Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Musical theatre versus theatrical music

There are a few people in RVA whose presence in the audience of a show I'm doing excites me just a bit more. Dave and Liz White, Stacie Rearden Hall, Maura Burroughs, and several other sometime collaborators always guarantee an erudite discussion of the craft of theatre after the show, and the only thing I love as much as creating art is discussing the creation of art. In the same vein, when David Timberline sees a show I've directed I get a little extra-excited to see what he's going to say. His criticism is always intelligent, always fair, and always invites discussion.

Dave saw Joe Jackson's Night and Day last night. No fair sitting in the front row, by the way (though that wasn't nearly as distracting as Tim Kaine striking up a conversation with me ten seconds before my entrance last Sunday. Turns out Tim and Anne are huge Joe Jackson fans. Who knew?). Dave's take on the show was published on his blog this afternoon. As is so often the case with his writing, it got my mind whirling with deep thoughts and counter-arguments. And that's what this blog is for, friends.

"Concert musical" is the term I've been using to describe JJND for the past few months, and I've never been entirely happy with it. Dave's reaction to the show's lack of narrative brought my dissatisfaction home, and hard. Celia Wren eloquently described the piece in the Times-Dispatch a couple weeks ago thus: "Built around an onstage band, Hamm's production wasn't a play per se. Rather, he drew out, expanded and interlinked narrative elements in Jackson's albums, turning the songs into musical scenes and sketches featuring recurring characters. A principal storyline, concerning a New York-based songwriter striving to capture the city's energy in a catchy tune, added unity."

Finally this week, words that resonate came to mind: Joe Jackson's Night and Day isn't musical theatre. It's theatrical music.

The reason this terminology is so important is evident in Dave's completely reasonable response to the show's lack of through-lines. In coming from a theatrical standpoint, he walked into the theatre with storytelling, character-fulfilling expectations that the material not only doesn't meet, but doesn't even care about. The comparison with Tommy is telling and, in my humble opinion, quite mistaken; Tommy is in absolutely no way a "concert musical;" it's an entirely traditional book musical that just happens to have rock music at its core. It's full of dialogue songs, storyline, and characters with beginnings, middles, and ends. Joe Jackson's Night and Day makes no attempt at any of these things.

Expecting JJND to have the same aesthetic resonance as a play is like reading a collection of Chekhov short stories and expecting them to result in a novel, or like seeing David Mamet's New York Stories and expecting them to result in Glengarry Glen Ross. The best theatrical analogue to JJND that I can think of is Neil Simon's The Good Doctor, a collection of short plays based on Chekhov stories and linked together by a Writer character who has several monologues and acts as a narrator. But even that isn't quite right, because the scenes in The Good Doctor are all little plays in and of themselves, with traditional storytelling narrative. A better example would be Randall Kenan's short story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, which I'm fairly certain no one I know has ever read, making it a moot instance. But trust me, it's good.

Songs are like short fiction or poetry in that they don't have any requirement to tell story, only to create imagery. I hate hate hate jukebox musicals, and the thing that distinguishes JJND from jukebox musicals is that it very specifically refuses to shoehorn story and character development into the material in order to spoon-feed connective tissue to the audience. JJND is still in development, and has changed a lot in the past 12 years, but it will never ever ever have an over-arching story, nor will the characters go from point A to point Z. Instead, we see sketches of lives, point D through J, L through M, R through V.

We are creating something unique with Joe Jackson's Night and Day, and it is as much a challenge to the audience as it has been to the artists. We welcome the challenge, even if it means that the show occasionally hits audience members bonk on the brain a bit. I'm glad that the show's critics have had questions and disagreements with our choices, because they will help us grow the show for October's New York showcase, as well as future iterations. And I love talking about the craft of theatre!

For now, we have two shows left and limited seats. I invite you to let the show wash over you like songs, not like scenes. Come out to Joe Jackson's Night and Day and see what all the fuss is about.

Dave Timberline: JJND is "pushing the creative envelope".

