Highlights from BroadwayCon Day 2 | Playbill

BroadwayCon Highlights from BroadwayCon Day 2 Theatre artists shared behind-the-scenes stories from Broadway, while fans got up close and personal with their favorite stars.

Long, Straight, Curly, Fuzzy: Wigs and Hair Design
The theme of the 11 AM wigs panel: You have to handle more than just hair. “You can be taught how to do what you need with hair,” said Mark Bailey Capalbo, who just finished The Color Purple. “But if you don’t have the right attitude...”

The other panelists—Brittnye Batchelor, Sarah Levine, and Tommy Kurzman—agreed, pointing to the intimate nature of their job. And, all added the importance of cosmetology school and paying your dues. Both Batchelor and Capalbo got jobs after presenting their résumés backstage, and all of them talked about preserving the vision of the designer and director. And, how you quickly get over handling sweat-soaked lace caps under wigs. “Just spray it down with alcohol,” Levine said.

Casting Roxie, Raul, and Rafiki
Casting directors Mark Brandon (The Lion King), Benton Whitley (Chicago), and Eric Woodall (The Phantom of the Opera) spoke about what it takes to find talent for Broadway’s long-running hits year after year.

Woodall revealed that for Phantom, Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Harold Prince still get final say on casting the roles of the Phantom, Christine, and Raoul. Phantom is a challenge to cast, Woodall said, due to the fact that performers “aren’t arriving in New York with the same kind of approach to developing their voices in a legit way.”

Whitley revealed that with Chicago, “Velma is the hardest role to cast because she sings and dances the most. We have never put a celebrity into the role of Velma because it’s too hard. It takes longer than four weeks to rehearse the role [the way they do with Roxie].”

Someone in a Tree: Asian-American Representation on Broadway
“So, let’s talk about whitewashing.” Panel moderator Erin Quill didn’t waste any time in bringing up the hot-button issues, and she couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of artists with whom to do so: BD Wong, Manu Narayan, Amy Hill, and Kelvin Moon Loh. The group launched with a discussion of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ controversial production of The Mikado, which was canceled before performances began in 2015. The show was shut down following backlash from the community regarding the casting of Caucasian actors in Japanese roles, and a panel of consultants, including Loh, was brought on to help the organization re-think the production. “It’s as simple as people not knowing [that something is offensive or racist],” Loh told the audience. “We want to say that if people knew better, they would do better,” agreed Quill, “but it seems that there’s a disconnect between how far they’re willing to feign that they don’t know better.” The panelists brought up the 2012 Broadway staging of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in which some actors were painted to look darker, and commented on how “painful and wrong” that felt for Asian Americans. They also ruminated on the fact that often the person of color in a show is repeatedly relegated to the role of “other,” helping serve the main character, who is often white. The discussion ended on a more positive note, with the group agreeing that with more diverse writers, we could hope to see a proliferation of more diverse works in the near future.

Masters of the House
House managers from the August Wilson Theatre (Jersey Boys), the Richard Rodgers Theatre (Hamilton), and Broadway’s newest theatre, the Hudson, shared Broadway war stories. Eric Paris of the Hudson recalled a visit from First Lady Michelle Obama to Spider-Man when a patron at the coat check lamely joked that his bag shouldn’t be opened “or it will explode” just as the FLOTUS was entering the theatre. Mrs. Obama was whisked to a safe room, the man was detained by the Secret Service, the NYPD bomb squad was summoned (finding nothing), and the curtain went up a full hour late that night. “Any other night we might have laughed at that joke,” Paris said. Susan Sunday of the Wilson Theatre corrected him: “It’s never funny.”

Dorothy Fields: Blazing a Trail for Today’s Women Writers
Historian Kristin Stultz Pressley told how Dorothy Fields, youngest daughter of a showbiz family, was banned from entering showbiz by her father. He finally relented after she had won an Oscar for the song “The Way You Look Tonight.”

“Women tend to write differently from men,” said Pressley, who played the Frank Loesser song “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” and Fields’ “I’d Rather Wake Up By Myself” to show different attitudes toward women’s place in marriage. The latter contains the lyric, ”Why should I rest my head with/A big baboon I wouldn’t be caught dead with?/I know I’d rather wake up with myself.” Pressley said, “Maybe women see things differently. And that difference needs to be recognized. It’s important that women write, and it’s important that women tell their stories.”

The Play’s the Thing! A Playwriting Panel
Playwrights Lindsey Ferrentino, Jenny Rachel Weiner, and Joe DiPietro shared some of the secrets to their craft. The writers began by sharing their writing schedules; for Weiner, intensive “writing boot camps” are a great way of getting numerous ideas on paper, and for DiPietro, self-imposed deadlines are key. Ferrentino revealed that she was more of a “re-writer,” which gave her the freedom to write without too much pressure—knowing her work would undergo edits. “I give myself permission to write badly,” agreed DiPietro. The playwright, who has penned the books for Memphis and Nice Work If You Can Get It, also touched on what it was like to work on a musical. He likened the process of working with a lyricist and composer to that of a marriage, in constant flux and negotiation.

