Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mind the crap

If you're ever a visitor to our fine city and you're looking for a truly miserable place to spend some time, may I suggest the uptown 1 train platform at the Columbus Circle subway station? If it's a purgatorial experience you're after, this spot is tough to beat, especially in hot weather. It's curved, so the trains pulling in, or passing by on the express track, squeal horribly. And the entrance on the southeast corner of 59th Street and 7th Avenue is a literal tourist trap: no transit worker in the booth, ever, means there are always looooong lines of people trying to figure out how to work the Metrocard vending machines, and once they manage to purchase their fares, they have to figure out how to operate the confounding floor-to-ceiling grates that are the only entrance options available. Even if they get past both of those obstacles, they enter a tiny space with little signage -- you will always find a cluster of tourists standing just inside the turnstiles, staring at a subway map, squinting down the narrow platform, and ultimately trying to decide which of the non-tourists standing nearby looks harmless enough to approach for help.

So this platform is one of the system's least pleasant for a number of reasons. (And did I mention it's a high-traffic spot?) But there's one factor I'd like to focus on right now, the thing that really puts it over the top. And that's the never-ending, glacially paced, and seldom actually in progress construction that has turned the entire 59th Street station into a disaster area, and has made this particular platform a daily exercise in frustration for me for more than two years now.

A little background, courtesy of some people who went beyond just wondering what the hell they're doing at Columbus Circle and actually did some research. 2nd Avenue Sagas wrote a little piece on the reconstruction project here, in April 2007. (The link to the project site is broken, but you can find it at the Dattner Architects website, under "Infrastructure.") And last August they checked back in, noting that the station was "a huge disaster." The situation has been a topic of complaint for some time for The Subway Blogger: here in October (man, every word of that is true), and here earlier this week. The links above say this whole project is not due to be complete till 2009 (although what I found on the Dattner site says 2008) -- a reasonable deadline, given their round-the-clock schedule of not working on it. I don't know when it all started, but I do know I've been getting on and off the 1 train at Columbus Circle on an almost daily basis (and very often multiple times per day) since I started dating the husband -- so let's say since the beginning of 2006 -- and I can't remember a time when it wasn't a major hassle and a considerable safety hazard. Here's a great shot of what the station looked like from the outside in September 2006. And I can tell you for certain that the 1 train platform has been reduced to a narrow strip since at least last fall, because when this article by David W. Dunlap was published in the NYT on November 2, 2007, I remember thinking, That's interesting, but you probably should have pulled it off your "human interest stories to put on the front page when we don't have any real news" pile a little sooner, because those tiles you're telling people to check out have been hidden behind a blue construction wall for weeks now. (Bonus sloppy journalism expose!)

Which brings me to my latest tale of woe. Last night, after work, I wanted to see my sister and her family, just back from Europe. The kids are still fighting jet lag, so I knew I had to rush to get there before their 7:00 bedtime. I hurried to Columbus Circle to take the 1 train uptown. When I got there, I could tell by the number of people pouring out of the (narrowed-by-construction) exit that the train now in the station must have been packed to its gills, and sure enough, when it pulled out there were still people standing on the platform who hadn't been able to squeeze themselves on. This was rush hour, and the 1 train is a popular one, and 59th Street is a major hub. So no big surprise there. But if you want to have any hope of getting onto a train under those conditions, you have to make your way along the platform to a not-too-crowded spot, away from the entrances where most people clump. I'm not telling you anything radical here; it's standard operating procedure for any intelligent, fairly nimble commuter. You walk down the platform. But that's a challenge on the uptown 1 train platform at 59th Street, because ongoing construction has narrowed all but about a quarter of said platform to a small strip of pavement, not quite wide enough for two-way traffic, especially when people are already lined up for the next train. The only areas that are adequately wide are right in front of the two entrances at either end of the platform, which bottleneck under the best of circumstances. So you have to be careful, and sure-footed, and much more considerate than subway-riders are as a rule, and even so you have to walk outside the yellow line you're supposed to "stand behind" just to get where you need to go.

As I said, this has been the situation on this platform since last fall at the latest, and I think, in some form, for a lot longer than that. I used to see or hear some work going on behind the big blue walls occasionally, but I never do now. Not in the morning, not in the afternoon, not in the evening or at night. The only indication I've seen that any MTA employees have been there at all was the sudden appearance of signs a while back -- not just the standard, ridiculous "RESTRICTED CLEARANCE AREA" signs (I love those; it's like they're hoping the lingo will catch on and we'll all start talking about the "RCAs"), but more direct variations that say, "NO STANDING." I remember the first time I saw those signs. I laughed ruefully and thought, Oh, really? You mean this is not safe place to stand? Well, gee, thank you for making me aware of that fact. How helpful. I guess I'll just not take a train, then, since that applies to three quarters of this platform.

