready to go for it, but Mom kept telling me, ‘You’ve got to make sure you really have it.’"
Her parents, long separated, stressed the importance of education. "Mom told me it was something no one could take away, that it would shape the way I look at things. I also learned that intelligence wasn’t everything. If you want to succeed, preparation and perseverance are important."
After high school, she briefly attended college, studying pre-med. Before music became her main goal, Salonga wanted to be a dermatologist, which might account for her ageless beauty and flawless complexion. In 1991, People chose her as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World. In the Philippines, she was bestowed the rank of Commander, their highest civilian honor.
"I’m blessed," she said. "I’m Asian, but the youth gene runs in my family. I’m in a great business, doing what I love to do. It doesn’t feel like work, so there’s little stress. Travel can be drudgery, but that’s a fact of life in today’s world." She adds that she’s very faithful to a daily workout regime.
Following Broadway roles in Miss Saigon and Les Misèrables, Disney came calling. She did the vocals for Princess Jasmine in Aladdin and Mulan’s title character.
In addition to Lea and husband Robert Charles Chien’s magnificent home in Manila, the couple maintain a residence in New York.
Remembering her mother’s dictate, she took time off to continue her studies, tackling philosophy and European history at Fordham. However, she never stopped singing. She starred in the Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. She somehow found time to star in an Asian tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
In 2012, she co-starred at San Diego’s Old Globe in Allegiance, about the internment of Japanese Americans in 1941 following Pearl Harbor. It won local Best Musical honors, and broke box office records. She had a four-and-a-half month Broadway run. Lea returned to Manila to play Grizabella in Cats. Here, she’s done two sell-out engagements at posh Café Carlyle, sold out Town Hall, and had two engagements at 54 Below. More recently, back home, she did Fun Home.
Daughter Nicole, 11, may follow in Mama’s footsteps. Performing in school plays since age five, she’s a violinist in the school orchestra and under scholarship at Kids Act Philippines. She’s also appeared solo at some concerts. Recently, she wrapped playing Alice in the Manila production of Matilda. Lea not only took off six performances [announced well in advance] to be there but took to Twitter to congratulate her.
With her mentoring spot in the Philippines on The Voice, writing a newspaper column, concert schedule, and being a mom, how did she find time to return to Broadway in Once On This Island, where she’s set to play into June. “You carve out the time, especially when it’s something you want to do,” explains Salonga. “The show is a longtime favorite. When asked, I couldn’t see any way of passing the opportunity by.”
Here, with the weather changing from day to day, how does she stay healthy?
“You can try, but if there’re people in the cast or audience who’re sick, and there always are, with the all of us in close proximity, you’re bound to catch something. No matter how many multi-vitamins and Vitamin C I take, you’ll get sick. It happens when you’re fatigued and lack sleep. But she show must go on. I arrive at the theatre early, vocalize an hour, do make-up, and go out. When the adrenaline hits, you forget almost everything.”
Lea travels much of the year, and, when possible, has Nic along. “My goal is to be the best representative of my country as I can be. I stay out of trouble! Don’t think I don’t have fun, but I keep my nose clean.”
With all that travel, is it difficult to keep a marriage together? “It’s only difficult if the two of you have no idea what you’re in for. From the beginning, I’ve had nothing but Rob’s blessing and encouragement. He told me, ‘You’re in a position to inspire people. I’d never take that away from you.’ I married the right guy!”
Visit www.onceonthisisland.com for tickets and more information.
Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics), one half of the Tony-winning Broadway composing team with Stephen Flaherty (music), who are celebrating their 35th
year of collaboration, delights in reminiscing about the origin of their 1990 musical Once On This Island, now back on Broadway at Circle in the Square in a jaw droppingly sumptuous staging that pumps new life – and magic – into an already exhilarating work. “It was May 1988 and Stephen and I had just completed the run of our first Off Broadway show at Playwrights Horizon, Lucky Stiff. It was an incredible experience, and we wanted to start another project right away. I went hunting for ideas in a Barnes & Noble. Back then, they had a used section. “My hand and eyes went right to a shelf with a thin volume with a colorful beach scene cover,” she continues. “It was titled My Love, My Love or the Peasant Girl [a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid] by Trinidadian 'writer of young adult fiction, Rosa Guy [pronounced “gee”]. I opened the book and started reading. It began ‘There is an island where rivers run deep, with the sea sparkling in the sun.’ I thought, ‘This sounds so musical.’” She bought the book for $1.50, went home, and read it “in one big gulp.” I quickly fell in love not only with the story, but also the novel’s language in the novel. It was so evocative and beautiful.” She hailed a cab to Flaherty’s apartment. When he opened the door, Ahrens said, “I’ve found our next musical.” “The music scene was jumping and there was a lot of music experimenting going on,” notes Flaherty. “I was inspired by Brazilian music, Paul Simon’s Graceland with its motifs of South African music, Caribbean beats. All sorts of music ran through my head. Our process was quite different from Lucky Stiff. It became a musical adventure. By using an array of world music elements, I embarked on creating a theater score unlike any I’d heard.”Once On This Island premiered in May 1990 at Playwrights and in October transferred to the intimate Booth on Broadway, one of the earliest shows to be performed without an intermission. It ran 13 months and just shy of 470 performances, starring LaChanze [in her third show and first lead role] and garnering her a Tony nod. Next, she had the lead in Ahrens and Flaherty’s Dessa Rose, co-starred with Once On This Island revival co-star Kenita R. Miller, at LCT’s Mitzi Newhouse.
When there was interest in reviving Once On This Island by lead producers Ken Davenport and Hunter Arnold, Ahrens and Flaherty met with director Michael Arden (Deaf West’s Spring Awakening). His idea was to do the show in the round.
“We thought, with storytelling often happening around a camp fire or with people gathered in rapt attention, that was an exciting idea,” explains Ahrens. “The show’s concept is telling stories to a little girl of how she came to be and how she evolves into a goddess.” Flaherty was poised to start all over with new orchestrations. AnnMarie Milazzo (Spring Awakening, Finding Neverland, If/Then) collaborated with original orchestrator, two-time Tony winner, Michael Starobin (If/Then, Next to Normal, Assassins, Sunday in the Park with George, My Favorite Year, Falsettos), age 90. In the original, Flaherty used “a lot of highly polished and glossy keyboards and synth. We wanted a grittier sound in line with Michael’s vision.” Milazzo and Starobin came up with the idea that much of the keyboard music could be done by the human voice. “That really upped the ante in terms of the actors’ participation.”
“Being in the round adds a fresh dimension,” explains Ahrens, “as audiences are drawn into the poignant story of first love and heartbreak and the importance of family amid voodoo, class bigotry, and the trees and wind creating the music of the competing powerful entities: Goddess of Love, Mother of the Earth, God of Water, and Demon of Death.”“Michael (Starobin),” recalls Flaherty, “had an offbeat idea. Much of the castoff debris could be made into musical instruments. There was something quite profound about creating something of beauty from trash (such as percussion instruments, a wind machine crafted from a trashed bicycle, a xylophone made from shards of glass, and an ocarina made from a bottle).” Music supervisor Chris Fenwich made good use of everything. In addition, he gets an amazingly full sound from his five-member band.The composers haven’t tampered with the musical’s themes, but that Ahrens tweaked her script. “In the original,” Flaherty notes, “the setting wasn’t a particular place, just a fictitious magical place. Michael wanted to bring in the roots of Haiti, especially in light of recent, destructive events.”
The composers consider Arden’s concept, the design by Dane Laffrey (Deaf West’s Spring Awakening; MTC’s Fool for Love revival; Drama Desk winner, Lighting Design, 2010 Off Broadway revival, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band), and the lighting by multiple Tony winners Julies Fisher [whose wife Graciela Daniele choreographed/directed the original Once On This Island] and Peggy Eisenhauer brilliant. The lighting becomes an effective co-star, creating different environments in nanoseconds – most stunningly, with the fade from the island’s sandy devastation to a stunning lit-by-candles palace ball with the island’s “grand homes” [aristocrats and landowners.] The Circle is a challenging venue to light. Standard grids would blind audiences on the four sides. Fisher and Eisenhauer installed overhead lighting, which solves that problem, and some non-intrusive side lighting.
