October 16, 2018

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So, You’re Going to Call Your Play _____?

So, You’re Going to Call Your Play _____?
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The second and opposite trend, length, is illustrated by such shows as Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915,” or a Diana Oh production that went by “{my lingerie play} 2017: THE CONCERT AND CALL TO ARMS!!!!!!!!!” during its New York run last year.

As if its length weren’t enough, this last title also toys with marks, punctuation and capitalization. Other good examples: the cult musical “[title of show]” and Yasmina Reza’s pithy “‘Art,’” whose quotation marks make it simultaneously generic, specific, questioning and ironic.

The space between too much and not enough is a treacherous one to navigate.

“You don’t want to be so unique as to be vague, like ‘On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,’” said Ryan Cunningham, a musical-theater writer, creative director at the Broadway advertising agency AKA and associate artistic director at Northwestern University’s American Music Theater Project. “I like to think of a show as a product you can pick up, and it’s much easier to pick up a thing than it is to pick up an idea.”

Mr. Cunningham came down harshly on the title of his own 2011 musical, “Next Thing You Know,” which, he said, “is wrapped in vaguery. The opening number is ‘Little Bar on Sullivan Street,’ where the whole show takes place, and that would have been a far superior title than ‘Next Thing You Know,’ which could mean anything and ends up meaning nothing.”

It is quite difficult to find a title that is descriptive and economical, and in that respect Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” may rank among the very best.

Few playwrights, however, can top Tennessee Williams, who could summon a distinctive, sultry hothouse atmosphere in three or four words, as in “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or “Suddenly, Last Summer.” Even his working titles were superb: An early incarnation of “Streetcar” was titled “Interior: Panic” and a draft was “The Passion of a Moth.”

Following Ms. Silverman’s “Collective Rage” on the MCC Theater slate is an encore run by another fortuitously titled show: Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play.”



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