Filichia Features: JOHN & JEN & JOHN

by Peter Filichia on February 27, 2015

in Filichia Features,John & Jen

Conor Ryan and Kate Baldwin. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Here’s what I’ve observed about brothers and sisters.

They fight like mad when they’re young, but as time goes by, they start to see the other’s virtues. That leads to their truly loving each other.

What makes JOHN & JEN a more compelling musical than most is that it shows the opposite scenario.

The 1995 off-Broadway two-hander – now getting a fine revival at the Keen Company – has a book by the show’s lyricist (Tom Greenwald) and its composer (Andrew Lippa). They start their story in 1952, when early Baby Boomer Jen, now six, welcomes her baby brother John into the world. Because their own mother is preoccupied by an abusive husband, Jen soon becomes a virtual mother to Jon.

The man is an abusive father, too. And yet, as the years go on, no matter how much Dad beats John, his son finds a way to rationalize the bully’s behavior. “I deserve it,” he sings. “It’s for my own good. He’s big and strong and never wrong.”

Anyone who’s interested in playing John should get to Theatre Row and see how Conor Ryan accomplishes this difficult scene. Just from the way he flashes his eyes, he conveys the attitude of “I know I’m right.”

Jen knows better. She’s the one who must explain why Santa didn’t come this Christmas. Similarly, anyone who’s intent on playing Jen should also see how Kate Baldwin conquers this scene with ease. Before she gets down to explaining the so-called realities of Santa Claus, she licks her lips in a let’s-get-down-to-business demeanor and then plows on.

Greenwald and Lippa reiterate that the child of abused parents tends to become abusive himself. What wise advice they have Jen give her baseball-crazy brother: “When you want to hit something, hit a home run. When you want to throw something, throw someone out.” Those are words that many parents should pass on to their children.

One wonders how much rehearsal time went into the elaborate handshake director Jonathan Silverstein has Baldwin and Ryan do. It’s one of those slap-hands-high, slap-hands-low, touch-your-elbows type of maneuver that kids love to do. Audiences always take to it as well, and the crowd at Keen cooed in appreciation of the skill and practice that went into it. Do allow extra rehearsal time so your performers’ handshake is equally complicated and effective.

As detailed as the handshake is, it didn’t represent the greatest challenge for Baldwin and Ryan. Playing a kid is a dicey assignment for any actor, for there’s the temptation to overdo the high-pitched, simplistic voice. All too often, an actor comes across sounding as if the child left his brains at the playground.

Silverstein has ensured that both Baldwin and Ryan don’t. They sound young, yes, but nevertheless natural, and that’s one of the production’s finest achievements. Make certain that when you do the show that it’s one of yours, too.

Halfway through the first act, Baldwin gets to drop the childish tone, when 1964 high school graduate Jen is ready to go away to college. The actress beautifully conveys the blithe attitude Jen must adopt in hopes that she can make John believe life won’t be so hard without her. Watch how skillful Ryan is here at wanting to seem brave while being very frightened underneath. He then eases into another attitude: Dad will still be here when Jen is not, so he’s the one I have to please.

So just when the show threatens to get too sentimental, we see a rift between brother and sister. They grow apart, because to Jen the excitement of New York City doesn’t only mean sex (with a young unseen man named Jason), drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; it also involves liberal politics and bra-shedding. “We believe in love” Jen sings about her relationship with Jason, and Lippa gives Jen a beautiful note to sing on the word “love.” Baldwin, one of our strongest of the current crop of musical theater actresses, gets the most out of it.

So John comes to hate Jason, whom he dubs as “too yellow to face the red tide” of Communism in Vietnam. Yes, now that Jen has distanced John, he’s more intent on becoming his father’s macho alter-ego. What better way to show his devotion than to fight in Vietnam? “I’ll make him proud of me,” John says staunchly.

As a result, those staging JOHN & JEN will also need a large American flag to place on either the floor (as Silverstein does here) or on a genuine casket.

The musical is not over. We have a second act to go, and it’s not all Jen. She now has a son whom she’s named John in honor of the brother she still mourns. Of course, he’s played by the same actor we met in Act One. Ryan is able to create a new character while also retaining a bit of his uncle in him.