Back to last night. Usually a really, really crowded (and therefore most likely delayed) train is followed immediately by a not-so-crowded train, so I figured I wouldn't be waiting long, and made myself as comfortable and not-in-the-way as I could on the narrow part of the platform, standing near a column for security. And then I heard a voice bark, "Don't stand there!" I looked up to see a man in an orange vest -- an MTA employee -- addressing the woman standing against the next pillar down, moving her along with a shooing motion like she was a bum squatting in a hotel lobby, although she was in fact wearing a graduation gown. Then he turned to me and snapped, "Miss, you can't stand there!"

My reaction, naturally: astonishment, annoyance, disgust, more or less in that order. Some of that must have flashed across my face, because as I walked away, he said, "I guarantee you, when you fall on the tracks you won't give me that look!"

You might not know it from all the journalist-baiting and presumptuous opinion-giving and irate ranting about the subway and Postal Service I do here, but in real life I'm a very nonconfrontational person. Not a trouble-starter. Not a giver of hard times. And so I resisted the urge to wheel around and give this guy a piece of my mind. But I regretted that decision immediately, and my regret grew as I stood there on the platform, fuming, sweating, jockeying for a place to stand in the supposedly "safe" area near the tourist-trap entrance, which was getting more crowded by the second, and watching as not one but two trains came and went, with no room for me, or for any but the pushiest of the people waiting with me. (I was wrong, by the way, that another train would come along any minute; in fact, it took at least 10 minutes for the next one to show up.) I had lots of time to think about what I should have said to that guy in the orange vest, Johnny Public Servant with his helpful suggestions. And if I could go back to that moment and hear him sneer, "I guarantee you, when you fall on the tracks you won't give me that look!" I know just what I would answer:

"I guarantee you, if I fall on the tracks, the MTA can expect a lawsuit, because the state of this platform is inexcusable. You think I don't know it's not safe to stand here? It's incredibly unsafe, and it's been this way for at least a year! I'm not waiting here because I think it's fun to get dangerously close to the tracks. I'm here because it's rush hour, and the trains are held up as usual, and I'd like to get where I'm going sometime tonight, and if I stand in the very small portion of this platform that is still considered 'safe,' I will end up in a large crowd of people who will push to get on the train, and the only ones who will actually make it are the ones standing dangerously close to the tracks. And I won't be any safer there than I am here, but at least here I have a shot at getting on the train when it comes. So spare me your attitude, because scofflaw commuters are not the MTA's biggest problem right now. And if you, or the MTA, gave two shits about my safety or the safety of any other person on this platform, you would fix the problem instead of hassling commuters like me who are making the best of a bad situation. Dealing with this bullshit every single day is bad enough; don't insult my intelligence with a condescending lecture and a sign that says 'NO STANDING.' That's not customer service, it's a disgrace."

Yeah, it probably wouldn't have helped any. And it wouldn't have given me any more time to spend with my nephews and niece. But man, it would have made me feel better.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Nobody gets me

I'm working on a longer post for all you folks, but I'm a bit busy at the moment -- or, as my officemate might say, I'm literally tied up at work. In the meantime, if you haven't read David Javerbaum's "Dear Tony Voters..." letter at, now is as good a time as any. (Yes, the Tonys are over, and yes, so is Cry-Baby, but it will still make you laugh.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Overheard at work

"...I'd really like to change it, but my hands are literally tied."


Granted, that would be a good excuse, if it were true. But I don't think you should lie to people just because you're on the phone.

In related news: God bless these people and the important work they do.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Why can't you behave?

If I complained about every case of bad audience-member etiquette I witness in my theater jaunts, I'd never get around to talking about the show. But at the end of last week I ran into a few exceptional cases that I really think you need to hear about.

First, on Thursday, I went to a preview performance of the Roundabout's revival of The Marriage of Bette and Boo. I'll talk about the play separately; for now I just want to focus on the experience of seeing it on that particular night, with that particular audience. The first thing I noticed, as I was taking my seat in the Laura Pels Theatre, was that the audience included director Walter Bobbie and, a few rows behind me, playwright Christopher Durang. Perhaps knowing that made me hypersensitive to audience-etiquette issues; it was certainly an odd experience to be sitting directly in view of the playwright while watching his play. But this would have been a notable evening under any circumstances. You had, first of all, your standard "people talking out loud to their companions as though they were at home watching television." But that's to be expected when you're at a not-for-profit, subscription-based theatre; subscribers seem to feel it's their prerogative to give feedback during the performance, instead of afterward. The elderly couple just behind me had no compunctions about sharing their thoughts with each other, in full voice, at several points during the performance; this was especially distracting because their thoughts tended to be hilarious. For example: there's a character in the play whose speech is completely unintelligible -- one of those Durang flourishes. Everything he says is a mush of vowels, although he goes on talking as though nothing were wrong. At one point in the second act -- this was after some ninety minutes of the play had elapsed, at which point the conceit was long established -- the old lady said to her husband, "He sounds just like Justin." For the rest of the scene, I wondered: Who is Justin? And, have you considered writing a play about your life? Because if this world feels familiar to you, I think you might just give Durang a run for his money.

