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As the pandemic shutters Broadway and beyond, writers, actors and crew members must acclimatize to an uncertain new world

Last Tuesday, Jessica Altchiler led a ballet class. But instead of the long, sleek barre she would normally rely on for support, she grasped on to a TV stand. And if that alone didnt prove she wasnt at a conventional dance studio, the red-and-black plaid pet bed in the background gave her away.

Still, she tendued, relevd and coached other dancers, even though she couldnt see them.

Im already sweating! she said as she ducked into the camera frame. I hope other people are sweating, too.

Not even a week before she was teaching on Instagram Live, Altchiler had been in Detroit as part of her first professional job in the national tour of Fiddler on the Roof. While she and her fellow cast members performed in the show, they saw headlines about Broadway shutting down and March Madness being cancelled. Then, their own tour dates were postponed, and a suddenly unemployed Altchiler boarded a nearly empty flight back to her family home in Connecticut.

Its strange for me to think about people still having a job because, for me, the world was just turned upside down, she said.

All of the savings that she and her co-workers had been carefully growing to move to New York, pay for an apartment or invest in classes now have to be redirected toward survival during this unprecedented time in theater history, and some of her colleagues are scrambling to find a place to stay after months on the road.

As the world wrestles with Covid-19, Altchilers new reality isnt particularly uncommon among artists. Theater professionals are frightened, and theyre mourning a lot of art that may never again see the light of day as venues shutter at least temporarily and would-be audiences disappear. But even as performers suffer great personal and professional losses, theyre working overtime to send messages of hope and peace, provide necessary resources to others who are struggling and offer a balm for the social-distanced and self-isolated.

A note outside the theater for the hit play Hamilton explains why they have closed. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On an at-home edition of The Tonight Show last Wednesday, Lin-Manuel Miranda joined Jimmy Fallon to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids Covid-19 emergency assistance fund. The Hamilton star performed his song about parents wanting to give the best possible version of the world to their children, as parents everywhere, including Fallon and Miranda, stare down a global crisis alongside their own kids.

Also online, the theater legend and radio host Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley, his producer husband, quickly organized twice-daily at-home performances to fundraise for the Actors Fund. A long list of Broadway A-listers immediately signed up. Kristin Chenoweth was all dressed up when she appeared on the web series from her bathroom over the weekend, and on Saturday, Lea Salonga will call in to sing at 2am Manila time.

Artists love the world, and they love helping, Rudetsky said. So every single person we wrote basically just wrote back right away and said: Im in, Im in, what do I do?

Meanwhile, theaters are trying to figure out how to stay afloat and take care of their own as the very notion of live entertainment has become taboo. Susi Damilano, co-founder and producing director of the San Francisco Playhouse, said she hasnt had to fire anyone, and shes asking hourly workers to submit their schedules on a week-to-week basis for compensation. Shes hoping patrons will donate the value of a ticket and landlords will ease up on rent; if not, her playhouse will only be able to pay people for a few months.

I think that the arts and culture are proving to be where we all turn in times of difficulty, and yet are the first and hardest hit economically, said Damilano. And people are realizing that.

Photograph: MediaPunch/Rex/Shutterstock

As theaters take a financial clobbering, some are requesting that playwrights refund advance payments. Lynn Nottage one of Americas foremost playwrights who has earned two Pulitzer prizes for her work was asked by a large regional theater to return her advance, even as everything she had scheduled was cancelled before her eyes and she lost what would have probably been the majority of her income for the year.

Nottage said most companies arent making such requests, but she did worry about whats going to happen as theaters another place where people go to heal close down for the time being. She empathized with the young artists who had debuts in Seattle, New York and Chicago, the up-and-coming actors, playwrights and directors who usually present work during this time of year and even the singers who were performing in her first opera at Lincoln Center.

On Broadway, young performers who were ready for their big breaks got caught in limbo, some even before their first performances. Michael Lepore, who is making his Broadway debut alongside 12 others in Sing Street, had just walked on the Lyceum Theatre stage for the first time when all of Broadway closed at least until April.

It was all these dreams come true, with this thing hanging in the air of like, Oh God, this is going to be it for a little bit, he said.

With everything delayed, he retreated to his parents home in Connecticut with all his instruments as a cover, hes required to know the show on acoustic and electric guitar, bass, piano, synthesizer, baritone electric guitar and stylophone. Hes been getting his notes in order and making sure hes off-book. But hes also started working on his own music, and hes recording a few things.

People are adapting, Rudetsky said. Quoting the musical Closer Than Ever, he started to sing: If someone told me even just a week ago I would have said youre crazy, Id have burst right into tears, but here I am.

Yes, the things we plan on happening are not gonna happen, he said. But, who knows what will happen?

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In whats allegedly a record-breaking $75m deal, the Pulitzer prize-winning stage musical, with the original cast, will land at cinemas worldwide in 2021

The hit Pulitzer prize-winning musical Hamilton will be in cinemas worldwide in 2021 after a deal with Disney reportedly worth $75m.

The 160-minute film was shot in 2016, two weeks before the original cast left the Broadway show and is being described as a cinematic stage performance that will combine the best elements of live theater and film. Its based on three live performances that will allow for multiple angles.

Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted out the news while Deadline has claimed since, via sources, that the $75m acquisition is a new record. Once the film has been shown in cinemas, it will then go to the studios new streaming service Disney+.

Lin-Manuel Miranda created an unforgettable theater experience and a true cultural phenomenon, and it was for good reason that Hamilton was hailed as an astonishing work of art, Disneys CEO, Bob Iger, said. All who saw it with the original cast will never forget that singular experience. And were thrilled to have the opportunity to share this same Broadway experience with millions of people around the world.

The show tells the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton through R&B, hip-hop and soul music. It was awarded the Pulitzer prize for drama in 2016 and won 11 Tony awards. It has since been seen in cities across the world including London and this year will move to Toronto and Hamburg.

Im so proud of what [director] Tommy Kail has been able to capture in this filmed version of Hamilton a live theatrical experience that feels just as immediate in your local movie theater, Miranda said. Were excited to partner with Disney to bring the original Broadway company of Hamilton to the largest audience possible.

Hamilton will hit cinemas on 15 October 2021.

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Eerily beautiful show reveals frustrating fragmentation of writers classic essay

First published in 1979, The White Album, Joan Didions collection of essays and journalism about the 1960s, has become a modern classic of New Journalism.

Didion uses a highly stylised cadence and a fragmented, mosaic style of storytelling to illustrate the times. But her voice is also a metaphor: language breaks down, the world is breaking down, shes having a breakdown.

This is the second of Didions landmark works to be taken to the stage, the first being The Year of Magical Thinking a memoir about the death of her husband which opened on Broadway in 2007.

The White Album is a tougher proposition. While the theme of Didions book is the search for and failure to find a narrative, on the stage, this failure of narrative can be disorienting and unsatisfying for theatregoers.

Which is perhaps the point.

The director Lars Jan and the Early Morning Opera have brought The White Album to the stage after almost eight years of trying to obtain the rights. They eventually secured them with the promise to Didion that the text of the books first, eponymous essay would be performed in its entirety. We promised to do every word. We werent going to cut anything we were going to start with the first word and end with the last, Jan said in an interview.

The fragmented scenes take a form like chapters and cover Didions perspective on key moments during the late 60s. Photograph: Lars Jan/Sydney festival

The first words of that essay We tell ourselves stories in order to live have become famous in their own right and, when delivered on stage by the actor and co-creator Mia Barron, they produce chills.

The fragmented scenes take a form like chapters and cover Didions perspective on key moments during the late 60s the trial of Huey Newton, a Doors recording session, the San Francisco State College student protests and the Manson murders as well as her own psychiatric assessment and the packing list she uses when shes on assignment.

It is essentially a monologue Barron reciting the wordy text from memory broken up with asides or quotes from a Greek chorus of hippies, protesters, musicians and activists, played in large part by members of the audience, led by surreptitious instructions fed through earpieces, who volunteered beforehand to be part of the show. Jan has also previously said that it was not necessary for Barron to actually embody Didion: She is using the words of the text to create a character, to speak those words instinctively, he said.

Mia Barron, second from left, inside the glass house. Photograph: Reed Hutchinson/Sydney festival

But it can take a bit to reset expectations about character. Didions writing like her persona can be aloof (she is famously described as a cool customer by a hospital social worker in The Year of Magical Thinking). When I met her once in New York, she exuded a frostiness and imperviousness that was highly intimidating, an effect heightened perhaps because she is so physically slight.

Barrons narrator is a more substantial, earthy presence, appearing more relatable and solid than the real-life Didion, who in the text is in the process of a crack-up; in her perpetual motion between New York, California, Hawaii and reporting trips to various cities, she is herself yet another metaphor for a country in which the centre cannot hold.

The music and stagecraft of this production enhance the apocalyptic late 60s vibe. A stark, modular, literal glass house dominates the stage. Designed by P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S architectural firm, it is a stand-in for the recording studio in which Didion met the Doors; her house on Franklin Avenue, Hollywood; student campuses; and finally, a bloody shootout. But despite the eerie beauty of the staging, seeing one of my favourite essays performed in this way revealed flaws I had not seen in the text before.

Didion is the master of cadence, creating a lyrical power in her mesmerising arrangement of words, but she has no discipline or focus. Characters slide in and out, and stories that would have enriched our understanding of the times remain, frustratingly, only partly told. The fragments when performed together do not make a whole, and she is its unstable centre.

Then there are the times we are living through now. During the performance, I couldnt help but contrast Didions times with now. From within, our times seem to be even more chaotic, fragmentary and evil than Didions 60s. Weve lost any illusion we had of a centre not least, of a centre that can hold. Weve long been without a narrative. Perhaps, if Didion is right, there never was a narrative to begin with.

Joan Didions The White Album is at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, as part of Sydney festival until 12 January

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Writer of music and lyrics to shows such as La Cage aux Folles won two Tony awards for best musical

The composer Jerry Herman, who wrote the cheerful, good-natured music and lyrics for such classic shows as Mame, Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles, has died aged 88.

Herman had a direct and simple sense of melody, and his lyrics had a natural, unforced quality. He said in 1995 that over the years critics have sort of tossed me off as the popular and not the cerebral writer, and that was fine with me. That was exactly what I aimed at.

