30 August 2012

Theater Thursday: Prince Ali On A Whole New Stage

It's Theater Thursday!

Today seems like a good day to talk about Disney's Aladdin. But that's a movie, why would I talk about that? Well, because it seems that it may very well be going to Broadway. If Aladdin heads to Broadway it will join the ranks of its older Disney-movies-turned-into-Broadway-stage-musicals siblings: Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, My Son Pinocchio, and more. Most recently Disney has seen fabulous success with Newsies on Broadway, bringing in many new fans with the ecstatic revamped music, and perhaps creating a bit of tension between the diehard movie nuts and the newer musical-heads. Newsies, like Aladdin, originally came out in 1992 and both shows, assuming Aladdin does make the move to the Great White Way, will have experienced a huge resurgence in popularity.

This production of Aladdin, with its lofty (though certain if desired, considering Disney is bankrolling it) expectations, was  in tryouts at the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle in July of last year. With a book by Chad Beguelin, most famous for his work on The Wedding Singer, direction by Casey Nicholaw of The Book of Mormon, music by Alan Menken (who managed to have two of his shows go against each other for best musical, but not best score in this year's Tony Awards), and lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Beguelin the show is certain to make a big splash. Then again, the Seattle Times does point out that the show was flawed, with an Act I that tries too hard to be the movie we all know and love. However, it also says that the second act was good and that it was still enjoyable to watch.

The Seattle Aladdin uses many of the cut songs from the movie as well as new songs composed by Menken and lyricized by Beguelin. Menken and Beguelin decided to go back to Menken and Ashford's original concept of a fast paced show modeled after the seven "Road to..." movies starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. This series is known for its zany antics and gags, where the jokes, bits, one-liners take precedence over the plot. This style likely lends itself to reinstating such songs as "Call Me a Princess" during which Jasmine becomes a shrill voiced rich girl to shoo away suitors, "Why Me?" in which Jafar comically laments his past as he searches for the Diamond in the Rough, and "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kasim" in which Aladdin and his four friends (conflated into Abu in the movie version) perform to earn some spare change. What purpose these songs serve in the show is hard to tell out of context, but I'm all for more singing Jafar.

This is not the first time that Disney has made a stage musical version of Aladdin. There's the forty-five minute California Adventure show Disney's Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular. First opened in 2003, it more or less condenses the whole movie into that tiny time frame because who wants to go to an amusement park and watch a two hour and ten minute show (well, I would, but that's unimportant)? There are also Aladdin Jr. and Aladdin Kids, the middle school and lower school versions of Aladdin respectively. As to why there needs to be one especially geared to middle schoolers AND lower schoolers, I don't really know. But with such wonderful casting directions as "Jafar is our villain. In order to portray this through casting, consider a taller boy with a changed voice," and "The Tiger God is an all powerful presence yet a tad bit sassy to keep it interesting," one can't help but wonder what on Earth they're trying to do with these shows.

Regardless, Disney's latest foray into turning a tried and true property into a huge Broadway smash could prove successful. If the rumors are true, anyway. Perhaps we'll see a reworked version of the Seattle show in the near future. Will it become the next Lion King, and be everyone's favorite Broadway show, with people remembering spectacular sequences years down the line from when they first saw it? Or will it be Tarzan, and no one will even know it existed because it was, apparently, that bad? Who knows. All I want to know is where are my Hunchback and Mulan Broadway shows? I want Hellfire and Make a Man Out of You live. Let's get down to business, Disney.

26 August 2012

Science Sunday: And God Said, "Let There Be Mass!"

It's Science Sunday, everyone! Woohoo!

I'd like to say a few words about what is likely one of the biggest scientific finds this century. That is the particle that is consistent with the Higgs boson. On 4 July of this year, ATLAS and CMS (two teams doing research at CERN), using data gathered by the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), independently confirmed finding a particle that is consistent with the Higgs boson. What exactly does that mean? Well, it means that this particle behaves like a Higgs, decays like a Higgs, quacks like a Higgs, but hasn't been tested enough so we can't actually say it is a Higgs. For most of us out there that boils down to this: They found the Higgs boson. While that's not necessarily true, it's what most people, both those who are and who aren't scientists, believe.