The cast have bonded. Merle Dandridge, Quentin Earl Darrington, Alex Newell, and Tony and Olivier winner Lea Salonga are multi-talented performers declares Ahresn. “From our young Hailey Kilgore (Ti Moune, or little orphan) down to the swings, everyone’s wonderful and have some of the most amazing voices we’ve heard. The chemistry between Philip Boykin (Tony nominee, Porgy and Bess), who plays Tonton Julian, and Kenita R. Miller (Mama Euralie) is amazing.”
“Lynn’s mad about Philip,” kids Flaherty. However, it turns out to be true. Ahrens pushes back, “He’s magic, sunshine, hilarious, and so sweet and giving. And that voice! I’m in love with him. Don’t tell my husband, but if Philip wasn’t married, I’d get a divorce and marry him!”Flaherty says that finding Kilgore, all of 18 and a native of Happy Valley, Oregon, was a miracle. “Michael and Telsey + Company literally scoured the nation looking for our Ti Moune, who segues from a mere human and orphan to a goddess and gets involves in a bittersweet love triangle. Hundreds around the country audition, and in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.”
“Hailey was recommended by a call from her music teacher,” states Ahrens. “She’s a beautiful, raw talent with a terrific learning curve. You’d think she’s been around for years, instead of just walking onto the theater scene.” “She’s an absolute natural,” Flaherty assures. “She was coming to go to school here. Telsey + Company reminded Michael if he wanted her, he had to let her know as she was about to the deposit down on her dorm.”“We wanted her!” the duo exclaim. “It was a wise decision,” stresses Flaherty. “She’s a trouper. She rehearsed like she was prepping for the Olympics. It’s quite an experience to see a young amateur balloon into a star right before your eyes.”During previews and going forward, Ahrens and Flaherty have seen something they’ve never seen before – “At least at any of our shows,” says Flaherty. “Audiences standing up after numbers in the middle of the show.”
Flaherty finds exciting “having the audience in the round to interface with the performers. The staging is immersive. It’s different every performance. It keeps the cast on their toes. There’re no wings. Once you’re out there, you’re out there.”
As the audience enters, they see water lapping onto a Caribbean island village shattered by the type of tempest wreaked by recent Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Peasants “with their brown skins,” amid displaced chickens and a goat, wade through sand and debris gathering what they can. Cast members do clean-up tasks and interact with audience members.
Ahrens: “That makes them part of the story. It’s important for them to get an understanding of who these characters are and what their arc is going to be.” Flaherty: “Michael didn’t want audiences to think they were entering a theatre. He wanted to feel they were entering the story, the island, its worldCamille A. Brown, making her Broadway debut, has created energetic choreographic movement throughout [often to the point of audiences being unaware] and African dance traditions that are true to time and place.
In these frigid temps, the one tropical place to be is at Once On This Island.
The only persons not thrilled with the show are those on the clean-up crew. There’s a ton of sand from the Jersey Shore, hauled in daily, with cast members traipsing through it and water, it creates muck that is spread everywhere. Then, audience members track it on the stairs.Was the original production ahead of its time? Is the message of race and tackling bigotry stronger now? “There’s never a bad time for good messages,” states Flaherty. “With what we’re experiencing today, it would seem to be a perfect time for Once On This Island to return.”“The message,” adds Ahrens, “is one of the reasons Michael [Arden] got interested. “America is divided right down the middle in terms of politics, beliefs, and what we hope for. Fortunately, for Stephen and I, Ken [Davenport] wanted to do another show with him. They’re a close-knit producer/director team.”
