Thursday, May 31, 2007

This is how 'irregardless' got into the dictionary

On Tuesday night, the fiance and I were enjoying the return, after a much-too-long hiatus, of one of our favorite TV shows, Supernanny. Why do we love this show so much? Is it the opportunity to judge others, and the pleasure of seeing bad parents chided and corrected? Is it the harrowing glimpse of what could be our future? Is it the blooper reel of children doing very cute things that runs during the closing credits? Or is it Jo? Oh, it's probably all of those things, but mostly, it's Jo. We love Jo. If you haven't had the pleasure of hearing Nanny Jo-Jo speak, you should know she has a fascinating English accent (working-class London, I think?), which makes it especially delicious to listen to her point out the errors made by clueless parents. Everything she says sounds simultaneously authoritative and whimsical, no-nonsense and musical. Like Mary Poppins. And after months with no new episodes, we were hanging on her every word -- Oh, Jo, it's so good to hear you adding a "K" sound to words that end in "ing," and punctuating your pronouncements by saying, "Full stop"! (E.g., "Tell her: For dinner, you can have this, or nuffink. Full stop.") You won't ever leave us, will you, Mary Poppins?

Anyway, I bring this up because, in this episode, Jo said something that made me laugh particularly hard. Scolding the clueless dad du jour for interfering with his wife's attempt to discipline their son, she said, "...You came in, and you underminded her."

Underminded? Granted, Jo is under a lot of pressure, so she's allowed to misspeak now and then. Plus, everything she says is awesome. But that's a dumb mistake, and I was surprised it made it into the final cut -- did ABC want her to look bad? Her point was a vital one, but couldn't they have shot it again, to give her a chance to say the word correctly? Or did the crew just assume "underminded" was a Britishism, like "whilst" or "aluminium"? (Jo doesn't have many opportunities to say "aluminium," but she does say "whilst" at least three times per episode, and I giggle each and every time. Whilst!)

I'd forgotten all about it until Wednesday evening, when I was flipping through the latest issue of New York magazine. Near the front (page 12 of the June 4 issue, if you're playing along at home) is a piece called "Penny-Pinching Peril," a flow chart/timeline of the major and minor disasters that have plagued the various Chinatown bus lines. And the deck (corrected on the website here, but cached incorrectly here) reads, in part: "But turf wars and safety problems... soon underminded the dream."

What are the odds I'd run across the same mistake twice in 2 days? And saying "underminded" out loud is one thing, but the second time, someone actually wrote it down! And then the copy editor (presumably New York has at least one copy editor) didn't fix it! What's going on here? Is this some sort of cultural reference, like that dark period in our recent past when magazines kept saying it was "hot in herrre"? Is "Underminded" the title of a new Gwen Stefani song or something? Or is it possible that some people actually think the infinitive form of this useful verb is "to undermind," rather than "to undermine"? Have you encountered this, my friends? Because I've always thought "undermine" was a pretty transparent, not to mention vivid, word. And this is kind of blowing my mind.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Boy for sale

When I saw Coram Boy on Saturday afternoon, I didn't know it was closing on Sunday. So that makes this review more of a post-mortem. But I won't let that stop me!

In 2001, when I was studying in London, I bought myself a ticket to see an acclaimed adaptation of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss that was temporarily installed in the West End. I went by myself, so I had nobody to elbow when Helena Bonham Carter sat down a few rows in front of me, and, worse, no one to process the experience with on the way home. And this was a show that begged to be discussed. When I think now of my favorite theatrical experiences, that show is always near the top of the list; it left me completely in awe of the power of theatre, and also made me anxious to reread the novel.

I recalled that experience as I watched the first act of Coram Boy -- not because this show was an unqualified thrill, which it wasn't, and not because it made me want to read the novel, which it didn't. But it had a similarly adventurous approach to the source material, with occasionally stirring results. As I've said before, I can't get too excited when a book I love is adapted as a film. But adapting a novel for the stage is a different animal. A film adaptation is necessarily literal and earthbound; it can show us the events of a novel, but it can rarely capture the experience of reading it, the literary qualities that make it worth reading in the first place. But a stage adaptation has more room for invention. It can get away with focusing narrowly on one aspect of the story, and leaving out other plot elements entirely. It can be figurative, it can use metaphor and imagery to get across a little of what the author accomplishes with language on the page. Coram Boy takes advantage of the possibilities of the stage, although not quite enough; it isn't quite great, but it is intermittently exciting. And so I wasn't surprised to discover, as I read my Playbill at intermission, that Helen Edmundson, who adapted The Mill on the Floss in that production I saw in London, adapted Coram Boy as well. (Even if I hadn't studied her bio, I guess the underwater scene in Act Two would have clued me in -- although, for the record, the underwater stuff in Mill was more spectacular, and far more organic.)

I haven't read Jamila Gavin's young adult novel, but I presume most of my problems with the show come directly from its pages. The adaptation might have benefited from a little less fidelity to its source, but when you're dealing with a text beloved of young people, you risk alienating your audience if you leave anything out. (Sample customer review quote, from "a 12-year-old reader": "I think this is an unbelievably awesome book.") Still, the show is heavy on plot and light on substance; all those characters and all those "twists" don't add up to anything much.

The story holds up pretty well through the first act, thanks to strong acting and efficient traffic-directing, but it can't bear the weight of all the new characters and plot twists introduced in the second. And things get progressively cheesier, though without any increase in the show's sense of humor -- I didn't care for Handel's cameo, and I grew tired of all the coincidences and "surprise" revelations (methinks "You thought so-and-so was dead, but he's actually alive!" should occur a maximum of one time per story). I wanted the plot to stand still long enough for me to get to know any of the characters I was supposed to care about, especially the lumbering simpleton Meshak. He should be the throughline that guide us through the thicket of plot, but his supposedly rich inner world never has a chance to fully manifest itself; he and his visions are always being crowded off the stage by the next plot point, and when he's onstage he always seems like a distraction rather than a focal point. With no clear idea of who Meshak is or what motivates him, it's difficult to care about, or even understand, what he does to move the story along, or to be moved by his fate.