So what exactly IS a Higgs boson? Well, I'm going to be one hundred percent honest with you: I haven't done any formal studying of it myself, and the mechanism behind it is a bit complex so I can only go so far in an explanation. That being said, I've done a little reading on the subject of the Higgs, so here's what I seem to understand in a qualitative, possibly handwavey, manner.

The Higgs boson is an excitation of a field that is present everywhere in the universe at all times. It's a whosawhat in the wheresawhen now? Let's think about it another way. Imagine that there's a medium all around you, let's say it's jell-o. Let's say that you were born in this jell-o and for as long as you can remember the jell-o has always been there no matter where you go and what you do. Everyone and everything exists in this jell-o. Considering the fact that you were born in the jell-o and have grown in it, you can easily move through it and it doesn't impair anything in your life. In fact, you don't really notice it's there at all because it's always been there.  Well, the jell-o is kinda like the Higgs field. It's there, but we're not really aware of it, so we don't really experience it as anything. So we can imagine doing things in this jell-o, and though it don't ostensibly impair our actions, it certainly affects them.

Now imagine shaking the jell-o so that different ripples appear. Shake it a little bit and small ripples are created. Shake it more and bigger ripples. These ripples eventually dissipate back into the jell-o's original shape. This is kinda like exciting a field. The metaphor is by no means perfect, but I hope it sheds a little light on the situation.

 So then, to say a Higgs boson is an excitation of an ever pervasive field is sorta like saying that it's the result of that field rippling. Okay, great, so what does the Higgs boson DO exactly? It gives things mass. Mass to me and you? Well, yes and no. Yes, the Higgs is theoretically responsible for the mass of certain particles, but it contributes so little to the mass of a human that it's basically negligible in everyday life. Most of our mass is the result of what's called the strong nuclear force. Nevertheless, it is the Higgs that gives mass to the W± and Z bosons, explaining why they have mass and why a photon doesn't.

What are these other particles I just mentioned? Well, these are particles that serve as force transporters in a sense. W± and Z bosons are the transporters of the weak nuclear force, which means that they in some sense carry this kind of force. Without them, there wouldn't really be a weak nuclear force, which is the force that dominates radioactivity. Photons are the transporters of the electromagnetic force. Without them everything would be dark because there'd be no light since there'd be nothing "carrying" it. These three types of bosons (W+, W-, and Z) along with photons should be massless due to a kind of symmetry in one of our leading models of physics (the Standard Model), but the bosons have mass. This is because the Higgs boson, via the Higgs Mechanism, makes it more energetically favorable for the W± and Z bosons to have mass, "breaking" the symmetry between them and the photon. To understand this energetic favorability, let's say that the W± and Z bosons and the photons are on a hill that's too small for them all and they're balancing precariously. The Higgs boson kicks the other three bosons off the hill and, now on the ground below, the bosons have much more space and are free to go where they want. It's kind of like that.

So, by finding our particle consistent with the Higgs boson, we've basically determined how certain particles develop mass. Not only that, but, by finding this particle we end up confirming the correctness of our Standard Model. This will lead to more elegant models that sum up how our universe works more and more succinctly. Also, it proves that we, as a race, are pretty awesome when we feel like it, and whether you care about the science or not you can at least care about that.

Anyway, if you have questions feel free ask by leaving a comment. I'll do my best to answer them, but considering I don't particularly understand the math behind this and only kind of understand it qualitatively, no promises. I highly suggest you go read about it yourself if you're so inclined, or ask someone at your friendly neighborhood college physics department. If I've made any egregious errors, please let me know. I'd rather not spread misinformation. And if you just want to say a couple random things, that's great too. Lastly, tune in Thursday for another fun filled blogisode of Theater Thursdays!

See you shortly!

23 August 2012

Theater Thursday: Two Girls, a Guy, and a Puppet

Happy Theater Thursday, true believers!

I'd like to say a few words about a certain show that has taken over my entire summer. It's a short, rather amusing show, running at an average of approximately eighty seven minutes. What is  that show? That show is Car Talk!!! The Musical.

Car Talk!!! is my first foray into the world of professional theater. My involvement is pretty straightforward. I'm the assistant stage manager intern. It's a nice, shiny way of saying I'm a member of run crew, since we have an actual ASM who I think is quite good at what she does. Being part of run crew means I get to do normal crew-y things. I sweep and mop the deck before every show, and the deck's not that big so this doesn't take very long. I preset a large number of the props so that our talented bunch of actors (or I, when necessary) can grab them swiftly and easily before running on stage. And then, during the show, I do a couple scene changes, get my fifteen seconds of spotlight, and, most importantly operate the mouth of a giant car puppet.

