Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Do what I'm tellin' ya!

I know you know Judy Garland, and you probably know Jennifer Holliday, but if you are under the age of 40,there's a good chance you're having trouble conjuring up a mental image of Judy Holliday. If that's the case, you need to stop everything and go add Born Yesterday to your Netflix queue. And bump it to the top. Go ahead, I'll wait.

To be honest, I'm having trouble finding words to describe the genius of Judy Holliday. I could go on about how fresh and original she is, but it's just so evident in her work that it seems silly to elaborate. If I can convince you to check her out, my work will be done; hers is not the kind of genius that requires deep analysis. She is not an acquired taste. She doesn't really need to be put into context. You will start watching Born Yesterday (or any of her films), and she will make her entrance, and she will open her mouth, and you will understand the fuss I'm making -- or your money back!

I don't think Born Yesterday is the best movie she made in her too-brief career, but she won an Oscar for it, so from a film-history perspective it's probably the one to see. It's a film adaptation of the Garson Kanin play (she starred in it on Broadway, too), in which Holliday plays Billie, the former-chorus-girl mistress of a crooked tycoon. The semi-mobster boyfriend arrives in Washington, DC, looking to do business; he worries that his uneducated, unpolished "fiancee" will hold him back, so he rather improbably hires an influential journalist to tutor her. The script isn't as smooth or as witty as I'd like it to be; there's a lot of corny preaching about American ideals, and I'm sure you can see the tutor/pupil romance coming already. But it does keep taking unexpected turns, which is appropriate for any vehicle starring Judy Holliday. She is a captivating performer because she always seems to make the unexpected choice, and yet every gesture and line-reading seems completely organic. When Judy is onscreen, you can't take your eyes off her.

That's just as well, because her romantic partner in this movie is the always underwhelming William Holden. Somehow Bill Holden got a reputation as a heartthrob, but I have to say he leaves me cold in this and every role. In every film I've seen him in, there's a palpable void where his leading-man presence should be. That works, somehow, in Sunset Boulevard; it seems appropriate that Joe Gillis should be a nonentity, at least in his relationship with Norma Desmond. But think how much more enjoyable that movie would be if he brought a tiny smidge of character and charm to his scenes with Nancy Olson/Betty Schaefer! I can never quite understand what the attraction is there. Sure, honey, your fiance is probably gay, but he still seems like a better life partner all around. And I have the same problem with Sabrina -- that's the guy you're attempting suicide over? In that movie his underwhelming presence helps to make the case for Bogart, so again, in a way, he's well cast. But in Born Yesterday he just leaves Judy doing all the work -- I can't shake the impression that he's a production assistant walking through the part in dress rehearsal, feeding lines to the star. And although Judy is more than entertaining enough to carry all of their scenes, the lack of chemistry between them makes the romantic plotline a bit of a dud. (It doesn't help that his hair is an oily mess -- what woman would want to touch that with her bare hands?! -- and his highly symbolic eyeglasses look like he picked them up cheap at a party-supply store.)

As I said, it's no surprise that the dumb blonde and the smart reporter end up together, but there are a few surprises along the way. I certainly wasn't prepared for the scene where Billie propositions Paul; it's rather a gut-punch after all the raised eyebrows and euphemisms in the first 15 minutes of the movie ("She's a fee-ancy!"). And the Billie-Harry relationship isn't all Guys and Dolls-ish cuteness, either. There's a dark thread running through this comedy that keeps you invested in Billie's progress in spite of the broadness of the setup (and the dull preachiness of her would-be paramour, Paul).

Comic performances don't snag many Oscars, as we all know, and they very seldom take Leading Actor/Actress honors. Judy's win is all the more remarkable when you note that she defeated Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond (gosh, busy year for Bill Holden) and both Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve. So Born Yesterday is the place to start. But personally, I prefer It Should Happen to You, another Garson Kanin-scripted, George Cukor-directed screwball comedy with a lot of the elements that worked so well in Born Yesterday. This one has a smoother script and a much more charismatic leading man in Jack Lemmon (his first film!), and it presents its "moral" without all the oppressive civics-lesson posturing. Plus there's a lot of very nice on-location work in 1950s Manhattan. There's also Adam's Rib, Judy's first film; she has a smaller role, but she does steal the movie rather shamelessly whenever she's onscreen, and when she's not onscreen you're still watching a terrific Tracy-Hepburn battle-of-the-sexes comedy. And of course, for all you musical lovers, there's her final film, Bells Are Ringing. I gave up on that one halfway through -- too much Dino and not enough pep. But maybe you'll be more patient. So what are you waiting for? It's about time you dabbled in Judyism, don't you think?

ETA: I later wrote about two other Judy Holliday films: Phffft! and The Marrying Kind.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Fool's gold

Speaking of movies and hype... Have you seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? Be honest, now -- have you watched it all the way to the end? Because I have this theory that nobody ever makes it all the way to the end, but nobody wants to admit that they dropped out, and that's how it has maintained its reputation as a must-see classic.

Before this past week, I had tried and failed twice to get more than 45 minutes into The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I finally made it all the way through, watching with the fiance during TCM's "31 Days of Oscar" -- and even that required pausing and resuming the next night, because we were both falling asleep after an hour. And you know why we were falling asleep? Because Treasure of the Sierra Madre is overlong, overrated and just plain not that good.

Okay, I admit it: I'm an MGM girl, and I always will be. But I've been known to enjoy a good Warner Bros. flick from time to time. And no, I'm not particularly cut out for Westerns, but I can make an exception for a truly great one. And I maintain that if Sierra Madre had been shot by MGM, it would have featured sweeping vistas and breathtaking scenery, or at least a solid effort at outdoorsy realism. But instead, this movie was shot on soundstages so thoroughly fake-looking that I could practically see the crew members standing just off-camera. WB, you have to do better than that!

I also love me some Bogart, and I thought he was fine as ever here. In fact, the best thing about the movie is his performance, and his character's refusal to behave decently. I don't know if it's because of the expectations I have for Bogie, or the expectations I have for redemption stories in general, but I was surprised to discover, over and over again throughout this movie, that actually, Dobbs isn't a good guy, deep down. And Bogart's posture -- fists clenched, shoulders hunched, all tension and suspicion -- is a fully-realized performance, all by itself. However, I can't say I was blown away by Oscar-winner Walter Huston. Maybe he set the standard for grizzled old prospectors, but he could have been a bit less stagy, don't you think? Movie lore says his son (director John Huston) talked him into taking out his dentures for the part, but he sure didn't have any trouble chewing that (fake) scenery. On the other hand, Tim Holt... Well, let's just say that, if Bogie's approach is all low-grade intensity, it's maybe not the best idea to pair him with someone whose M.O. is "no intensity whatsoever." Holt is a total blank slate; the camera cuts to him for a reaction shot, and he just stares back, glassy-eyed, giving you absolutely no clue what his character is supposed to be thinking. Huston might as well cut to a teddy bear.

Then there were the awkward music cues -- at several points I thought the soundtrack must have fallen out of sync with the picture, because the music seemed so disconnected from the action -- and the graceless transitions from one scene to the next. And the overall dragginess of the picture, which isn't shocking for a Western, but is definitely surprising for a movie with a reputation for greatness. And then there's the pervasive racism, and the carelessness about anthropological facts in general -- again, not surprising for a Western, but certainly embarrassing. For example, the characters claim to be hunting tigers and lions... in Mexico? Am I'm missing something? Because I have to wonder, would it really take a chunk out of your budget to have some PA look up "Mexico" in the encyclopedia? And I was expecting a lack of respect for the Mexican characters in the film, and for Mexican culture in general, but I definitely was not prepared for the third act, in which Walter Huston finds himself playing medicine man/demigod to a community of "Indians" who speak Spanish, and who are evidently Catholic (judging from the frequency with which they make the sign of the cross), but who are completely primitive and helpless when it comes to saving a child who has nearly drowned. I don't know what, exactly, old Howard is supposed to have done for the kid, and I don't think it really matters. What shocks me is the suggestion that, faced with tragedy, these people -- these Mexican Catholic "Indians" -- would automatically go looking for the nearest random white man to help them. (And would settle on Walter Huston!)