He died of pulmonary complications on Thursday in Miami, where he had been living with his partner, Terry Marler, a real estate broker, his goddaughter Jane Dorian said on Friday.

The creator of 10 Broadway shows and contributor to several more, Herman won two Tony awards for best musical: Hello, Dolly! in 1964 and La Cage aux Folles in 1983. He also won two Grammys, for the Mame cast album and Hello, Dolly! as song of the year.

In accepting the Tony in 1984 for La Cage Aux Folles, Herman said: This award forever shatters a myth about the musical theatre. Theres been a rumour around for a couple of years that the simple, hummable show tune was no longer welcome on Broadway. Well, its alive and well at the Palace [theatre].

Herman was born in New York in 1931 and raised in New Jersey. He noted that when he was born, his mother had a view of Broadways Winter Garden theatre marquee from her hospital bed.

Herman dated his intention to write musicals to the time his parents took him to Annie Get Your Gun and he went home and played five of Irving Berlins songs on the piano. I thought: what a gift this man has given a stranger. I wanted to give that gift to other people. That was my great inspiration, that night, he said in 1996.

Carol Channing, left, and Barbara Walters with Jerry Herman on Broadway, 1981. Photograph: David Gould/AP

After graduating from the University of Miami, Herman headed back to New York, writing and playing piano in a jazz club. He made his Broadway debut in 1960 contributing songs to the review From A to Z alongside material by Fred Ebb and Woody Allen and the next year tackled the entire score to a musical about the founding of the state of Israel, Milk and Honey. It earned him his first Tony nomination.

Hello, Dolly!, starring Carol Channing, opened in 1964 and ran for 2,844 performances, becoming Broadways longest-running musical at the time. It won 10 Tonys and has been revived many times, most recently in 2017 with Bette Midler in the title role, a 19th-century widowed matchmaker who learns to live again.

Mame followed in 1966, starring Angela Lansbury, and went on to run for more than 1,500 performances. She handed Herman his special Tony award for lifetime achievement in 2009, saying he created songs that were, like him, bouncy, buoyant and optimistic.

In 1983 he had another hit with La Cage aux Folles, a sweetly radical musical of its age, decades before the fight for marriage equality. It was a lavish adaptation of the successful French film about two gay men who own a splashy drag nightclub on the Riviera. It contained the gay anthem I Am What I Am and ran for 1,760 performances.

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After another smash hit year at the box office, the next 12 months promises more of the same … with added controversy

The lights are bright on Broadway. Blinding even. With 35 plays and musicals now running, Broadway looks likely to have grossed over $1bn in 2019, having played to more than 8 million people. National tours have become de rigueur for every musical that doesnt absolutely flop and satellite productions pop up across the globe.

But with big business comes big risk. Running costs remain steep. Most shows fail to recoup. A few New York not-for-profits (Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, Second Stage, Lincoln Center Theater) have Broadway houses, yet even those companies rarely program shows without the reassurance of a well-known star or creator. Both the not-for-profits and the for-profits have been busily making wagers on which known quantities and out-of-town successes will attract New York audiences and the tourist trade. 2019 was fairly lively Slave Play, What the Constitution Means to Me, Choir Boy, Freestyle Love Supreme, American Utopia, a recuperated Oklahoma!, Hadestown, Gary (a miss, but still a big swing). But looking ahead to 2020, most of those wagers appear conservative, probably too conservative. Subtract the star casting and only a few plays and musicals will generate much excitement.

Of the musicals so far announced, six are new (or newish) and four are revivals. Two jukebox musicals are promised, one relatively innovative and one baffling. In Girl from the North Country, which had a successful run at the Public Theater two years ago, Conor McPherson transposes the songs of Bob Dylan to Depression-era Duluth. Why the playwright Lynn Nottage and the director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon are charging ahead with MJ, a biomusical based around Michael Jackson, remains a mystery, but it seems telling that the production has revised its former title, the innuendo-available Dont Stop Til You Get Enough, with the more innocuous MJ.

Queens, princesses, an unlikely drag act and an unlikelier acid trip inspire the other new musicals, such as Six, the hit London power-pop musical about the wives of Henry VIII. It joins Diana, with music by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, a biomusical about the peoples princess. Following in the high-heeled footsteps of Tootsie comes Mrs Doubtfire, an adaptation of the Robin Williams movie about a divorced dad who puts on a dress to get closer to his children. Perhaps the most original entry is Flying Over Sunset, a new musical with a book by James Lapine and music by Tom Kitt that details the mid-50s LSD experiments of Cary Grant, Clare Booth Luce and Aldous Huxley.

If that doesnt sound like enough of a trip, Katrina Lenk, a Tony winner for The Bands Visit, will star in Marianne Elliotts gender-flipped Company, and Hugh Jackman, that great showman, will lead a revival of The Music Man. Ivo van Hove returns the Sharks and the Jets to the stage in a new version of West Side Story, with choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Sharon D Clarke will reprise the title role in Caroline, or Change, in Michael Longhursts celebrated revival of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesoris underrated blues and klezmer musical.