The puppet. Ohhhhhhh, the puppet. If I've learned anything during my time in Car Talk!!!, it's that puppetry is hard and I don't think it's something I'm going to pursue. The puppet, which I shall simply refer to as the puppet to avoid SPOILERS, is a monstrosity of metal and foam and lights and wheels and wires and probably something else I'm forgetting. It's quite tall, easily obscuring the three crew members operating it. Four of us had to work together to lift it on the deck, for it is a heavy beast. Due to its weight, every time I get behind it, shortly before I push it out for its grand unveiling in each show to a mix of giggles and quizzical looks, I am momentarily petrified that it will defy all laws of physics and simply tilt backwards. And if it tilted backwards, well, let's just say I love pancakes, but not when I am them.

The puppet has a moving mouth, eyes that look to its sides, eyebrows that go up, down, and spin all around, a hand spun pinwheel, and light up... everything. That seems like a lot of things, and it is, but then you remember you have to keep it alive with those things, and, well, suddenly the task seems daunting. There's one crew person on the left eyebrow and the pinwheel, the ASM is on the right eyebrow and the eyes, and I'm on the mouth. The lights are controlled from the light board in the booth in the back of the theater. So, the three of us behind the puppet control every facial feature, and all it has are facial features. Clearly the most expressive part of the puppet is its eyes, and so we've (and by we've I mean not me since I don't touch the eyes or eyebrows during the show) made it rather sarcastic, with cocked eyebrows and sideways glances galore. That definitely goes a long way, because otherwise we'd be relying on a foam mouth. A foam mouth that REALLY only goes up and down and sometimes can squish in a little bit. Try as I might, the puppet doesn't do much with his mouth other than lip flap. It reminds me of all the anime I used to watch religiously and learning that the main reason that everyone in dubbed anime has a very distinct speaking pattern isn't just because of the unnecessarily (but often humorously) dramatic dialogue, but because of preexisting lip flap that the voice actors have to match. It's a little different here, since I'm the lip flap and I'm matching preexisting recordings, but it's the same kind of problem. There's not much wiggle room for different lip movements or inflections. There's also not much wiggle room because you've got a grown man and two grown women behind a puppet, but that's neither here nor there. Regardless, we try to keep it alive. And, you know, I think it's working.

Well, I just said a crapton more about that puppet than I meant to... Whatever! More importantly, I've gotten to work on this production from the rehearsal process through now, and, well, it's been a very different beast than what I'm used to. The show started rehearsing during finals week at MIT, which was a barrel of laughs for me. I remember sitting in music rehearsals while the actors learned their parts with a binder open to my notes on quantum mechanics reading and rereading pages and scribbling sparse calculations on an extra sheet of paper next to me. All the while I marveled at their voices and the general ease at which they learned pieces. And then I had my final that Wednesday, came out terrified, but passed the class and everything was okay.

Scene rehearsals involved a real dialogue between the actors and the director. The director would try something, and the actors would do it and if it didn't feel right they'd say so. And then everyone involved in the rehearsal would work out an alternative that served the storytelling better and suited everyone's needs. It was fascinating to watch. What I'm used to is the director says do A, and the actor does A, and that's what gets done in the show regardless of whether it actually works or not. It was great to see people really work together to do the best they could.

Rehearsals must have been roughly every day for a month, and then we opened on 18 June. We're still running. The longest run I had ever done until now was six shows spread over two weeks. Here we are on month three. At this point, everything that I have to do during the show, which I am being intentionally vague about in hopes that you'll come see for yourself, feels like slipping on a glove. And not one of those impossible to pull on latex lab gloves that are either too small or too big for your hand, either; ones that actually fit. There are no surprises in what I'm doing because now I know exactly how long it takes to do X, or when it's easiest to get Y, or how long before Z occurs. I still worry about placing a couple of things simply because knocking any of it over adds time, time that I don't have, to that scene change, but in general I'm very relaxed. What I do is easy, which is nice.
Of course, with all this relaxation going on, it gives me more time to hear the little changes and additions the actors make to keep the show fresh. Or the adlibs as a result of a slightly flubbed line. And it gives me all the time in the world to be healthily envious of all of them, singing, dancing, and bringing a strange, somewhat whimsical story to life. I've told many of them this before, but what I wouldn't give to REALLY be up there with them. To embody a role in the world they're creating when they first step on that stage and a certain familiar tune starts up. I hope they realize how truly lucky they are. I'm sure they do, but sometimes it helps to know that there are those like me who look at them and just feel desire and motivation to do what they're doing.