From Dave T's Richmond VA Theater Blog:

A Night of Night and Day

It’s not unusual for me to leave a production I’ve enjoyed with a bit of a crush. That’s part of the joy of plays, movies, TV, even dance in my opinion: someone you see grabs your eye and something they do captures your heart. Even though I’m a straight guy, my crushes aren’t always young women: I left “All Fall Down” on Monday with a little crush on Matt Shofner, both times at “Spring Awakening” I was enamored with the couple of Wendla and Melchior as played by Ali Thibodeau and Oliver Houser.

I took in Joe Jackson’s Night and Day at Richmond Triangle Players last night and came away with a new infatuation with Rebecca Muhleman, one of five very talented singers that populate Andrew Hamm’s world premiere brainchild. Whether standing stridently at center stage or bopping around seemingly overcome with love of the music, Ms. Muhleman is an electric presence in this so-called concert musical. Her shock of white blond hair, dramatic eyes, and imposing physicality are complemented by an expressive voice that adds all sorts of nuance to familiar JJ songs like “Dear Mom” and especially “Breaking Us in Two.” Her energy bubbled up and overflowed at different times, making her the engine that powered the action through much of the show.

That’s not to say she was the only shining star on the Triangle Players stage. All of the other singers – Augustin Correro, Keydron Dunn, Anne Carr Regan, Liz Blake White and Mr. Hamm himself – all had moments of star power in this production. I was most entertained by Dunn, particularly in his second act rant, “Cancer.” I was enthralled by White in the pensive “Why,” while also loving her great duets with Correro in “Real Men” and “Glamour and Pain.” Regan steps to the fore in “Love Got Lost,” a strong song that she infuses with passion.

It’s hard to know what exactly to call JJND – I guess concert musical makes sense, though the thread of something like a story here is not even as strong as other pretty loose concert musicals like “The Who’s Tommy” or Green Day’s “American Idiot.” I like the general premise – the “songwriter” played by Hamm seems to be imagining the characters in his songs, mostly people from the streets of New York, each with their specific quirks and vocations – White is a prostitute, Dunn a homeless guy, Correro an art student perhaps with maybe a night-time propensity for cross-dressing. As he writes their songs, he apparently wills them into being and we see their stories play out before us. Particularly with some of Jackson’s more compelling songs – faves like “Chinatown” or “Another World” – it’s easy to imagine the swirl of street life, the bustle of New York and the inherent drama of life there.

A few things hamper the show as conceptualized, in my opinion. One is that most of the characters aren’t give through-lines – Regan plays a NYC tourist but then reappears as a character otherwise undefined. You can kind of develop a full-fledged character for Correro but it’s not inherent in the material and it’s a bit of a drag to have to second-guess what the intention is. The other thing is that there isn’t really enough connective tissue to make the stories all work together. For instance, the songwriter and his relationship with his girlfriend (Muhleman) is encapsulated solely within “Breaking Us in Two,” a great song but not as complete as say Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” in terms of background, conflict and conclusion. I loved the scene but it didn’t make for a complete theatrical trajectory. The finale is ultimately a self-centered one: the songwriter finally gets his one problematic song to work – “Steppin Out” – which makes for a rousing conclusion but again, not quite a dramatically satisfying one in terms of incorporating any of the other stories.

Finally, there seems to be a certain urge toward completism that doesn’t necessarily serve the show. “T.V. Age” is a fine song and I loved the closed circuit broadcast accompaniment (could that coquettish little scamp be Annella Kaine???) but I didn’t see how it fit in this show with these characters. I understand the show spans two of Joe Jackson’s album but it’s somewhat arbitrary from a dramatic standpoint that all of the songs had to be included.

Still, if your expectations are set appropriately – a hot evening of cool songs performed by a kickin’ band – the performance is not lacking for anything. The addition of strings in the form of violin (played by Seamus Guy) and cello (Michael Knowles) is inspired and really raises the musicality to another level. I agree completely with John Porter that the percussion is often overwhelming and could stand to be scaled back, even though I loved the licks Adam Young was pulling on the drums and Jake Allard’s percussion – whether on congas or plastic drum – was energizing.

