The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Sam Shepard, who passed away today at age 73, is remembered for many classic film roles and triumphant plays which embodied a gritty American aesthetic.
But he was also a pivotal contributor to the development of Off and Off-Off Broadway theater in New York City during the 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, I think it’s fair to say we would not have such a healthy independent theater scene without his influence.
This morning I looked at his early work in a New York City in this series of tweets. Here’s the tweet series along with some additional information:
A string of New York City history related shows is hitting the stage this summer and fall, bringing interesting new interpretations to well-known historical events or revitalizing forgotten old shows in curious ways. I’ve had so many recommended to me in the past couple weeks that I thought I’d share the list for those of you who prefer to see a historical tale brought to life at less than Hamilton: the Musical prices. In fact, you can grab tickets to all these shows for half the price of one Broadway show ticket:
You can find a glimpse of New York’s old Yiddish theater world currently playing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, courtesy the National Yiddish Theater.
“With music by famed Yiddish composer Joseph Rumshinsky, libretto by Frieda Freiman and lyrics by Louis Gilrod, this long-running popular romantic comedy premiered in 1923 and was revived consistently and presented internationally through the 1940’s, but was lost to time following the Second World War. In 1984, Dr. Michael Ochs, former head of the music library at Harvard unearthed an original vocal score and manuscript for Di Goldene Kale and spent a number of years translating, researching and reconstructing this nearly-forgotten treasure.”
Ticket details here. The show runs through August 28.
The Fringe Festival, beginning this Friday and now in its 20th year, always offers up a buffet of productions that are earnest, captivating, hilarious, head-scratching and oftentimes strange. Fans of our podcast on the murder of Stanford White may want to explore Dementia Americana, a depiction of the tragic events which led to the tragedy in 1906.
“Sex! Murder! Insanity! John Philip Sousa! All this and more in a darkly comic and appallingly relevant play that explores the upsetting and true events surrounding Evelyn Nesbit, Harry K Thaw, and the 1906 murder of famed architect Stanford White.”
Get your tickets here. The show runs August 14, 19, 21, 24, and 26.
“The year is 1936, the country is in the throes of the Great Depression. Times are hard and people are desperate. Though illegal, secret traveling sideshows were ever popular distractions. These exclusive gatherings would take place in secret locations all over the country, often in rented houses to avoid the eye of the police. Professor Mysterium invites you to join him for an night you will never forget at a secret location in Manhattan.
The exclusive event will only welcome 50 patrons per night to the secret sideshow. Tickets are $50 and include 2 drinks at the bar before and during the event. Audience members are encouraged to come in 1930’s attire. Doors open promptly at 7:30pm and the event begins at 8pm.”
I’m shocked that the story of Mary A. Shanley, New York city police detective, has not been turned into a movie or a television show by now. (You can read my blog post from 2010 about her dramatic exploits.) A new off-Broadway play Dead Shot Mary seeks to rectify her egregious absence from pop culture.
DEAD SHOT MARY about the NYPD’s pioneering female detective runs Off Broadway, September 9 – October 15
“A pioneer for women in law enforcement, Mary Shanley joined the NYPD in 1931, quickly becoming a Gotham all-star and tabloid sensation. During her 30-year career, she worked undercover to achieve a staggering 1000 career arrests, became the fourth woman in history to make detective 1st grade, and then nearly lost it all. Capturing her at a major crossroads of career, identity, and love — her most elusive culprit of all — DEAD SHOT MARY grapples with the legend of this trail blazer, a maverick, and a true New York original.”
The show debuts on September 9th and runs through October. Visit their website for more details or here to order tickets.
A boozy revival from B-Side Productions (the terrific Jasper Grant was our musical director at last year’s 54 Below event with The Ensemblist), luxuriating in a 1920s decadent Manhattan party. Based on a 1928 poem by Joseph Moncure Marsh with the line: “Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still/And she danced twice a day in vaudeville. ”
From September 6 to the 17. More information here.
The Black Crook, considered the very first Broadway musical, is a strange curiosity of the Gilded Age, a show from 1866 that seems hard to imagine today. Back in 2007, I wrote the following description: “Young Rodolphe is enslaved by a sorceror Hertzog, who must grant the Devil the soul of one innocent every New Years Eve. Rodolphe saves a white dove from peril which just happens to be a good witch in disguise — Stalacta, Fairy Queen of the Golden Realm — who rescues him and sends all the bad guys straight to Hell. Damn it, why hasnt this thing been revived?”
