Rocky Transition at the Geffen, and The Oh-So Smooth Hamilton
By Paul Birchall
Geffen Playhouse Smacked With Age Discrimination and Disability Lawsuit
It was reported by the Geffen Playhouse as a smooth transition: The 61-year-old Artistic Director Randall Arney, hired to the post in 1999 after having run Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, was stepping aside to pursue directing opportunities, to make room for the 41-year-old Matt Shakman.
Few would have given it a second thought, until Arney slapped the Geffen with an age and disability discrimination lawsuit on Tuesday. Arney’s lawsuit creates a shadow over Shakman’s hiring, though it must be noted that on learning of Arney’s departure, Shakman (before he was approached for the job) wrote Arney a heartfelt letter expressing his sadness and praising Arney’s generosity, his talent and his integrity. That letter is entered in the complaint.
Shakman comes to the position with a fine theatrical pedigree – he’s one of the founders of the award-winning Black Dahlia Theatre, where his work included well remembered productions of Orson’s Shadow and Nocturne. He has also directed a number of Geffen shows (under Arney’s leadership), such as David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People and Joshua Harmon’s hit Bad Jews. However, he’s perhaps better known for his work on TV, as a director for several episodes of Game of Thrones and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Shakman certainly seems a good fit for the Geffen, a theater that straddles the Hollywood nexus of the film and stage business like almost no other company. The press release quotes from Geffen Board Co-Chairs Martha Henderson and Pamela Robinson, who note that Shakman’s “unique artistic vision, coupled with his directorial and entertainment business experience, makes him an outstanding cultural fit for our theater.”
However, Deadline Hollywood is now reporting a rather different take on the transition.
The suit reports that, following the Geffen’s remarkably successful 2015-16 series, Arney was summoned in February, 2017 to a brief meeting with Henderson and Robinson, where he was told that his contract was not going to be renewed, due to “concerns about succession.” Henderson and Robinson subsequently sent a letter to the other Board members, noting that Arney and they had mutually agreed that Arney would transition out “in order to position the theater for the future.”
The document suggests that two events changed the mood of Arney’s tenure at the Geffen: the hiring of Gil Cates, Jr. (son of the theater’s late Producing Director and Board Chair, Gil Cates) as the theater’s Managing Director, and Arney’s manifestation of early stroke-like symptoms of Bell’s Palsy.
The filing claims that the Board offered Arney a six month severance package in exchange for signing a non-disparagement clause, which Arney refused. Instead, on June 28, he filed a discrimination complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (charged with enforcing California’s civil rights laws). According to the complaint, the agency replied immediately with a Notice of Right to Sue.
Among the indications of discrimination, the suit mentions that from Arney’s 55th birthday, the terms of his employment contracts grew shorter (two years with an option to extend one year, which the Geffen executed), until his final contract, in which that extension option was removed. Also, the suit alleges that the theater violated the terms of its own employee handbook by failing to give Arney an annual performance review until 2014. That review was glowing. However, Arney received no performance reviews after that. Finally, the suit alleges, the Geffen created the false narrative (published in the L.A. Times) that Arney agreed to leave in order to pursue other directing opportunities — which Arney says was not part of the discussion prior to or during the brief 10 minute meeting. Arney is requesting punitive damages and attorney fees.
Whatever happens, two things are certain: It is a troubling way for Arney’s tenure to end, and it unfairly tarnishes the introduction of Shakman, who may understandably wish that he had stayed with Game of Thrones. We’ll continue to follow this story and update it as we learn more.
I was all prepared to take a quite cynical approach to Hamilton, which finally opened here in Los Angeles at the Pantages last week — but then I had the good fortune to win the theater critics’ lottery and got to go see it. I won’t lie: Here is a show that lives up to every bloom of the tulipmania-like hype that surrounds it. In a very basic way, the mix of hip hop music, American history, and strong emotional vitality actually serve to move the American musical theater into a truly modern generation.
I have never been a fan of hip hop. And, unlike many of the teenage girls seated in the audience in the row in front of me, my awareness of the music was limited to hearing the soundtrack a couple of times on YouTube. I’m extremely glad I did a bit of homework before I went to the show, though — and if you get a ticket, either by forking out $250-700 at the box office or by winning the daily lottery (or the California lottery, which is pretty much what it takes to afford a ticket) — I have to recommend being familiar with the music before seeing the show. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics are really smart and urgent, and the hip hop rhythms elevate the words to a heightened realism that approaches operatic. It really is that good. But your enjoyment will depend on how familiar you are with the material before sitting down at the theater.
Hamilton also turns out to be the perfect response to our own political era. A line, in the scene taking place right before the Battle of Yorktown, when Michael Luwoye’s driven Alexander Hamilton ripostes with Jordan Donica’s droll Lafayette, “Immigrants! We get the job done!” resulted in a huge ovation from the audience. And the comparison between the honorable men portrayed by Luwoye, Isaiah Johnson’s towering George Washington, and Joshua Henry’s nicely nuanced Aaron Burr and the villains we watch on today’s news — well it’s an odious contrast indeed.
The songs are amazing — I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by the beautifully elegiac “It’s Quiet Uptown,” the perfect summing up of the grief process, as well as by the astonishingly lovely rendition of “Finale,” Solea Pfeiffer’s (as Eliza Hamilton) haunting description of her life after her husband’s murder. Johnson’s wise balladic recitation of George Washington’s farewell address was incredibly moving, and so was the ferocious performance by Emmy Raver-Lampman (as Eliza’s sister Angelica) beautifully limning a hopelessly unrequited love for Hamilton in “Helpless.” And of course Rory O’Malley’s terrifying, Gilbert and Sullivan-y turn as King George III.
For those of us lucky enough to attend opening night, we got an extra treat. At the curtain call, almost the entire original production crew came on stage to join the cast and the swings, including playwright-composer Lin-Manual Miranda, who gave a really touching opening night speech. You can watch it here if you like.
A Pat on Our Back: Thank You, We’ll Take It
It’s been a few weeks, but I still wanted to take a second and recount a nice mention that Stage Raw, this now-venerable site, received in Howlround, the national think tank blog for theater-makers. While referring to a recent national panel meeting of the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations in New Jersey that took place a few months back, reporter Ruth Zamoyta described this site as “the L.A. theater destination” for Los Angeles theater journalism.
The article was a summary of the panel meeting, which explored innovative ways of continuing and adapting the tradition of arts journalism to the modern, post-print context. One of the panelists was our own Steven Leigh Morris, representing LA STAGE Alliance, of which he is the Executive Director. In the piece, Morris described how Stage Raw was created in response to the citywide reduction of theater journalism. We’ve recently celebrated our fourth year and aren’t going anywhere!