This let's-all-talk-out-loud routine also gave rise to a skirmish -- in the front row -- that I was afraid might lead to violence. ("Shut the F up!" "What's your problem?!" etc.) It went on for most of the first scene. It's a good thing the actors can't see or hear anything that happens past the edge of the stage, because they just might find a thing like that distracting.

But the Audience Jackass award goes to the men a couple rows behind me, sitting dead center in what were basically the best seats in the house. Great view of the stage -- and, since it's a small theatre, the stage had a great view of them. They were middle-aged businessmen, wearing suits and bright red ties (both of them, I think). And every once in a while, they decided to have a conversation. I'd be watching the play, and then all of a sudden I'd hear a competing dialogue coming from behind me. Hostile stares did nothing to deter these guys; they didn't even seem to realize other people were present. And then, during the second act, the talking went on so long that I turned around to see that one of the guys was on his phone. And it wasn't a fumble-for-the-cell, "I can't talk, I'm at a play!" situation (although that's horrifying enough). This guy was carrying on a conversation, totally at his leisure, and cupping the headset mouthpiece in his hands like that made it okay.

I was sort of hoping someone -- an actor, Walter Bobbie, Christopher Durang -- would stop the performance to call the guy out and eject him from the theatre at that point. Part of me wondered if that person should be me. But although half the audience turned to stare at this guy, the show continued, and as far as I know, he is still at large today. For all I know, he may be one of the Roundabout's biggest donors. But he's still an incredible asshole.

On Friday night, the husband and I went to the Beacon Theatre to see a Steely Dan concert. (His choice -- but I'm not ashamed to admit I've had "Peg" stuck in my head for days now, and don't you try to pretend you don't love "Reelin' in the Years.") The tickets were pricey, but that's the kind of venue in which I prefer to see live music. I don't enjoy the whole crowded-club, standing-all-night, too-loud speakers, two-drink-minimum, drunks-spilling-beer-on-you scene; I'd much rather have a seat in a theatre with good acoustics and watch the show like the civilized wet blanket I am. Since Steely Dan attracts a largely baby-boomer crowd, I figured we were in for a pretty low-key evening. But there was at least one person in attendance who would have preferred to be seeing the band in the aforementioned crowded club -- and guess where her seat was? Directly in front of mine! Lucky me! Actually, I'm not sure which seat was "hers," because she switched with her two male companions multiple times during the evening. (Plus, one or another of them was always on the way to or from the concessions stand for more drinks.) But she was in front of the husband and me, already plainly drunk even before she started on the first of the four drinks she downed during the show. And when they launched into "Hey Nineteen," she let out a drunken "Wooooo!" and stood up to dance. And stayed standing up, writhing like a pole dancer, even though not another soul in the entire orchestra section was on his or her feet. You'd be surprised how effectively one skinny drunk girl can block the view of the stage. Sharp, annoyed whistles and shouts of "Down in front!" came from behind us, followed by louder cries of "SIT DOWN!" which our dancing friend seemed not to hear. It was as though the pressure and shame that should have reached her was falling just short of her and landing in my lap. This went on for the entire song; this girl wiggling her hips and waving her arms, and everyone behind her fuming and sending mental beams of hate in her direction. So, when the song ended, my very patient husband tapped her on the shoulder and asked, in his unfailingly courteous way, if she would mind sitting down so that the people behind her could see.

You've probably already figured out that she was not the type of person who would say, "Oh dear, in my great enthusiasm I didn't realize I was interfering with everyone else's enjoyment of the show! Thank you for bringing that to my attention!" No, she was the type of person to sneer and say, "No! I want to stand! ...I don't care if nobody else is standing up! That's their problem!" Like, social contract? I never signed any social contract! (Her friends didn't seem to feel strongly either way; they pretended not to notice any of this was going on.) The woman next to me was so angry she went to find the usher. But fortunately, despite her outward defiance, Hey Nineteen girl did keep her butt in the seat after that. (Well, until they played "Black Friday," toward the end of the show. But, man, it's like, they're playing "Black Friday," is Friday! You gotta stand up for that, man! Like, what are the odds?!) I'm sure that was just because she wanted to sit down, though. She was still right.

