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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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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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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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They have left millions boggled with their graceful card acts, great escapes and audacious stunts. But can The Illusionists make magics fusty reputation vanish?

Our instinct when watching magicians is to focus on the hands, in the vain hope we may spot their secrets. But to really understand an acts style, look at the eyes. Take three of The Illusionists, the global magic supergroup that started in 2012 and has an ever-morphing lineup. South Koreas Yu Ho-jin, billed as the Manipulator, has the dreamy gaze of a lover, with the slightest raise of an eyebrow while he caresses his cards. Britains James More, the Showman, favours a frowning sideways glance, as if even he is perplexed by how he manages to escape from among other scenarios a rack of fiery daggers. And Frenchman Enzo the Unforgettable Weyne, whom we see stretching his hands through a steel wall, has eyes that flash with childlike wonder at his audacious stunts.

When I meet the three of them, before they start a London residency with four of the other Illusionists, they all remember putting on shows as children. Plenty of kids get a magic set for Christmas but Weynes didnt end up at the back of the toy cupboard. Instead, he realised: OK, its my future. At 11 he started to build his first stage illusion with his girlfriend. He wields an imaginary saw and laughs at the memory. Soon after leaving school he combined his interests in engineering and architecture to forge a full-time career in magic.

Growing up in South Korea, Yu Ho-jin didnt know that magic even existed until a friend showed him a trick. He assumed his friend had some sort of special powers and was disappointed when he was shown how it worked. Soon, he was creating his own.

I didnt know that magic even existed Yu Ho-jin. Photograph: Joan Marcus

More had started out obsessed with the circus. His mum bought him a stick and a spinning plate, he learned how to juggle, and when his school put on a talent show, he took an old shoebox and came up with a magic trick to complete the act. I called myself James the Dramatic Juggler, he says with childhood pride. The trick involved a deck of cards, a piece of Blu Tack and a crafty flap. But no one could tell how hed done it. The adults didnt know. That was a powerful thing for me, he explains. Suddenly the adults didnt have the answers.

They still dont. When I saw The Illusionists, I was surrounded by beaming, boggled expressions, not least during a trick performed en masse by the audience. On arrival you are handed a sealed envelope containing cards and, during the show, the host asks you to open it up and follow instructions. The trick takes place just before the interval and you could spend all 20 minutes trying to figure it out.

Weyne likes to think of his act as a game between the magician and the audience. A sort of meta-magician, he performs a trick, shows the audience how he did it, then adds an extra twist. Yu lets the cards and sometimes coins speak for themselves. For me, your magic is pure, Weyne tells him. There is certainly poetry in the sleight of hand he practises with his long, elegant fingers. Dressed as a matinee idol with a silk scarf, he makes his cards multiply and vanish. Growing up, he would practise for 13 hours a day. As a teenager, he witnessed the international success of Koreas breakthrough magician Lee Eun-gyeol. It created a huge boom he says. I am one of the people who followed him.

How did the other two learn their trade? Weyne says he never bought a book or DVD he dreamed up his own ideas from the start. More spent his weekends in a magic shop in his home town of Bournemouth. I used to sit in there for hours. The guy behind the counter, Mike Danata, would demonstrate the tricks to customers. Then hed teach me. More went to magic clubs and conventions and never wanted to do anything else, he says. A teacher told him theres no such thing as Hogwarts, so he trained as a dancer and performed in holiday parks around the south coast, sometimes sleeping in a tent on the side of the road. With The Illusionists he performs to arena-size audiences of thousands, with three big screens showing close-ups of the tricks. Its a slick and rousing night of entertainment, if at times cheesy too. In a West End theatre, the staging promises to be rather more intimate.

A game between the magician and the audience Enzo Weyne. Photograph: Patrik Ratajsky

The seven-strong London lineup features other stars such as the Futurist Adam Trent and the Trickster Paul Dabek, but there isnt a single woman among them. More acknowledges that it is still a very male-dominated artform. When I grew up and was in the young magicians club it was all young boys. Much like I suppose football used to be. The traditional roles offered to women limited them to scantily clad assistants or, like Weynes childhood girlfriend, a body to be sawn in two. The Magic Circle, an international society founded in 1905, did not admit female magicians until 1991. Only around 100 of the Magic Circles 1,500 members in the UK are women. Things are changing, says More, but were still yet to see a boom in women taking up the art of magic. The shows resident director is Hollie England, a former dancer in magic shows and musical theatre. She says a new wave of female magicians are coming through, and points out that previous lineups of The Illusionists have included Josephine Lee and Sabine van Diemen.

