Sunday, May 29, 2011

An Unlikely Subject for a Great Night of Musical Theater...

Ari Hoffman is a young Jewish man with dreams of being a boxing champion. His father, Eli, is a retired cutman with a shady past. They train in the basement of the synagogue where Eli works as a custodian. Eli teaches Ari how to punch, but also hammers into Ari the importance of his Jewish faith.

Ari, like all young men, wants to move beyond what his father can teach him. Without Eli knowing, Ari moves on to a local gym where he impresses Moe Green, a hyper industrious promoter-mogul. Green appreciates the novelty of a boxing Jew and steers Ari towards a quick-buck title shot. Ari craves stardom, but there are volcanic conflicts at the Hoffman house. The title bout is scheduled on one of the holiest days of the year for Jewish people. Ari is told that fighting on such a day is “a sin against God.”

After the big fight, Ari undergoes a major crisis of faith. As Bob Dylan once sang, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” But Ari doesn’t know whom to serve.

This heavy scenario is the plot of Cutman, a boxing musical, performed last May and June at Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theater in Chester, Connecticut. The show, which producers hope will hit Broadway in 2012, is the brainchild of three young men: writer/director Jared Coseglia, composer Drew Brody, and actor/writer Cory Grant. The roots of the project go back to an unlikely source.

“It started when we saw The Contender TV series back in ’06,” Coseglia told The Ring. “The show was all about what happened behind the scenes. It was the first time I had an emotional, empathetic moment about boxers. Something about the backstory of these fighters, and seeing how they sacrificed, how they were just trying to feed their families, and how they didn’t come from privilege, was really moving for me.

“I knew I wanted to write a play about a boxer. But that wasn’t enough. It had to be something that was close and personal to us. We had all grown up Jews, with varying depths of faith, and we wondered what would happen when someone who was deeply faithful was confronted by an opportunity to have their dreams come true. What happens when those two things are in conflict? That was the germ and genesis of the play.”

Another ingredient was Coseglia’s fascination with hip-hop and R&B music.

“That type of music had not really become popular on Broadway. Since boxing and hip-hop are so intertwined, we knew the music had to be there. The characters in the play sort of reflect the music they listen to. The father, Eli, listened to classic rock, Joe Cocker, Three Dog Night, so his songs were written to fit his background. Ari is younger, probably listens to Justin Timberlake, Usher. There’s a song called “Killer Instinct,” where Ari’s trainer tries to teach the nice Jewish boy to be a killer, and that’s probably the hardest hip-hop thing in the show. I'd love for some hip-hop artist to cover it.”

While contemporary Jewish fighters such as Yuri Foreman and Dmitriy Salita might seem obvious sources of inspiration, Coseglia maintains their main influence was on the wardrobe department. “If you notice, Yuri and Dmitriy dress like old European men, with sweaters, hats, baggy pants. That was a major influence, esthetically speaking,” Coseglia said.

Coseglia added that Salita hasn’t been particularly supportive.

“Salita is uncomfortable supporting this play, because he would never fight on Yom Kippur, which is a turning point in the story,” Coseglia said. “See, what makes Ari a ticket seller is not his talent, but his identity. For me, it’s something akin to who Dmitriy Salita is, as a person, a Jew, and as a boxer, and how it relates to ticket sales, and how he leverages all of those things in order to be successful. But what happens when success is offered to you, in exchange for the principles you’ve held dear your whole life? Dmitriy is not willing to go there.”

For those wondering, Cutman isn’t merely The Jazz Singer rehashed.

“You have to know what everyone else has done about Jews who have been conflicted. We researched everything to make sure we didn’t do the same thing,” said Coseglia.

“It’s more than just a boxing story,” said New York stage veteran and Tony award nominee Robert Cuccioli, who plays Eli. “It’s a family story; it’s a religious journey, with many layers to it. The music is amazing. The lyrics are amazing. The book has heart to it. I think people will walk away from it fulfilled, and very touched.”

“It’s a show that women can bring their husbands and sons to,” said Grant, who stars as Ari. “We had a goal. The show wasn’t going to be for the average theater going audience. Because of the sports theme, because of the contemporary music, it was going to reach a wider group.”

This is assuming that theater goers have been pining for a boxing musical. Historically, audiences haven’t flocked to them. There was Seeing Stars, a short-lived 1937 romantic comedy that featured songs and a boxing theme. There also was a 1958 Broadway dud called The Body Beautiful which collapsed in its corner after 60 performances. But if the backers of Cutman need a beacon, they can turn to Golden Boy, the 1964 Broadway smash that starred Sammy Davis Jr.