There were definitely moments, here and there, when I was thoroughly entertained. I wasn't expecting the outburst about "I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!" so that was a nice bonus. And yes, there are great themes at play here, and it could be a great story, if it were trimmed a bit. But overall, I'm a little bewildered. Help me out here, folks -- can you explain this movie's immortality?

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Oscars will never leave you!

The Oscars had been on for at least an hour before I tuned in, and it looked like they were going to go on for at least another hour before I went to bed. Since the only awards show I consistently watch is the Tonys, it's disconcerting for me to see the Oscars telecast lumbering into its fourth hour with no more urgency than it had at the beginning. The Tony Awards ceremony always starts out with the same televised-awards-show torpidity, but by the last hour everyone is always scrambling to cut out the fat and finish up on time, because God knows the network isn't going to give them an extra 90 seconds to finish presenting the "Best Musical" award. Yet the Oscars broadcast just keeps creeping along its slow and boring path, montage after montage, until it outlasts the average Hollywood marriage. I know there are a few more people tuning in to watch the Oscars than tune in for the Tonys, but just how late are those people willing to stay up? How many pointless montages can they be expected to sit through?

In the nearly 3 hours I watched, I saw exactly one presenter who looked like he (a) had rehearsed and (b) gave a shit (Will Smith), and one award recipient who gave a polished and classy acceptance speech (Helen Mirren). Otherwise the evening seemed like an endless parade of people who aren't as good at English as they are at whatever else they do in the film industry giving halting speeches and boring me to tears. Oh, and shadow-puppet dancers. And cutaway shots to Nicole Kidman looking sour. I was suprised to note that I had seen every one of the nominated performances in the Supporting Actress category, a fact of which I am oddly proud. (For the record, Cate Blanchett was the winner in my heart -- and not just because she looked like a million trillion bucks in that gown.) But I was not suprised to see Jennier Hudson win, and neither was anyone else in the world -- except, apparently, Jennifer Hudson, who might have benefitted from a 10-minute acceptance-speech brainstorm session at some point in the last 2 weeks. Mostly, I yawned. If you stuck it out, enlighten me: did I miss any highlights in the first hour, or the last? Should I bother to see The Departed?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

How can you resist it?

Courtesy of YouTube, here's a clip of Christine Ebersole singing "The Revolutionary Costume for Today" at the Drama Desk awards. As you can see, it's a very cute song, but not right as an introduction to the character. When she gets to the part about "staunch women," I finally think, "This is the song you're supposed to be singing!" But that's just a quick bridge, and then it's back to clever rhymes about clothing. Nevertheless, seeing this clip is what made me determined to see the show.

Here's another clip of Christine, not in costume but still very much in character, performing the song "Around the World" at "an ASCAP Foundation Ceremony" (I only know what the YouTube captions tell me). This is a much better marriage of character and song.

If you do go to see this musical (and I do recommend it), you ought to see the movie first. In case you haven't, or if you want to relive the magic, here's a taste of what you're in for:

Friday, February 23, 2007

I have to think these things up

Saw Grey Gardens last night, at last, and to borrow a lyric from Sondheim, I sort of enjoyed it. The show has all the building blocks of a great musical, and moment-to-moment it's very entertaining, but the elements never add up to anything truly masterful. In the end, it is a very amusing riff on the documentary, but not a satisfying exploration of the questions that the movie raises, nor a well-made, stand-alone dramatic work.

Act One, which depicts the Edies and their East Hampton home as they were in 1941, starts out fidgety and takes at least half an hour to settle down. It is in constant motion, too eager to be liked, and far too focused on telegraphing Gould's homosexuality and making cute Jackie Kennedy jokes. It doesn't really make sense that the future Jackie O. and Lee Radziwill should be skipping across the entire first act, but they are ever-present anyway, so that what should have been, at most, a one-line joke becomes a constant distraction. (Nothing against the girls, who are fine, but there's no reason for this show to have children in it, and their wide-eyed "Broadway Kids" polish and poise does grate.) And I agree with Doug Wright et al. that George Gould Strong was probably an interesting fellow, but they need to make him a real part of the drama or else get him off the stage, because he doesn't justify his own prominence here. (It feels like Wright couldn't resist making himself a character in this show too, since he didn't get called out on the laziness of that move in I Am My Own Wife.) The whole thing doesn't settle down until John McMartin comes on the scene, with his calming influence and authority, and he and Christine Ebersole manage to have an entire conversation uninterrupted by a pastiche number. I should say that composer Scott Frankel's musical pastiche is spot-on, and part of my annoyance with the nonstop music in Act One stemmed from the fact that I was sitting in the second row, right next to the orchestra pit, and had to strain throughout to hear the actors over the music. So I was relieved whenever the orchestra cut out, even for a moment. But the first-act songs, excellent though they are, don't do much heavy-lifting, plotwise, and they don't leave a lot of room for the characters to assert themselves and make me care about what will happen to them. A few more non-fluttery scripted exchanges might help.

Lyricist Michael Korie has done generally good work, but he has regrettably not been quite as careful as his songwriting partner when it comes to evoking the period. I don't mean to be a total killjoy, but would a young man in 1941 really say he was going to "kick butt" in World War II? Were Americans already using the term "poofter"? If "Peas in a Pod" was the first song Edie learned as a child, making it presumably at least 10 years old in 1941, then how could it contain a reference to the comedy team of Crosby and Hope, who didn't even meet till 1932? And Edie's exhortation that her mother "save [the arias she planned to sing] for the shower" made me wonder, Who took showers in 1941? All that may sound excessively nitpicky, but keep in mind, I haven't seen the lyrics written out; those are just the things that distracted me while I was watching the show. And even if I'm wrong about every one of those examples -- even if, for example, there are cited instances of well-bred 1940s GIs pledging to "kick butt" overseas -- there's no excusing the sloppiness of the lyrics to "The Telegram." That song is meant to be the first act's emotional climax, and while I'm willing to suspend disbelief and pretend that a telegram might actually be that long, and go into that much detail, the least you can do is put the "stop"s in the correct places. Like at the ends of sentences. (Stop.)

Part of the trouble with Act One may be that everyone, even the creators, considers it primarily a prelude to Act Two, where the real fun starts. But it's worth lingering over Act One long enough to praise a few performances. Christine Ebersole is terrific from the start, and she perfectly evokes the early 20th-century songbird soprano. When she reemerges in Act Two as the grown Little Edie, singing in a completely different style, you realize what a terrific artist she is. But let's not overlook Erin Davie, setting the stage as "Young 'Little Edie'" in Act One. She sang, and handled that accent, beautifully, and made me believe in the debutante Edie once was as well as the psychopath she would eventually become.

Act Two is when the Beales we all know and love (or, perhaps, fear) take over, and the show becomes more sure of itself. But the creators don't seem sure what story they're trying to tell; they're riffing on the movie, but missing opportunities to go deeper than the film could, and so the stage show recreates the movie's static-ness (which I think it's trying to avoid), but not the movie's dark atmosphere (which I think it needs). The trouble starts right away with the act's opening song ("The Revolutionary Costume for Today"), which isn't bad, as songs go, but which is totally wrong for the moment and the character. Little Edie shouldn't be singing a comedy number about what she's wearing; she doesn't have enough self-awareness or presence of mind to talk about her own style that way. I don't think she knows she's wearing a cord from the drapes. She thinks she's looking grand. So a sequence that was fascinating, even a bit frightening, in the movie becomes merely silly onstage. Little Edie is an arresting persona in the film because she takes herself completely seriously, in spite of her total disconnect with reality. Ebersole brings that commitment and intensity to her performance, and you can feel it between verses, when she's delivering lines from the movie. But her attempt to establish the character is undermined by the song, and the scene sets the wrong tone. Eventually there is a scene-setting number, "Entering Grey Gardens," that tries to capture some of the haunting quality of the film, but it's too little, too late.