Adding to the confusion: the cast of Coram Boy is enormous, even for a musical (and this is not a musical), but the cast of characters is greater still, and so there is much doubling. Which creates a problem when the second-act plot is full of secret-identity revelations, e.g., "This new character is actually a previously established character in disguise." In other words, sometimes it's significant that we're seeing a familiar actor in a new role, and sometimes it's not. Sometimes you're supposed to notice, and sometimes you're not.

Still, I am not ready to dismiss Coram Boy as pointless, empty stagecraft, because it seems important, to me, that it is stagecraft -- as opposed to, say, imitation filmcraft. The story could hardly be called original, or nourishing, but the staging of that story is something to see, because it embraces the unique opportunities afforded by live theatre far more boldly than most big-budget shows dare. I was impressed by the gleeful theatricality of it: the locations not literally rendered, like the dungeon beneath the second-act villain's house, leaving room for the actors to provoke our imaginations. The events graphically staged -- the slinging about of dead babies, the smothering of not-quite-dead babies, the hanging of the villain, the frantic copulating of a pair of teenagers -- that kept taking me by surprise, as I would have expected such things to occur safely offstage, not just in a show for young people, but in any show. The decision to do all of that in full view of the audience was provocative, and a bold choice considering that it limited the potential audience (for the curious, the creators discuss their decision here). And then there's the casting of women as little boys, which works surprisingly well. If the stage were full of actual children, even extremely talented ones, the show would likely have been overwhelmed by the Star Search effect that performing children often have, where a small part of your brain is always thinking, "Wow, look at that kid up there, acting/singing/dancing, I wonder how old he is," etc. Knowing the actors are not really children leaves us to focus on the characters they're playing (at least once we get past the initial curiosity of knowing that they're women).

That casting trick would not be successful, of course, without strong performers, and this show has them in spades. I went in ready to examine the show in light of its Tony nominations, and I found both Xanthe Elbrick and Jan Maxwell very deserving of their "Featured Actress" nods (although, if Xanthe Elbrick isn't the lead in this show, who is?). I don't think a "Featured Actor" nod for Bill Camp would have been amiss, either; he made the sinister villain figure seem fresh while remaining faithful to the type. And many other ensemble members -- in particular Charlotte Parry, Cristin Milioti and Laura Heisler -- managed to create vivid characters who stood out from the visual confusion on the stage.

But there's only so much the actors can do in a rush, and they couldn't make me care about the second-act friendship between Aaron and Toby, or Toby's quest for his mother, or Melissa and Alexander's ostensibly passionate bond. Nothing could make me believe that Melissa managed to carry a baby to term without anyone realizing she was pregnant. The Ashbrook family reunion, which ought to have been an emotional high point of Act Two, was hurried past to get to the big action, and the slave-ship setting of the play's final scenes was barely justified.

As for the music that runs throughout this non-musical, too little creativity went into its use, and too little attention is paid to its religious themes and motivations. I thought my eyes would roll out of my head when the onstage chorus launched into an ominous, minor-key rendition of "For unto us a child is born..." as Melissa labored (on her knees, for some reason) to produce her poor bastard puppet-baby. As ludicrous as it would have been to suggest that this child was some sort of Christ figure, it seemed even more ridiculous to me that the creators wouldn't realize, acknowledge or care that the "child" mentioned in that piece of music is Christ.

As has been said before, Coram Boy was a great big expensive mess. But it was at times a fascinating mess. The few who had a chance to see it may have left perplexed and/or unmoved by the story, but I'm sure they also left discussing the staging, and I'm sorry more people won't have the chance to take it in.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Will you still need me?

I managed to work some solid theatregoing into my holiday weekend, so watch this space for my reviews of Coram Boy and Inherit the Wind.

For today, just a note of admiration for the title of Paul McCartney's new album, Memory Almost Full. It's clever and fun, endearingly self-mocking; it acknowledges his age by making a very of-the-moment reference, which is a neat trick indeed. And it demonstrates a level of self-awareness that has been noticeably absent from his public and private conduct these last few years. (Speaking of which, I can't decide whether the black-and-white Robert Freeman-esque photos of the artificially dark-haired Macca are canny, or just sad.) It makes me think, Perhaps he hasn't completely lost his mind after all! And it makes me want to buy the album... almost. But I can't quite shake the suspicion that the title is probably the best thing about it. (Especially having visited the site. Yikes. Now, where did I put my copy of Red Rose Speedway?)

Friday, May 25, 2007

A helluva town

The exterminator took a look through my gruesome collection of mounted buggies and said, "None of these are bedbugs." He didn't know what some of them were, and he couldn't say what might have bitten me last week, but he did give me hope. Maybe I don't have bedbugs after all! Maybe this has all been an exercise in pointless paranoia! Or a sort of emergency drill. Or just a good opportunity to clean and declutter (I bagged and tossed a lot of things that I would probably have had difficulty getting rid of under less dire circumstances). Maybe I will soon be able to return to normalcy, aside from the lasting psychological damage that this episode has caused!

The NYT has an interesting article about a multimedia exhibit at Grand Central Terminal that runs through June. The article mentions a number of classic films (including The Clock) set in NYC that have informed, and continue to inform, the way Americans imagine and experience the city. I can name a few others that the article doesn't mention: I think of The Apartment whenever I'm in a big, impersonal office building, or on a side street in the West 60s, even though not much of it takes place outdoors. And every time I pass Macy's, or drive through Columbus Circle, I think of It Should Happen to You. And A Thousand Clowns found some great locations in Central Park that I didn't even know about!