I wondered whether the usher would have had the authority to do anything (if he hadn't been busy running around telling people to turn off their cameras). And I found that the Beacon has a surprisingly detailed, and slightly absurdist, code of conduct:
We ask all guests to be respectful of others around them. Any guest who interferes with the enjoyment of another individual during an event is subject to ejection from the building. During performances we ask all guests to remain seated for the duration of the performance. Depending on the demographics of certain events (such as concerts), standing may be accepted as normal protocol. Guests are permitted to stand if the majority of the audience is doing the same. Some entertainers will instruct the Beacon Theatre staff not to ask anyone to sit down during their performance.
"Guests are permitted to stand if the majority of the audience is doing the same." If you think about that too hard, it might just blow your mind.

Friday, June 20, 2008

You were expecting a rave?

We usually speak scornfully of shooting fish in a barrel. But what if the fish are asking for it, and you have an artful way with a rifle?

From A.O. Scott's review of the new Mike Myers movie, The Love Guru:
A whole new vocabulary seems to be required. To say that the movie is not funny is merely to affirm the obvious. The word “unfunny” surely applies to Mr. Myers’s obnoxious attempts to find mirth in physical and cultural differences but does not quite capture the strenuous unpleasantness of his performance. No, “The Love Guru” is downright antifunny, an experience that makes you wonder if you will ever laugh again.
Ironically, reading that made me laugh out loud. Thank you, A.O. Scott, for beginning the healing process!

ETA: Honorable mention goes to Dana Stephens over at Slate, finding her own vocabulary to express The Love Guru's awfulness in her review:
...Once in a while there is a movie so bad that it takes you to a place beyond good and evil and abandons you there, shivering and alone. ...This tale of a guru who brings joy to all who meet him is the most joy-draining 88 minutes I've ever spent outside a hospital waiting room.

ETA again: Had to add a few more! At Time Out New York, Joshua Rothkopf says The Love Guru is:
An oh-my-God-level disaster that’ll make you wonder if Hollywood actually hates us.

At the Fresno Bee, Donald Munro has come up with another evocative metaphor:
By foisting the appalling "The Love Guru" on his public, Mike Myers -- who used to be funny -- sticks his head in a toilet and then tries to give the audience a big, sloppy kiss.

I also loved MaryAnn Johanson's disdain of the film's "nonstop references to the male sexual organ apparently aimed at those who are unfamiliar with its general characteristics and several uses," and most especially the title of her review: "Holy Shit."

It never crossed my mind that this movie might be at all entertaining (I haven't been amused by a Mike Myers vehicle since Wayne's World), but I must say I'm really enjoying the reviews.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What price beauty?

One of the nice things about freelancing at big consumer magazines, as I do from time to time, is that the magazines receive lots of free samples of products, from books to CDs to nail polish, and now and then said products are available for me to take home. I've nabbed some wonderful things from give-away tables: my current jewelry box, a cute little purselike tote (it has a logo on it for some sort of diet beverage that I've decided no one will recognize), a handful of CDs I wouldn't have paid for but enjoy owning, and, most recently, a picture book for my niece (who loves it every bit as much as she would if I'd paid for it). I'm a dedicated and unapologetic browser of giveaway tables; I consider it a major perk of the job.

Most of the magazines I've worked for are women's magazines, so in addition to all the usual review copies and promotional gifts that entertainment and culture editors accumulate, they also collect vast quantities of beauty products. (You can always locate a beauty editor's desk; it's the one buried under piles of makeup and perfume and shampoo-and-conditioner sets and revolutionary new at-home hair-removal products.) The magazines' beauty departments test, photograph or simply ignore all this stuff, and when they no longer have room to store it, they unload it in all-proceeds-go-to-charity sales. In the magazine-office world, these sales are MAJOR EVENTS. They attract long lines of women (and men, but mostly women), clutching small bills, panting at the thought of filling their arms with name-brand shampoos and self-tanners and mineral makeup, all going for bargain-basement prices. At one magazine where I freelanced, you had to sign up for a time slot just to be admitted to the conference room where all this stuff was laid out. The competition was not for the faint of heart.

Some months ago, at one of these sales, I picked up a new product from Aveeno. I'm always, theoretically, in the market for a good face wash/skin-improving technique, but the expense involved in testing something new, especially on my very, very sensitive skin, keeps me from branching out much beyond plain old Cetaphil. But I've had good luck with Aveeno products, sensitivity-wise, so when I saw this Aveeno Skin-Brightening Daily Scrub going for a single dollar, I figured it was worth a try. "This daily facial scrub helps improve skin tone, texture and clarity to reveal brighter, more radiant skin," the website's product description promises. And it's true! It scrubs! It brightens! It smells nice! I noticed an improvement immediately, and the irritated reaction I was expecting never came. I loved it so much I was prepared to pay the full price (usually between $8 and $9) to replace my $1 container when it ran out. And then, yesterday, I read this article, in which environmentally conscious party-pooper Hillary Rosner explains that my beloved Aveeno Skin-Brightening Daily Scrub might as well be called Aveno Ocean-Life-Killing Daily Scrub and Earth-Destroyer. Oh, she doesn't name this product or brand specifically, but I had a sinking feeling that, if I checked the ingredients list, I'd find the offending polyethylene. And I was right. The "smooth, round microbeads" that "gently exfoliate while [I] cleanse" could be toxic to ocean life. I am not especially fond of the class of animals that Rosner describes as "invertebrates near the base of the food chain," but I don't want to poison them with plastic, either. So, Aveeno, until you switch to something biodegradable, I guess it's back to my former, non-exfoliating face washes. Maybe I'll pick up something new at the next beauty sale... But I'll check the label first.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The king of wishful thinking