That first scene ends with Edie observing, as she does in the film, "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present." In this script it's almost a throwaway line, and I can't help thinking that a song devoted to unpacking that idea would have done a lot more to set up the character. But rather than asking, "What songs do we need to tell this story?" the creators seem to have approached Act Two by asking themselves, "What moments in the movie might be fun to turn into songs?" Hence numbers like "Jerry Likes My Corn." They're all individually quite good, and very entertaining as a gloss on the movie, but they don't add up to anything special. The whole second act feels like a drag queen routine, rather than a musical drama.

Cast members from Act One show up again in Act Two, playing ghosts of some sort, but their reappearance doesn't feel dramatically necessary or meaningful so much as convenient. Doug Wright misses the chance to do something interesting with Jerry, the women's mysterious young handyman/companion; you'd think he would try to flesh that character out, but you would be wrong. (And it doesn't help that Matt Cavenaugh -- whom you'd probably recognize from this -- though fine as Joe Kennedy in Act One, is embarrassingly bad as Jerry in Act Two.) There are also a number of projections and fancy lighting effects to set the mood during Act Two; most of these look awful, at least from the second row, and the projected cats just call attention to the fact that there aren't any real cats onstage.

(And speaking of my second-row seat -- it was nice to be so close to the action, for a change, and to be able to actually see the actors' facial expressions. But my view of the cinematic tableaux that open and close the show was, you guessed it, restricted! A girl can't win.)

There are plenty of good, even great, moments in Act Two. Christine Ebersole is justifiably lauded for her performance, but she is matched by an equally committed Mary Louise Wilson, and together they achieve a level of naturalism rarely seen on the musical stage. They recreate the movie's overlapping dialogue, and the women's constant bickering, impeccably, and Wright's script captures the way the two women go back and forth without ever really listening to each other. I wish every show could have a scene as funny and fascinating as the Act Two reprise of "Will You?" (And, for that matter, I wish every musical could have a song as lovely as "Will You?") But I didn't buy the ending; nothing in the movie led me to believe that Edie could come that close to independence, and nothing in the stage show suggested it, either. So I left feeling unsatisfied; I certainly got my money's worth, entertainment-wise, and I went home singing several of the songs, so I suppose I can say I ate the cake I had. But the story's tragic potential went largely untapped, and it's hard not to be wistful when I think how much better Grey Gardens could have been.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Life moves pretty fast...

Seen yesterday on 57th Street: Matthew Broderick! He was on his cellphone when he passed me, which is how I could be sure it was the real deal, and not just some guy who looks like MB, behind those sunglasses -- I could hear his singularly dweeby voice.

I actually had a Broderick sighting once before, when I was on a high school drama club trip to NYC. My friend Nathan and I spotted him in a deli in the theatre district, and I'm afraid we stared rather obviously. We walked by his table on the way out, and -- I swear -- we waved. Like he was an old friend or something. We felt it would almost be rude not to. I still cringe when I think of it, but MB has probably gotten over it by now. And, in a twist of fate, I was the one getting stares on the street yesterday, because of my ashes. A woman in the office where I am working this week asked another person, "Is today some holiday where people get the thing on their foreheads?" Next year I think I'll carry around some informational literature.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The queen insists on quiet

Why so quiet around here? Is it because I'm busy making actual money, tales of which would bore you silly? Is it because today is Ash Wednesday, and I'm busy getting my repentance on? Is it because I recently saw Babel and I'm still trying to decide what I thought of it? Yes to all three. Also: I've been unusually busy the last few weekends, and I haven't seen anything outrageous and/or frightening on the subway lately... and when I have a chunk of free time I use it to make my first attempts at scaling the wedding-planning mountain. But I am planning a cultural event or two this week, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, here's a story. A couple years ago, I went to an early Ash Wednesday Mass before reporting to my full-time job. Later that morning, a coworker saw me with my forehead smudged -- the priest who applied my ashes had made a distinct cross, rather than just the usual thumbprint -- and asked what it was for. First time that ever happened to me. I thought she was joking, but when I realized she wasn't I told her, "It's Ash Wednesday." "Oh," she said. "Is that a Catholic thing? ...I saw a bunch of people with crosses on their heads at Starbucks, but I thought it must be some kind of arts protest." And I said, Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Scranton anymore.

Monday, February 19, 2007

I bet she loves it when people ask her about The Goonies

For a while there, it seemed like a full 50 percent of the plays I saw featured Martha Plimpton. (And the other half featured John Dossett.) From Atlantic Theater Company's Hobson's Choice to Classic Stage Company's The False Servant to Manhattan Theatre Company's Shining City -- hell, I even saw Sixteen Wounded! (I know, I know -- try not to be too jealous.) And when I wasn't seeing her onstage, I was usually home watching her Emmy-nominated appearance on SVU -- you may remember her as the junkie who was found with a baby's finger in a baggie in her purse. (You heard me.) That was one of the few episodes in which Fin Tutuola is the lead detective on the case; presumably they thought her excess talent might rub off on scene partner Ice T, or at least make him seem like a decent actor (in the sense that a rising tide lifts all boats), and they were kind of right. And so I ask you: What New York actor works harder, or more frequently, or in more different dialects and historical periods, than Martha Plimpton?

Anyway, I bring this up because I saw Ms. Plimpton herself on the street yesterday. This has happened before -- I think she lives in my neighborhood -- but it always takes me by surprise. It's kind of like running into your teacher at the mall, or seeing your pastor in a shoe store. You know they have a life outside the classroom/pulpit, but it's still disconcerting to see them actually going about their business. I wanted to say, Martha, I know it's Sunday -- and a holiday weekend -- but surely there's a play somewhere you could be starring in.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Some people say this town don't look good in snow

We are in day 5 of the great delayed arrival of winter here in NYC, and I know we don't have much to complain about compared to some Restricted View readers, but I'm going to complain anyway, because it's gross. Walking down Broadway is fine as long as you don't have to cross any streets; the businesses and apartment building management companies make sure the sidewalks are shoveled, but nobody takes responsibility for the intersections, so every time you get to a corner you have to navigate a path through knee-high piles and/or knee-deep puddles of slush. This situation, combined with the chin-to-chest posture encouraged by the arctic winds, makes the every-man-for-himself pedestrian code even more ruthless than usual.

I saw that nightmare schizo bum from the subway yesterday, panhandling at the corner of 96th and Broadway. Even with my head lowered against the chill, I recognized him by his peculiarly angry pitch: "If you have no food, even a penny..." I would think that the overtly hostile approach would be even less effective on the street than it is on the subway, but hey, what do I know. I didn't have much time to worry about it, because I was focused on trying to get across 96th St., which even on a good day is the pedestrian-signal-ignoring, flagrant red-light-running and consequent box-blocking capital of the world. The badly or not-at-all plowed streets only made the drivers less patient than usual, and so when I got to the corner the "crosswalk" was blocked by 3 lanes of immobile traffic, even though the signal said I could "walk." As if scaling a mountain of slush and then winding a path through many dirty bumpers wasn't difficult enough, the woman in front of me decided that this time and place (i.e., in the middle of traffic with the lights about to change) was the perfect moment to tinker with her iPod playlist. And I thought to myself, Here is someone who would positively profit from being screamed at, and she's mere feet away from that crazy man who seems compelled to yell at people, particuarly women. If only there were a way to harness his surplus of hostility and direct it toward society's needs! Everybody would win!