Nine years later, it is indeed being revived! If you are a history AND a musical nut, I’m assuming your head just exploded right now.
“On September 12, 2016, The Black Crook will celebrate its 150th anniversary, marking 150 years of the American Musical. From the rubble of the Civil War, The Black Crook emerged taking an entire country by storm; an unprecedented commercial juggernaut that contributed, whether first musical or no, to a popular melting-pot entertainment that blended art both high and low. The Black Crook is an origin story for the spectacle that is America, and 150 years after the fact, it will be exhumed once again.
The show pulls a little bit of a Shuffle Along! trick, blending the original music with a “behind the scenes” about the show’s playwright Charles M. Barras. Performances begin September 19 at the Abrons Art Center in the Lower East Side, and runs through October 7th. More information here.
WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night’s ‘Mad Men’ on AMC. If you’re a fan of the show, come back once you’re watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don’t watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here.
Megan might be Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s hottest new pitchwoman, but deep in her heart of delicate French extraction, she wants to be an actress. And in last night’s show, she steals away to an audition of an unnamed off-off-Broadway production. She didn’t get the part, but the experience leads her to make a jarring decision.
This wasn’t merely a plot contrivance, but rather another use of New York geography to delineate character. Don Draper was busy at Danny’s Hideaway, a Midtown East restaurant along famed ‘Steak Row‘ shimmering with late 50s — and, by 1966, ever fading — glamour. Megan’s off-off-Broadway audition could only be one place, and that was downtown below 14th Street, in the thriving epicenter of New York counter culture.
Aspiring performers have made New York their destination for fame since the late 19th century with the birth of the Broadway theater circuit. By the 1950s, playwrights and producers who challenged the preconceptions of standard, mainstream theater found homes for their work off Broadway both literally and metaphysically. The art of theater could now be explored for smaller crowds and with smaller budgets.
But even off-Broadway was not immune to financial realities. By the end of the decade, the popularity of off-Broadway created a parallel industry, “a smaller-scale version of Broadway itself.” [source] If you were to look back at the greatest off-Broadway hits of this era (plays by Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, musicals like Threepenny Opera) you’d notice that most of them have had subsequent Broadway debuts. Indeed, off-Broadway continues to be a sort of a minor league tryout for future Broadway shows.
By the 1960s, unconventional creative voices were emerging that seemed positively alien even in that world. What do you call the alternative to something that was itself the alternative? Although Village Voice critic Jerry Tallmer is credited with coining the phrase ‘off-off-Broadway’, the phrase might have sprung up naturally the first time audiences came in contact with the early works of this field — modest, broken-down, difficult and experimental shows eager to discard every theatrical trapping that had built up for the past four hundred years.
The first ‘true’ off-off-Broadway performance, according to Tallmer’s fellow Voice critic Michael Smith, was a surreal revival of Ubu Roi, performed at a Bleecker Street coffeehouse in 1960. Theatrical experimentation complimented the Village music scene nicely, as even the smallest venues could now host a production. Only in this new creative world could a cramped, smoke-filled coffeehouse like Caffe Cino, at 31 Cornelia Street, become center stage for a new theatrical revolution.
If the art was nontraditional, so too were the venues. Two churches became important homes for alternative theater in the early 1960s and they remain so to this day. Judson Memorial Church, off Washington Square, may seem austere with its elegant Italianate bell tower, turned its meeting room into an off-off-Broadway stage in 1961. And, of course, St. Marks-in-the-Bowery, took a page from its own 1920s radical bohemian past to become home to the Poetry Project and Theater Genesis (performing sometimes sexually explicit plays in the churches parish hall). Above: A poster for Theater Genesis
But just as many pivotal and provocative voices of off-off-Broadway were developing further east, in an area of the Lower East Side heavily influenced by Greenwich Village counterculture idealism and referred to by the mid-60s as the East Village. The chief among these, Ellen Stewart’s mold-breaking La Mama Experimental Theatre, opened in 1961 and rejected most theatrical instincts, featuring only new plays in a stripped-down, almost barren theatrical space. Pictured above: Ellen Stewart in 1970. Picture courtesy TCG
By 1966, off-off-Broadway became a banquet of experimental ideas, spaces for gay, feminist and African-American playwrights and performers. In effect, the opposite of a certain ad agency, where creative flowering is hindered by the whims of client preference and the banality of subject.