Joel Grey Q&A:
After 15 years of rejection, Grey defiantly declared, “I’m getting out of the business.” The very next morning, he received the call from Hal Prince. Following the anecdote, he proceeded to break out into an impromptu rendition of “Willkommen” for which the crowd, obviously, went wild.

According to Grey, The Normal Heart changed the way people thought about AIDS. “No one was believing that there was such a thing as AIDS, and they’d come to the theatre and see this wall of people [victims who had died of AIDS], and no one really knew what to do.”

Bob Fosse did not want Joel Grey in the Cabaret film adaptation. “He wanted to create the movie totally fresh, and not [include] any of the aspects of the stage show,” Grey explained. “Of course, I was heartbroken.” About six weeks before production was to begin, Fosse entered a room full of bigwigs (including studio head Marty Baum) and declared —“in these exact words,” shared Grey—“Well, gentlemen. It’s either Joel Grey or me.” And the rest, of course, is history.

See Chita Rivera and Joel Grey Answer Questions at BroadwayCon

I’ll Write My Way Out: The World of Songwriting
Ryan Scott Oliver, Kait Kerrigan (of songwriting team Kerrigan + Lowdermilk), Michael R. Jackson, and Dave Malloy discussed what it’s like to create a show in The World of Songwriting panel. When asked by an audience member how they face the blank page, the writers gave their advice on how they start (and start over) new songs.

For Oliver: “I don’t listen to musical theatre music as research to write a musical; I listen to literally anything and everything else. So by the time [songwriting begins], I’ve collected pages and pages of manuscript ideas—six months of ideas of three to four hours every single day. By that point when you sit down to write a song, you have all of this help that’s there.”

For Malloy: “I don’t think I’ve ever written a song by sitting down to write a song. I think always the chorus or the hook comes when I’m walking down the street or in the shower or in the middle of the night. My voice memos on my phone is such a resource. I’m walking around the street pretending I’m on the phone, but singing [into it]!”

For Jackson: “For me, sometimes it will come music and words together; sometimes it will just be an idea for a hook or the beginning of a verse or the first line of a song, and I write it down. Your subconscious is always finding ways to make these connections or figure out what’s next.”

For Kerrigan: “If you are a words person, another really great trick is to just do some free writing. Once again, you can use your phone. You can put a timer and tell yourself that you’re going to write for a certain amount of time, and you’re not going to stop, and you’re not going to edit, and you’re not going to go back. Walking away from your devices and writing by hand for a little bit just opens up your brain in a different way.”

Setting the Stage: Broadway Scenic Design
Scenic designers Beowulf Boritt, David Korins, Mimi Lien, and Anna Louizos were all eager to share personal stories from some of their favorite productions. Korins revealed that in order to convince Thomas Kail to use a turntable on the set of Hamilton, he had to pinpoint eight moments in the show where the device would aid the story. Boritt's set for A Bronx Tale originated with the idea of a red box containing the close-knit Bronx community. Lien spoke about the process of building the transformative set for Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. She pictured ways in which the characters would be able to float in and around the audience—resulting in a set that features multi-levels and pits. Louizos recalled that when budget constraints had stopped her from building a rotating set for Avenue Q, it forced her to come up with the “advent calendar”-style rooms and windows, which worked perfectly with the puppets in the show.

Beyond Power of Speech: Social Media and Broadway
Crystal Chase of AKA, Emily DaSilva of The Public Theater, Mark D. Seeley of Situation Interactive, and Steven Tartick of SpotCo, with moderator Mike Karns of Marathon Live Entertainment, stepped out from behind their phones to talk all things Broadway social media, in more than 140 characters. All the panelists shared one particularly exciting moment they’ve experienced, which included funnier memories like pitching the use of cat GIFs as a social media strategy to the Cats producers, to more somber moments like facilitating outreach for those who identify with Evan’s situation in Dear Evan Hansen. DaSilva mentioned her social media strategy plays off of a main theme of The Public Theater, “culture belongs to everyone,” which is something she keeps in mind as she cultivates conversation on the Public’s channels. The importance of delivering compelling content to the user seemed to be a theme across all of the panelists’ work. When working on a Broadway show's campaign, it is the job of the social media team to amplify the most simplistic version of the show’s message on social media. With social media being the new “word-of-mouth,” panel moderator Karns explained that he believes social media must also give users “an invaluable experience whether to see a show or not,” which is extremely important for a show like Hamilton.

Being Out on Broadway
Patrick Hinds, host of the Theater People podcast, moderated a panel of what he called “Broadway’s biggest, most brightest, most talented, most gay people!” There were Beth Malone, Lisa Kron, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Robin De Jesús, and Nathan Lee Graham. When Hinds asked them how they handle themselves on social media, Johnson gave an emotional response on why it is important for him to be proud online.