Jen wishes that he had more. There’s the rub: she wants him to be his uncle – at least the uncle that she fondly remembers, with all the qualities she loved and, of course, with none that she didn’t like.

Greenwald and Lippa thus introduce another worthy theme. Can’t we accept our children for what they are and not force them into templates that hold no interest for them?

It’s all symbolized when John wants a baseball glove, and Jen gives him the one his uncle used. She, of course, assumes he’s going to be thrilled at this heirloom, but all the lad can see is a second-hand antique. Both are disappointed in each other, and certainly not for the last time. Still, Jen vows to her dead brother “I won’t fail my son the way I failed you.” It’s a reminder that those who lose loved ones in war have their own form of post-traumatic stress disorder, too.

History will repeat itself — not only because John wants to leave home and go to New York, but also because Jen becomes so frustrated by her son that she hits him. It’s a sobering reminder that the sins of the father are handed down to daughters as well as sons. As another more famous musical has taught us, “Children can only go from something you love to something you lose.”

This is not a show to schedule for Father’s Day. Jason turns out to be almost as much of a lemon as John and Jen’s father was; he’s mired in the ‘60s, bolted and is apparently still off trying to “find himself.”

Just when Greenwald and Lippa seem to be painting themselves into a doleful corner, they’re able to imbue their characters with strength and nobility. At show’s end, JOHN & JEN find the common ground that love has made a solid foundation.

It’s an easy show for props. A few stuffed animals, a suitcase, some baseball equipment (glove, bat and plastic batting helmet) and you’re pretty much in business. As for costumes, a search through the average closet will give you almost everything you need. The only exceptions are a baseball uniform, a sailor suit and – here’s the toughie — adult-sized “onesies” pajamas for both performers .

JOHN & JEN is a nice show for community theater. And how about casting an adult brother and sister? (Well, providing that they get along, of course.)

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His upcoming book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available for pre-order at


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    Benjamin Scheuer – The Lion

    Here’s an excerpt from Freddie Gershon’s latest Huffington Post article which explores The Lion and Hamilton – two brand new musicals filled with passion and creativity.  Give it a read and check out the full article here.  Freddie would love to hear what you think, so please leave comments on the HuffPo site:

    Being original ain’t easy as it requires intuitive gut strength and the courage to fail. One must dig deep and expose oneself to strangers in public. This can (when it works) change our perceptions and insinuate itself into our lives… or you can fall on your face.

    Although these two shows are different (one large, one small), they are both inventive, fresh, riveting and original.

    No one in an audience who goes to the theatre knows the DNA of how a show came to be. When you sit down in your seat, you are either transported or not. That’s all that matters.

    There is no science to write a show; no navigational equipment provided to authors except to hold onto the rudder of their passion and vision and steer their ship. The Lion and Hamilton succeed because the audience is swept into new worlds through the talent and alchemy of trial and error, experimentation, hard work and good instincts.

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      So, after seeing a stunning performance of A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE at New York University, I was suddenly in the company of three men of great importance.

      Bookwriter Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty and John Simpkins, the show’s director, surrounded me on a panel I moderated.

      I commenced by a McNally line in THE FULL MONTY: “Let’s start at the very beginning — a very good place to start.” (Those who stayed for the talkback got the joke that McNally borrowed the line from – well, you know.)

      I asked who called whom to say, “I just saw this film called A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE and it has to be our next musical.” McNally immediately raised a hand and said he was the first to notice the 1994 movie. What piqued his interest was Albert Finney as the lead and the title that referenced Oscar Wilde’s 1893 hit “A Woman of No Importance.” And if we needed any reminder of every musical’s lengthy gestation period, McNally gave us one by simply mentioning that he’d found the film in Blockbuster Video.

      But Flaherty wasn’t initially responsive. “Alfie Byrne is a closeted, pent-up gay,” he said, “and such men don’t sing. It wasn’t until Terrence had the idea of having Oscar Wilde join Alfie on stage, talk to him and give advice that I became enthusiastic.”

      McNally and Flaherty were raised Catholic, but Ahrens is Jewish. “Yes,” said Flaherty. “Lynn had to learn about the Catholic sacrament of confession.”