Golden Boy is usually considered a Broadway curiosity - boxers singing and dancing? Sammy Davis? - but in its day it battled along on Broadway for 18 months, earning four Tony Award nominations. A 2002 revival (with fight choreography by former middleweight contender Michael Olajide) inspired the New York Times' Ben Brantley to wonder how this “cobwebbed period piece” could still be so moving, particularly its musical score. “Golden Boy rings with the sounds of the anger, skepticism, and high-flying hope of black Americans in 1960's Harlem, feeling the rumble of the swelling civil rights movement down south,” Brantley wrote.

The source of Golden Boy was the 1937 drama of the same name by playwright Clifford Odets. The original play focused on a young, Italian-American who boxes to pay his way through medical school. The sad story ends with a climactic ring death. Odets captured the immigrant experience, the machinations of the boxing business, and the conflict within decent people who fight for a living, all in one tidy, three act package. Most boxing dramas since have owed something to Odets' script.

Golden Boy was turned into a 1939 movie starring William Holden. Thanks to late night television of the 1950s, the film became part of the American lexicon. Several fighters adopted the “Golden Boy” moniker long before Oscar De La Hoya, including Art Aragon, Joey DeJohn, and Donny LaLonde. They, or the agents who nicknamed them, were likely inspired by the Holden movie.

By the early 1960s, Broadway producer Hillard Elkins believed Odets' old play could be presented to a new audience, provided a few tweaks were made. Odets died before the new script could be written, which lead to Elkins hiring playwright William Gibson (The Miracle Worker) and director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) to helm the updated version. A jazzy musical score was added, the players were recast as African-American, an interracial romance became part of the plot, and the dynamic Davis was cast as the fighter.

There were gimmicks, too. A Golden Boy candy bar was issued by Necco, and former heavyweight champion Joe Louis was hired to teach Davis some boxing basics. Davis was also surrounded by some of the of the era's best young African-American talent, including Lou Gossett, Lola Falana, and later in the run, Ben Vereen.

Reviews were mixed – some found the revamped script preachy -  but the combination of Davis' charisma, a strong review in The New York Times, and the climactic fight scene (called by the Associated Press “a marvel of acrobatic stagecraft”) brought ticket buyers to Broadway's Majestic Theater for 568 performances.

The show’s ace in the hole was timeliness. Davis' angry character trying to fight his way out of Harlem reflected the times, and events in the daily news seemed to feed the show and give it power. In March '65, Davis canceled several performances to join the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. At curtain calls, Davis engaged audiences with impassioned speeches about America’s need to end bigotry. But while Golden Boy provided Davis with a great platform, it also was a soul-sucking monster that nearly did him in.

Davis endured several injuries and illnesses during the show's lengthy run, including a neck injury that put him in a hospital for several days. Accompanying Davis' physical problems were the show's financial woes. Golden Boy was such an expensive production that it never regained its initial investment. The show managed to be both a success and a bust.

Still, Davis owned a stake in the production and trudged on. When the show moved to London in 1968, 42-year-old Davis gamely commandeered the lead role until throat problems forced his exit. Davis would continue to perform songs from the show for the remainder of his career, and he performed the famous fight scene in his 1974 ABC special, Sammy, but Golden Boy gradually faded into Broadway mythology. Now, four decades later, theater producers are gambling again on singing and dancing boxers.

Cutman: a boxing musical, lacks the timeliness of Golden Boy, and it is not quite the ballsy, urban piece the show's producers believe it to be. Coseglia, Brody, and Grant may have set out to create something cutting edge, but the traditions of musical theater stubbornly refused to be ignored. The news is good, though. What the Cutman creators ended up with is a surprisingly moving family saga that might bring a tear to your eye.

The production in Connecticut had moments of real beauty and comedy, and the energetic cast was certainly worthy of a New York run. The music by Drew Brody may pull from hip-hop, but there’s enough Broadway style singing in the show to satisfy any blue-haired ticket buyer in Manhattan. One number, “Ten in Ten,” is an absolute showstopper, and while some of the songs feel a shade too long, Brody has written at least one that already sounds like a classic. We’re referring to the title song, “Cutman,” sung by Cuccioli.

Who would’ve thought the most overlooked and underappreciated of boxing figures - the cutman - could be the centerpiece of such an emotional night of theater? In a way, Eli Hoffman is cut from the same material as Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman, another little guy who didn’t get the glory, but needs only to think of his son to make his heart soar. Unlike Loman, Eli is a dark, brooding figure. He hustles around the synagogue, sealing up the leaks during rainstorms just as he once sealed cuts on a fighter's brow. It’s hard to not feel for the guy. He’s a craftsman without a place to work. Cuccioli plays him perfectly, keeping just enough distance between himself and the audience to make us want to understand this hulking loner.

Fortunately, there is no death of a cutman here. Coseglia puts his characters through some agonizing moments, but he finds a soft place for them all to land. The final scene, which features Ari and Eli going through a simple boxing drill as Brody’s beautiful music rises, is as satisfying as anything you’ll see on a stage, or in a boxing ring, this year.

Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.

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