(So that's the kind of mood I'm in after several days of dirty snow and freezing temperatures. How was your Valentine's Day?)

I also have a celebrity sighting to report: Hayden Panettiere and her family-cum-entourage made an appearance in the lobby of the office building where I was freelancing this week. You may know her from Heroes; I know her primarily from her role as the Annoying Little White Girl in Remember the Titans (a fine performance, but good lord, has any character/narrative contrivance ever deserved a good punch in the face more than that little girl?), and from her not one but two guest-starring roles on L&O: SVU. Like me, she had to hang out in the lobby until someone signed her in. The security desk lady asked her who she was -- as in, "Are you famous?" which seemed a touch unprofessional, to me. Ms. Panettiere answered politely, from what I gathered, and sat down next to me to wait for clearance, but the security-desk lady called her back to ask for an autograph. Again, unprofessional, and also a bit rude, don't you think? Are you famous, and if so, will you sign this for me? But anyway. That was my brush with fame for the week.

P.S. She's also a musician. Of course she is.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

We can never go back to before

I usually ignore rumors about whether this or that musical is headed for Broadway, because they're so often depressing; for every potentially exciting new musical there are five unnecessary revivals. But a few headlines have caught my eye this week.

First of all, will the Encores! production of Follies end up on Broadway? I'd say the smart money is on No way in hell, considering that the show was only just revived on Broadway in 2001, and it didn't exactly make money that time around. This production was terrific (see gushing, below), but that had everything to do with the fact that it was a 6-performance concert run. I'm afraid the greatness wouldn't transfer, and we'd be stuck with yet another unloved Follies. But I guess we'll see what the Weisslers have in mind. The article reports that they'd have to recast Phyllis, and one would hope they'd also be recasting Buddy, so maybe this is an opportunity for another reality show? (Title ideas, anybody? I think I'd call it Follies: The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues.) is also reporting that the London production of Sunday in the Park with George will probably end up playing at Studio 54. I'm excited about the prospect of seeing a new Sunday, but not so excited about having to go back to Studio 54. Have you been there? To see something other than Cabaret? Because my impression is that they renovated the place to make it work for Cabaret, and now every other show has to try to fit awkwardly around that design. The one and only time I've ever been there was 2 years ago, to see Pacific Overtures, and of course I sat in the cheap seats. So I wasn't expecting an optimal experience... But they were the most uncomfortable cheap seats I've ever been in, and I've sat in a lot of balconies. Way too narrow, absolutely no leg room -- the guy next to me was practically resting his chin on his knees, and he was no Wilt Chamberlain. And the sightlines were terrible. Talk about your restricted view. The only thing I had a good view of was Paul Gemignani directing some of the orchestra, who were crammed into one of the boxes above the stage. Further evidence that the theatre isn't terribly well outfitted for a musical (although watching PG turned out to be the most entertaining part of the show). I walked away thinking, If I ever find myself motivated to pay for another show in this lousy theatre, I guess I'll have to spring for an orchestra seat. But then Ben Brantley's review came out, and he spent a whole paragraph bitching about his bad sightlines! I'm no expert on theatre design, but if you can't even find a good seat to give Ben freaking Brantley, then I think it's safe to say your theatre sucks. (Brantley, meanwhile, could use a reality check -- he concludes his complaints by adding parenthetically, "In other words, you might be better off in the balcony." As it has probably been a long time since Brantley last sat in the nosebleeds, let me assure him that one is pretty much never "better off" upstairs. And if we're talking the balcony at Studio 54, the theatre ought to be paying you to sit there. Which they more or less would be, if you were Ben Brantley, so I guess that's why he got confused.)

The third rumor about which I have mixed feelings: the New York City Opera is planning a production of Ragtime! Did you realize it's been almost 10 years since Ragtime's Broadway premiere? I have to keep reminding myself of that fact every time I am disturbed by a mention of Lea "The Little Girl" Michele's sex scenes in Spring Awakening. Anyway, I have a deep fondness for Ragtime, which stands peerless among the big, expensive, historical-pageantry-themed musicals of the '90s, so this isn't necessarily bad news. But I'm not sure how I feel about the idea of giving it the Les Miz treatment by bringing back the original cast. It seems silly...but then, why wouldn't you try to bring together Stokes, Audra and Marin, given any excuse? How could you possibly do better?

The main reason I feel ambivalent about this production is that I'm afraid I might need to see it (regardless of who stars), even though I know it's all an elaborate trap to get me on NYC Opera's list of people to harass. I was foolish enough to buy tickets to their most recent mounting of Candide -- I mean, Judy Kaye as the Old Lady! How could I not see that? -- and in the months that followed I was so persistently harassed by their subscription salespeople that I considered changing my number, and possibly even moving out of the city entirely, just to get them off my back. See, they know that people like me, who buy tickets to their non-opera offerings, feel bad that we don't really appreciate opera, and have vaguely resolved to learn to love opera someday. And so they call and call and try to guilt you into committing to an expensive subscription entitling you to tickets to see shows that you don't actually want to see, but feel like you ought to want to see, and they sound like nice people, but they don't take no for an answer. To this day I have "NYC Opera" programmed into my cellphone's memory, just so I'll know not to answer if they start calling me again. I thought I was safe... and now they've counter-attacked with an offer they know I can't refuse! Damn you, NYCO!

Thoughts on any of this? Strategies for dodging arts-related guilt-trip solicitations? Please share. Oh, and also: this production of Ragtime would reportedly include supertitles, and I'm already giggling at the thought of that. Imagine "...and he found that he was standing on a chair" displayed above the stage, for all to see. Or "...fellows with tennis balls." Or the irritatingly ungrammatical "I was your wife, / It never occurred to want more." Other clunkers I'm forgetting? Please comment. I know I'm not the only one who has the whole thing memorized.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Some people analyze every detail

As promised, here is some bonus material from my interview with Jason Robert Brown that didn't make it into the final Nextbook story (edited, obviously, to make both of us, but mainly me, sound more articulate). I didn't want to keep it to myself!

MW: It sounds like 13 is a big success.

JRB: It’s...exactly what we wanted it to be. It is a show with a bunch of teenagers jumping around onstage, and it’s a very warmhearted, life-affirming kind of a show. I think there are people who don’t dig that, but that was what I wanted to do, and that’s what we did, so I’m very proud of it.

MW: Do you feel like audiences are responding to it the way you expected?

JRB: I think 80% of the audience is always with us, and 20% of the audience is always those people who think, “What happened to Angels in America?” …It’s not a heavy show. I think it may be, in its own way, a deep show.

MW: I read somewhere that one of your motivations in doing a show about and for teenagers was realizing that you had a big following in that demographic, in spite of the fact that your work has been kind of mature in theme up to this point.

JRB: My demographic, truth be told, is actually a little bit older than 13. I think my demographic tends to be in the 17-through-college department. So, what it was about was the realization that there is a huge demographic of kids that age who love musicals, and I did not think there was a lot of appropriate material for them that was still smart and still musically valuable… If you wanted to see something that really connected to who they were at that time in their lives, and didn’t talk down to them and didn’t insist on sugarcoating their experience, I thought, there’s not that much like that. And I wanted to create something that they could feel like they owned.

MW: On your weblog you described the kind of music you write as — this is a quote — ”Jewish-rock’n’roll-Motown-showtune.” I wanted to ask if there’s anything you can identify that’s particularly “Jewish” about the equation.

JRB: I think there is something about the hyper-verbality — hyper-verbosity? — of the work that I write that feels Jewish to me; that feels specifically, culturally related to that. I don’t know if I could define it or explain it any better than that, but I feel like, if I listened to my stuff and I didn’t know me, I’d say, Ah, nice Jewish boy, I know him.

MW: In the case of Parade, for example, there are obviously traditional Jewish influences in the songs that Leo Frank sings, especially in the Sh’ma that he sings at the end. Did you have to go out of your way to make that part of the fabric of that show?