Probably most of all, Hamm’s perseverance in getting this world premiere up and running, then going the distance in delivering a thoroughly entertaining evening of music, deserves to be roundly applauded. The concept is inspired and the performances he and codirector Stacie Rearden Hall get out of their cast are fabulous. Richmond is lucky to have talented people like Hamm pushing the creative envelope, not to mention giving an old guy like me the chance to relive the joy of discovery of Joe Jackson’s stirring and sophisticated song-craft. Bravo, Andrew!

Friday, August 10, 2012

John Porter: " 'Joe Jackson's Night and Day' Rocks Richmond Triangle Players"

As usual, I choose to copy and paste entire reviews because URLs and webhosts tend to change and archival reviews tend to disappear...

From John Porter's Blog:

Joe Jackson's Night and Day Rocks Richmond Triangle Players

“One of the things I love best about Country Music,” a young Ray Charles answered a reporter, “is the stories the music tells.” Joe Jackson’s Night and Day, a world premiere now running at Richmond Triangle Players has nothing to do with country music, but it tells some of the most compelling stories and the appreciative audience on opening night hung on nearly every musical phrase and savored the experience for every second of the production.

Joe Jackson’s Night and Day is the brainchild of Andrew Hamm, a dedicated musician as well as actor, writer, and director. Hamm has done much more than string together some of Jackson’s music; he has crafted them in such a way as to tell the story of New York through the eyes of several different people. These are songs of innocence and songs of experience to steal titles from William Blake. And like the visionary that Blake was, Jackson has a way of looking at the darker side of his world and transcending it to the heavens.

Hamm not only crafted the show but serves as the musical director, a character within the play, and co-director with Stacie Rearden Hall. That’s one dedicated obsessive fan. Apparently the show has been percolating in his fertile imagination for a number of years and he finally has it ready to share with the world.

I think the play is a solid work-in-progress that is almost ready to be released with perhaps a few adjustments. Let’s consider the pros of the production first.

The music is wonderful; building on two of Jackson’s best albums – Night and Day and Night and Day II. The first album lived in my cassette deck for a long time, until the tape stretched too thin and snapped. This of course was in the days before compact discs. It has since been replaced. Hamm has chosen several songs that set the mood beautifully and his cast performs admirably.

Which brings us to the second pro; the cast and band. The singers include the aforementioned Hamm as well as Augustin J. Correro, Kedron Dunn, Rebecca Anne Muhleman, Anne Carr Regan, and Liz Blake White. Each has more than one moment to shine and they make the most of it. Real standouts for me include “Stranger Than You” featuring Hamm, Correro, and Muhleman; “Chinatown” featuring Dunn, the duet of Correro and White on “Real Men”; “Cancer” again featuring Dunn, and the poignant duet between Hamm and Muhleman on “Breaking Us In Two” could make a statue tear up. I do wish that Regan had been able to solo more, although her take on “Another World” was jubilant and over the top fun. Even a member of the audience got pulled into that number.

The band featured a number of very good musicians including Jake Allard on percussion – mainly congas. He was joined by Adam Young on drums with Philip Hamm on bass to complete the rhythm section. They were joined by Michael Knowles on cello and Seamus Guy on violin. I was surprised by the string section as they added so much especially considering that live strings are often replaced by synthesized ones. The one issue I had with the band was the increased volume in an intimate space. The drums especially were overpowering and often took focus away from the singers.

I was also a little fuzzy on Hamm’s initial concept. At the beginning we see Hamm, as Jackson – or at least someone very much like Jackson – working out the song “Stepping Out.” Once he is seated at his keyboard, the other musicians enter and are mostly in the back, except for the strings. As Hamm rarely makes any eye contact with the musicians except to count time or to end a song, I’m not sure if the musicians are meant to be in the mind of Jackson as he’s imagining the music or something else. We see the creation of the music, but not what created the image.

The set is a representation of a New York street complete with homeless people and piles of stuff. The set is designed by T. Ross Aitken and it makes the most of the small surroundings. Kay Renee designed the costumes which are especially good on Regan’s “Another World” and anything featuring Dunn. The lights by David White were mostly good, although I could do without the strobe effects. I also like Deanna Danger’s choreography on “Dear Mom.” I’m not sure if Hamm or co-director Hall did the other choreography, but that is one area that needs to be beefed up a little more. The stage pictures are nice, but sometimes the movement leaves a little to be desired.