Is magics fusty, outdated image about to do a disappearing act? The Illusionists will open in Londons West End just up the road from the triumphant Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, whose breathtaking moments of magic are a considerable part of its appeal. The wildly successful Mischief Theatre company will open their magic show, co-created with Penn & Teller, this winter. Entitled Magic Goes Wrong, it promises comically bungled tricks as well as ones that work.

All three of the Illusionists I meet have grown up in the online age. More, at 30, is the oldest. The internet has been invaluable for building their fanbase Mores tricks on Britains Got Talent, some of which feature in The Illusionists, went viral. (In one he spins on a giant spike before seemingly being impaled.) But I wonder if the internet also makes it harder for them to protect their secrets. A lot of magicians were worried about this, says Yu. But even if people know how the trick works, they come to see the show. They are still curious. And the feeling of being curious is connected to being happy. They love to see the magic. This generation knows, it doesnt really matter how it works. Its like music.

  • The Illusionists is at the Shaftesbury theatre, London, 6 July to 1 September.

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These late 17th-century plays with their sea of unfamiliar words can be daunting for actors. But this disillusioned world speaks to our own age of uncertainty

Its the most terrified Ive ever been on stage, Justine Mitchell says flatly. The Irish actor shudders at the thought of the elegant romcoms of the Restoration. She has triumphed over all kinds of dramatic challenges Russian epics, Trump-era satire but shes not alone in her uneasiness. Everyone I speak to admits to an apprehensive frisson in approaching plays from the foptastic, periwigalicious world of the late 17th century.

Restoration plays come from the reign of Charles II and his immediate successors (roughly 1660-1710). In the wrenching aftermath of Britains civil wars and of Londons great plague and fire, its a disillusioned world. The fundamentals of church and state seem up for grabs; London is greedily expanding; marriage is misery but strangers are dangers. Ever worry about getting paid, getting laid or finding love? Does social anxiety prickle your palms? Do you despair of a world slipping its moorings? Restoration drama may speak to you.

For actors, the challenge involves excavating what initially seems forbiddingly unfamiliar speech and behaviour. Restoration tragedy swirls classical severity with turbulent emotion. Most enduring is Thomas Otways Venice Preserved (1682), a tragedy of broken promises, public and private. In a crumbling Venice, the callous senate provokes conspiracy, and loyalties buckle under the strain.

Prasanna Puwanarajah. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Venice Preservedattracts devotees, including Harold Pinter, who once planned a production, and Prasanna Puwanarajah, who is directing it for the RSC. Puwanarajah (also an actor whose troubled charm ripples through Dr Foster and Mum) first encountered it when applying for a directing award. It had an acting folklore about it one of the key first plays written for a female performer as a tragic lead. Its a series of superb two-handed scenes, exhilarating, charged and wholly committed.

Yet when he pitched the play, theatres were not queuing round the block, he says wryly. One response from a not insignificant person at a not insignificant theatre was, Ah, Venice Preserved. The directors graveyard. He giggles. I dont give a shit about that. I just want it to be an exciting, expressive thing to watch. Im only really interested in audiences.

Im an audience of one at an early rehearsal in the RSCs London studios. Its one of those intense two-handed scenes, with Jodie McNees tormented heroine begging her estranged father Les Dennis in uncharacteristically sombre casting to save her husbands life. The mood is thoughtful. Puwanarajah, dressed in inky tones but with a neon lick from his emerald socks, prises apart the rhetoric, suggests tiny movements, shares family stories and ideas about PTSD. McNee looks pale as the grave, hoop earrings shivering with emphasis. Theres loads going on, isnt there? she says.

Like all great plays, its never not in season, Puwanarajah says over coffee after rehearsal. Since I started working on it, eight years ago, the world has arrived at the play which is about dangerous idiots in power. Politically, Otways murky noir seems disenchanted neither the conspirators nor their aristocratic targets emerge with credibility. It is much closer to Scorsese all the cops are robbers, and all the robbers are cops. Otways not as interested in those elements as he is in the people. Venice Preserved is a thriller set in a political dimension, but hes writing about abandonment, poverty, the safety of a near-miraculous relationship and how fundamentally brittle and frail that is in a dangerous world.