My personal impression of New York (and Manhattan in particular) was mainly shaped by the two early-1980s movies my sister and I used to rent at Electric City Video every time our parents went out for the evening: Annie and The Muppets Take Manhattan. Whenever I'm looking for an address in Midtown, I think of that scene in Annie where the orphans arrive at "Number 1 Fifth Avenue!" and then realize they have to go all the way to [a very high number]. Which they do, because they're just that plucky. And the Muppets' adventures taught me to regard Manhattan (wherever that was) as a fantastical place, full of colorful Greek restaurateurs and catcalling construction workers and imperious Broadway producers and smug advertising executives and muggers on roller skates. And rats. Pretty accurate, in other words. (Current New Yorkers can catch it this week at midnight at Landmark Sunshine Cinema!)

So I ask you: what's your favorite New York film? What movie makes you want to come here, or makes you glad you are here? (Or makes you want to stay away? That Gregory-Hines-on-skates scene is pretty intense. NYC was rough in the early 80s.) Please share with the class.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

...but I'm never gonna get lumbered again

Blogging is not the only thing I haven't been doing this week. I notified my building management of my suspected bedbug problem last Thursday, and they told me I'd just missed the exterminator, but they'd add me to his list for next week (today). So I've spent the whole week preparing for his arrival. As I've been cleaning and laundering, I've kept an eye out for bugs or evidence thereof, and anything I've found I've preserved carefully in packing tape for his inspection. I now have a small and ugly collection of specimens, but not a single textbook bedbug among them, so I'm quite interested in getting a professional verdict.

Oh, how I long for the days when I didn't automatically inspect my surroundings for vermin and pests. Those young and innocent days when I didn't freak out over every fuzzy speck on my comforter and tiny imperfection in my hardwood flooring. To aid me in making the "bug or dirt?" determination, I purchased a "Lighting Magnifying Glass" at the hardware store on the corner. They had only one magnifying glass in the place, and it was behind the counter, so I didn't take much time to look at it before they rang it up. I was just happy not to have to make another stop, since I had a bathroom to clean. But if I had looked at the packaging, for even a moment, I would have known better than to spend money on it, because it is, as Ali G might say, a bit crap. It was manufactured in China by a company called "Hakka," and for some reason the image on the box shows kaleidoscopic distortion rather than magnification. Along the side is this list of "Features":
  • 2 or 5 magnification .
  • Hi-bright spotlight.
  • Very easily to change battery.
  • Very fashionable design.

Fashionable it may be, but effective it is not. Ah well, with the way I've been spending money this week (on Ziploc bags, laundry, dry cleaning, plastic tubs, cleaning supplies), what's another $7.99?

So that's what I've been doing this week. Here's what I have not been doing: blogging, reading, writing, reading other people's blogs, wasting time on the internet generally, eating lunch, seeing friends, going to the theatre, planning for my wedding, sitting on my bed, watching TV, getting my hair cut, breathing normally. Oh, or listening to CDs, because my crappy Memorex stereo chose this week to stop playing CDs. And it never really played cassettes well. So now all it can do is play the radio -- and WNYC was doing a pledge drive! Arrgh! However, I actually have been sleeping pretty well, because I haven't had any new bites all week. So that seems like a good sign, and here's hoping my nightmare will soon be over.

Monday, May 21, 2007

I'd give you everything I've got for a little peace of mind

If you're a New Yorker, you probably remember a recent spate of articles in the local press about bedbugs, the city's newest plague. Up until about two years ago, when I read my first frightening story on this topic, I assumed "bedbugs" were a made-up thing. But, in fact, they are real, and if media acccounts are to be believed, they are really hard to get rid of. After a while I made myself stop reading those stories, because I didn't want to get too paranoid. I already have my hands full managing my concerns about ATM-related scamming and insecure sidewalk grates; I can't take on another everyday-danger worry.

Well, it turns out it's a good thing I read at least a few of those stories, because if I hadn't it might have taken me months more to realize that I have my very own bedbug problem (or so I've concluded; the evidence is scant but suitably alarming). I got home one night last week and settled in for some email-writing and TV-watching, and to get myself in the lounging mood, I pulled my pajama pants out from under my pillow and put them on. Fifteen minutes later, I was scratching my knee and wondering, How on earth did I manage to get a mosquito bite today? Fast-forward to later that night, when I put on the rest of my jammies and climbed into bed to read... and discovered a couple more itchy bites on my arm by the time I was ready to turn out the light. Ruh-roh.

I don't know what people did in situations like this before they had the internet to answer all their questions. I spent the next day doing a lot of online research, and I've spent all my free time since then applying what I learned. The infestation seems to be small, and relatively under control, but I am anxiously awaiting the exterminator's visit on Thursday, and turning the apartment upside-down in the meantime. I'm trying to embrace this as an opportunity to de-clutter -- there's no room for sentimentality when your blood, not to mention your mental health, is on the line, and after all, I have to trim my belongings sooner or later. But even de-cluttering is more complicated than it sounds, since you can't just toss a potentially infested item in the trash. So much cleaning is in order. Bugs or no bugs, my apartment can certainly stand a thorough cleaning -- but it's very difficult to accomplish in such a tiny space (you are familiar with those boxes tissues come in, right? The smaller, square ones, I mean, not the spacious rectangular ones), which is why I haven't ever done it in the first place. So now I'm vacuuming, scrubbing, and facing the daunting task of washing all (and I mean all) of my clothing and bedding in hot water and drying it all on high heat to kill any lurking bugs, and then bagging each item individually to protect it from reinfestation. I am a neat and orderly kind of person, and there is something oddly satisfying about sealing all my socks, shirts, etc. in Ziploc bags... but the novelty wears off after a few loads. Especially considering how many quarters I've had to scare up, and how small and inadequate my building's laundry room is, and how depressing it is to allow hot water to rob all my brightly-colored clothing of its personality. Oh, and I am not sleeping all that well, for obvious reasons.

In the midst of all this, I find myself wondering: Haven't I been through enough?