JRB: No, that’s the stuff that comes easy to me. That’s the stuff I know. What was harder, in Parade, was the stuff that’s authentically Southern... There are a lot of hidden quotes of “Dixie” all over the score of Parade.

MW: I love the funeral scene, with the hymn “There Is a Fountain” — that’s really beautiful. So you looked into spirituals and hymns and things like that?

JRB: Well, that hymn, “There Is a Fountain,” was actually what was sung at Mary [Phagan]’s funeral. So I just extrapolated from there. That was actually a sort of improvisational thing, where I just played the hymn over and over again, and let it see where it would lead me. And it brought me to the “It Don’t Make Sense” section of that song, which, harmonically, is sort of distantly related to the hymn.

...You know, it sounds like, sort of, “tricks,” and in a way it is, but once you get beneath all the tricks it has to have some emotional content to it that you can believe in. And I’d like to think that it does.

MW: In writing this musical, did you seek out music that 13 year olds right now are listening to?

JRB: Well, I did and I didn’t. When I started writing the show I just said, Let me see what I come up with, as far as what I think feels authentic to these kids. And what I ended up writing, and it wasn’t even deliberate, was all stuff that sort of sounded like 1983, when I was 13. When I put myself in the mind of a teenager, I ended up writing things that were popular when I was a teenager. So after we got through the first draft of the show, there were parts where I felt like, “I’m not telling the whole story, musically, of what it means to be a 13 year old.” So there are a couple of more contemporary-sounding things in it than I had originally thought out… But no one’s gonna confuse this with a Gwen Stefani record.

MW: The band for 13 is also made up of teenagers. Was that always part of your plan, or did that…

JRB: Oh yeah, no, that was definitely always part of the game plan.

MW: Because I know that you, as a composer and arranger and a musical director, tend to be really particular about making everything sort of one artistic statement.

JRB: Yeah, well, that was always the point… I wasn’t sure whether we could do it, you know, I wasn’t sure whether we could, in fact, find a band that could play my stuff. I didn’t want to write the material down to the performers; I wanted to just write what I wanted to write and then find kids who could do it. And I wasn’t sure that I could, but… these sensational players out here, I mean, these genius kids who can do anything. And who are, incidentally, much better musicians than I was when I was their age.

MW: You have this album of your own nontheatre songs, and you’ve been doing appearances in support of that -- does it feel like you have a few different personas, or does it all fit together for you?

JRB: You know, it feels to me like one big thing, but I recognized, when I put out the album, that it wasn’t a marketable idea, if you will, to say, “This is all part of the same deal; I write these shows and I write these songs, and ultimately it’s all going to add up to the same thing.” So I sort of allow the perception out in the world that I have this other persona who writes these rock-and-roll songs and goes out and does these concerts, but I think if you asked any of the kids who are involved in 13 who have come and seen me do the concerts, they would all say, “That’s all Jason.”

MW: Do you think this project has brought you back to theatre writing?

JRB: I’m not sure that I can ever just do theatre writing… It felt to me that if I put all my eggs in that basket, I would ultimately end up being sort of bummed out and depressed all the time. So I decided not to, and instead I can do a whole bunch of different things and keep myself spread over a number of different groups, which is easier for me than just being a theatre writer all the time. There’s just not enough interesting theatre happening, particularly on Broadway, to keep me doing it all the time.

And that's all she wrote. Happy Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Fans of JRB and/or me...

Should head on over to Nextbook* and check out my piece about Jason Robert Brown and his new show, 13.

I had a great time doing the interview and research for this story, and my first draft ended up being about twice as long as it needed to be. So there's a lot of interesting stuff that didn't end up in the finished version, and I'll be posting some of that here in the very near future. In the meantime, if you're anything like me, you can probably find lots to amuse you at JRB's official website.

* Now called Tablet Magazine. I've updated the link.

Update: The bonus material from the interview is here.

So clever, but ever so sad

May I offer my sincere condolences if you missed your chance to see the splendid Encores! production of Follies. I wasn't sure whether Follies would work in a semi-staged concert context, or, for that matter, whether it works at all, having never seen it onstage in any form (if you don't count the YouTube clips of that high school production, and you shouldn't), and having read many conflicting opinions about why it is or is not unproduceable. But the Encores! treatment may just be the ideal staging for Follies, or perhaps Casey Nicholaw is just the ideal director. Because man, did it ever work on Sunday night.

Going in, I was looking forward to seeing Victor Garber, Donna Murphy and Victoria Clark doing their thing; I figured, regardless of how the show worked overall, it would be a thrill to hear those stars doing "Too Many Mornings" or "Could I Leave You?" And it was, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the evening's true high points came when those four were sharing the stage with their supporting cast. The opening was thrilling, packed with rich metatheatricality: the "reunion guests" drifted onstage, as per the script, wearing formal party clothes. But what was happening in the "story" was informed by what was happening in real life: a lineup of past and present luminaries making their entrances one by one, decked out in concert clothes, greeted by applause from an excited audience. Even the irritating "look what a huge Sondheim fanatic I am" geeks (thick as flies in the gallery, where I sat) -- you know, the ones who show up at these events hoping, through enthusiastic applause and vociferous hollering, to impress the rest of us with their deep knowledge of and devotion to the material -- seemed somehow appropriate in that moment. (Although, memo to the man seated to my left: it ain't 1964, you're not in Carnegie Hall, and that isn't Judy Garland down there onstage. So why don't you just calm yourself down, and maybe cool it with the "Brava!" after every damn number. You're embarrassing all of us.) It all worked so well that even the script binders the principals carried around didn't detract too much from the effect. And although it required a bit of an imagination-stretch to believe that this was all happening in the '70s (since nothing in the production design made even the slightest concession to that inconvenient fact), the performers' tuxes and black gowns made for perfect costumes.

When "Beautiful Girls" started, I temporarily questioned my enthusiasm for the opening, because it seemed like perhaps the performers should be making their first appearances now. As each woman entered (again) and struck her pose, there was a smattering of polite applause from the audience, but most people figured they'd already taken care of that. At first it seemed awkward, but as the number went on it seemed appropriately awkward, and by the end of the song the low-impact glamour of it all had me in tears. Score one for you, Follies!

I was in tears again by the end of the "Bolero D'Amour," danced by Anne Rogers and Robert E. Fitch and their ghostly young selves, Denise Payne and Barrett Martin. I started the number watching the younger and far more technically adept couple, figuring, I've already seen Rogers and Fitch do "Rain on the Roof," and it was cute, but now it's time to see some real dancing. But halfway through the number I realized that the older couple, with their physical limitations and their nevertheless elated facial expressions, were the ones to watch. And the contrast had me in tears in seconds. Follies scores again.

I didn't expect to be excited by "Broadway Baby," since I had only a dim idea of who Mimi Hines is, and I feel like I've heard every possible interpretation of that song in my short and possibly misspent theatre-loving life. But Hines wowed me, bringing character and comedy to her rendition without sacrificing tunefulness. Her approach was so fresh that I found myself following her character's "story" as if I didn't know exactly what came next, and so I was terribly disappointed when the other novelty acts ("Rain on the Roof" and "Ah, Paris") joined in on her last verse. I don't know if that was original to this production, but I'd never heard it done that way before, and it robbed Hines of the climax she was working toward. Especially since Yvonne Constant's take on "Ah, Paris" was so exceedingly eccentric that I was concerned she might not make it to the end of the song intact, or at the same time as everybody else.