Justine Mitchell and Nicholas Le Prevost in Love for Love in 2015 at the Swan theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

As a child of the 1980s, Puwanarajah will draw on the culture that shaped him. When I started directing, all of my cultural references were cartoons that I watched as a kid. Then I realised that this play reminded me of the arch clarity of those experiences people under profound duress, sensing their decline being charted by the decline of a city or state, and feeling they need to intervene. Either thats romanticism or its DC Comics. The result, he says, is what might happen if Blade Runner was set in Venice. You move into the future, then freeze-frame that for 50 years and let everything get old and shit. He and his cast find it oddly clear, he says. Its not that the play is hard, its that the humans are hard complicated and real.

If Otways tragic language lands with emotive force, the giddy wits of Restoration comedies are all feint and parry. These social plays run on adulteries and marriage contracts, on booze, banter and the bottom line, and actors must master speech that bristles with self-awareness. Its language weaponised, argues Justine Mitchell, wicked linguistic predation. The characters live in the language, they are defined by what they say language is their armour.

All they have is what they wear and what they say, agrees her fellow actor Fisayo Akinade. They appeared together in the Donmars thrillingly serious production of William Congreves The Way in the World (1700) last year; Mitchell previously starred in Love for Love (1695), also by Congreve, at the RSC. Congreves speeches sting and swivel unpredictably. Its a sea of words, complains Akinade, I found it incredibly hard to learn.

A sea of words Fisayo Akinade, Christian Patterson and Simon Manyonda in The Way of the World at the Donmar, directed by James Macdonald. Photograph: Johan Persson

Mitchell recalls a helpful note from James Macdonald, their director at the Donmar: Impress each other. These characters try to dazzle whenever they speak. Congreves so funny, Mitchell insists. And he knew that women could be funny and then everyone forgot. The Restoration saw Britains first-ever professional actresses, and both Otway and Congreve helped them shine. As Millamant, the vigilant heiress in The Way of the World, Mitchell said she could only let her guard drop for a couple of seconds. The characters are trapped inside these versions theyve created for themselves. Akinade, who played the deliciously daft fop Witwoud, agrees: Everyone is playing a role the entire time. What are they like when they arent being observed? When the fop is at home and takes his coat off, what is he doing? Probably he just cried. They must have been exhausted.

Easing the actors on to Planet Congreve was movement director Francine Watson Coleman. This is a different socially structured world, where the body is more a mark of fashion, she says. She helps actors cross a bridge to another culture. This is a presentational world they all intend to be looked at and are all looking at each other. It could be cruel its not a pretty world, though it can seem glamorous.

In physical terms, Coleman explains, people have more turnout, an elegant, forward walk. Gestures are more fluid and open. Its a physical repartee as well as a verbal one. Take that archetypal Restoration prop, the fan perfect for dissimulation. Coleman, en route to rehearsal, naturally has one in her bag, and its mischievous shuttle punctuates our conversation. Once I have this in my hand, it gives an extra dimension to what I might want to do, she says. As a lady, its a liberation of a certain kind, a way to have my own opinions locked in physically to a life where I cannot otherwise be at liberty. She goes further: This is the first feminist object.

How does it feel to inhabit those characters on stage? They are so used to talking at a pace, with a billion balls in the air, Akinade marvels. It does take time to get there but when you do its just the most exciting, hilarious thing imaginable. Theres a giddy tickle, youre on the verge of laughing all the time. Mitchell smiles wistfully: I wish I could say the same. I would not run towards another Restoration comedy. Even Akinade admits, I wouldnt want to do one again.

Simon Chandler and Jenny Rainsford in The Double Dealer, directed by Selina Cadell at the Orange Tree theatre. Photograph: Robert Day

Selina Cadell would disagree. Herself a trenchant actor, performance is her way into Restoration comedy. When I was at drama school, I thought it was ghastly, she confides, but its the most incredible vehicle. One of very few directors to have staged all of Congreves great comedies (including the RSCs Love for Love and The Double Dealer at the Orange Tree), she declares, Its extraordinary how dextrous his language is, its stunning like music.

