Friday, May 16, 2008

The Play's The Thing

UPDATE: below

Following-up on last week's post of repeatedly read books, here's a list of plays I've seen most. I excluded Shakespeare (both because the frequent performances would dominate the results and because I wanted to highlight modern works) but included "teleplays" written for TV (e.g., Potter).

Here's the titles, author, year it was first staged, American awards (if any) and the site of my initial encounter:
  1. Copenhagen, Michael Frayn (1998), Tony Best Play (Broadway)

  2. The Singing Detective, Dennis Potter (1986), Peabody (PBS)

  3. Assassins, Stephen Sondheim (1990), Tony Best Revival of a Musical (NoVa's Signature Theatre)

  4. Chess (original version), Tim Rice, Björn Ulvaeus & Benny Andersson (1986) (London) (the Broadway re-write was significantly worse and justly closed a week after I saw it, a run of two-and-a-half months)

  5. Les Misérables, Claude-Michel Schönberg & Alain Boublil/Herbert Kretzmer (English language opening 1986), Tony Best Musical (London)

  6. Noises Off, Michael Frayn (1982), Drama Desk Outstanding Ensemble (Broadway)

  7. The Norman Conquests (three parts), Alan Ayckbourn (1973) (Broadway)

  8. Jersey Boys, Bob Gaudio & Bob Crewe (2005), Tony Best Musical (Broadway)

  9. Amadeus, Peter Shaffer (1979), Tony Best Play (Broadway)

  10. Our Town, Thornton Wilder (1938), Pulitzer (High School)
My count considered as a "view" reading the script (e.g., Frayn twice), concentrated (as opposed to casual) soundtrack listening (e.g., Gaudio), plus screening post-play derivative work films or TV translations (e.g., Shaffer, Ayckbourn) if, in each case, I initially saw the stage version.

I was surprised half my favorites were musicals, and half the playwrights English. Six on the list (numbers 1, 2, 3, 6, 7 and 10) employ some version of the "play-within-a-play" device, which always thrills me.


Assistant Village Idiot plumps for Tom Stoppard, who wrote my 12th favorite play, in comments and a post of his own.


OBloodyHell said...

So, then, what did you think of Deathtrap? I assume it was a play first.

I'm also curious what you thought of the films of Whitmore's one-man shows (along with Robert Vaughan's) back in the 70s. Those were essentially plays.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I was a theater major at William and Mary. I got so fed up with the people that I seldom see anything anymore. I do like to read Tom Stoppard and a few earlier playwrights, but nothing live.

This frustrates my brother, a theater prof at ECU, and my filmmaker brother and filmmaker son. Tough noogies.

Carl said...


I found Deathtrap a bit contrived (though Dennis Potter swiped its plot as one storyline in Singing Detective. I loved Will Rogers' USA, though mostly because I like Will Rogers. I didn't see any of the other Whitmore plays--should I?


Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead was twelfth on my list, and I loved Shakespeare in Love (he co-wrote the script). The Real Thing was interesting (also play-within-a-play). I wasn't crazy about Enigma or Empire of the Sun. And I, too, briefly was a film major.

OBloodyHell said...

> I didn't see any of the other Whitmore plays--should I?

Well, I've never heard anyone that did not like Give Em Hell, Harry... I have less respect for him as a result of current knowledge of how he failed in regard to communist spies, but Whitmore does give an engaging performance of him, akin to the one as Rogers.

I also recall Robert Vaughn's performance as FDR, as being fairly good, too. Even though I don't agree with everything he did, the movie, like GEHH, does a great job of collecting anecdotes and creating an engagin picture of the men.

Although it's more movie-in-a-movie, I assume you've also seen State And Main.

John Branch said...

Two sets of questions.

One: What did you think about Chess? Do you know whether the 2008 DVD of a London concert performance presents the British or the American version?

Two: You clearly appreciate two of Michael Frayn's other works, so I wonder whether you've seen or read Democracy. I might find out by searching your blog, but it seems easier just to ask.

Anonymous said...

I loved Chess, obviously. But I was lucky enough to see it a month after it opened in London, with original cast. Was the most expensive play ever staged (to that time). I was mesmerized--both as a cold-war junkie and an ex-chess player. By the time it made it to America, the Cold War was ending, so the completely re-wrote it (dumbing it down, etc.). Awful. And there's third version that swept around small theaters in the States about three years ago. That one's even worse; I'll just say this: it has a happy ending that made me want to vomit.

You ask about the recordings. The ORIGINAL recording, the one with Murray Head singing "One Night in Bangkok", was recorded before the play opened in London. I doubt anyone realized they'd recorded an international smash hit, but the revenue from the one song funded the risky show. Yet that album was NOT what I heard in London; they'd added and re-arranged songs (and shifted scenes from Act 1 to Act 2). Used to annoy the heck out of me--for example, "Embassy Lament" is not on that on that album, although it's the best comic relief in the play.

The American cast album accurately reflected the American version--I trashed it years ago.

Not until the 2008 live concert you mention was the original London performance restored: all the songs, and in the right order. The problem is that although no one can doubt that the "Bobby Fischer" character on the 2008 album has a better voice, I'm used to Murray Head warning me of the dangers of Thailand. And two of the other three vocalists are manifestly inferior to the London version. Plus there's a half-dozen spots where the brass or woodwinds make obvious flubs (ok, it was a live performance). But, damn it, there's many a time I want to re-live that experience (1985 I think; ah, youth), and just play the 2008 album straight through.

Re "Democracy", to be honest, I tried to read the script and quit. Should I try again?

Btw, I almost never look at this Blog's comments anymore; stick to Goodreads.


John Branch said...

I think I should watch the DVD of the 2008 London concert performance of Chess. Thanks for your comments on the different versions.

Regarding Democracy, I liked its dramatization of a curious period in modern West German history, when an East German agent worked in chancellor Willy Brandt's office. It worked well for me onstage—I saw a National Theatre production that came to New York. But if you read some of it and didn't care for it, I doubt a second go-round would fare any better.