“The last ten years, we’ve seen so much happen,” he said. “I was marching on Washington with Gavin Creel and the revival of Hair cast, with Lady Gaga. We saw thousands upon thousands of people that were there marching for equality, and we saw the legislation pass, and we got marriage equality for the first time in our life. I didn’t realize I was going to be able to marry the man that I loved, and now we see this backtracking thing, and I am the angry person. I am posting so much sh*t. I really am, and I am unabashed about it because I was in the closet for a while; I was told to stay in the closet even when I came out of the closet. And I don’t give a f*ck.” His voice began to crack, and he added that when he was told by family members to stop posting, “I can’t because I know there are those kids out there that are in these conservative homes that don’t have voices, and that used to be me, so if I am not a voice for them, then what am I doing on this planet? And if I am not using my following, and if I am not using my platform in the right way, then there is no f*cking reason why I should be doing it.”

On a lighter and brighter note, Hinds asked Kron and Malone to talk about how Fun Home changed things on Broadway by being a musical solely focused on the lesbian experience. Malone said, “[With] gay men, when you walk into rehearsal, it’s like Grindr! Not so much for gay women. Fun Home, for me, was the first time I got to go to rehearsal and was like, ‘Chicks!’ Why can’t it always be like that?! For me, I have another issue that I want to talk about just super briefly. … When gay people fall in love, the shame that is attached to it—I wish that didn’t exist. My goal to be more myself is to make a world in which, for future generations, falling in love feels great for everybody.”

See Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Beth Malone, Robin De Jesús, and More Discuss Being Out on Broadway

Reimagined Revivals
Panelists Ted Chapin (President and Chief Creative Officer of Rodgers & Hammerstein), actor Alexandra Silber, director and writer Daniel Goldstein, director Sammi Cannold, and designer Simon Kenny emphasized the act of rediscovering work. Everyone agreed that all revivals carry the onus of “why now?” Site-specific theatre was a hot topic—centering around Cannold’s Ragtime concert on Ellis Island, Kenny’s upcoming Sweeney Todd in a pie shop—with the panelists saying that they feel site-specific work further enhances the communal experience of live theatre. Goldstein talked about Godspell at Circle in the Square and how even that in-the-round space brought meaning to his staging.

In Transit
The In Transit panel was the place to be. Writers Sara Wordsworth, James-Allen Ford, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and Russ Kaplan; director Kathleen Marshall; music supervisor Rick Hip-Flores; and actor Justin Guarini spoke about Broadway’s first a cappella musical. Having worked on the show for eight years, Ford explained that many changes along the way were due to audience reactions. “You’re listening to what the audience is telling you the show needs to be,” said Anderson-Lopez. “And you listen and you lean in and you see where people are coughing, you see where people are laughing, you can tell when ‘Oh, we just made a character do something that really pissed the audience off.’” “It sounds like it would be hard, but it’s so easy to tell,” Ford added.

Much of the discussion centered around the complication of the musical being a cappella, and how the actors are always singing even when offstage. In fact, two bars of Margo Seibert’s vocals are traded to another actor just so Margo can put on a new shirt over her head backstage. We also learned that Hip-Flores conducts the show verbally through ear pieces that the whole cast wears. The panel finished with the game “Where is Justin?” in which Guarini had to identify where he was physically at different points in the show, which included stripping backstage from a full suit and changing into a tuxedo while singing backup, playing a bartender, or providing the sound effects for texting on a phone.

Lesli Margherita Variety Hour
The biggest surprise of the Variety Hour was the unveiling (and performance) of Margherita’s newest “project”: Star Wars Das Musical. The parody featured Margherita as Princess Leia, James Snyder as Luke Skywalker, Richard H. Blake as Han Solo, Max Crumm as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and James Monroe Iglehart as the voice of Darth Vader. Ariana Debose and Stephanie Klemons also appeared. Star Wars Das Musical was made up of parodied versions of fan-favorites from Wicked, Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and many more. While we’re unsure if the musical will ever make it to the Great White Way, we’d certainly love to see it happen.

Photos: Lesli Margherita Variety Hour

BroadwayCon Party Line
In 2016, BroadwayCon infamously fell on the same weekend as a major blizzard. It caused Broadway shows to cancel their performances, and many guests who planned to appear at the convention were snowed in. Enter: the BroadwayCon Party Line, where the organizers of the convention called their Broadway pals to say hello over the phone to the crowds of snowed-in attendees. It was so popular, BroadwayCon brought it back. Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell dialed in just before seeing The Great Comet. He shared that he’s working on a new album. Fans can also see him on upcoming episodes of Mr. Robot, The Path, and The Blacklist. Jesse Tyler Ferguson FaceTimed with the crowd and showed us around his apartment—including photos from Shakespeare in the Park and a cartoon drawing of him and his husband on their wedding day. Billy Porter checked in from Wyoming, where he is part of the Sundance Writer’s Lab, working on a gospel musical. Laura Bell Bundy shared an unbelievable story about the time she nearly pooped her pants onstage during “Positive” in Legally Blonde The Musical, before Idina Menzel FaceTimed from Los Angeles and a day in the park with her son, Walker. Kristin Chenoweth joined us from backstage at the Smart Financial Center in Texas—her hair stylist curling her hair while on camera. The hour of virtual visits ended with a video message from soon-to-be mom Laura Benanti wishing she were here. Don’t you?

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