      For Alfie goes into the small booth and tells the priest “It’s been a week since my last confession.” McNally’s line had received a good chuckle from the crowd that wasn’t able to imagine someone’s going that often.

      “But that was the culture then in Ireland,” said McNally, who had the priest immediately say to Alfie: “A good sinner can get into a lot of trouble in a week.”

      The crowd had laughed over “good,” which one doesn’t usually associate with sinning – even if the priest meant “good” in the sense of “thorough” rather than “admirable.” More laughs still came at confession’s end when the priest baldly called the confessor “Alfie Byrne.” The process is supposed to be anonymous. To paraphrase a line from “Chicago”: “Judas Priest! Ain’t there no privacy left?”

      Alfie’s job is collecting tickets on a bus, but what he lives for is presenting plays at the local church (although he’ll get in trouble for mounting an Oscar Wilde). When I asked “Do you have any community theater experience?” McNally said he didn’t, although he did recall performing in “Arsenic and Old Lace” while in high school. “I was the dead body,” he said. “They kept shuttling me in and out of that window seat and kept hitting my head.”

      Such an experience could turn a man to playwriting. But McNally originally planned to be a journalist, and traveled 1,600 miles from his native Corpus Christi, TX to attend Columbia University. “I knew from the age of 12 that I’d leave,” he said, partly because the town was hardly gay-friendly. “And at 17,” he said in a voice filled with gratitude, “I did.”

      Flaherty noted that he’d had an easier time in the more accepting Pittsburgh; of course he also benefited from being two decades younger than McNally and thus coming of age after the Stonewall Riots.

      The two noted that Richard Thomas was originally signed to play Alfie. “Then he got a more lucrative offer, and reminded us that he had six children,” he said.

      Both collaborators were more than pleased with his substitute: Roger Rees. “He came over to my apartment for two weeks straight, every day, and I was impressed with his native musicianship,” said Flaherty. “We started from the top and just kept on going.”

      As it turned out, their fledgling director worked that way, too. “He was Joe Mantello — before ‘Wicked,’” Flaherty said with a smile. “Joe would always start rehearsals at the beginning of the show and went on from there as far as he could in the day. It worked very well.”

      McNally expressed gratitude that Andre Bishop , artistic director of Lincoln Center, wasn’t the type of producer who threatened to close the show during rehearsals if he didn’t get what he wanted. Instead, he arranged for two readings and then two workshops.

      “I do miss going out of town and seeing what actual audiences think,” mourned McNally. After Flaherty reminded him that they were out-of-town with RAGTIME for 14 weeks, we were brought to that magnificent musical.

      McNally was sought to adapt E.L. Doctorow’s novel – “so I read it in a day — it’s not long – and loved it.” (I told McNally that he must have been an Evelyn Wood graduate, for RAGTIME isn’t a particularly short book.)

      So McNally was on board. “But I told the producer that when looking for someone to write the score, don’t just find people who’ve won 85 Tonys or just as many Oscars. Get anyone who wants to write the score to send in songs on spec on a cassette,” he said, once again inadvertently reiterating just how long ago this was by using the word “cassette.”

      Eight cassettes eventually arrived in McNally’s mailbox. “As I requested, they didn’t have the names of any of the writers,” he recalled. “They were Tape A through Tape H. I loved Tape F best, and everybody agreed.”

      “F” as in Flaherty and Ahrens, as it turned out. McNally’s faith was not misplaced, for in that year’s Tony race, RAGTIME won both Best Book for his work and Best Score for theirs.

      And yet, the three did have different notions of which character was the main one. “I always saw it as Younger Brother and Steve saw it as Coalhouse,” said McNally, to which Flaherty added “And Lynn saw it as Tateh.”

      Said my girlfriend after the discussion, “What are they talking about? Clearly the main character is Mother!” (I’m with Flaherty, by the way.)

      When they divulged that they’re now working on a stage version of the animated feature “Anastasia,” (for which Ahrens and Flaherty had provided the film score), the audience full of NYU students cooed; it’s a movie they’ve known and loved since childhood.

      Happily, the trio isn’t just putting the movie on stage. McNally said he’s re-imagining the property and Flaherty and Ahrens have now written 15 songs for it.