Laura Linney during the My Name Is Lucy Barton photo call. Photograph: Walter McBride/Getty Images

Its difficult to discern much of a melody in the varied roster of new plays. Two of them, Martin McDonaghs Hangmen, now starring Dan Stevens, and Stefano Massinis The Lehman Trilogy, with Simon Russell Beale, arrive after successful runs both in London and Off-Broadway. Two solo shows chronicle the stages of a womans life, Elizabeth Strouts My Name is Lucy Barton, adapted by Rona Munro and starring Laura Linney, and Noah Haidles Birthday Candles, starring Debra Messing. Grand Horizons, the Broadway debut of the celebrated off-Broadway writer Bess Wohl, centers on a golden-years divorce. The not-so-happy couple: Jane Alexander and James Cromwell. Tracy Letts, who brought Linda Vista to Broadway in 2019, returns with The Minutes, in which he also stars, alongside Armie Hammer and Jesse Mueller. Directed by Steppenwolfs Anna D Shapiro, it charts a town council meeting in real time.

When it comes to play revivals, producers have stuck to American properties, all of them penned in the last 60 years. It hasnt been long since Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf and American Buffalo were on Broadway. But here they are again, with Laurie Metcalf (who can never, it seems, not be on Broadway), Rupert Everett, and Russell Tovey attached to the former and Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell to the latter. (One might have anticipated that after Bitter Wheat, the theater might want a David Mamet breather. Not so much.) Paula Vogels How I Learned to Drive was recently revived off-Broadway, but it has its keys in the ignition again, this time with its original stars, Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse, attached.

Star casting will also gin up anticipation for Kenny Leons revival of Charles Fullers wrenching drama A Soldiers Play, now starring David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood, and Richard Greenbergs comedy-drama of baseball and sexuality, Take Me Out, with Jesse Williams and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Husband-and-wife Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker star in Neil Simons Plaza Suite, playing two couples and one near couple, all occupying the same hotel room.

Want to place bets on which shows will still be running this time next year? Ante in.

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Tom Hooper finished off his musical just 36 hours before its premiere. Will this, a turn-off trailer, awards snubs and an impurrfect gestation stop it being Christmas catnip?

For film critics, London press screening schedules are devised like a military operation: timetabled, negotiated and cross-referenced by an army of distributors and publicists, with a view generally to keeping each major studio offering out of the others way. The pre-Christmas crush is when the efficiency of the system tends to be most tested, but rarely has there been a scheduling overlap as high-profile and high-stakes as the one we saw on Monday night as the large multimedia premieres of Cats and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker played back-to-back in Leicester Square, a long, loud double feature that sent bleary-eyed journalists home somewhere close to midnight.

It wasnt always meant to be this way. The latest Star Wars episode had long had that premiere date nailed down: suitably close to its public release to appease studio spoilerphobia, and an acknowledgement that any franchise this critic-proof doesnt need long-lead reviews. Cats gatecrashing this weeks schedule, however, was a frenzied move for a project that despite years of gestation and development, not to mention a gargantuan budget is looking increasingly like one of the most last-minute, down-to-the-wire blockbusters in Hollywood history.

Tom Hoopers much hyped, fluorescent film version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage smash began shooting last December, wrapped at the beginning of April, and has been mired in allegedly complex post-production ever since. Allegedly seems an unnecessary qualifier, in fact, given what the trailer already revealed as early as July. Coating a vast ensemble of human stars and dancers in fluid, tactile feline pelts was never going to be a simple task: digital fur technology, as weve been instructed to call it, wasnt built in a day. And it hasnt just been the visuals consuming time: word has it that multiple Soho sound studios were booked out last week in a concentrated push to finish the films busy audio mix.

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Watch the Cats movie trailer – video

The delay has, it seems, come at some cost to the films awards season momentum. Most critics groups didnt get to see the film in time for their voting deadlines, though even in the best of circumstances, their tastes tend to skew more highbrow. More imperative was meeting the cutoff for Golden Globes voting. A not-quite-finished cut was shown to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, known for supporting razzle-dazzle musicals such as The Greatest Showman and Burlesque, but with dispiriting results: the effort yielded only one nomination, for Taylor Swifts original song Beautiful Ghosts. Even that seemingly surefire Oscars bid was shot down this week, as the Academy announced their shortlists for several categories: Swifts mournful ballad was nowhere to be seen among the 15 best song finalists, though the visual effects are still in contention.

That those effects may be the films best remaining shot at awards glory is somewhat ironic, considering what a point of contention theyve been. The images we saw back in the summer to a global chorus of what-the-hell-is-that horror and delight that made an instant and inexhaustible meme factory out of a two-minute trailer were, apparently, not quite finished.

The internets gleefully aghast reaction didnt prompt the kind of studio panic, rethink and redesign that we recently saw with Sonic the Hedgehog, but Hooper claims that some tweaking was done in response: The visual effects [in the trailer] were at quite an early stage, he told Empire magazine. Possibly there were, in the extremity in some of the responses, some clues in how to keep evolving. When you watch the finished film, youll see that some of the designs of the cats have moved on since then, and certainly our understanding of how to use the technology to make them work has gone up, too.