Kismet brought Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty together in 1982. He arrived from the Midwest and was accepted into BMI’s prestigious Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. She was an ad agency copywriter, jingle writer/singer and wrote for Disney’s TV series Schoolhouse Rock! She’s been nominated for four Emmys – winning the Outstanding Children's Informational/Instructional Programming Award for H.E.L.P – Dr. Henry’s Emergency Lessons for People (1979). Soon, she thought of writing for theater and was accepted into the BMI workshop.“My first session was like the song from South Pacific," she laughs, "‘You may see a stranger, across a crowded room and somehow you know.’ I liked what Stephen was presenting."Flaherty admired how quickly she got into the game. "Lynn was a very clever wordsmith," he recalls. "It really was like some enchanted evening. We became friends, seeing each other again and again and working together."Soon they were writing a musical. “One,” says Flaherty, “we thought had infinite possibilities,” adapted from the Peter Cook, Dudley Moore film Bedazzled (1967) [about a man who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for seven wishes, but still has trouble winning the girl of his dreams], However, notes Ahrens, "There were rights issues. We learned a good lesson.”
The score hasn’t been lost. In several club engagements, they’ve done tunes from the musical; and from their 2014 Kennedy Center production of Little Dancer, set against the harsh backstage world of the Paris Opera Ballet, where the ballerina posing for Edgar Degas’s sculpture suddenly becomes the world’s most famous dancer.Though Ahrens is happily married and Flaherty happily partnered, both agree that their long collaboration relationship has been nothing short of a mutual love affair. Collaborating for 35 years leads to more than just a working friendship. "We’re like brother and sister," states Ahrens. “And we’ve been known to fight like brothers and sisters! There’ve been times we wanted to throw objects at each other! Actually, we’re more than that, we love each other. We have separate lives, but we socialize, have taken trips together, and included each other in family events."He recounts Ahrens’ best and worst traits: "She’s tireless, always focused, always honing, polishing to make things better. She’s like a dog with a bone. Betty Comden said, ‘She takes her work seriously, but she doesn’t take herself as seriously.’ Lynn will be the first to have a good laugh. Her worst quality? Let me think on that. Maybe it’s when we hit a snag on a lyric and she won’t budge. Finally, I’ll say,. ‘We need to let go of that and move on.’"Ahrens hesitates to mention Flaherty’s best and worst traits. "He’s a wonderful person. As a composer, he has great flexibility of style and sensitivity to lyrics.” Then, she ribs him. “If there is a worst trait it’s how he falls madly in love with everything he writes, whether it works or not. And, sometimes, it just doesn’t." He attempts a weak smile.First and foremost, Ahrens says they always begin by talking. "We talk and talk – about what the characters are feeling, what the drama is, what the emotions are. Stephen’ll play a few notes. I’ll scribble something. Before you know it, something starts to gel. He’ll send a melody or I’ll send a lyric. I love it when he sends the music, because that’s where the emotion dwells and I can hear the characters singing."They’ve won eight Tony nominations and an Olivier for Best Musical for the original Once On This Island; Tony and Drama Desk Awards and received two Grammy nominations for Ragtime; Drama Desk and Grammy nominations for Seussical; and five Drama Desk nominations, including Best Musical, for LCT Off Broadway production of The Glorious Ones. They also received two Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and Gold Record status for their songs and score of the animated feature Anastasia, now expanded and a Broadway hit. And a not- so-good-time: the sadly short-lived musical adaptation of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, which has a book by the late Tony-winning Thomas Meehan (The Producers, Annie) [which was challengingly translated into German for its premiere].The duo’s Broadway and Off-Broadway credits include Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, A Man of No Importance; Dessa Rose (Drama Desk nomination); My Favorite Year; and Lucky Stiff (Washington area’s Helen Hayes Award, Best Musical).The composers are 2015 inductees into the Theater Hall of Fame. They’ve also co-chaired the Dramatists Guild Fellows program for emerging writers.Individually, Ahrens’ credits include co-book writer and lyrics for A Christmas Carol (10 years at Theater at Madison Square Garden) and the NBC Hallmark Hall of Fame TV adaptation. Flaherty has composed for symphonies and wrote the score for Loving Repeating: A Musical Of Gertrude Stein (Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Musical)Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are still at it, with a long list of dream projects, "But,” says Flaherty, “Everything takes time, and there’s never enough of it.”