Speaking of which, I had my six-month post-treatment checkup today, and I am still cancer-free! I was too busy losing sleep over the aforementioned plague to worry much about this morning's scan, but I am glad I have good news to cheer me up. Have a cupcake in my honor, and please be patient with me if blogging continues to be light... I'm hoping Restricted View HQ will be free from the curse very soon!

Friday, May 18, 2007

I know what the gentleman wanted.

Yesterday I was heading into the main terminal at Grand Central Station, dressed for success, as I was on my way to New Haven to speak at the LifeTales reception. A man (thirty-something black guy, nice-looking, wearing a suit) stopped me and said: "Excuse me... Do you know if they made an announcement that Your Majesty would be here today wearing that beautiful dress?"

Didn't see that coming, did you? Neither did I, which is my excuse for not coming up with a snappy comeback. (I wish I could have seen the expression on my face -- I just said, "No..." and walked off, aloof as Marian Paroo, or so I hoped.) But seriously, what is the appropriate response here? I don't even know what the intended effect could possibly be. I suppose he gets points for creativity -- it beats "Hey baby, nice rack" -- but if you're going to hit on some random woman, why the false pretenses? Does throwing her off her game like that really increase your odds? Or was this guy just the verbal equivalent of a flasher? "Excuse me, I'm just asking you for directions OH NOW I'M COMMENTING ON YOUR LOOKS!" You thought I wasn't going to objectify you but guess what I am!

I would have assumed this was some sort of fraternity hazing stunt, except that the guy was too old, and he was far too well-dressed for a panhandler. And he looked like he should have known better, generally. But perhaps taking people by surprise is how this guy gets his kicks (although in that case, I would expect the "surprise" part of the sentence to be more crude and less fanciful). I wonder if he goes to bars and does the opposite? "Hey, baby, I've been watching you from over there all night, and I just had to ask... do you know whether the 2-3 is running express this weekend?"

I was meeting the fiance shortly thereafter, and I couldn't wait to tell him this story, but it took me a long time to manage it, because I started laughing every time I got to the "Your Majesty" part. (That guy must have rehearsed a lot to keep such a straight face.) And later that evening, I received a few genuine compliments on my dress (which is pretty, if I do say so myself, though not especially regal) from kind older ladies, and I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing. Or from saying, "Please, please: you may address me as 'Your Majesty.'" I have decided that I will now refer to that dress as "my imperial robes" or "my coronation gown" (e.g., "I'm glad my coronation gown is machine washable, because I have to wear it again next week"). And I have a feeling the fiance and I will be trying to ambush each other with hilariously convoluted compliments for months to come. "Did you already send in that deposit to the photographer, or should I do it right after I finish admiring how nice you look with your new haircut?" It's totally fun. Submit your ideas below!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

At Citibank we will meet accidentally

This evening I ducked into a branch of my bank to deposit a check. An elderly lady was sitting there in the vestibule, perched on a broad windowsill, wearing one of those plastic head-wrap things that old ladies wear. She didn't seem likely to mug me or steal my PIN, so I didn't pay much attention to her; I figured she was just keeping out of the rain, maybe waiting for a ride or something. And then, just as I put my card into the ATM, she said, "Will I die like my sister did?"

Was she talking to me? Who knows. She didn't seem offended by my failure to respond, and she didn't repeat the question, so I figured it must have been rhetorical. Then, after a silence (save for the beeping from the ATM keypad as I entered my PIN), she added, in a mournful tone, "She was only 40 years old." If I thought she really wanted an answer, I might have pointed out that she's clearly got her sister beat by a few decades at this point. Instead, I pretended to be really, really focused on my transaction. And just as the machine returned my card, the woman (changing the topic?) said, "A negro homosexual..."

She trailed off there, and although I am sure the rest of that thought was worth hearing, I didn't stick around to find out. Now I'm wondering if perhaps she was some kind of oracle. A new service provided by my bank: sad old ladies will put your problems in perspective while you wait!

Speaking of the elderly (how's that for a disrespectful segue): tomorrow I am off to New Haven to celebrate the release of Choices & Milestones, the long-awaited anthology of LifeTales stories. I'll be reading from my story about Paul Press (which, I am tickled to note, is a cited source for the Wikipedia article about J. Press), and speaking a bit about my experience as an intern. And, consequently, probably not blogging. But when my life returns to normal, you will be the first to hear about it!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The post-Mother's Day crunch

Sorry so quiet this week, folks; I've got a lot going on, including another speaking engagement to prepare for (they love me in New Haven!). Why not take this time to catch up on what's happening with Mother Load? Check out the New York Times review, and read more about the show in offoffonline's feature article. Then be sure to read their review, which says in part: "This frank, funny, and rather frightening adventure on the front lines of motherhood should be required viewing for the overachiever in all of us." Couldn't have said it better myself. If you're still hungry for more, I direct you to the Broadway Bullet interview with Amy, available as a podcast. (I'm discovering all sorts of interesting theatre sites, thanks to this show.)

P.S. The Tony nominations are out! As they say in the Playbills: How many have you seen?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Hey, Stella!

Last night I watched Stella Dallas -- the 1937 King Vidor version, which TCM was showing in honor of Mother's Day. (Heh.) I'd long wanted to see it, ever since I first heard Craig Carnelia's description of the final scene in his song "Old Movies." (So I guess I can't say he never gave me anything.) It sounded like a corker of a story, and I knew Barbara Stanwyck had plenty of appeal, having enjoyed her steely noir dame act in Double Indemnity and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. I was prepared for a good time. But sweet baby James, Stanwyck is fantastic in Stella Dallas. I figured I could just half-watch it, soaking up the story with part of my brain while the rest was busy tackling my to-do list. And that worked fine, except when Stanwyck was on the screen (which was most of the time, since she plays the title character and all). Then I couldn't take my eyes off the TV. There are several reasons to see this movie -- if you're interested in the 1930s from a sociological perspective; if you care for meta-cinema (dig that date night at the picture show!); if you like a good melodrama; if you're a big Marjorie Main fan (and who isn't?) -- but Stanwyck's performance is all the reason you need.