One of the handful of TWoPpers discussing the Tony telecast posted a link to Lin-Manuel Miranda's YouTube channel, which is how I found this. Required viewing for In the Heights fans, and for anyone who was once 9 or 10 years old.

Make sure you watch till the end; it keeps getting better. I second the thoughts of the commenter who said, "Oh. My. God. Now I love him even more."

Of course, after I watched this, the song was stuck in my head for the rest of the day, and I had to look up the name of the band. Could you come up with "Go West"? Their other big hit was "Faithful," which I remembered as soon as I heard the opening notes. Wikipedia says "The King of Wishful Thinking" came out in 1990, by the way, so the video's date is a little too early. Not that this makes it any less awesome.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tony follow-up thoughts

So, obviously, In the Heights won big on Sunday night. But even if it hadn't taken home the top prize, I suspect it would have seen a major box-office bump after the telecast, thanks to Miranda's endearing and attention-getting acceptance speech and their terrific musical number. I rewatched it last night, and the camerawork drove me crazy (as it usually does) -- Andy Blankenbuehler deserved that Best Choreography Tony, but you couldn't tell from all the random close-ups and cuts on TV. When multiple people were singing, the cameras didn't know what to do. I think that's a good time to show the whole stage, but what do I know. Still, in spite of how badly it was shot, the number came across really well: it featured most of the cast, and it gave new audiences a solid picture of what the show is about, what it looks like and how it sounds. And it was exciting.

By that same token, Passing Strange missed out in a big way on Sunday, and not just because its only win (for Best Book of a Musical) wasn't shown live. I've been turned off all along by the attitude I've heard from Stew and his fellow creators in interviews -- a lot of "we don't really belong on Broadway" and "we're not really doing a Broadway musical" stuff, which comes off, to me at least, as not terribly grateful, and also ignorant of what "Broadway musical" really means (as opposed to what people not actually involved in the world of Broadway musicals sometimes assume it means). A lot of people, at TWoP and elsewhere, have been hearing it the same way, and what we saw (or didn't see) on the Tonys didn't help: Stew being unprepared to give a speech when he won his award; Stew wearing goofy glasses when his Leading Actor in a Musical nomination was announced. But the musical number was where Passing Strange really failed, I think. Yesterday, commenter Mariusky said, "I totally do not get Passing Strange." I felt the same way, honestly, right up until I actually saw it (I promise you'll hear about that soon!). I'd heard good things, but I couldn't get any idea of what was so special about it from what I'd read or seen. And if I hadn't seen it before the Tonys, I wouldn't be in any more of a hurry now, after seeing that number. (I was similarly underwhelmed by "Mom Song" when I saw it on the "Tonys Preview Concert" last week -- but then, that whole thing was underwhelming at best.) They did a cutting of "Amsterdam" -- I think? -- that didn't tell much of the story, and made the music seem repetitive and the staging haphazard. It was high-energy, but it didn't seem polished, and it didn't really show off any of the performers as well as it might have. I don't know what I would have done if I had to produce Passing Strange's Tony performance, but it wouldn't have been that.

The evening's other big loser, despite a few major wins, might have been Boeing-Boeing -- its Best Revival of a Play Tony wasn't even broadcast, and nothing during the show, including Mark Rylance's baffling "speech," gave TV audiences any clue what the show is about or why they should want to see it. Meanwhile, Xanadu won nothing, but made the most of the opportunity. Their number represented the show perfectly, and Cheyenne Jackson's powerhouse performance has so many people chattering about him, his ears will be ringing for days. Way to work the system, Xanadu.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Tonys Without Pity

Last night was actually a bit of a disappointment, from a would-be snarky recapper's perspective... because from a theatre-lover's perspective, this year's Tony telecast was pretty satisfying! The winners weren't all my personal choices, but none were undeserving, either. And some of the numbers actually looked and sounded pretty good! Still, I did my best to cover the event with a jaundiced eye for TWoP:
8:04: Why, it's host Whoopi Goldberg, wearing an inappropriate costume! Once so unexpected, and now so comfortingly familiar! Much like Julie Taymor's staging of The Lion King!
Check out my recap of the evening's highlights and lowlights at Television Without Pity. And let me know what you thought about everything, either in the TWoP forums or here in the comments!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Tony night!