The holidays are upon us, and while many see them as a time best appreciated by children, they also have special meaning for people of all ages. As Jerry Herman wrote (and Angela Lansbury so memorably sang in Mame), we all need a little Christmas! Several theater artists recall most cherished -- and not-so-cherished -- holiday memories.
Laura Benanti (Tony winner and four nominations; two Drama Desk Awards; currently in Meteor Shower)
My favorite Christmas was when I was 10 and I was beginning to doubt there really was a Santa Claus. Christmas Eve, on the way to church, we were driving through the winding New Jersey hills and a huge deer with giant antlers leapt out and stared straight at us! Needless to say, after that I believed.
Michael Feinstein (Five-time Grammy nominee; Drama Desk Special Award)
It was New Year's Eve, and I was performing at San Francisco's Plush Room at the start of my solo career. Two friends brought a venerable Oscar-winning actress, who was seated at the footlights and thus practically a part of the show due to her gesticulations of delight throughout. She was kind and supportive at the start, but after 30 minutes she was in a drunken stupor and began heckling me -- yelling "get off the stage, you're terrible"! The audience was suddenly witnessing a train wreck and I was devastated. The great lady then passed out and was ushered out to the relief of both performer and audience. After that ordeal, I received one of my greatest ovations (for bravery and valor); and I had a few belts myself!
Chad Kimball (Tony nominee, Memphis; currently: Come from Away)
My entire family was flying in to spend Christmas when I was on Broadway in Good Vibrations. Then, on Christmas Eve, Dad was rush to the hospital. He had quadruple heart bypass surgery. Everyone, but Mom made it in. It certainly wasn’t the Christmas we expected. We were in constant touch. Thankfully, Dad came through with flying colors. That Christmas reminded me of the great bond I have with my family, and how we are always there for each other through good and bad.Lorna Luft
Growing up, Liza [Minnelli] Joey [Luft] and I had Christmas everywhere — different houses, different cultures, different countries. Mama [Judy Garland] adored Christmas, and made it awesome no matter the circumstances. Those were truly wonderful times I cherish. But my favorite holiday memories are with my children, Jesse and Vanessa. Christmas is about giving, not receiving. When they were old enough to understand what Christmas is about, my husband Colin and I took them shopping, but to buy gifts for those not as fortunate. We’d go to the shelters in Los Angeles and distribute them. The smiling faces of those who thought they would have nothing brought us the true meaning of the season.
Donna Murphy (Two-time Tony winner; three-time Drama Desk winner; currently, alternating weekly in Hello, Dolly!)