I haven't got time right now to write another thousand words on the subject, and even this brief plug is coming too late for you to catch any of BAM's centennial screenings of Stanwyck's other films. But hey, that's what Netflix is for. You don't need an artsy atmosphere to appreciate the artistry of Barbara Stanwyck. And if it's lengthy criticism you want, I direct you to Anthony Lane's appreciation in a recent New Yorker, and this New York Times piece by Terrence Rafferty. They say it better than I would anyway.

Friday, May 11, 2007

We have rules here

Tony nominations are announced next week! One of's greatest services, in my opinion, is reporting the decisions made about eligibility by the Tony Administration Committee. Only Broadway shows are eligible for Tonys, as you probably know, but even within that category there are puzzles to solve every year. What constitutes a "revival"? At what point does the music in a non-musical become a contender for Best Score? And, of course, the big question: where do you draw the line between "leading" and "featured" actors? Following all of the contractual and political finagling that go into these determinations is a bit too wonky for me, but I do enjoy reading down the list of what was in dispute, and what decisions were made. And I love it when they have to make a call about something that you just know won't be an issue come nominations time. For example: "Patrick Page will be the only actor from Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas eligible for a Lead Actor in a Musical Tony nomination." I'm glad we got that sorted out!

Sorry blogging has been light this week -- I'm tied up with other things. And this morning I woke up to the most horrible, shrill, repetitive beeping sound you can imagine, echoing along my street. It seems one of the construction sites that surround my building is hosting a project that requires a great deal of backing up from a truck with the world's most horrible back-up noise. (Not to be confused with the Geddup Noise.) It's been going on for hours now, and so I'm pretty sure I won't be spending much more time in my apartment today. I'll give the construction workers a dirty look as I walk past. That'll show 'em.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Younger than springtime

I finally saw Spring Awakening, and I'm embarrassed it took me this long -- so embarrassed that I almost didn't bother to review it, because this just calls attention to my delinquency. [Update: I should add that I didn't read, or at least re-read, any of the long-ago-published professional reviews until I finished writing this one, so as not to be influenced... and now I'm resisting the urge to edit this to keep it from looking like I intentionally aped Isherwood. Lots of similarities, but you'll have to take my word for it.] I think I can justify putting it off, to some extent... a musical about teen sexual angst, based on a late-19th-century German play, with a rock score written by the "Barely Breathing" guy? Where the cast is mostly teens and the characters reportedly use hand mics? I mean, positive notices notwithstanding, are you in a hurry to spend $100 on that? But many people -- people I respect, and people who were just as skeptical as I of this whole concept -- told me, "No, really, you need to see it," and so I'm sorry to say I didn't take their advice until this weekend. Because my goodness, were they ever right.

A big factor in my skepticism was the thought of Duncan Sheik writing for musical theatre, and a big factor in Spring Awakening's success is that it doesn't try too hard to make rock music function as theatre music. I was prepared for the songs to be decent, or at least enjoyable -- the last time I was in Bed, Bath & Beyond, I had to stop shopping for kitchen utensils to sing along with the chorus of "Barely Breathing" on the in-store music station before I could focus again on the task at hand. And there's hardly anything to that song (have you listened to the verse?). So I went in with some respect for Duncan Sheik as a songwriter. But pop songs and theatre songs have different goals; speaking very generally, pop songs are chiefly about atmosphere and attitude, while theatre songs are about character and plot. The songs in Spring Awakening fall somewhere in the middle -- they're not purely repetitive pop, like some catchy hit singles I might mention, but they're not great musical theatre, either. The music is top-drawer for its genre -- I believe the score contains many examples of what the kids these days are calling "emo" -- performed very well by a cast full of nascent rock vocalists and an onstage band with just the right instrument balance. The lyrics are well-written and evocative, but only slightly more purposeful than what you'd find in a non-theatrical pop song. Not one song has the careful three-act structure and dramatic movement of a Sondheim lyric, or the character-building insight and specificity of a Jason Robert Brown lyric, or the scene-setting clarity and coy tension of an Oscar Hammerstein lyric. But the composers had the good sense not to allow their work to tip over into that ludicrous genre known as rock opera, which is why Spring Awakening is so much cooler than Rent and its ilk. And the fact that the creative team has built such a fulfilling theatrical experience out of such undramatic materials is enough to make me recommend the show.

Above all, Spring Awakening is very well staged. The direction, the set and lighting design, the costumes and the performances all combine to put over the concept (19th-century German teens sing 21st-century rock music about universal adolescent Sturm und Drang) more effectively than I could have imagined. (Please note that you cannot get a sense of this from the "music video" and other clips available on the show's official website, which make the staging look stiff and dorky, so you're best not watching if you're on the fence about seeing the show.) The comparison that came to my mind as I watched -- and I don't think it's too hyperbolic -- is to West Side Story. Thematically there are plenty of similarities; both shows recognize the dramatic potential in teen angst and disillusionment, and both are ambitious but ultimately a bit too shallow in their exploration of the subject. And in both cases, the creators use music and movement to tell a story in a new and exciting way. I've only read about what it was like to see West Side Story when it first showed up on Broadway, but the exhiliaration people describe -- that feeling that fresh air has been let in to the musical theatre -- sounds a lot like what I felt watching Spring Awakening. And both shows leave me with the sense that the work is more important than great.

