Our buddy Bill
It looks like we all survived William Shakespeare's Death Day. (Well, all of us except for William Shakespeare.) Last week on News and Notes, I got up to my usual hijinks by penning an overly-long screed that could have been summed up as, "Everybody calm the hell down about Shakespeare."
People don't often comment on my articles here, and I rarely see any comments out in the wild, but I did happen upon one for last week's column out in the hinterlands of Facebook:
"Anybody who thinks we've explored the depth of Shakespeare and his impact on the world to the point where there's nothing left to say about it and chooses to b**** and whine about the fact that he's still around, subsequently viewing our 400-year-old celebration of his never ending cultural impact as an annoyance reminiscent of a 'whining school boy' ----- doesn't know s*** about Shakespeare. Maybe the author intended for it to be humorous, and he doesn't really believe it."
Now I feel bad, because I did intend for it to be humorous, and I really believe it. But not for the reasons that I believe that the commenter believes I believe it. I don't actually have much of a beef with Shakespeare himself. I have a beef with with the silly lengths that our media was going to in order to squeeze some more content out of him. I hope the commenter I cited above (let's call him "Kevin") can see that I do think Shakespeare was a great playwright (except for Cymbeline… and Henry VIII… and King John… and… sorry, I should stop this list now.)
Kevin, if that article made you mad, then I hope you are doubly angry at Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi. These two hugely respected Shakespearean actors were recently given a national forum on NPR during the winding down of the Shakespeare death rituals, and they used it to spout the widely debunked Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare. If you're not already familiar with the Oxfordian theory, it's a completely unfounded claim that William Shakespeare's plays were actually written by Edward de Vere the 17th Earl of Oxford.
The theory was first put forth in the 1920s by the appropriately named J. Thomas Looney, and it's based on the hugely classist assumption that a "commoner" couldn't possibly have written the plays and sonnets everyone considers so brilliant. After all, how could he write all those plays set in Italy if he'd never been to Italy? How did he know all that history, and where did he learn to write if he didn't have the vaunted Cambridge education? How did he have time to compose without the leisure time a royal life provides?
You might as well go all the way by saying that Shakespeare's frenemy Christopher Marlowe also must have been an imposter. After all, the son of a shoemaker was obviously too poor to have traveled to Malta and therefore could not possibly have written The Jew of Malta! Really, how could he have had time to write when he was running around James Bonding it up for the Crown?
This theory has been thoroughly debunked on many, many occasions, but it hangs around because of that silly obsession with squeezing more content out of Shakespeare that I mentioned above. (Again, Kevin, this is what I'm railing against, not Shakespeare himself.) It doesn't have even the tiniest shred of actual historical evidence to back it up; whereas, we have a preponderance of evidence that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Adherents point to gaps in the historical record as "proof" and, when pressed, start citing elaborate hidden conspiracies. Have you ever met someone who thinks 9/11 was an inside job or that the moon landing was a hoax or that lizard people secretly control the government? It's the same mode of thinking.
Unfortunately, it doesn't matter how succinctly you rebut the Oxfordian theory or how badly that Roland Emmerich movie did at the box office. Our culture worked so hard to vault Shakespeare up to a land of genius and mystery that the crushing reality that he was some normal human being will never be satisfying to some people. (Sorry, Kevin.) So, if you're going to go out and there and celebrate him to an absurd level, please at least do it at Stratford.
Desperately seeking Tony
Here in the modern world where we actually live, I am caught in another news hole. Once again, there is a major bit of news that will drop between the time I write this article and when it is actually published, and I will be forced to flounder around speculating, filling my column out with uninformed babble. In other words, status quo.
Nominations for the 2016 Tony Awards are being announced this morning. Let's be honest, though: You know exactly which musical is going to dominate. The awards committee might as well just hand a pile of statues over to Hamilton right now and call it a day.
But, if they did, then we wouldn't get to witness the crazy effects that the blockbuster hip-hop musical has had on the behind-the-scenes Tony maneuvering. (Also, we wouldn't get to see what should rightfully be the most diverse nominations in Broadway's history.) Now that Hamilton is plowing straight through to the coveted Best Musical statue, the rest of the players in the field are radically readjusting their Tony strategies. Some of them are just giving up on lobbying for the big award altogether. Others are looking down ballot to peel off the Best Actor and Actress categories. And, then there are other methods…
Take, for example Shuffle Along, which opened on Broadway just a hair before the deadline to be eligible for this year's Tony Awards. The original Shuffle Along was a landmark piece for Broadway when it appeared in 1921. It featured an all black cast and put to lie the idea that Broadway audiences just wanted to watch white people sing and dance. This new incarnation is a radically reimagined piece that takes the music and conceit of the original and also tells the behind-the-scenes story of the show's struggle to make it to the big time. Plus, they stacked the deck by hiring Savion Glover to do the choreography and placing Audra McDonald in a leading role.
The producers behind this new version, knowing that, no matter how good it was, their show could never stand up to the Hamilton juggernaut, have been trying to position it as a Revival instead of a New Musical for quite a while. If they were successful, Shuffle Along could dodge having to compete directly with that one show that everyone's talking about.
Unfortunately for them, the Tony committee ruled that the new Shuffle Along is New and will now be, like everyone else, shuffled underneath Hamilton. For their sake, I hope they can stick around long enough for the craziness around Hamilton to die down and remember that Tony awards and nominations don't necessarily drive ticket sales anyway.
'Tis still the season
I thought perhaps the Season Announcing Season was over. Then the Northrup dropped its next dance season in my lap, and now I just don't know anymore. What is a season, anyway? What does any of it mean? Is it just what people tell us to think it is? And did you ever think about how money is just, like, paper, man?
(By the way, my fellow Playlist writer, Sophie Kerman, recently took some time to analyze the announcement situation.)
Now that the Guthrie's new Level Nine initiative is out there changing all our games, there's a lot of eyes and ears trained on their new Artistic Director, Joe Haj. So far, people seem to like what they're hearing. At a recent forum on the arts held by the Star Tribune, Haj was cranking out the quotable hits: “Anyone who tells you what the American theater will look like in 20 years is lying through their teeth." “If you invest in people when they’re young, the field has shown they’ll come back." “Theater is supposed to reflect our society." "A variety of voices makes us better.”
And then, of course, there was the topper for the evening:
“We may look back at this period as one of the golden times. Not because we don’t have worries, but we have to be careful that we’re not cringing. … There’s so much potential, so much possibility, we should all be doing brave things. We should be doing big things. … Arts organizations are the most fragile of things. But looking across the history of the not-for-profit American theater, I think it’s a golden age. I really do.”
I have no idea if the Guthrie will live up to the hype of its next season, but, if nothing else, Haj gave you all advice I hope you can follow. Do some brave things.