There was no hiding from the audience in well-lit Restoration theatres (some lucky bucks would sit on the stage), and Cadells productions embrace that theatrical charge. The language demands the intimacy of talking to the audience its like lighting a firework. Yet these texts do intimidate actors how does Cadell calm their jitters? When we first meet I ask, How do you feel about talking to the audience? Then its all in the language. Youre inviting the audience in. We take the cork out of the bottle and you get champagne. As Mitchell recalls, You conspire with the audience, and its delicious. People would talk back to us at the RSC.

Restoration plays rear their periwigged heads every decade or so. They spoke to 1960s sexual freedoms and 1980s materialism, and offer a hand to our own age of uncertainty. But in performance their energy comes from the spark between everyone in the space, actors and spectators alike. I want the audience to understand their involvement from the word go, Cadell confirms, theyre not behind a fourth wall. What matters is what happens in the room. It changes every night sometimes its a riot.

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On a bus in the West Bank, fearing for our lives, this 13-year-old boy taught me the true power of empathy, says the playwright and actor Tariq Jordan

As an actor and storyteller, I always felt that I was an extremely sympathetic person. That was a source of pride. But a couple of years ago I realised my sympathy was, in fact, pointless. It was devoid of any value whatsoever. My sympathy allowed me to merely sit as a spectator in the arena of human struggles. It achieved little for others. What I needed was to re-engage with something I had forgotten how to do: empathise.

In 2014 I found myself travelling along the West Bank on a coach with about 30 young Palestinians. This journey was full of music and dance. Darbukas and dabkes. And I was involved. It was impossible not to be. That is what empathy is. Feeling with others and not for them. But along this journey, that empathy turned quite suddenly to sympathy. Our bus had to pass a roadblock guarded by Israel Defence Forces soldiers. Guns were pointed at our driver and he was forced to halt the bus, throwing the younger members of the group 10 feet down the aisle. As we all scrambled to our seats, I immediately sat next to a young Palestinian boy of 13.

One of the IDF soldiers entered the bus and shouted at us for paperwork, permits and identification. As we sat silently, staring down the barrel of his gun, the 13-year-old boy sitting next to me turned and asked if I was all right. I simply nodded. He smiled at me and said: Dont worry, it will all be fine. I suddenly felt rather embarrassed. Embarrassed that a 30-year-old man was being comforted by a child.

The soldier began walking along the bus and at that moment I needed to feel good about myself. So what did I do? I acknowledged my sympathy. I felt for this kid sat next to me. I reminded myself no child should have to stare down the barrel of a gun. I reminded myself no child should have to feel the fear of death. I reminded myself this was all so wrong. And I ultimately reminded myself that my sympathy did nothing for my 13-year-old companion.

This lad looked to me again and observed that I was nervous. Smile, it will help! he said before asking for my passport. I didnt even question giving my British passport to a 13-year-old child. He placed the passport visibly on my lap and said something that made me realise my sympathy was futile. This is Kryptonite, remember that. The soldier arrived at my seat and pointed his gun in my young friends face, while the boy showed a stoicism that I did not know existed in children. The soldier then clocked my passport, and lo and behold, he moved on. Kryptonite.

I am often reminded of that young boy whenever I see news of the destructive events happening in the region. All I can think is: I hope he is still smiling. I thank him for helping me to re-engage my own sense of empathy but also for understanding what it means. Empathy is the ability to not be able to switch off the news or put down a newspaper when the suffering of others is so prominent. Empathy is not sitting in the political chambers around the world, talking, but rather doing. Empathy is not turning a blind eye to the destruction of innocence we are seeing in our youth; whether that be a child living in the confines of Gaza, surrounded by nightly airstrikes, or an Israeli child living within the range of Hamas rockets. Empathy forces world leaders to not just condemn with shallow sympathy, but to take action and save our children.

That 13-year-old boy made a choice to feel with me, rather than for me. And that was humiliating for me to acknowledge: that I didnt have that capacity as an adult. But maybe we need to feel humiliated sometimes. Because if a child already possesses that quality, then we as adults need to re-educate ourselves. Children exhibit empathy by putting themselves inside the struggles of others and help to find a way out together. Children realise that empathy spurs us into positive action, sympathy doesnt.

Tariq Jordan is an actor and writer with dual Arab-Muslim and European-Jewish heritage. His play Ali and Dahlia is at the Pleasance Theatre in London, until 14 April

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