This show depends less on storytelling through dance than West Side Story did, but Bill T. Jones's choreography (which you might more accurately call "musical staging") is a major part of the recipe for success. The conceit of rock & roll as timeless metaphor for teen angst needs no explanation, thanks to the intelligence of the direction and staging; the show simply communicates, the way theatre should. At its best, Jones's choreography captures the exuberance of the young cast members to the extent that it's impossible to tell where his influence stops and their instinct takes over. This is valuable because the show's failure to explore the issues it raises is compensated for somewhat by the fact that the cast is made up of teens and very young adults whose commitment to the material is total and unwavering. It may not, in reality, be very deep, but they all seem to think it is -- and after all, isn't that just like teenagers? Only once did I find the movement interfering with the storytelling, and that came at a most vulnerable moment -- toward the end of the first act, Melchior climbs onto a swing-like suspended platform, the better to express his inner turmoil, and suddenly breaks into a choreographed routine that makes him look like a backup dancer in an early-90s music video. This combination strives to be solemn, but the effect is mainly silly, and unfortunately it resurfaces as a full-blown motif in Act Two. The stage fills with teenagers, earnestly vogueing, and what so recently felt timeless now feels oddly dated.

By that point my enthusiasm was starting to flag anyway. Because the songs, though powerful, are seldom specific to the situation or characters, the plot unfolds around them instead of through them. And since the ratio of dialogue to music is very low, the plot doesn't have much time to take shape, and the characters don't have many opportunities to differentiate themselves. If Spring Awakening were tightened to an intermissionless 90 minutes, its impressionistic approach would pack a stronger punch, but as intermission ended, I realized I'd learned too little about the characters so far to be moved by what happened to them in the melodramatic second act.

The muted emotional impact of the story can't be blamed on the cast of enormously capable young people (and 2 old pros). The teens were truly a joy to watch, and I know without looking that there are chatrooms full of kids comparing their favorites. (My personal favorite was Remy Zaken; she made me want to get up there and dance with her.) Occasionally their unfettered teen spirit threatens to overwhelm the show; John Gallagher Jr. plays Moritz like a cross between Seinfeld's Kramer and the Cure's Robert Smith (though he may not have been so over-the-top back when the show was in previews; I have a feeling the performance has gotten bigger and twitchier over the course of these many months). [Update: Or not, since I see Charles Isherwood said pretty much the same thing almost a year ago.] I'd say he's breaking character, but in fairness to him, he doesn't have a lot to work with when it comes to building a character, and it's hard for me to point to anything in the script or songs that his performance violates. I found it slightly distracting, but I wasn't sure what I was distracted from. (But speaking of people who need to take it down a notch or two, I would like to give a note, if I may, to ensemble member and understudy Gerard Canonico: I don't know what you're like when you go on for one of the principals, but when you're just in your onstage seat supplying backgound vocals, you need to chill out and stop working so hard to steal focus from the people center stage. Your enthusiasm is commendable, but upstaging the stars is not.) Even Stephen Spinella's typically masterful character work isn't enough to sharpen the fuzzy edges of the material, in his case because he's playing so many characters it's hard to tell who he's supposed to be at any given time. The adult characters are very nearly as one-dimensional as those in West Side Story, a decision that has thematic heft but leaves them with not much dramatic impact, even when it's needed. (I can't be touched by Stephen Spinella's graveside breakdown if I'm busy figuring out which of the many male adult characters he's playing in that moment.) Even the young cast members do a fair amount of doubling, and the distinctions between the characters tend to get lost in the haze of angst.

So, by the end of Act Two, I was tired of trying to follow, or care about, the plot, and my mind was free to ask questions like: Why don't any of these songs have endings? They all just stop. And that final number ("The Song of Purple Summer," which for multiple reasons reminded me of the rousing finale of The Color Purple) -- did I mishear that chorus, or were they singing about horses? I'd also grown tired of craning my neck to see the stage around the head of the woman in front of me, because for some reason the orchestra seats at the Eugene O'Neill aren't staggered at all, so I was smack behind her (and I assume the person behind me had the same problem with my head). I know that's not the fault of the show, but since restricted-view seats are a bit of a theme around here, I wanted to bring it up.

The show may not have moved me as deeply as it should have, but it excited me, and it's obviously exciting other people -- including many young people -- even more. I'm glad they're coming back again and again. And I'd like to think they go home between their visits and have fruitful discussions, possibly even with their three-dimensional parents, about the issues the show raises. Whether or not that happens, and whether or not the show succeeds at consciousness-raising, it should succeed at inspiring musical theatre's creators -- and, perhaps more importantly, producers -- to take risks in finding new and authentic ways to tell their stories. That's the kind of spring I'd like to see.

Monday, May 7, 2007

The songs we were singing

Poking around in the Dizzies archives, I found a link to this site that can tell you what pop song and album were number one on the charts on any given day in the past 60 years. According to this, on the day I was born, Barbra Streisand had the number one single, a song called "Woman in Love," and the Police topped the album charts with Zenyatta Mondatta. Neither of those rings a bell, but then, I wasn't really tuned in to pop music until I was at least a few days old. Is it odd that I've always disliked both Barbra and the Police, seeing as I was apparently born under their influence?

I also looked at the lists of number one songs and albums on my birthday every year since then, which is how I discovered that this site refers only to the U.K. Top 40 charts. When I read to the bottom of the list, I asked myself, On what planet did Robbie Williams have a number-one album two years running? And then I realized: ah, in the U.K. That makes more sense. In 2001, when I spent a few months living in London, I found the immense stardom of Robbie Williams one of the country's greatest mysteries, right up there with cucumbers on sandwiches and stamps you had to lick (in the 21st century!). I always assumed their radio stations played pretty much the same stuff as ours, but that turned out to be incorrect. So I spent a lot of time thinking, "Wait a minute, is Oasis still a famous band? Are people still talking about the Spice Girls? And who the hell are S Club 7?" It truly is a different country; a country where the Beatles, Madonna and Westlife can be mentioned in the same sentence. (Westlife?)