Jennifer Hudson in Cats. Photograph: Allstar/Working Title films/Amblin Entertainment

If this is true, it may take eagle-eyed effects buffs to spot the exact evolution: a second trailer, released in November, didnt look appreciably different from the first, though the shock impact of the human-cat hybrids appearance was reduced with forewarning. (Ready or not from a technical perspective, Universal was wise to tease the films look early and get us accustomed to its eccentricity.) And while the finished product is still under critical embargo for now, its not incriminating to say that it delivers very much the spectacle that those fixated on the trailer are expecting: the technicians many hours of painstaking work are nothing if not evident.

Hooper is known in the industry for being exacting, but if hes been flustered by the films scramble to the finish line, hes remained impassively cool in public admitting casually on Mondays New York premiere that hed only locked the final cut at 8am the day before. He continues, moreover, to walk a fine line between deflecting the internets bewilderment and humouring it. In response to a Variety reporter asking whether he was happy with Cats finished look not a question most directors would expect to be asked on the promotion trail, but a near-unavoidably salient one in this case his answer was an expert PR play: having only officially finished the film 36 hours before, he was simply glad to be showing it at all. Im very happy to be here with it fully finished, and yeah, well let the audience decide, but its come a long way since that first trailer.

Its being left to the actors, it seems, to take a more defensive approach. I thought that reaction [to the trailer] was absolutely ludicrous, Ian McKellen fumed in an interview this week, going on to declare the finished film an absolute classic. I can tell those doubters whove only seen snippets of a trailer that theyre absolutely wrong, and if they dont agree with me, then keep away. Hoopers more measured let the audience decide line is harder to argue with. Never a film made for critics, and with its awards-season hopes looking ever leaner, Cats will be counting on a vast, breathless public one both uninformed of and uninterested in its production and scheduling complications to make those sleepless nights worthwhile.

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Ben Berman set out to tell the story of a magician confronting death, but his subjects disappearing acts and competing documentary crews gave his film a mysterious magic of its own

It is dark outside and I am sitting alone at home, a silent phone to my ear. I had been promised that I would finally get to speak to the man known to his fans and friends as the Amazing Johnathan, but the minutes tick past and the streetlamps come on outside my window. In his heyday, the Amazing Johnathan was earning $3m a year and had a stage charisma as outsized as his tricks, which included appearing to snort an entire jar of cocaine, and seeming to plunge a spike through his tongue. But tonight, as the PR tries frantically to put my call through to him, there is only silence at the other end of the phone. The Amazing Johnathan has disappeared.

Yeah, welcome to my club, laughs Ben Berman when I tell him about my failure to speak to the man born John Edward Szeles. Berman is the director and co-star of The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, which has already been compared to Catfish and Exit Through the Giftshop, which is pretty impressive, given this is Bermans first feature-length movie. But perhaps the most impressive thing is that he was ever able to film the Amazing Johnathan at all.

There were so many times when I was supposed to film in Vegas, or wed agree to be in this state on that day and then it turned out that he and his wife were out of town that weekend. It was really hard, Berman says. Yet he spent two and a half years with the Amazing Johnathan. How could he bear being toyed with like this?

I like his sensibility, all that darkness and irreverence. There were many problems caused by him, and as painful as it was, I knew it would be valuable for my film, Berman says.

It is fortunate for Berman that he was able to see the bright side because to say the magician caused him many problems is like saying Noah and his ark encountered some bad weather.

Originally, Berman set out to make a short, straight film about the Amazing Johnathan, now aged 61, confronting his mortality. Since the 1980s, the Amazing Johnathan had been a staple on American TV, making guest appearances on talkshows where he would do tricks such as appear to swallow his own eyeball. He was fun and funny, not cheesy like David Copperfield but not po-faced like David Blaine. At the beginning of this century he landed highly lucrative gigs in Las Vegas, and his wild-eyed, leonine face stared out from billboards across the Vegas strip.

I lived in Vegas in 2005 for a few months and Id see the Amazing Johnathan in adverts out there, says Louis Theroux, a fan of Bermans documentary. There are certain people like that in Vegas magicians, hypnotists, singers and you think, are these people famous anywhere else? But he obviously wasnt a normal magician.

Then, in 2014, the Amazing Johnathan disappeared.

I was told I have a year to live, he announced during a talk that year. The audience, assuming this is another of his pranks, start to laugh, but he stops them: Not a joke, he says, his voice cracking.

But after three years of waiting to die at home, the Amazing Johnathan was still alive and desperate to return to the stage. That was when Berman turned up. Except, as he captures in his movie, that is when the problems started. Because, as well as the difficulty of trying to film the Amazing Johnathan who is either awol or smoking crystal meth in his bedroom it turns out there are two, or maybe three, other documentarians also making a movie about the Amazing Johnathan.

On top of that, Berman begins to wonder if the Amazing Johnathan is dying at all. After all, the evidence is right in front of us, lying in the pool, high on meth, three years after he was given a year to live. A friend warns Berman: Can you trust anything a magician says?

Berman increasingly turns the film on himself, asking why he wants to make this documentary anyway, and whether he is disappointed that maybe the Amazing Johnathan isnt dying, and, if so, what does that say about him? He also confronts the other documentary crews.