The best holiday memory was our first Christmas with our (with late husband Shawn Elliott) almost teen daughter Darmia Hope. She was almost nine months and in a constant state of wonder. It was absolutely contagious! I remember her first Christmas and her amazement as we decorated. That year, and each since, she received an ornament that’s related to something special that year. When she has her own tree, she’ll have a meaningful collection of treasures and memories.Chita Rivera (two-time Tony winner and nine nominations; two-time Drama Desk nominee)
The family home was over 200 years old. Do I love Christmas? It was always decorated with poinsettias inside and out, front and back. We’d have three trees with lights and ornaments. Returning from Christmas Eve mass, we open our gifts. [Daughter] Lisa would play Christmas music. We’d get the youngest of my brother’s grandchildren to distribute the gifts. We love to cook, and would work for days on the dinner. It’s traditional – in a not-so-traditional way. The turkey is stuffed with oysters, herbs, and, to absorb the juices, cornbread. (Sister) Lola and I basted the bird with mayonnaise and (Spanish spice) sazon. Then, there’d be all the trimmings: string bean casserole and sweet potatoes with bourbon and topped with marshmallows; and, in case anyone wanted dessert, corn pudding. After the holidays, when anyone would say, “I lost 10 pounds!”, I’d reply, “I found them!”Lea Salonga (Olivier, Tony, and Drama Desk Awards; currently in Once on This Island)
My best memories got back to the time my brother and I were young. We didn’t have a lot, but Mom somehow managed to have tons of food: chicken, potato salad, baked ham, ambrosia , hot chocolate and, for starters, pigs in a blanket. Looking back, I loved Christmas because our celebration was utter simplicity and quiet. In fact, I can’t ever recall ever having a bad Christmas!Mary Testa (Two-time Tony nominee; Special Drama Desk Award, and five nominations)
One of my favorite memories was in 1980. I was in my mid-20s,
and appearing on Broadway in Barnum. I love my family Christmases. We are Italian, and always have a dinner with seven kinds of fish. Afterwards, we opened our presents. Christmas day was always just a lovely, relaxing day. But the day after Christmas there were two shows, and the schedule didn’t permit time to go home to Rhode Island. I was alone and feeling very bad for myself. I had a nine-inch black-and-white TV. I’d never seen It’s a Wonderful Life. It was on. I sat riveted to the screen, drinking some port, and crying. It was one of the best Christmases ever!
We’ve gotten used to the Christmas holiday season beginning around Halloween, but how often has Halloween thriller season begun the week after Labor Day? As the studios and moviemakers have learned, there’s a huge audience for horror. IfType to enter text you are skeptical, look at the grosses for new latest in Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise. Major record-breaking! For the longest time, producers/studios would grind out assembly-line horror, capitalizing on mindless or copycat sequels of original hits that would make you groan, “Been there, seen it.” But even the usual suspects have come around; and there seems to be a newbie at the game: Blumhouse Productions, which this season could be crowned Prince of Horror.
You might say that horror season began way before Halloween -- even in February. That’s when Get Out! (Blumhouse Productions/Universal), featuring Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Allison Williams (TV’s Girls)] and young Brit Daniel Kaluuya (TV’s Babylon; upcoming Watership Down mini-series based on Richard Adams novel) hit cineplexes. It wasn’t a cookie-cutter, standard-issue thriller, but smart and well made – and had a sense of humor. It also offered a thoughtful look at the race issues making headlines. Young Anglo woman (Williams) invites Afro-American young man (Kaluuya) for a meet-the-parents getaway, where he finds the family overly accommodating -- an effort to deal with their daughter's interracial relationship. As the weekend progresses, disturbing discoveries come to a head and lead him to a truth he never could have imagined. Something different, yes? And, going even further, it was R-rated. That usually can be the death knell to a film pitched for teens, the catalyst for a film’s opening weekend. They came, whether accompanied by an adult or with fake I.D.s. A film budgeted at a minuscule $5-million has raked in over $175.5-million.
Jeepers Creepers III (Infinity/Screen Media) quickly followed. Set between the first and second film, it was quickly obvious it was in the lesser category. Sergeant Tubbs (Brandon Smith) went about attempting to learn the secrets and identify of Creeper (Jonathan Breck), the monster terrorizes a local farming community. Lovely Trisha (Gina Phillips) was sort of pushed aside for the introduction of Gaylen Brandon (Meg Foster of TVs Pretty Little Liars and Ravenswood), stealing the film, as someone with a history with the Creeper. It didn’t help. Initial audiences were bored, word-of-mouth was a downer. Made for $18-million, it grossed a paltry $2.3-million (JC1 exploded at the box office with sales of $35.7-million). Maybe the gross will rise – a bit – with the DVDs’ December release.Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bella Thorne (Boo!: A Madea Halloween; TV’s Famous in Love, Big Love), Thomas Mann (Kong: Skull Island), and Kurtwood Smith (TV’s That 70s Show) weren’t enough to turn the lack of horror in Amityville: The Awakening (Blumhouse Productions/Dimension/TWC) into a silk purse. After a two-year shelf life, it was comatose (like Belle‘s twin brother) on arrival.
