On The Avenue

For The Public Theater, The Play’s the Sing

by Ben Diamond Photographed by Jimi Celeste/PMC
Tuesday, June 6, 2017
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Not even the threat of rain could dampen the mood at The Public Theater’s annual gala last night. Titled Hair to Hamilton, the evening paid tribute to 50 years of innovative musicals at The Public, and featured performances of some of the theater’s best loved songs. The evening’s hosts tried their hardest not to jinx the evening: “Thank you for pivoting quickly, and joining us on this day that threatened terrible weather, but—no no, don’t say that!” said Public executive director Patrick Willingham as he stood on the Delacorte Theater’s uncovered stage. But the rain thankfully never came. Outside of a few last minute changes—dinner was cancelled, forcing the theater’s glamorous supports to chow down on hot dogs from the concession stand—the night was a hit, raising a record-breaking $2.8 million for the theater.


“It’s an extraordinary feeling to look back and see show after show after show that has changed our lives and defined American musical theater” said associate artistic director Mandy Hackett. Yet while iconic numbers like “Aquarius,” “Where Do I Go” and “Let the Sunshine In” from Hair; “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line; and “You’ll be Back” and “Burn” from Hamilton may have spoken to the Public’s outsized role in the history of American theater, songs from lesser-known musicals like Runaways, The Fortress of Solitude and Here Lies Love showed that the theater is defined by much more than its few monster hits. Those three musicals—about homeless children, the interracial friendship between two teenagers in 1970s Brooklyn, and the life of Imelda Marcos respectively—showed the wide variety of stories that the Public tells.


“A city is a machine for bringing people together and the theater is a machine for bringing a community together,” said artistic director Oskar Eustis. “A stake in the public theater is, I hope, a stake in New York, a stake in America and a stake in Democracy. That’s what the Public Theater stands for and belongs to. This is your theater.”


True to Eustis’ remarks, politics never entirely left the stage. Plays like Michael Friedman’s Andrew Jackson rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson took on new relevance with lines like:


“When it stops being fun, and your patience is done

And you see being President’s hard

With this country before you that cannot be governed

You find yourself powerless, bloody and scarred”


Some references were more overt. At the end of a number from The Great Immensity, a musical set at a climate change summit, came the sprechgesang addendum that White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney had defunded the National Science Foundation for helping produce the musical, and that President Trump had left the Paris Climate Accord, “so that other countries and leaders wouldn’t laugh at us.”


But the evening’s most political song was, unexpectedly, John Lithgow’s performance of “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from The Pirates of Penzance. In a Michael Flynn brown buzz-cut wig and prosthetic hooked nose, Lithgow sang a modified version replacing “modern major” with “ex-lieutenant,” and substituted the song’s last two verses with ones more suited to our own moment.


“When president Obama made me head of all things clandestine, he realized he’d brought to life a governmental Frankenstein


But then I made a killing in a case of public pillory


By shouting “lock ‘er up!” in my harangue opposing Hillary.


So I was chosen national security advisory


Until I let the crafty Russian secret service hire me.


Now I’ve become the target of a special counsel crime report…


A fate I share with Carter Page with Sessions and with Manafort.


 


“I plead the fifth amendment though the pundits and the press attack


My meeting Jared Kushner in a room with Sergey Kislyak


But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral


I am the very model of an ex- lieutenant general.”


Written by John Lithgow and gala director Dan Sullivan, the song was funny, sad, relevant and technically ambitious—just like the Public.


 




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