John Edward Szeles, AKA the Amazing Johnathan, in a still from Ben Bermans documentary.

When you make a documentary, you are often aware of a journalist or director circling the same subject, and you either abandon the subject or ignore it. But you definitely dont feature the other team, says Theroux. Im in favour of showing things youre not supposed to see, like sound recorders, or someone tripping. But saying youre having to work around other crews, thats amazing. So I thought it was very bold of Ben and we get the sense of Johnathan as this supreme hustler and rogue.

To say any more would commit hideous spoilers, but lets just say that much remains unexplained including, most notably, whether Berman smokes meth with the Amazing Johnathan when the magician makes that a condition of them continuing to make their film.

Well, you dont see me do it, so legally were in the clear! Berman laughs. Such a big theme of the movie is trying to determine whats truth and whats illusion, and there are still some things I dont know. So Im going to stay cryptic on that.

Berman also asks himself if there is something in his past that draws him towards this (possibly) dying magician, and so, with Johnathan now apparently out of the picture, he interviews his own, utterly delightful father, Doug.

When Ben pointed the camera at me, I was thinking why would anyone be interested in me, and that the project could be ill-fated. But he was able to tell a very entertaining story with it! Doug tells me by email.

Endearingly, Doug edits my questions during our interview to avoid spoiling some of the plot for your readers. It is reminiscent of how his son deconstructs his own documentary as he is creating it, unpicking the morality of documentaries such as the one he is making.

I realised pretty early on that the movie was taking on a structure that wasnt traditional and, instead of seeing that as a negative, I decided to lean into it. I like that it became a documentary about documentaries, says Berman.

Berman says his influences in the film range from Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) to Andrew Jareckis All Good Things, with its twist of a final act. Theroux mentions Michael Rubbos Waiting for Fidel, in which the subject of the documentary never turns up, as well as Nick Broomfields Driving Me Crazy, in which the documentarian is repeatedly frustrated in his effort to make the film he wants to, about a musical show in Munich.

Sometimes it takes a non doc person to bring something to the genre that refreshes it. Like with Anvil!, which Sasha Gervasi made, and you can see that hes not a documentarian but a feature-film writer looking for a third act, says Theroux.

As Berman says, much remains opaque by the end of the film, and just as I am thinking the Amazing Johnathan will remain mysterious to me, after various failed connections, I suddenly find myself speaking to him late one night.

I like the documentary, dont get me wrong, but its not really about me its more about Ben, says the distinctive irascible voice down the line.

But why did he have so many documentary crews following him around? Was that just to mess with Ben?

Well, no one yet has made the documentary I want! And wouldnt you want as many documentaries as possible? he replies, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

He is not, he says, going to die any time soon, which makes me look like a big liar, but Im not.

Shouldnt he stop smoking all that meth if hes so ill?

Im not going to stop taking drugs now because Im dying thats the stupidest fucking reason ever to quit drugs! he barks.

The Amazing Johnathan has to go to the doctor now so I ask one last question: why has it been so hard for me to get hold of him?

Oh I just got the time wrong before, he says.

Sometimes the mysterious truth turns out to be wholly prosaic.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is released in the UK on 19 November. Louis Theroux will host a Q&A screening of the film on that date, to be simulcast nationwide across the UK

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Mark Lewisohn knows the Fab Four better than they knew themselves. The experts tapes of their tense final meetings shed new light on Abbey Road and inspired a new stage show

The Beatles werent a group much given to squabbling, says Mark Lewisohn, who probably knows more about them than they knew about themselves. But then he plays me the tape of a meeting held 50 years ago this month on 8 September 1969 containing a disagreement that sheds new light on their breakup.

Theyve wrapped up the recording of Abbey Road, which would turn out to be their last studio album, and are awaiting its release in two weeks time. Ringo Starr is in hospital, undergoing tests for an intestinal complaint. In his absence, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison convene at Apples HQ in Savile Row. John has brought a portable tape recorder. He puts it on the table, switches it on and says: Ringo you cant be here, but this is so you can hear what were discussing.

Challenging conventional wisdom Fab Four writer-historian Mark Lewisohn

What they talk about is the plan to make another album and perhaps a single for release in time for Christmas, a commercial strategy going back to the earliest days of Beatlemania. Its a revelation, Lewisohn says. The books have always told us that they knew Abbey Road was their last album and they wanted to go out on an artistic high. But no theyre discussing the next album. And you think that John is the one who wanted to break them up but, when you hear this, he isnt. Doesnt that rewrite pretty much everything we thought we knew?

Lewisohn turns the tape back on, and we hear John suggesting that each of them should bring in songs as candidates for the single. He also proposes a new formula for assembling their next album: four songs apiece from Paul, George and himself, and two from Ringo If he wants them. John refers to the Lennon-and-McCartney myth, clearly indicating that the authorship of their songs, hitherto presented to the public as a sacrosanct partnership, should at last be individually credited.

Then Paul sounding, shall we say, relaxed responds to the news that George now has equal standing as a composer with John and himself by muttering something mildly provocative. I thought until this album that Georges songs werent that good, he says, which is a pretty double-edged compliment since the earlier compositions hes implicitly disparaging include Taxman and While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Theres a nettled rejoinder from George: Thats a matter of taste. All down the line, people have liked my songs.