Joe Jackson’s Night and Day will have a limited run as it gears up for a Producer’s Showcase in New York and the work is a great way to spend a summer’s night.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Richmond Times-Dispatch feature on "Joe Jackson's Night and Day"

Celia Wren, one of my favorite theatre writers in the world, has written a wonderful piece about Joe Jackson's Night and Day that was featured in Sunday's Richmond Times-Dispatch. I love that Celia does a far better job describing the show's aesthetic than my rambling attempts ever do. Check it out!

World premiere concert-musical for Richmond Triangle Players

Never underestimate the power of a hand-me-down: That's a lesson you could draw from the latest exploit by local thespian Andrew Hamm.

In 1995, when Hamm was an undergraduate at Virginia Commonwealth University, he received a used turntable and a slew of old albums from his brother, Philip. As a more or less direct result of that acquisition, Andrew Hamm conceived, and is now directing and performing in, a world premiere concert-musical: "Joe Jackson's Night and Day," running at Richmond Triangle Players Wednesday through Aug. 18.

Those cast-off records included "Night and Day" and several other albums by Joe Jackson, the rock/pop musician known for hit songs "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "Steppin' Out."

"I instantly fell in love with his music," Hamm remembers, remarking on Jackson's flair for conjuring up people and anecdotes in song. "He had a great ability to tell character stories that were snarky and affectionate at the same time."

In subsequent years, Hamm made an effort to catch Jackson on tour and was impressed by the theatricality
of the rocker's concerts. A show might feature instrumentalists in costume, and Jackson might make an entrance with a conspicuous prop, such as a suitcase.

An enthusiast of theater and music, Hamm was naturally inclined to appreciate such rock-drama hybrids.

He grew up in New Jersey and Virginia and earned a bachelor's degree in theater performance from VCU in 1996. A multi-instrumentalist, he spent time after college in New York, where he wrote music for an album he titled "Strange Education."

In 2000, Jackson released "Night and Day II," a follow-up to 1982's "Night and Day." After catching the "Night and Day II" tour in New York, Hamm found himself brainstorming staging techniques that might further underscore the drama in Jackson's music.

When Hamm returned to VCU for a master's degree in theater pedagogy — he received his degree in 2005 — he thought about creating a concert-musical version of the two "Night and Day" albums as his dissertation project. He contacted Jackson's manager, Michael Maska, who supported the idea, even helping Hamm secure permissions.

Built around an onstage band, Hamm's production wasn't a play per se. Rather, he drew out, expanded and interlinked narrative elements in Jackson's albums, turning the songs into musical scenes and sketches featuring recurring characters.

A principal storyline, concerning a New York-based songwriter striving to capture the city's energy in a catchy tune, added unity.

A workshop version of the show, with a volunteer cast, received two performances at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Hamm went on to other theater work: He has acted and directed on local stages and he served for a time as Richmond Shakespeare's associate artistic director. But he couldn't put the Jackson project behind him and eventually started exploring a professional production.

Maska again gave his endorsement. "It's a win situation for everyone," the manager said, pointing out that Hamm's show could introduce Jackson's music to new audiences.

Besides, he said, "Joe is very supportive of the arts overall. He likes musicals. He likes theater." (Indeed, Maska added, Jackson is working on a musical about the life of "Dracula" author Bram Stoker).

When Hamm approached Richmond Triangle Players with the "Night and Day" idea, the company's artistic director, John Knapp, was interested.

"It felt like a good fit, in size and in scope," Knapp said in an email, pointing out that RTP has experience nurturing new work, having hosted a workshop production of Julie Fulcher-Davis' musical "Company of Angels" in 2010.

Hamm, who performed in the play-with-music "This Beautiful City" at RTP last year, believed "Joe Jackson's Night and Day" has found the right home: RTP's mission focuses on works relevant to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities, and in the new concert-musical, "as with a lot of Joe's work, there (are) a lot of gender issues and identity issues."

Hamm will be playing keyboards in the six-piece band that's central to "Joe Jackson's Night and Day."

And on the bass will be his brother, Philip, who accidentally sowed the seeds for the concert-musical all those years ago.