Speaking of bad choices: I've always disliked Christine Baranski, although until yesterday I couldn't come up with any reasons/bad experiences to back up that opinion. So I figured maybe it was just some arbitrary thing on my part -- after all, other people seem to regard her as a "star," and somehow she was cast as Carlotta in this production. But one verse of "I'm Still Here" gave me plenty of justification for disliking her going forward. She seemed to think the song was called "I (Christine Baranski, a Major Star) Am Still Here (to Seduce You)"; it was as though she wanted to sing "Broadway Baby" but ended up with this song instead. And nobody had explained to her that this song is already funny as written, and there's no need to oversell it with a jokey gesture on every line. Also: it's not a siren-y torch song, so perhaps a little dignity might be advisable. Anyway, not only was her take on the song misguided, but I'd also say it was a bad choice to cast her in the first place, since she's not old or redoubtable enough to do the material justice. Was Carol Burnett busy?

I expected "One More Kiss" to break my heart, because it makes for such a devastating aural experience on both recordings I own. But former Met soprano Lucine Amara hasn't lost enough of her vocal power to make her half of the duet truly pathetic (and she may have had too much power to begin with); she held her own a little too well against her younger self. As a physical presence, however, she couldn't have been more suited to the material. Her limping down the stairs, shadowed by her elegant "ghost," was what started me weeping during "Beautiful Girls." (Do I need to tell you that the overstimulated man to my left nearly fell out of the gallery brava-ing after "One More Kiss"? I don't think I do.)

As for the evening's ostensible stars -- or at least, the performers I was really there to see -- they were as great as they always are. But, in the first act at least, their scenes weren't the most surprising or satisfying in the show. This was partly because their scenes were the most obviously under-rehearsed. If the older performers were a bit rough around the edges during their solos, it only added to the poignancy, but when Ben, Sally, Phyllis and Buddy took center stage, you could see where a few more weeks would have helped pull these difficult characters together and get the performances on the same page. Not that the actors were underprepared, I just felt that they hadn't quite arrived -- and, of course, it's hard to sell "Too Many Mornings" when you're clutching a binder. It also didn't help that I was looking down on the tops of the actors' heads; you'll have to take Brantley's word on the expressiveness of Donna Murphy's facial expressions, because I was only catching her broadest gestures. Thankfully she was working mainly in her broad (and, it must be acknowledged, slightly irritating) "comedy" register, so I don't think I missed too much. And both Murphy and Victoria Clark had clearly done their homework, because from the moment they entered, they were fully, physically in-character, and throughout the show you could tell most of what you needed to know about Phyllis or Sally just by watching the way the women held their bodies (especially when they were standing or sitting next to each other). Watching them go through the "Who's That Woman" combinations in character, along with all the other aging Follies ladies and their young selves, made me laugh and cry at the same time, and if the show had ended there, I'd still have gone home happy. I can't say enough about how well staged, choreographed and performed that song was. Kudos to Casey Nicholaw (also the choreographer).

If you're like me, you read the cast announcement and thought, "Victor Garber! Donna Murphy! Victoria Clark! and... Michael McGrath?" I felt a little sorry for McGrath, going in, because his name was so outshined (outshone?) on the figurative marquee. But he was equally outclassed on the stage, and now I feel sorry for whoever should have gotten the part instead. Gregg Edelman? Chip Zien? Denis O'Hare? Alexander Gemignani? (That's a little inside joke, perhaps funny only to me, about how Alexander G. keeps getting miscast in major roles and then lauded in spite of his middling performances. I'm sure it has nothing to do with his last name. Anyway...) There must be someone with a little more star quality and/or ability that they could have cast. McGrath wasn't bad, but he wasn't anywhere near the level of professionality, presence or polish of the other 3 leads, and he was thoroughly underwhelming in his solo turns. During "Buddy's Blues" he was actually outperformed by the anonymous chorus girls who played "Margie" and "Sally," plus he missed the button at the end by half a beat, which was particularly unfortunate given this production's odd focus on Buddy-as-dancer. And? Not much of a singer. So that was an opportunity missed all around.

Does Follies have a main character, a lead among leads? Alexis Smith made people think it was Phyllis, but on the page I think most people would say the show is really about Ben. This production seemed to suggest that Follies is really Sally's story, and for most of Act One I felt like Victor Garber's Ben wasn't giving Sally enough of a run for her money. Let it be known that I love Victor Garber; if all he'd ever done was Godspell I'd love him just for that. But: Assassins! Damn Yankees! Sweeney freaking Todd! This was the first time I've seen him perform live, and I swooned as I always do at the sound of his gentle, pitch-perfect singing voice... but it is also true that, as a singer, he is the anti-George Hearn, and I noticed the ladies adjusting their positions at the microphones so as not to drown him out during "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs." And in his dialogue scenes he seemed a little too low-key and fidgety, not enough the statesman and diplomat Ben Stone is meant to be. So at the intermission I said to the fiance, with a bit of disappointment in my voice, "Victor Garber isn't knocking my socks off." But I take it all back, because his performance of "Live, Laugh, Love" was absolutely incredible. Honest, intelligent, technically perfect, emotionally devastating and not even the tiniest bit self-indulgent. He played the breakdown so subtly and convincingly that he really seemed to be messing up the song. Lord knows the whole "This show is falling apart!" gimmick is overplayed in this era of the ironic metamusical (and nonmusical -- cf. Lisa Kron's Well), but Garber was so utterly convincing and real that the concept felt completely revolutionary; I felt like I was watching the fourth wall crack for the first time ever, and it was sensational.

And so there is good news and bad news. The good news is, Follies and Victor Garber are even more wonderful than I thought they were. The bad news is, the show's run is already over, and I need something new to look forward to. Oh well, if I weren't at least a little sorry/grateful, it wouldn't be Sondheim, would it?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Fun, but oh-so-intense

Hello readers! I apologize for the radio silence over here... I've had a crazy week or so (see engagement-related posts, below). But I promise a full review of last night's Follies performance by tomorrow. The quick version: do whatever you must to get tickets to the last performance, tonight. You won't be sorry.

Also to come in the next few days (I hope): my feature story on Jason Robert Brown, for Nextbook, with bonus exclusive-to-Restricted View material!

Friday, February 9, 2007

And the award for "Most Likely to Self-Destruct" goes to...

I did not anticipate that the death of Anna Nicole Smith would be such big news, the kind of "Where were you when you heard?" event that would define a generation. But so it seems to be. For the record, I heard the news from my sister, who spotted the headline on her email sign-in page and called out to me, in the next room, to fill me in. And I was surprised... for about one tenth of a second. I think mostly I was surprised to hear the name being shouted from another room, surprised that Anna Nicole Smith had done anything noteworthy enough to be related in a raised voice, just as I am surprised every time I encounter her name or her image, in an ad or a headline. I always find myself thinking, "Oh, are we still talking about her?"

Once I got over my initial shock at ANS's continued celebrity, however, I lost all interest in the topic, because: of course she died. I mean, duh. I didn't even ask, "How did it happen?" because the answer seemed so obvious. Live by the reckless and very public pursuit of fame via self-destructive acts, die by the etc. So I just thought to myself, Thank heavens we don't have to hear about her anymore, and went on about my business.

Some 90 minutes later, I was preparing my 4-year-old nephew for his swim class, in the steamy, sweaty "family changing room" adjacent to the JCC pool, and I became aware that the nannies on either side of me were discussing the sudden death of Ms. Smith, murmuring "I heard they found her in a hotel room" and "didn't her son die?" and so on through the curtains of their respective stalls. Again, I was surprised: Are we still talking about her?