I've always been suspicious of music charts, anyway. I'm not convinced that what they claim to measure is actually measurable. On our second date, the fiance and I fell to discussing chart-related Beatles lore -- I believe the specific stumper was, In what order did the 4 former Beatles first reach number one on the singles chart? And I thought I knew the answer, but I looked it up when I got home, because guys love it when you show off your access to and handy use of Beatles-related reference materials. And I discovered that the answer depends on what you mean by "number one." Or what country's charts you're referring to. So, like most trivia fun facts, it's not fun at all when you really look at it. (For what it's worth, I'm pretty sure it went George, Ringo, Paul, John.)

Still, this site is fun to play with, in a "Remember when X was popular?" kind of way. And they also tell you what pop musicians were born on your date, which may be interesting (my birthday list was not). So go spend some time there while you're waiting for me to update, because this is a busy week for me. I wonder if there's an equivalent site for the U.S. charts? Anyone know?

And while we're on the subject, I direct you also to this Slate "re-assessment" of Sting, by Stephen Metcalf, which I just loved. Someday I want to write a sentence as evocative as this one: "Unyoked from Copeland, Sting was free to become what he is today: one-third spirit in the material world, two-thirds scented candle." Hee!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The latest news from Mother Load

Last night was the official opening night for Mother Load, a new Off-Broadway show written and performed by Amy Wilson. And that means I can now plug it on the strength of other people's enthusiasm -- mine is always trustworthy, of course, but in this case, I admit it's not very objective. So, as Levar Burton would say, you don't have to take my word for it! For starters, check out this rave report from Fox5. And remember, tickets to Mother Load make a great gift for Mother's Day...

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Edna, unedited

The "Lost Books" essay I wrote about Edna Ferber (and directed you to earlier this week) was reposted at Nextbook because her novel Show Boat "has just been re-issued in a handsome facsimile of the 1926 first edition." I didn't write that sentence, obviously, since it wasn't the case when I wrote this essay, and so I can't attest to the handsomeness of the new edition firsthand, but it has to be better than the edition on my shelf. When I was researching that piece, I worked from a beat-up Fawcett paperback printed in 1971 or shortly thereafter. It had tiny print, a musty smell, and a torn front cover -- which unfortunately did not do much to obscure the cover illustration, a hideous, borderline-psychedelic collage of playing cards, women in large hats, riverboats and other plot elements. A Google search has turned up nothing, but when I get my hands on a digital camera I will have to show you what it looks like, because trust me, this cover puts the "mar" in "mass-market paperback." (Did you like that? Should I have gone with "ass" instead? I was torn.)

Anyway, I am glad that Edna's once-popular novel is being rereleased, since its greatness is questionable but its significance is not. And I think facsimile editions are a smart way to go, especially for an author as stuck in her own time as Ferber seems to be. She wrote at a weird period in fiction history, and from a weird perspective; her influences and models are clearly Victorian/late 19th-century, but her audience was very 20th-century, and modern society was her favorite subject. The result is an odd narrative voice -- idiosyncratic, and not entirely under her control -- and an even odder clash between the modernity she keeps claiming and the old-fashioned references she keeps making.

Show Boat shows its age on the very first page, where Ferber, doing her best Dickensian commentary, discusses the unfortunate Christian name of the novel's eventual protagonist, Kim Ravenal. A woman named "Kim"! Can you imagine! Ferber describes Kim as "the absurd monosyllable which comprises her given name" (the consequence of having been born on a riverboat traveling through Kentucky, Illinois and Mississippi) -- and this goes on for four paragraphs. Maybe this material killed in 1926, but if you've ever met, or heard of, a woman named Kim, you may find Ferber's opening more bewildering than ingratiating. One more example: later in that chapter, she observes (of Kim's mother, Magnolia): "Yet here she was -- and had been for ten years -- leading an existence which would have made that of the Stratford strollers seem orderly and prim by comparison." Even Google has no idea what that means.

Ferber was an interesting woman -- though how her existence compared to that of the Stratford strollers, I cannot say -- and I think I liked reading her two memoirs (A Peculiar Treasure and A Kind of Magic) better than any of her fiction. In every case she seems to be writing mostly about herself, no mater what her ostensible subject is, and it can be uncomfortable to watch her work out her issues with overbearing mothers, unmarried women and so on in story after story. She also writes about the creative process a lot, and refers to the art of the novel in her narration in not-so-organic ways. So it can be a relief to read her in her own voice, when the only story she's telling is her own. Also, as a fiction writer she was drawn to exotic locales and subject matter, but she had more to say about the cities she'd lived in, Chicago and New York, and so most of her novels visit one or both at some point in the story (however inorganic that might be). It's at those moments when she shines most vividly, as in this passage from Show Boat (discussing the popularity of gambling in Chicago):
New York, eyeing her Western cousin through disapproving lorgnettes, said, "What a crude and vulgar person!"

"Me!" blustered Chicago, dabbing futilely at the food and wine spots on her broad satin bosom. "Me! I'll learn you I'm a lady."
Ferber's satire remains sharp, even when her targets are quaintly historical, and happily you can find it in most of her books. It is a fascinating window on an era (and on one outsized personality), and so I like the idea of reading Show Boat in a facsimile of the first edition, rather than in a mass-market reissue. Rather than dressing it up as something it's not (a romance novel, a breathless page-turner, a good beach read), make it look like what it is: a book widely read at a certain period in history, whose popularity may tell us something valuable about American culture in the 1920s. When you're reading from a page that looks like it was printed in the 1920s, you can't help remembering that what you're reading was written for an audience of another time. Meanwhile, preserving the original punctuation and spelling is time-saving for modern editors (especially for an author whose punctuation was as erratic as Ferber's), and sometimes adds a touch of charm: when the McChesney stories were first published, "phone" was considered slangy enough to merit a little apostrophe in place of the dropped "tele-."

