“Entertainment changes the world.” – Peter Paige
This past weekend I attended two events at The New Yorker Festival. I full out fangirl for this weekend every October because it is an example of exactly why I came to New York in the first place. Now in its 15th year, The New Yorker Festival is an opportunity to sit in a room with extraordinary talents, legends, tastemakers, cultural icons, and experts in the fields of TV, Film, Art, Food, Music, Stage, Economics, Politics, etc. You name it. This year, the lineup consisted of people such as Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Lena Dunham, Edward Snowden, Jeff Goldblum, Randy Newman, and Larry David among many others- as well as events such as Morning at The Frick, Traveling Dinner Parties, and The New Yorker Comedy Playlist. You get the idea. Comic Con was also happening this weekend, and I assure you, even though we weren’t in full regalia as most Comic Con goers were, there was some major nerdery going on at these panels. Although, I would’ve loved to see a few Jenji Kohan wigs or “Stefons.”
I was lucky enough to attend a conversation between Adam Gopnik and Stephen Sondheim on Friday night, and a panel of LGBTQ TV producers which included Jenji Kohan, Jill Soloway, Peter Paige, Brad Falchuk, and Michael Lannon on Saturday afternoon. Each spoke to the audience about their lives, careers, process, pet peeves, hopes for the future of entertainment, and gave us fresh-from-the-oven information about upcoming projects. What an invaluable experience. My heart & brain damn near exploded.
I ♥ NY.
IN CONVERSATION: STEPHEN SONDHEIM TALKS WITH ADAM GOPNIK
Friday, October 10th – SIR Stage 37
I knew I was about to see Stephen Sondheim. I knew this was happening. I bought the tickets myself, this was not a surprise. I have been a huge fan of his work forever, having sung many of his incredibly detailed songs in my musical theatre days. One of which- “Not Getting Married Today” from Company gave me tremendous anxiety as well as the ultimate reward if executed successfully. The responsibility one has while performing a Sondheim song is a great one and not for any Tom, Dick, or Harry. And…scene. Cue me now working in television. If you had a stroke and somehow forgot who this theatre God is, I’ll remind you. Some of his most famous works are Follies, Sweeney Todd, Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods. He also wrote the lyrics to West Side Story and Gypsy for Christ sakes. Grammys! Tonys! A Pulitzer! What a treasure.
I get really warm and fuzzy at things like this, you know, New Yorkers experiencing a “happening” together. Just being around people who are as invested in something as you are is so special, and I try to submerse myself in these cultural events as often as possible. As we were all gathering and taking our seats at SIR Stage 37 for the opening event of the festival on Friday night, I took a good look at the folks around me; fabulous older New York City women with funky scarves and funky glasses to match. All buzzing about that one time they met Sondheim, or their favorite shows, what they saw this past year, and what they absolutely must see before year’s end. You know the ones. I can’t get enough.
Adam Gopnik, writer for The New Yorker and the person who was conducting this conversation with the man himself took to the stage and said plainly, “I have no words for the conversation I’m about to have.” He was the perfect interviewer for the evening, although he confessed that before he became a fan of Sondheim, he “kinda thought he had written Pippin.” This of course drew huge New York City laughter as only New Yorkers would find that to be hysterical.
And then it happens. Out walks Stephen Sondheim. Tears well immediately. I was not prepared for tears. But maybe I should have been. When I’ve been in a room with greatness before, I have gotten overwhelmed- because I could very well be back in Wisconsin staring at the tops of my shoes, but I’m not. I’m here. In a room with Stephen F&$%ing Sondheim. And it’s legal. And it’s under $50.
He is 84, and as smart and quick as I have ever seen him be. He went on to talk about everything from studying with Milton Babbitt to likening his process for writing music to mitosis. It was riveting the way he tried to explain it to us- using his hands in the air like an abacus or some kind of cell divider. At one point, stagehands came and tried to move his mic away from his lapel because his beard was rubbing against it. As the audience saw them carefully approaching the stage for what seemed like 10 minutes, waiting for just the right time to interject, I think I can speak for the audience that we weren’t sure how Stephen would react to being interrupted. When told what they were going to do, he replied “I can take the beard off” as only a professional live theatre God would. Sondheim, you funny, and thank you because now we are at ease. Once the mic was all better and reset, he proceeded to mime speaking loudly as if the new mic didn’t work and we couldn’t hear him. Brilliant.