20 minutes after that, I was watching the nephew in the pool ("You have to watch me the whole time, but if you need to blink you can blink," were my orders) when I noticed that none of the instructors were teaching anymore; someone had just entered the pool area with the ANS death news bulletin, and they all stopped to discuss it for a full 3 minutes. The assassination of the president would not have stopped the action any more than did this news. At this point I began to wonder if I had somehow missed the part of the story that made it worth discussing, or even thinking about, for more than one tenth of a second. Was the "found in a hotel room" part a red herring? Had she died in some completely unexpected manner? Was she, for example, hacked to death with a machete by Condoleezza Rice? Crushed by a falling meteor? That would be surprising. But no, apparently not. And while I didn't so much mind the interruption of the lessons, I did rather wish the instructors weren't shouting things like "Did she kill herself?!" and "Her son just died, too!" across the children's pool. The nephew is a little pitcher with very big ears, and I wasn't looking forward to a conversation about the death of Anna Nicole on the way home. From what I have gathered, the nephew believes death is an optional, not necessarily permanent condition; in games he makes a distinction between death (as in, "You got died and now you have to go to the hospital to get alive again") and extinction (as in, "Lions are my favorite animal, but I don't like alive lions, only dead extinct lions"). And he has told me that he is not going to "get died" at the end of his natural life; he will grow old and then return to heaven without dying, in a sort of dormition-and-assumption scheme. (He is Voltaire-like in his fondness for casual blasphemy.) So I wasn't prepared to explain things like "suicide" and "overdose."

Fortunately, he didn't seem to pick up on the conversation. But later that evening the subject came up again, this time at a book reading I attended. And again I was surprised to find people still discussing this event. I am still hopeful that after this week, I will no longer hear anything about ANS. I am also hopeful that I will never blog about her again. But I guess I shouldn't make any promises.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Yesterday: opposite day at the New York Times!

...Judging from Neil Genzlinger's completely inaccurate and far too indulgent review of Theater by the Blind's A Midsummer Night's Dream. This was my favorite paragraph:
As in past productions by this company, it’s difficult to tell who in the cast is vision-impaired and who isn’t, which is part of the point. This is decent Shakespeare by any standard, all of the actors (under Ike Schambelan’s direction) handling the dialogue deftly.
Every single assertion is completely false! That's some solid work. It reminds me of when, in college, the campus newspaper would initiate its new editorial board by publishing a "humorous" issue full of inaccuracies. I can only assume that something similar is happening here, but aren't they worried that people might actually take them seriously? Ah, well, at least we happy few know the truth...

Did you guess?

I am engaged, and Dusty (pictured below) was the official family mascot/head of the welcoming committee at the boyfriend's (er, fiancé's) parents' house this weekend. I suppose it tells you something about us that we took many pictures of the dog, but none of the ring.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blogging.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Monday, February 5, 2007

The books I'll never read wouldn't change a thing, would they?

Yes, I'm still on about Follies! My preparation for this coming weekend's Encores! trip has included much reading as well as listening. I've never seen any production of the show, so although I have done much reading about it, I realized that I still had only a sketchy idea of who the various characters were. So the first thing I did was read the script, in its TCG edition (which I guess is as definitive an edition as exists). Then I reread the pertinent chapter in Craig Zadan's excellent book Sondheim & Company, which seems to be out of print but is well worth trying to get your hands on. I can open this book to any page and become immediately engrossed. It is full of the kind of information I want to read about Sondheim's shows and about musical theatre in general: details of the actual creation and production of the work, and lots and lots of candid quotations from the artists involved. Zadan lets the creators do the talking and analyzing, and it's fascinating, at least if you're a geek like me.

I did find myself wishing he had been able to include more recollections from the actual performers in Follies, because his account is, to my mind, a bit dominated by the creators' not-very-fond memories, and especially "co-director" Michael Bennett's recollections. For example, if you watched the video I posted Saturday of Yvonne De Carlo's appearance on David Frost's TV program, you heard her account of how her character, Carlotta, ended up singing "I'm Still Here" instead of her original comedy number, "Can That Boy Foxtrot!":
"At first they thought I was campy, a 'campy' type person, so the role became very campy and very funny, and musty, I would say. Then they saw something different come through on the stage, so they changed her to a little bit more of a warm creature, and as a result, the song went out and another song came in, and I'm very thrilled because it was written specially for me."
Compare that to Zadan's account of the same switch:
One of the musical's first priorities was finding a way to get Yvonne De Carlo's large solo number, "Can That Boy Foxtrot!" to work. ("Yvonne couldn't do it," Bennett says. "It needed someone dry like Elaine Stritch.") After much wasted time, Sondheim retreated to his hotel room and wrote her a replacement song, "I'm Still Here."
It's no surprise that De Carlo's version of the story flatters herself, nor, for that matter, is it surprising that Bennett's version is bitchy. And I might tend to credit Bennett's as the more accurate, except that I've heard the two songs. "Can That Boy Foxtrot!" is very, very funny, and it is likely true that Yvonne wasn't selling it. But I don't think the show is weaker without it, whereas I can hardly imagine a Follies that didn't include "I'm Still Here," by far the superior song, and possibly the song that most captures the heart and soul of the show. So considering how monumental that substitution turned out to be, I find it odd that Zadan lets Bennett dismiss De Carlo and leaves it at that. (To be fair, in a later chapter on "Songwriting" he quotes Sondheim, who cites the story as an example of how "some of the best songs are written out of town." And, in the same paragraph, Sondheim also says that the problem was the song, not Yvonne, who "did it very well." Further evidence that Zadan shouldn't let Bennett have the last word.)

Of course, if you want to read about Follies, the go-to bible is Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies, the recent semi-memoir by original production gofer Ted Chapin. I've had a copy on my shelf for months, but only just this week did I actually crack it, and so far I'm a bit underwhelmed. First of all, this book sports the most obnoxious "Praise for..." A-pages I've ever seen, full of blurbs from people who were clearly pressured into reading it because of their personal/professional relationship with the author. It sounds like all these theatre luminaries felt obliged to write a nice note to Ted about his book, and for some reason the publishers didn't bother to edit the blurbs to make them sound less coerced. I guess they thought that the "personal" nature of the praise would help establish Chapin's credentials as someone who was really there, but I think it comes off as amateurish and desperate. The very first blurb is from Hal Prince:
"Well, I thought I wouldn't get around to finishing the book until I returned from Vienna, but of course I should have realized I couldn't put it down!...It is handsome and exciting. So, Ted, well done! I guess you really were our Boswell."
I don't know about you, but to me that feels tepid, strained, and bizarrely edited (why not start with "I couldn't put it down"? Do we really need to know that you bugged Hal Prince when he was on vacation?)... and they led off with that! And all the rest say "you" and "your" where a professional (and convincing) blurb would say "Chapin," e.g., Michael Feinstein's comment: "I had no idea that you were connected with Follies, but how amazing that you were able to so vividly reconstitute its gestation." Or Gregory Mosher's: "Are you absolutely sure you were only in college at the time?" I'm sorry, but to me those sound like compliments you would pay to a friend's kid who had a story published in his middle-school newspaper.

Anyway, I haven't gotten too far past the foreword (by Frank Rich, who comes off as similarly coerced and uncomfortable) and introduction (in which our Boswell spends far too long introducing himself as a character in the proceedings). The writing is not good and often not all that clear; the author has an irritating tendency to summarize his sources (newspaper articles, etc.) instead of quoting them, which is precisely what Zadan is smart enough not to do. Most paragraphs are a bumpy sequence of inelegant sentences, many of which lead nowhere. I keep getting to the end and thinking, I read the whole sentence for that? Some examples: "When I saw Cabaret, I was floored. Among other things, it was really interestingly directed." Or this: "Any new show in rehearsal becomes a family, if a strained one, and the Follies family was pretty good." Pretty good? That's the best you could come up with? Interestingly directed? Gosh, that's vivid. Thanks for the eyewitness account.

But I have many pages to go, and I'm hoping things will improve, or at least the behind-the-scenes gossip will progress past reminiscences about who liked what in their coffee.

While we're on the subject: I think the cover design for this book is pretty terrific, given what they had to work with, but I have always secretly hated the Follies poster art. I know at the time everybody thought it was a masterpiece, but that was the seventies, and the whole nation was in the grips of an epidemic of bad taste, and so they were apparently unable to see that its psychedelic look is completely mismatched to the material. In my opinion, the Godspell look should be used sparingly, and for hippie rock musicals only.