The Beatles Abbey Road album Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy

John reacts by telling Paul that nobody else in the group dug his Maxwells Silver Hammer, a song theyve just recorded for Abbey Road, and that it might be a good idea if he gave songs of that kind which, John suggests, he probably didnt even dig himself to outside artists in whom he had an interest, such as Mary Hopkin, the Welsh folk singer. I recorded it, a drowsy Paul says, because I liked it.

A mapping of the tensions that would lead to the dissolution of the most famous and influential pop group in history is part of Hornsey Road, a teasingly titled stage show in which Lewisohn uses tape, film, photographs, new audio mixes of the music and his own matchless fund of anecdotes and memorabilia to tell the story of Abbey Road, that final burst of collective invention.

The album is now so mythologised that the humdrum zebra crossing featured on its celebrated cover picture is now officially listed as site of special historic interest; a webcam is trained on it 24 hours a day, observing the comings and goings of fans from every corner of the world, infuriating passing motorists as these visitors pause to take selfies, often in groups of four, some going barefoot in imitation of Pauls enigmatic gesture that August morning in 1969.

George Harrison and John Lennon recording Let It Be. Photograph: Daily Sketch/Rex/Shutterstock

Its a story of the people, the art, the people around them, the lives they were leading, and the break-up, Lewisohn says. The show comes midway through his writing of The Beatles: All These Years, a magnum opus aiming to tell the whole story in its definitive version. The first volume, Tune In, was published six years ago, its mammoth 390,000-word narrative ending just before their first hit. (All the heft of the Old Testament, the Observers Kitty Empire wrote, with greater forensic rigour.)

Constant demands to know when Turn On (covering 1963-66) and Drop Out (1967-69) might appear are met with a sigh: Im 61, and Ive got 14 or 15 years left on these books. Ill be in my mid-70s when I finish. Time is of the essence, he adds, perhaps thinking of the late John Richardsons uncompleted multi-volume Picasso biography. This two-hour show is a way of buying the time for him to dive back into the project.

For 30 years, Lewisohn has been the man to call when you needed to know what any of the Fab Four was doing on almost any day of their lives, and with whom they were doing it. His books include a history of their sessions at what were then known as the EMI Recording Studios in Abbey Road, and he worked on the vast Anthology project in the 90s.

The idea for a stage show was inspired by an invitation from a university in New Jersey to be the keynote speaker at a three-day symposium on the Beatles White Album, then celebrating its golden jubilee. His presentation, called Double Lives, juxtaposed the making of the album and the lives they were leading as individuals outside the studio. It took several weeks to put together, and I thought, This is mad I should be doing this more than once to get more people to see it.

Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney in the studio. Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

The next anniversary to present itself was that of Abbey Road, which took place during a crowded year in which Paul married Linda Eastman, John and Yoko went off on their bed-ins for peace, Georges marriage to Pattie Boyd was breaking up, and they were all involved in side projects. John had released Give Peace a Chance as the Plastic Ono Band and George had been spending time in Woodstock with Bob Dylan.

John also took Yoko and their two children, Kyoko and Julian, on a sentimental road trip to childhood haunts in Liverpool, Wales and the north of Scotland, ending when he drove their Austin Maxi into a ditch while trying to avoid another car. Brian Epstein, their manager, had died the previous year and the idealism that had fuelled the founding of their Apple company Its like a top, John said. We set it going and hope for the best was starting to fray badly. Other business concerns such as their song-publishing copyrights, which had been sold without their knowledge led to a war between Allen Klein, the hard-boiled New York record industry veteran invited by John to sort it out, and John Eastman, Lindas father, a top lawyer brought in by Paul to safeguard his interests.

Lewisohn has the minutes of another business meeting, this time at Olympic Studios, where the decision to ratify Kleins appointment was approved by three votes to one (Paul), the first time the Beatles had not spoken with unanimity. It was the crack in the Liberty Bell, Paul said. It never came back together after that one. Ringo and George just said, whatever John does, were going with. I was actually trying, in my mind, to save our future.

And yet Lewisohn challenges the conventional wisdom that 1969 was the year in which they were at each others throats, storming out of the recording sessions filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg for the verit-style movie Let It Be, and barely on speaking terms. During the making of Abbey Road, says Lewisohn, they were in an almost entirely positive frame of mind. They had this uncanny ability to leave their problems at the studio door not entirely, but almost.

In fact, Abbey Road was not the only recording location for the album: earlier sessions were held at Olympic in Barnes and Trident in Soho. And Lewisohns creation is called Hornsey Road because that, in other circumstances, is what the album might have been titled, had EMI not abandoned its plans to turn a converted cinema in that rather grittier part of north London into its venue for pop recording.

The show, Lewisohn believes, is the first time an album has been treated to this format. People will be able to listen with more layers and levels of understanding, he says. When you go to an art gallery, you hope that someone, an expert, will tell you what was happening when the artist painted a particular picture. With these songs, Im going to show the stories behind them and the people who made them, and what they were going through at the time. Certainly, no one who sees this show will ever hear Abbey Road in the same way again.