When asked about how he feels about reviews, he said “What theatre critic knows anything about music?” He clarified- saying that there are many who know about acting and perhaps the technical elements and the history of musical theatre, but really- how many of them have studied MUSIC. Perhaps a controversial statement, but you had to agree when he explained further. He spoke generously about many other composers and lyricists- especially Jule Styne calling him “a basket of flowers who had too many ideas, too impatient.” It was meant endearingly, as Mr. Sondheim’s face lit up when recalling Mr. Styne. He also praised the work that DuBose Heyward did on Porgy & Bess. “Everyone would have written ‘Summertime when the living is easy’ but not DuBose Heyward. He wrote AND.” Stephen relishes in the little details because that is what ultimately makes him brilliant. If there is anything I learned from this discussion it’s that you cannot be lazy. You need to take the time to make sure every microscopic part of your art is intentional. When the talk turned to his lyrical writing for West Side Story, he claimed it sounded “too self conscious.” I suppose it had something to do with it being one of his first projects. He has certainly spoken very openly about how he feels about his work, so I’m sure not many people were surprised to hear him say that. As for Gypsy (one of my favorite musicals)- he said it took him three months to write, attributing his best asset as a collaborator to his skill at getting into the playwrights head. He just knew that world.
He also spoke liberally about some of his peers pointing out what made him different than them. When it came to Oscar Hammerstein, he claimed “Oscar didn’t write the way people talked, which is why he was best at period musicals. He understood it because it was a world that didn’t exist.” Stephen maybe said that a little tongue in cheek, but can you imagine if we didn’t have Oklahoma or Carousel or South Pacific? He recalled asking why Oscar didn’t write a musical about something he knew, say a “cocktail party” for example and Oscar responded “they bore me.” Hmm, ok. When looking back on Larry Hart, Sondheim had this to say “My objection to Larry Hart is his laziness. I wish I had known him so I could slap his face and say ‘work harder.” Noted.
But the biggest scoop Sondheim let us in on was about his new musical collaboration with playwright David Ives. You can bet your bippy that many “ahhhhs” were heard from the crowd. This new project happens to be based on two films by the Spanish director Luis Buñuel, “The Exterminating Angel” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.” He didn’t say too much about the project except that it’s the end of the world. “The first act will be delightful and the second will make you want to kill yourself.” Splendid! He mentioned that coincidentally there will also be an opera produced in London at about the same time they project the musical will be ready. They have toyed with the idea of having some kind of combined “experience” intertwining the two. We can expect it in about three years. So, save the date.
Side note: All of the people who ended up asking Sondheim a question during the audience participation part were well under 30. And most likely, under 25. Live theatre totes lives, ya’ll!
LGBTQ TV: OUT OF THE BOX.
With BRAD FALCHUK, JENJI KOHAN, MICHAEL LANNAN, PETER PAIGE, and JILL SOLOWAY.
Moderated by EMILY NUSSBAUM
October 11 – Directors Guild Theatre
With Jill Soloway, creator of “Transparent” on Amazon and Peter Paige, creator of “The Fosters” on ABC Family.
Lady crush alert.
Brief breakdown of the panelists:
Brad Falchuk– co-creator and EP of “Glee,” on FOX and “American Horror Story” on F/X as well as “Nip/Tuck.” He has luscious locks.
Jenji Kohan– creator and EP of “Orange is the New Black,” a Netflix original series and creator/writer for “Weeds.” Other writing credits include “Mad About You” and “Tracey Takes On.” Queen of all Jew Bitches (her words.)
Michael Lannan– co-creator and EP of “Looking” on HBO. Visionary.
Jill Soloway– creator and writer of “Transparent” on Amazon as well as EP of “United States of Tara” and “Six Feet Under” She also wrote the film “Afternoon Delight.” UW-Madison alum!!
Peter Paige– co-creator and EP of “The Fosters” on ABC Family as well as an actor on “Queer As Folk.” One hot tamale.
This panel was everything to me. Fun, informative, snarky, debate-full, sexy, powerful and inspiring. It made me want to learn how one becomes a show-runner and start on that path immediately. Emily Nussbaum, tv critic from The New Yorker was the perfect moderator- I’ve been a fan of her writing for years- great to actually see her in person! As you can probably infer, this was a panel discussion about the visibility of LGBTQ actors/characters on TV and the producers who make it possible. As I happen to represent the L as well as the TV, I was riveted. These beautiful people are personal heroes to me; the backstage men and women who are not the “faces” of a show, but the “forces” of the show. They got these groundbreaking shows on the air and fought tooth and brightly colored nail to push the network’s boundaries. I get pretty emotional thinking just how many people out there are champions of LGBTQ people because we can get pretty bogged down by the onslaught of all the ones who aren’t.
You can’t take your eyes off Jenji Kohan. What a woman. My God. She will always be the sexiest woman in the room. Hands down. Her staple multi-colored hair is a lovely shade of mermaid now. She just owns the power she has and it is magical to witness- there is not one apologetic bone in her body as everything she does is intentional. And then there was Jill Soloway. She’s a feisty one and I enjoyed her candid take on the process she has. (I met Jill post-panel but was far too nervous to go anywhere near Jenji.) Something about Jill having saxophones on her shirt and being an alum from UW-Madison made her seem more welcoming.