Happy Father's Day, everybody, and Happy Tonys Night! I managed to squeeze in trips to all of the "Best Musical" nominees, and a few nominated plays, in time for tonight's telecast, and in retrospect I think it's been a pretty exciting year on Broadway. You might not be able to tell from what you see on TV tonight, but fortunately I no longer have to depend on television for my Broadway fix.

There are a few categories where I'm torn, and a few more where I'm expecting my personal picks to lose out. But you'll hear about all that later. Tonight I'll be recapping the highs and lows of the broadcast for TWoP -- I'll let you know when it's up, so we can trade notes! In the meantime, enjoy the show.

UPDATE: My TWOP recap is here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

My greatest service to humanity

It's happening again! The search for the four-letter, three-vowel "Shakespearean troublemaker" is leading record numbers of Googlers to Restricted View. I wonder, is it the same syndicated puzzle, appearing anew in places from Potomac, MD, to North Liberty, IA, to McCordsville, IN, to Chillicothe, MO, to Apopka, FL, to Dodge City, KS, to Grapevine, TX, to Cebu City, Philippines? Or did another puzzle reuse the clue?

I welcome my new crossword-puzzle-doing readers. I'm glad I (or at least my commenters) could help you fill in those stubborn boxes. And once again I pose the question to you all: is it cheating to Google a crossword clue? Levi says yes. What say you?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

My scheme is working!

This morning, someone in Bristol, England, reached this post of mine via this search. I'm guessing this is your first crossword puzzle? Remember this one, friend, because it's going to come up a lot: EMU.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

From such great heights

A few days ago I was talking to a friend about In the Heights, which I'd just seen. "It feels really...fresh," I told him. "That's just what so-and-so said," he replied. Another friend and theatre enthusiast came along a minute later and heard us mention the show. "I liked it!" he said. "It's really fresh."

There's a reason that word keeps coming up. A new musical on Broadway that isn't a direct or indirect attempt to recreate the success of something else, full of sounds, sights, faces and subjects that you don't expect to find on a Broadway stage! In the Heights is all that, and it feels completely new and borderline miraculous. And it's all the more amazing that Lin-Manuel Miranda (who wrote the songs, came up with the concept and plays the central role) and the rest of the creative team have managed to make something fresh out of such familiar ingredients. There's one other word I've heard applied to this show in casual conversations, and that word is "formulaic." And make no mistake, the book of In the Heights is as old-fashioned and formulaic as they come. But somehow that doesn't take away from the exhilaration of seeing this show come to life onstage -- in fact, the show's reliance on tried-and-true storytelling and musical-theatre convention provide a solid footing for its more inventive elements.

The show is set in New York City, but not the fantasy, once-upon-a-time New York of On the Town or Wonderful Town or even West Side Story. It's set in a neighborhood that feels totally authentic and totally current, populated by people I could have seen on the subway this weekend, heading for the Puerto Rican Day parade. Miranda's music collects the various sounds of that neighborhood, Latin music and hip-hop and people shouting in Spanglish, and turns them into a vehicle for telling a story. Yes, the book can make the Washington Heights block in question feel a bit too much like Sesame Street, but the music, the set, the costumes, the dancing all have an up-to-the minute rawness that makes the characters hard to resist.

Compared to Miranda's accomplished and inventive score, Quiara Alegria Hudes's book underwhelms and underperforms, but she has managed to salt the dialogue with Spanish in a way that usually feels authentic, rather than stiff and hokey. The plot is largely predictable, and most of the major plot points are telegraphed noisily long before they occur. There are a few surprising twists, moments when the plot seems poised to shoot off in a new and unanticipated direction, but they fizzle out almost as quickly as they occur. I don't want to give anything away, but there's a moment when it becomes clear that one character is about to come into some major luck, but you don't know who. I assumed the rest of the show would make much dramatic hay out of the difficult question of which character most deserves it. didn't; the revelation in the second act was practically an afterthought. So that was weird. But if the dramatic structure is weak, the other creative elements make up for it. Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography is magnificent. Most of the actors are wonderful, particularly Miranda himself and the two female leads, Karen Olivo and Mandy Gonzalez. The show would have a much greater emotional impact if all of the casting were as strong, but there are a couple of major weak spots. Carlos Gomez, as Kevin, is distractingly amateur; the first time he's left alone onstage he actually looks a little terrified by the prospect of singing his solo, and he's even less convincing when he's just a member of the ensemble (once, after singing a few lines during the first-act finale, he dropped character and started to walk offstage before the spotlight on him had even cut out). And I was completely gobsmacked when I found out, after I got home from the show, that Olga Merediz is Tony nominated in the role of Abuela Claudia. Every time she was onstage I felt like I was watching a high school play -- you know how there's always one heavyset teenager, eager but not very talented, who puts on an ill-fitting wig and paints some crow's-feet around his or her eyes and plays the show's resident elder? That's what her performance reminded me of. A nervous 16-year-old in a padded blouse playing Mrs. Brownlow in Oliver. A more commanding, controlled presence in either or both of those roles would help to make the plot as compelling as the choreography.