Then Came September
“When you are a kid you think the world revolves around you, that you’ll always be protected, care for. Then, one day: a friend goes missing.” The opening words of It (New Line/Warner Bros./RatPac-Dune Entertainment), the cinema adaptation of the Stephen King’s terrifying best-seller (which previously had a three-hour mini-series in 1990), leads audiences on a thrill ride as satisfying as any on a mega coaster. The plot line involves kids of a small town, rumored to be cursed, disappearing in bloody spades. A gang of seven, led by Richie (Finn Wolfhard, Mikie on Stranger Things), united by their horrifying and strange encounters with the evil Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård), mount their bikes determined to kill “It.” Been there, seen it? But, even with parallels to Stand By Me, The Goonies, and Netflix’s Stranger Things, it rises to the occasion. Here, though much condensed, it’s all about bonding and the paranormal, but the paranormal’s never been quite like this: Atmosphere (that haunted house; and especially the horrific finale, which even tops David Lean’s in The Third Man), piercing score by Benjamin Wallfisch (Blade Runner 2049, Annabelle: Creation, Hidden Figures), jump-scare sound effects, and, best of all, the brotherly-love kiss to bring back the living dead. Argentine Andy Muschietti (2013 horror thriller Mama) is set to helm the 2019 sequel. Oddly, with a cast of youngsters, the film’s R-rated for violence and, something you don’t hear often, F words cascading out of the mouths of babes. That hasn’t stopped it from blockbuster status – grossing $179-million in less than two months, ($189.5-million worldwide) on a budget of $35-million. Reminder: whether pouring cats and dogs or not, on Jackson Street or any other, never look deep into those corner drains!
Happy Death Day (Blumhouse Productions/Universal Pictures) is a dark comedy mystery horror thriller borrowing lavishly from the classic Groundhog Day. On her birthday, teenager Tree (excellent Jessica Rothe) concludes that it will be her last one. That is, IF she can figure out who her killer is. To do that, she relives the day over and over – dying in a different way on each one. No way you’ll snooze, as you get sucked in even before the film begins [You’ll see]. Keep a keen eye on Tree. Christopher Landon (Disturbia, Paranormal Activity) knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat. Shooting in New Orleans’ Garden District, home to the streetcar and fabled mansions, adds tons of atmosphere.
In Boo 2: A Madea Halloween (Tyler Perry Company/Lionsgate) Madea, Bam, and Hattie venture to a haunted campground where they end up running for their lives from a boogeyman, goblins, and monsters, goblins, and the boogeyman are unleashed. Perry has an audience for his sometimes amateurish movies that segue between embarrassing and somewhat funny. He comes up with great ideas and one has to be envious of his multi-talents and following. In his films, he plays a lot of characters – some, such as Madea, much better than others. Maybe the mistake is in doing it all: writing, directing, and co-producing Boo! 2. But the film shot out of the gate October 20 and astonished the industry selling performances out. Budgeted at $25-milion, it has already grossed $35.5-million and is close to exceding that. Boo! 2 became an instant hit.
Jigsaw (Serendipity Productions/Lionsgate) is the eighth title in the Saw franchise, which became a popular slasher series with face-cringing, spine tingling twists to the serial killer saga and a look at the day’s social mores. Then it ended, until this past weekend when it’s been reborn in hopes of bringing in more moola. As bodies drop everywhere – each with gruesome demise that fit Jigsaw’s style, police find themselves chasing the ghost of a man presumed dead for over a decade (Tobin Bell), and become embroiled in a new cat and mouse game. Is Jiggy/John Kramer back? Is this a copy cat? Or are they falling into a trap set by another monster? The story is told in such a fast pace that there’s little time for character development. However, it gets props for the show-stopping, head-rolling finale. The film got a knife in its back from critics and moviegoers. One reviewer’s assessment: “Watching Jigsaw is a dumb, ugly waste of energy.”