      Flaherty also got an “ooooh” from the audience when he mentioned that the first musical he wrote (at 14) concerned conjoined twins for the crowd undoubtedly knew about the musical on the same subject that opened on Broadway in 1997 and was recently revived there: “Side Show.” Here’s a bigger irony: when Flaherty and Ahrens won the 1997-98 Tony Award for Best Original Musical Score for RAGTIME, their competition included “Side Show.”

      I also reminded McNally that we were about to mark the 50th anniversary of his first-ever play “And Things That Go Bump in the Night” which, coincidentally enough, was booked into the same theater where his “It’s Only a Play” now resides.

      There were six New York newspapers in those days, and all six critics panned the play.

      “But,“ said McNally, “the next morning (producer) Ted Mann said he had $35,000 left and he wanted to experiment.”

      And so, Wednesday’s papers proclaimed “All seats, one dollar.” (That actually represented an 85% discount, because in those days, tickets to plays cost $6.90.) According to Otis Guernsey in his “Best Plays of 1964-65,” about 700 people showed up that night, but the rest of the week was a 1,078 seat sellout.

      The following week, tickets were upped to $2 on Friday and Saturday evenings – and still all eight shows went clean. Now the $35,000 was spent, and the show closed. But in the process, Ted Mann once again proved that if seats are cheap enough, people will come.

      McNally said that he attended each performance, and, with houses fuller than they’d been in previews, he started noticing where the playgoers were interested and where they were bored. Each performance, he noted, seemed to hold the same peaks and valleys.

      “And that,” he said, “was the best education a playwright could have ever had.”

      Yes. A playwright can’t learn much from audiences if no one comes. But with full houses, McNally got a crash course in playwriting. “I’d seen where I’d outsmarted myself, where I’d been pretentious, winced at the same points each night and vowed I’d do better in the future.”

      Luckily, McNally had an adventurous producer. If he hadn’t, he might well have become in theatrical terms a man of no importance. And then where would RAGTIME and A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE be?

      VIDEO: Ahrens and Flaherty on A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE…

       VIDEO: Ahrens and Flaherty on RAGTIME…

      You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His upcoming book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available for pre-order at

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        This spring, the Drama Desk and Obie Award winning Keen Company present the first New York revival of John & Jen, the musical with music by Andrew Lippa(The Wild Party, I Am Harvey Milk), lyrics by Tom Greenwald and book by both. This rare Off-Broadway revival, featuring a new song and scenes, stars Broadway songstress Kate Baldwin (Big FishFinian’s Rainbowand rising newcomer Conor Ryan (Cinderella, The Fortress of Solitude).

        Check out some insightful articles and exclusive video footage of the production below.


        NY1 Onstage–full-program–02-07-15.html


        Broadway World

        Backstage With Richard Ridge–JOHN-JENs-Kate-Baldwin-20150208#

        Exclusive Ticket Offer:

        Perform John & Jen On Your Stage:

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          Next To Normal Shakes Things Up Down Under

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            Filichia Features: Celebrities Come to Junior Theater Festival

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              #JumpStartTheatre Initiative Launched by EdTA, MTI and iTheatrics!

              February 12, 2015

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                Exciting New Activities for Junie B. Jones

                February 9, 2015

                Can’t get enough of Junie B. Jones?  Download these FREE educational resources and activities specially designed by Random House for the Junie B. Jones book series. You can pass them out to your performers or audience members, enriching their experience with Junie B. Jones The Musical. Click the links below to view and download the PDF [...]

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                  The Last Five Years Film Merchandise!

                  February 6, 2015

                  We’re ecstatic that the film version of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years hits theatres and OnDemand channels on February 13 – just in time for Valentine’s Day. Here’s where you can get all the latest info: Visit the Official Film site for photos, videos, and more! Get Official Film Merchandise! Be Sociable, Share!

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                    Freddie Gershon: Music/Theatre,The Arts Meet the Laser, the Computer, the New Digital World

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                    MTI Chairman and CEO Freddie Gershon penned this special article for The Huffington Post on the power of the arts and the importance of imaginative thinking in our society.  Read about how musical theatre changes lives! “There are no school courses called “Imagination 101!” However, in our contemporary education system, reading, writing and arithmetic, SAT [...]

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