The show occasionally raises the specter of gentrification, redevelopment and class resentment, but wisely keeps any representatives of that world offstage. There are no outsider characters, no villains, for the residents of this neighborhood to react against, which prevents the audience from dividing into Us and Them. Everybody in the theatre identifies with Usnavi and Nina and Vanessa and the rest, without thinking about it; the familiar formulas are a way in for those patrons who, as the opening song jokes, never go above 96th Street. Meanwhile, there were a couple of large groups of kids there who looked like they might have come from Washington Heights -- or somewhere north of 96th -- the night I saw the show. I passed them on my way in to the theatre, as they were tittering with excitement; I heard their delighted bursts of laughter when they caught a joke in Spanish, or a reference to their country of origin, or a whiff of romance between the leading characters; I saw them clustered around the stage door, hoping to meet their new heroes, on my way home. And I could feel their energy throughout the performance, as they discovered how electrifying theatre can be; how it can illuminate your own experiences, how it can surprise you and make you laugh and cry and think; how amazing it is to watch super-talented performers acting, dancing and singing right in front of you. It doesn't matter what part of the city, or the world, you come from -- to see that version of New York life, of American life, on the Broadway stage is refreshing; and to see it celebrated on the Broadway stage is thrilling.

P.S. In his review, Michael Feingold does a lovely job of putting all this in the context of musical-theatre history.

UPDATE: I wrote a professional review of In the Heights for Commonweal (subscribers-only). To read other Restricted View posts about the show, click here.

Monday, June 9, 2008

I'm infected

In the midst of my trips to a number of nominated shows, I found time for a second trip to see Cry-Baby. I remain bewildered by the lack of enthusiasm I've seen, at least in the reviews I read, for the quality of the songwriting in this musical. The first time I saw it, I went in prepared to cut it some slack; I wasn't expecting genius, and I was willing to settle for anything better than what passes for an "original score" over at Legally Blonde. But no slack-cutting was necessary. There were no sloppy punctuation or grammar errors, or lyrics where unstressed syllables fell on stressed notes, or "witty" list songs that lacked anything approaching wit, or musical passages lifted directly from preexisting songs, or "rhymes" that are not rhymes, or any of the other distracting tics I have seen songwriters get away with on Broadway recently. The second time, having been surprised by the dismissive comments in the reviews, I went in thinking I might have been too easily impressed the first time. But I found the score every bit as enjoyable as I'd remembered -- more, in fact, because the writers have made a few changes since then, and they're all good ones. The performance of Cry-Baby I saw last week was an improvement in nearly every way over the one I saw back when they were just starting previews.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Oh, why doth time so quickly fly?

I am trying to make good on my vow to see as many Tony contenders as I can before the big night, and that's been keeping me so busy I haven't had time to blog about it. I'm hoping to fix that between now and next Sunday. Some other stuff I've been busy with: Work! Same old same old for the moment, but that may change. And jogging! I'm sticking to my brand-new, lightweight exercise "routine" so far. My route is short and my endurance underwhelming, but I'm feeling proud of myself. ("That was quick!" said our doorman, when he saw me return, sweaty and flushed, not very long after I'd passed him on my way out. Good thing I'm not trying to impress him.)

Also, this weekend I went back to campus for my five-year college reunion. The husband and I just took the train in for a day, which was plenty for me. Seeing a lot of familiar faces in a familiar space was certainly fun, but it seemed like something was missing, namely all the other people who were around, and who were my friends, during my time in college -- the people in the three classes before and the three classes after my own. Some of my favorite people from my Yale years were slightly older or younger than I, and were therefore not members of the class of 2003, through no fault of their own. So they weren't in attendance this weekend. There were other people around, of course, from other classes that ended in 3 and 8 -- but since the reunions are spaced in 5-year increments, there's no way you'll run into anyone from another class that overlapped with your own. So they were all strangers (and there's a weird tension between the 10-year and 5-year reunion attendees: you find yourself squinting at the person coming toward you, trying to decide whether you know him, and then you realize he's not from your class and you get scowly because you wasted time and energy on trying to recognize him). However, I am fortunate in that one of my abovementioned favorite people not in my class actually lives in New Haven, so the husband and I skipped the "class dinner" and had dinner with her instead. I guess you could say we beat the system. (I guess you could also say we paid for our dinners twice. But I prefer not to think of it that way.)