There Was Another Horror at the Weekend Box Office
Suburbicon (Paramount/Dark Castle/Black Bear Pictures) – It had the cache of George Clooney as director when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, but was received with a few boos. Conceived by Joel and Ethan Coen (remember their 2016 misfire Hail, Caesar!, about a tough Hollywood studio “fixer”), Clooney (a Hail, Caesar! co-star), and Grant Heslov (co-writer, Matt Damon’s Best Picture Argo), is a racially-charged farce that “draws parallels between the U.S.’ ugly past and the situation today.” Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac, Summer of 1959, are in an Eden to raise a family: an idyllic community with affordable homes and manicured lawns. However, tranquility changes to disturbing reality in the town’s s dark underbelly of betrayal, deceit, and violence [including flaming Confederate flags}. Come critics went “Huh?” and “Huh!” The often kind Rotten Tomatoes wrote: “It's A Raisin in the Sun meets The Donna Reed Show." Only occasionally does an image strike a lyrical blow and yield the creepy effect Clooney is aiming for.” Worse, audiences weren’t camping overnight to be the first at box offices. Maybe it will develop a cult following.
At Home 24/7 Horror and Halloween Fright Fest
Is this not the best time of year to revisit famous Halloween spook with everything from zombies and slashers to séances and lots of screams? There’s so much horror to enjoy spread on the couch with a beer or soda and chips and dip. Can anything top the original Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, Hitchcock’s Psycho, Kubrick’s The Shining [Where’s Jack? Bring him back!]? Maybe a bit of Poltergeist; or some Stephen King? How about Halloween, The Fog, Christine or anything by John Carpenter, because he knows how to scare your pants off? There’s Wes Craven’s bad ole Freddy in Nightmare on Elm Street; or the original Saw; contemporary grand guignol of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; and any season of American Horror Story – because Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck know how to creep you out. Then, there’s family-friendly “horror” in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein/Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde/The Invisible Man/The Mummy.
3-D is having a much-longer shelf life than expected. For a great at-home theatrical experience, check out the Blu-ray 3-D edition of the edge-of-your-cushioned-seat 1953 blockbuster House of Wax [Warner Home Entertainment, SRP $40]. Vincent Price, so fantastic playing madmen, is perfect casting for demented Professor Henry Jarrod. The Technicolor, pre-digital 3-D two-projector image realignment, and sound track have been meticulously remastered with a 4K scan. Don’t spill your popcorn as you experience one of the most incredible horror flick finales. Beware: You can’t escape the flames!
If your dream is a near lifetime of at-home horror, get 50 Horror Classics (Mill Creek Entertainment; 3,743 minutes/12 discs; $15.65 on Amazon). The massive set contains some classics – keep in mind the majority are from the 30s and 40s and most, if not all, fall into Public Domain, so they haven’t been remastered: The Ape (Boris Karloff), Bluebeard (John Carradine), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John Barrymore, silent), Allan Dwan’s comic romp The Gorilla (Ritz Brothers, Bela Lugosi), William Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill (Vincent Price), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Lon Chaney, silent), Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors (Jack Nicholson), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Murnau’s Nosferatu (Max Schreck, silent), The Phantom of the Opera (Lon Chaney, silent), and, among numerous others, White Zombie (Lugosi).
Universal Studios’ horror period produced first-rate thrillers. Six have been remastered for Blu-ray for Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection (Universal Home Entertainment; eight discs/710 minutes; $45 on Amazon): James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (Elsa Lancaster, Karloff, Colin Clive) – many feel this sequel surpasses its predecessor, Tod Browning’s Dracula (Lugosi) – note how the mood is set with a lack of score, Whale’s Frankenstein (Karloff, Clive, Mae Clark), The Invisible Man (Claude Rains) – with humor to offset the horror, The Mummy (Karloff), and The Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr.). There’s bonus material galore, including an alternate Dracula score by Philip Glass, performed by the Kronos Quartet.
Page 3 of 13
Sign up for our weekly newsletter!