Hornsey Road is at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, on 18 September and touring until 4 December.

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Standup comedian also takes aim at callout culture that sees public figures held to account by audiences

Dave Chappelle has come under fire for his latest Netflix special in which he claims he does not believe Michael Jackson sexually assaulted young boys, and makes jokes at the expense of Jacksons accusers.

In a standup set that seemed designed to provoke precisely the backlash that it was critiquing, Chappelle took aim at a prevailing callout culture that sees celebrities being held to account by audiences and in the media for perceived or actual crimes and for the offensive things they say.

He talked at length about the allegations of sexual assault against Jackson, who died in 2009, made by James Safechuck and Wade Robson in the HBO/Channel 4 documentary, Leaving Neverland.

Chappelle described the allegations in detail before complaining about the graphic descriptions in the documentary itself, and then said he didnt believe Jacksons accusers because actor Macaulay Culkin, who also spent time with Jackson as a child, hadnt made accusations of his own.

Acknowledging that he was saying something that Im not allowed to say, Chappelle also joked about how making such statements made him a victim blamer.

If somebody come up to me like, Dave, Dave, Chris Brown just beat up Rihanna! Id be like, Well, what did she do? Dave! Michael Jackson was molesting children! Well, what were those kids wearing at the time? he said.

But you know what, even if he did do it its Michael Jackson. I know more than half the people in this room have been molested in their lives. But it wasnt no goddamn Michael Jackson, was it?

Chappelle also compared the Jackson allegations with those made by multiple women against singer R Kelly, which he said he did believe.

Robson and Safechuck, Jacksons accusers, responded to the comedians set, with Robson saying: He can say whatever he wants. It reveals him, not us.

Robsons lawyer Vince Finaldi said of Chappelle: Its unfortunate that he has chosen to use his platform to shame sexual abuse victims, and spread his ignorance of sexual abuse and the way it is perpetrated upon children, in an attempt to resurrect his career.

Sticks & Stones is Chappelles third Netflix special, the first two of which were also widely criticised for their apparent homophobia and transphobia.

Chappelle appeared to predict the backlash to Sticks & Stones, which was released this week, suggesting in the set that such backlash was the reason his public appearances were few and far between.

Thats why I dont be coming out doing comedy all the time, he said. Im goddamn sick of it. This is the worst time ever to be a celebrity. Youre gonna be finished. Everyones doomed.

Later, he said: Doesnt matter what I say. And if you at home watching this shit on Netflix, remember bitch, you clicked on my face. Celebrity hunting season. Doesnt matter what I say, theyre gonna get everybody eventually. Like look, I dont think I did anything wrong, but well see.

John Branca, an executor of the Jackson estate, told TMZ he agreed with Chappelle.

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Prince oversaw such landmark musicals as Cabaret, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera

Harold Prince, a Broadway director and producer who pushed the boundaries of musical theater with such groundbreaking shows as The Phantom of the Opera, Cabaret, Company and Sweeney Todd and won a staggering 21 Tony awards, has died. He was 91.

Princes publicist, Rick Miramontez, said the theater legend died on Wednesday after a brief illness, in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Prince, known as Hal, was famous for his fluid, cinematic directors touch and was unpredictable and uncompromising in his choice of stage material.

He often picked challenging, offbeat subjects to musicalize, such as a murderous, knife-wielding barber who baked his victims in pies or the 19th-century opening of Japan to the west.

Along the way, he helped create some of Americas most enduring musical hits, first as a producer of such shows as The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof. He later became a director, overseeing such landmark musicals as Cabaret, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, reached by phone on Wednesday, said it was impossible to overestimate the importance of Prince to musical theater.

All of modern musical theater owes practically everything to him, he said. Lloyd Webber recalled that, as a young man, he had written the music for the flop Jeeves and was feeling low. Prince wrote him a letter urging him not to be discouraged. The two men later met and Lloyd Webber said he was thinking of next doing a musical about Evita Peron. Prince told him to bring it to him first. That was game-changing for me. Without that, I often wonder where I would be, Lloyd Webber said.

Prince worked with some of the best-known composers and lyricists in musical theater, including Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and, most notably, Stephen Sondheim.

I dont do a lot of analyzing of why I do something, he once said in an interview. Its all instinct.

Only rarely, he said, did he take on an idea just for the money, and they probably were bad ideas in the first place.

Theater is not about that. It is about creating something. The fact that some of my shows have done so well is sheer luck.

During his more than 50-year career, Prince received a record 21 Tony awards, including two special Tonys one in 1972 when Fiddler became Broadways then longest-running musical, and another in 1974 for a revival of Candide. He also was a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor.

He earned a reputation as a detail-heavy director. Barbara Cook in her memoir Then & Now wrote: I admire him greatly, but he also did not always make things easy, for one basic reason: he wants to direct every detail of your performance down to the way you crook your pinky finger.

A musical about the director called Prince of Broadway opened in Japan in 2015 featuring songs from many of the shows that made him famous. It landed on Broadway in 2017.

It was with Sondheim, who was the lyricist for West Side Story, that Prince developed his most enduring creative relationship. He produced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), the first Broadway show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics.

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