And speaking of favorite people, I'd like to thank Stephen for calling my attention to this video, which combines two of my very favorite things: Charlie Bit Me and Jason Robert Brown. Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Is a Puzzlement

Yesterday, this blog received the most pageloads of any day in its illustrious history. Never has Restricted View been accessed so many times in one 24-hour period, not even at the height of the great Colapinto Explosion of June 2007. (Can you believe it's been a year? Yet I will never tire of the traffic that post brings me.) This means, of course, that I should consider switching to an all-crossword-puzzle-answers, all-the-time format, since that, and not obsessive, unsolicited arts criticism, nor complaints about my struggles with the Postal Service, is what the public wants. The statistics speak for themselves.

I don't make a habit of checking my stats the moment I get up in the morning, I swear, but I happened to do so yesterday, and I was amused to see a handful of people scattered across the country ending up here via the same weird keyword search. I love to ponder what makes people search for the things that bring them to me, and how disappointed they must be when they get here -- see this old post for more on that phenomenon -- and so when I figured out what was probably inspiring this mass-Googling, I posted to that effect and forgot all about it until after lunch, when I checked in with StatCounter again and was astonished by my high visitor count. Perusing the visitor history was a strangely heartwarming, it's-a-small-world-after-all moment. I had hits from Akron, NY; Barrow, AK; Charleston, IL (motto: "The other Charleston!"); Martinez, GA; Beaver Dam, WI; Blunt, SD; Flower Mound, TX; Liberty, MS; Longmont, CO; Shakopee, MN; Tonganoxie, KS; Winston-Salem, NC; Ontario; British Columbia; and Trinidad and Tobago. All of you working on the same puzzle, which I found here, thanks to a comment from Stephanie of Ottawa. (By the way, 62 across is "Albee.")

Companies whose employees visited (or whose neighbors used available wireless to visit) include Bond, Schoneck & King in Syracuse; Ernst & Young LLP in Secaucus; Freemon Shapard & Story in Wichita Falls, TX; and Jones Day Reavis & Pogue, Richmond Breslin LLP, and Goldberg Weisman Cairo Ltd. in Chicago. Not to mention Sears Canada, Inc. and Jewish Vocational Services, both in North York, Ontario. Also WishTV-210 in Indianapolis, and something called "Iron Horse Safety Special" in Plano, TX.

Institutions of learning that sent visitors my way include NYC Public Schools, Brooklyn; Joan And Sanford I. Weill Medical College And Graduate School Of Medical Sciences Of Cornell University, Brooklyn; Grasso Votech, Groton, CT; Waterford Public Schools, Waterford, CT; University Of Missouri - Kansas City; Medical College of Georgia; University of Chicago; and Georgetown Technical in Georgetown, SC.

And official-sounding outfits whose employees are not above the occasional crossword include the Dept. of Veterans' Affairs in Los Angeles, CA; the U.S. Army Medical Information Technology Center in San Antonio, TX; the Board of Police Commissioners in Plano, TX; the County of Westchester in White Plains, NY; and the City of New York ( in... San Antonio, TX? Whatever, StatCounter.

Anyway, those of you who actually like my theatre-related ramblings and/or diary of Martha Plimpton sightings don't have to worry; I'm not really going to start blogging about crossword puzzle clues, exclusively or at all. But I may start embedding likely hints in my posts just to drive up traffic, in the hopes that some of you puzzle fans will like what you find here and keep coming back. I promise it won't become intrusive (flightless bird; thirteenth president; Wizard of Oz remake The___). Meanwhile, I am wondering: Have I exposed the dark underbelly of the world of North American syndicated-crossword-puzzle-solving? Do you puzzledoers consider it cheating to Google tricky clues? Or is that part of the process? After all, Google isn't always a silver bullet; you still have to hunt for the information you need. (Especially now that they've decided to automatically "correct" your spelling for you, instead of just asking whether you want them to... I hate that, Google. I hate it so much.) What do you think: Is a crossword puzzle an open-book exam?

P.S. The Republic author; "Thanks," to a Parisian; Not "hither," but ___.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Crossword clues

StatCounter tells me that so far this morning (and it's only 7:30), my blog has had five hits, from five different heartland locations, by people searching for the phrase "Shakespearean troublemaker." Are you all doing a crossword puzzle? If so, does it make you feel better to know that you're not the only one who Googles the clues when you get stuck? Anyway, I haven't seen your puzzle, but I'm pretty sure the name you're looking for is "Puck." Let me know if I'm wrong!

ETA: Turns out I was wrong... Four letters, yes, but it's not Puck (which I'm guessing is why SO MANY of you are ending up here in your search for help!). Check the comments below for the answer you want.