We recently extended to 16 September, which means we've extended into the first two weeks of the school year. While I'm glad we're able to extended this wild ride another two weeks, I'm also not looking forward to having to balance psets, grading, classes, and a library job with that for that time frame. But it should ultimately be fun. If you're in the Boston/Cambridge area, and you haven't seen Car Talk!!! yet, or even if you have, I highly recommend you come to Central Square Theater on Mass Ave and see it and see some talented actors, hear some great music, and have a good time. Besides, the Globe loved it.

Tune in Sunday for the first Science Sunday in which I shall talk about... IT'S A SECRET TO EVERYONE!

22 August 2012

print "Hello World"

Well, hello there. And welcome... To Urinet-*SHOT*

Sorry, that happens every time I try to greet someone that way. Anyway, you seem to have stumbled upon my repository of theater and science related thoughts. Why is it so bare? Because there isn't much here.


Yes I hope to fill it with news, both scientific and theatrical, and some of my own ideas as well. So then I'm sure you're wondering why I chose to write about these two subjects. On a blog. For the world to see. The answer's very simple, really. I've always wanted to be a scientist. Science has fascinated me all my life and, until very recently, my ultimate goal was to become a physics professor at some college and spread that love of science to as many students as possible, and to nurture generations of future Boltzmanns, Einsteins, Maxwells, and what have you. But I also learned, in high school, due to a certain red-headed friend of mine, that I really love being on stage. Like, a lot. I never feel more alive than when I'm in front of an audience. So I thought, "Hey, me, why don't we give this professional acting thing a shot?" So, I'm going to try that. Yea me!

So clearly I've got two, fairly different passions in me. And when I tell people that I'm a physics/theater double major I INVARIABLY get a response similar to "How does that work?" Those who study or work in technical fields, such as physics, chemistry, or any number of engineering fields, tend to understand a little more easily since, well, they all have hobbies not related to their day jobs. Of course, theater is more than a hobby for me. It's a compulsion, really. I get antsy when I'm not in a show.
On the other hand, those who work in a humanities driven field usually just think I'm crazy. It's then almost inevitable that I hear some variation of the phrase "I wish I could do science," to which I can only respond that you totally can, you just fell into the trap of thinking you can't because that's what our culture teaches us to think from a young age. Math and science are hard, yes, but if you're interested in it, well, go ahead and do some reading. If you don't get it, that's fine, the smartest people in the world start off not getting it. And there are other ways of explaining it, whatever "it" is, that you can find. No one's saying you have to go work in R&D at your friendly neighborhood biotech when you get "it", but if "it" interests you, indulge yourself.

I am suddenly reminded of something one of the actors in the current show I'm working on, Car Talk!!! The Musical, once said to me. He said that I probably don't see people like them (the actors) at MIT. To some extent, that's true. No, I don't usually see people who look at a script and take it deadly seriously, who have long conversations about the meaning behind simple actions in a scene, or have their unique brand of boorish (and rather amusing) humor. But I do see people who take their research papers deadly seriously, have long conversations about novel ideas from lab, and have a unique type of techie (and rather amusing) humor. Different subjects, same thought patterns. And yes, even at MIT, among the eggheads, where we are expected to be socially inept at best and downright unapproachable at worst (which is totally untrue, by the way, we're socially capable), I have met many others who love to talk about scripts, scenes, shows, and make the crassest of jokes.

My point is, I want everyone to know that you can nurture all of your interests. No, you don't have to be in college to do that. Yes, your interests don't have to be necessarily related. Do what you want, it'll make you happier, and more power to you if they use both sides of your brain. That's why this blog exists. Hopefully, by indulging my different interests, you'll see that you can indulge yours too, whatever they may be.

Anyway, tune in tomorrow for the first Theater Thursday post, where I'll remark on a little show I've been living for this entire summer. And the next post will be Science Sunday! What's the subject for it? I've got an inkling, but you'll have to wait and see.