For further reading about this particular production of Follies, I direct you to three articles: the announcement of the entire cast, and interviews (typically underedited but still rather interesting) with Victoria Clark and Victor Garber (speaking of Godspell!).

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Beauty can't be hindered from taking its toll

Musical theatre geeks: do you go through phases where you listen to a certain album/composer/show nonstop for a while, and then not at all for months? I do, and this past week I have been immersing myself in Follies, in anticipation of the upcoming Encores! concert production. So today I thought I'd try psyching you up about it too.

If Follies isn't already part of your collection, you might want to do something about that. Especially since the OCR is available from Amazon cheap! It has a bad reputation, yes, but that's mainly because it's not a complete and accurate rendering of all the music in the show. It is still a very enjoyable listening experience, and I listen to it at least as often as the much more complete and splashy Follies in Concert recording from 1985. The latter is often thought of as rendering the former obsolete, but I'm very happy to own both. You can't beat Barbara Cook singing "In Buddy's Eyes" or "Losing My Mind" or "Too Many Mornings," but that doesn't mean Dorothy Collins's renditions aren't beautiful too. And Lee Remick is certainly no better or worse than Alexis Smith. George Hearn is awesome as Ben... but I love John McMartin too. (For those of you in the Venn diagram overlap of Sondheim fans and Law & Order fans: did you ever notice that "Benjamin Stone" is also the name of Michael Moriarty's character on L&O? Now that you know, won't it enhance your experience of both?) And then there's Mandy Patinkin, Mandying all over two of my favorite songs in the score. Seriously, just listen to the Amazon audio clips of "The Right Girl" or "Buddy's Blues," and tell me you wouldn't skip those tracks automatically if you had the chance. When I put in disc 2, I go straight to "Losing My Mind," but sometimes I'm not quick enough and I hear a little tiny bit of his "Buddy's Blues" intro, and it makes my ears bleed. So when it comes to Buddy's songs, it's Gene Nelson all the way.

(Martin Short, in his recent Broadway show Fame Becomes Me, told a very funny joke to explain why his show hadn't ended yet: "As Mandy Patinkin says, 'Always leave them wanting less.'" I laughed and laughed. Suck it, Patinkin.)

Other reasons to check out the concert recording: Elaine Stritch's "Broadway Baby" makes me laugh every time I hear it (which is particularly impressive considering how sick I am of that song, overall), and I'm very pleased to have more complete versions of "Lucy and Jessie" and the "Loveland" stuff. On the other hand, I could live without Comden and Green's "Rain on the Roof" -- it's nice to finally hear how the song goes and all, but as for their singing? Thank you, next please.

Of course, I've never stopped at two cast recordings when I thought I needed three. And I see there's another Follies available, the 1998 Papermill cast. Anybody out there heard that one? Do I need it? The audio clips are making me think no, but I do love Laurence Guittard...

In other news, original Follies star Yvonne DeCarlo died recently, and if you noticed at all it was probably because the headline said "Lily Munster dead at 84." That was the role in which she went from "sloe-eyed vamp" to "someone's mother" to "camp," and then she used all of that history in her sensational rendition of "I'm Still Here." I found a YouTube clip of her talking about, and performing, that song on David Frost's show (looking very Joan Crawford-y). True geeks will note that she flubs the lyrics when she gets to the verse not on the original cast recording (about "Amos 'n' Andy, mah-jongg and platinum hair"), and recovers by singing "I should have gone to an acting school, that seems clear." If the audience found this as funny as I did, you can't tell. Overall, though, it's a great performance, and it makes me wish I'd seen the real thing.

Carol Burnett performed this song in the 1985 concert, and she is also great, of course. Which reminds me, I swear I once saw Carol Burnett sing this on Touched by an Angel. Did I make that up? Please tell me I don't dream episodes of Touched by an Angel.

Finally, a warning: you may be tempted to do your own YouTube search for Follies-related clips. Take my advice. Don't. Because if you do, you will find an extensive library of clips from high school productions of Follies (actually, it looks like it may be just one high school production, available more or less in its entirety), and you may be tempted to watch a few, and they will only serve to reinforce your opinion -- may I presume that you share this opinion with me? -- that there ought never to be a high school production of Follies.

I'll probably be talking lots more about Follies this week, as the Encores! concert approaches. Do you have a favorite song from the show? Are there other musicals you think should never be attempted by high schools? Please share your thoughts.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Your voice is sad whene'er you speak

Imagine an Irish funeral where the post-Communion meditation is a slow, sad rendition of the "Londonderry Air" (that is, "Danny Boy"). But the instrumentalist -- fiddle? bagpipes? uilleann pipes? Probably some kind of pipes -- is playing at such a funereal tempo, and taking so long to get from one note to another, that you have no sense of the overall melody. The tune loses its shape and emotional heft and becomes just one dreary note after another. By the time it's over, your mind has already wandered outside the church; you're probably thinking about whether there will be an open bar at the luncheon afterward.

If you can imagine that, you've more or less captured the experience of watching Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Brian Friel's Translations, as directed by Garry Hines. This is a wonderful play, a meditation on language, culture and history set in a rural Irish town a decade before the potato famine of 1845. Of course, the characters don't know that, which is where the dramatic irony comes from. Most are too busy looking to the ancients to worry overmuch about the future. In Hynes's hands, however, everyone seems to have some dark premonition of impending doom, even when the script suggests otherwise. Even when delivering Friel's florid speeches (dotted with the usual Irish tics: "Sure" this and "addressing-people-by-their-full-name" that), the characters don't chatter heedlessly, as the Irish are wont to do; they lament and moan like Russian gentry in a Chekhovian tragedy. Hynes's take on Translations is all funeral and no wake.

Perhaps the lack of pacing is partly due to the fact that Friel's three acts have been reshaped into two, presumably to meet the expectations of MTC's easily distressed subscribers. Act One (as presented here) feels far too draggy, and the final scene in the play is desperately in need of a metronome. From the beginning of the play, every line the characters speak is declaimed, emphasized, underlined, so that we will be sure to absorb its deep significance. But surely that is not what Friel intends. When everything is important, there can be no climax, and indeed the actual dramatic climax of the play is very little differentiated from what comes before and after. By that point, all of the characters are at a fever pitch of hysteria, ready to burst into tears at the end of each line. I kept expecting someone to mention Moscow.

The hardworking cast is upstaged by Francis O'Connor's set, beautiful but rather too lofty to suggest the humility of Baile Beag, or the constrained lives of its inhabitants. Most of the action takes place in a barn, and O'Connor's design includes large doors stage right through which light, birdsong, and (for the final scene) a distractingly large quantity of fog drift into the playing area. At particularly low-tempo moments I found myself gazing at those doors, wondering what was going on in the Irish countryside, and praying that some new character would enter from outdoors to shake things up. And the dramatic climax of the final scene is, in this production, a weather event.

The shapelessness of this production is particularly weird because the play has been written with such keen dramatic sense. The moment in the first scene when Maire enters, and you realize you've been eavesdropping all along on a conversation in a language you (probably) don't speak, or the love scene between Maire and Yolland, who are intelligible to the audience but not to each other -- two perfect examples of what theatre can do better than any other art form. But Hynes's heavyhanded direction and total lack of tempo drain nearly all the life out of this very rich play. She and MTC do get points for assembling a cast without the obligatory TV personality, and, like Hynes, much of the cast is apparently Irish. So presumably the actors are pronouncing all the proper names correctly, and that's one reason to see it live (however you're saying "Maire" in your head, you're probably not saying it right). But overall you might have a more satisfying experience of Translations on the page, as so much has been lost in its translation to the stage.