The discussion was off to a lively start when asked about what their first recollection of a gay character on TV might have been as well as their thoughts on the idea of “coded TV.” Peter Paige blurted “Uncle Arthur. Paul Lynde. Center square.” Well, yeah. Brad Falchuk followed up whilst remembering his Massachusetts upbringing by saying “I didn’t even know the Village People were gay. We just didn’t talk about it.” Jill Soloway then interjected “There was something awfully gay about Alice on “The Brady Bunch.” I suppose I am lucky that in my lifetime, I can remember “coded tv,” but for the most part- it has largely been uncoded. I am right in the age range for the After-Ellen set afterall. I mean, I even remember a time when Rosie O’Donnell and Neil Patrick Harris weren’t out. Can you imagine that there was a time when they weren’t out??!! That’s crazy to me. My hope for the future is that no one has to “come out” ever again. That there isn’t even a “closet.” Even in the last 5 years, tv has gotten to a point where the characters just are gay. They aren’t necessarily trying to make a splashy statement in the general sense of the word. Every person now knows at least one gay person in their life, and if not, one of their favorite shows has featured a gay character. It’s happening. And I can’t believe it’s happening under the Disney umbrella with The Fosters for example- a show about a bi-racial lesbian foster couple raising a handful of kids. This is on ABC Family, people. It is such a groundbreaking show. Your kids will be smarter for watching it, I assure you.
The conversation then turned to sex and what to show, what not to show, what’s important about how it’s shot, etc. Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan and Transparent creator Jill Soloway had very different views on how to shoot sex scenes, sparking the first of many playful and not so playful debates as both series’ have plenty of pretty risque but truthful sex scenes. The question was “Do you think about the audience when you shoot a scene- do you want them to be turned on?” Kohan replied “I want more sex onscreen. I want the characters to be turned on. I don’t care about the audience.” Soloway had the opposite response to that question, recalling how she wanted to shoot a particular sex scene from the perspective of Gaby Hoffman’s character. She said that she was almost in tears trying to explain to her old white guy editor what she meant by that but couldn’t find the words.
One of the best back-and-forth riff-offs from the panelists happened when the topic of network censoring came up. It is an actual fact that you can’t show girl nipples on tv, but you can show her head being blown off. Brad Falchuk sarcastically said “you can’t see girl nipples on basic cable because they’re very dangerous.” To which Jenji replied “Can you do a nipple-less Barbiefied girl? Go full tit, but no nip?” This sentence alone was worth my $35. And she was genuinely interested in finding out what the answer was.
I’m kind of embarrassed to say that I don’t know very much about the transgender community, but I can say that I work with a brilliant transgender woman. The L & the G have been picking up major steam- not only in entertainment, but on a local and global level as well. But the T is just beginning to break ground. This past year in entertainment alone has been outstanding in bringing trans visibility to the world. Four out of the five panelists feature a trans character on their shows and Laverne Cox from Orange is the New Black is certainly a breakout star having been on the cover of Time Magazine as well as being the first transgender actress nominated for an Emmy. “Ain’t nothin like the real thing,” as Jenji Kohan says. Jeffrey Tambor is now the star of Soloway’s Transparent and I am just so enamored with his work as an older transgender woman coming out to his three grown kids. I don’t care how you do it, but you must catch this show on Amazon which has recently been picked up for its second season. It is fascinating stuff. I bribed a friend of mine for her password with pumpkin pancakes and that worked, so try that. I can’t wait to see how this community shines a light on all the T’s out there!
Peter Paige summed up the reason why all of us were in the room when he said “entertainment changes the world.” It does, and that’s why entertainment matters. The whole purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to our real lives so why not tell everyone’s truths? There are some juicy things happening out there! And speaking of talented trans people in entertainment, apparently there are no trans women writers. Jill Soloway is desperately trying to find a trans woman to write on her show, so if you have any leads- hit your sister up.
An often controversial subject, the topic of “should gay actors play straight roles and should straight actors play gay roles” came up. True to form, Jenji replied “I think great writers should write great roles,” which pretty much mirrors her thought on bi visibility on tv: “I don’t give a shit about labels. I just don’t.” This coming from someone who was probably labeled her whole life and is sick to death of boxes (little boxes made of ticky-tacky.) I totally respect that. She just wants people to be great. She also went on to praise Jill Soloway’s Transparent by saying “Jeffrey Tambor is so fucking brilliant. I can’t think of anybody else in that role. And that’s a straight man.” Jill Soloway’s perspective was a bit different noting that “the B is the most forgotten thing in LGBTQ. Perhaps that is true, but you have to admit, the whole LGBTQ movement is making tremendous progress. Astronomical in my 30 years on this earth.
Whatever their process, no one up on that stage is doing anything backwards. These brilliant and progressive creators and writers are changing the way we see the world and I am forever grateful for their vision. Their tele-vision.
Great stuff, Dana. Very well written, full of good information, and fun to read. “You can bet your bippy that many ‘ahhhhs’ were heard from the crowd.” Haha, yes.