There's another reason to favor facsimile editions of classic works: any typos and textual errors will be the fault of the very first editors -- the ones who turned out text on big typesetting machines, and therefore had a better excuse for the occasional mis-set character -- and your publishing company won't be expected to catch them. New technology has given us the means to introduce new errors -- the garbled passage from Middlemarch I blogged about seems to have resulted partly from an electronic drag-and-drop function gone haywire -- and spellcheck can't stand in for a real life proofreader. So if you do choose to turn out new editions of old books, and you don't plan to hire a proofreader, a facsimile edition may be the most honorable way to go. I read Giant, Saratoga Trunk and So Big in their 2000 Perennial Classics editions, and I should probably applaud Perennial for reprinting them at all. The covers are attractive and inviting, even if they do seem to imply that Ferber won the Pulitzer Prize for all three books (she actually won in 1924, for So Big). But if they wanted to do Edna a favor, they might have hired a proofreader. I submit these three sentences from So Big:
"...We leave the university architectural course thinking we're all going to be Stanford Whites or Cass Gilberts, tossing of a Woolworth building and making ourselves famous overnight."
Tossing off, of course. That's an easy one. Next?
The widow stepped agilely into her own neat phaeton with its sleep horse and was off down the hard snowless road, her head high.
That was a "sleek" horse, I'm guessing? And my favorite, from that same page (50, if you're playing along at home):
Selina would smile and not rather nervously, feeling you, frivolous, and somehow guilty.
My best guess is that "not" should be "nod," and "you" should be "young." But I'm open to other ideas. Publishing companies of the world, repeat after me: spellcheck is not a proofreader!

On the other hand, I read Fanny Herself and Personality Plus (the latter a collection of short stories about Emma McChesney, Ferber's popular businesswoman heroine) in facsimile editions from the University of Illinois Press. It would be a stretch to call these "handsome," at least from the outside (seriously, canary yellow? Whose idea was that?), but the old-fashioned type and the engraved illustrations are a very nice complement to the text. But flip over Fanny Herself and check out the back cover -- you can do this virtually using Amazon's "search inside" feature -- where the book is given the subtitle The Business Adventures of Emma McChesney. Looks like somebody forgot to cut that part when they copied-and-pasted the back-cover copy from Roast Beef, Medium. Whoops.

So, to sum up: Edna Ferber? One of a kind. Publishing new editions of her out-of-print works? Admirable. Proofreaders? The undervalued heroes of the literary world. Hug one today.

Dig the message

To my fellow small-print program readers: do you know the difference between an understudy, a standby and a swing? explains it all for you.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Dem dat plants 'em is soon forgotten

My friends over at Nextbook are featuring an essay I wrote some time ago on the early 20th century's superstar fiction writer, Edna Ferber. Her name may be familiar to you theatre fans; she was a playwright (she collaborated with George S. Kaufman on Dinner at Eight and others), and we have her to thank for Show Boat's source material. Or you might know one of the movies based on her novels: Giant, Cimarron, Saratoga Trunk... the list goes on and on. Ferber didn't think too highly of those commercial adaptations of her work; she didn't mind the money, of course, but she wanted people to remember she was an artist, first and foremost. She had reason to believe that her impressive literary output would guarantee her immortality, because in her day she was as popular, and as prolific, as a novelist can be. But somehow her novels weren't passed down as popular diversions, and she seldom pops up on academic reading lists. In all honesty -- and speaking as someone who has read through an impressive stack of Edna Ferber volumes -- I can't say it's unjust that we've set Ferber's books aside. But it is a little surprising, if only because she was so very popular at one time. I thought often, as I was working on that piece, how horrified she would be if she could see what has become of her legacy.

Speaking ill of The Departed

Finally saw The Departed, and though the time for buzzing about this film has long since passed (Ha! Passed! Get it?), I'll share my thoughts anyway. I didn't see all of the nominated films this year (though I did better than I usually do), but I am still inclined to quibble with The Departed's Oscar wins.

The screenplay was really not that exciting or clever or coherent. The movie was edited so skittishly that most of the time, I felt like I was watching a recap reel ("previously on The Departed...") instead of the actual movie. The direction -- well, I can't pretend to know much about Scorsese's body of work up to this point, and I don't feel like I know much about him now, but I really wouldn't say this was distinguished work.

On the other hand, I liked the cast a lot; nearly everyone was better than I expected, with the exception of Alec Baldwin, who was his usual puffy, oily self, and Mark Wahlberg, who was just too twerpy for the role. (Not sure where that Oscar nod came from.) Nicholson took me by surprise with his accent, his mannerisms, his approach to the character -- I'm not sure whether I thought the choices he made were good ones, but the fact that he made those choices, when I was expecting his standard act, was enough to keep me entertained. So I'm not saying I wasted an evening -- if I hadn't known the movie was a major award-winner, I'd have enjoyed it well enough. But the plot was hard to follow, only sometimes in a good way -- and after a while, I started to suspect that it wasn't intricately constructed, as it wanted me to believe, but rather made up on the fly, with a double-agent revelation and/or a sudden execution every time the screenwriters got bored. All the action couldn't keep me from watching the clock, hoping this latest twist would be the ultimate twist, so I could go to bed. (I was also a little distracted by all the Sprint and Dell product placements.) Its grand "themes" were self-indulgent and unconvincing, and the "romantic" subplot was patronizing and silly -- I'd have preferred not to see women at all, if that's what passes for a centering female presence in this world. In the end, diverting though it was, The Departed didn't strike me as Best Picture material. To my eyes, the comparison set up by that visual reference to The Third Man in the final scenes of this movie wasn't all that flattering; it just enhanced my impression that The Departed is more interesting for its trivia facts, its star-studded cast, its will-Scorsese-finally-win buzz, than for its basic merit. And somehow I feel like we've let posterity down.

However, I acknowledge that my idea of what "Best Picture" should mean is not at all grounded in the award's actual history, and I further acknowledge that action/suspense/organized crime isn't my favorite genre. What do you think? Am I just out of my depth, genre-wise? Should I check out Scorsese's reputedly superior films?