Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Not a complaint (for a change)

I had a positive customer-service experience this week (I know!), so I wanted to tell you about it, even though stories about getting screwed are so much more entertaining. I needed a new battery for my laptop, because after several years, the original one was only lasting about 35 minutes. And that interferes with my plans to leave the house once in a while and still get some writing done. So I did a little Googling and discovered that a replacement from Dell would cost me way too much, but I could get a refurbished one much cheaper from Yes, I know, that's a pretty sketchy URL. And I'm using "sketchy" the way we did when I was in college -- do the kids still talk like that? "Shady," essentially. Like, I might as well give my credit card number to Identity Theft Incorporated. Or But this place seemed legit, and I found some good reviews elsewhere. And, look, all these people came to their birthday party, and they look like they know a good deal when they see one, right? So I went ahead and bought my battery. It arrived a few days later, and once it was fully charged it told me I had some five hours of battery life. That's more like it!

Except that it still died after no more than 45 minutes. The only difference between the new battery and the old one was that the new one was more confident. It had delusions of grandeur.

So of course I was all grumbly, thinking I'd been ripped off, and I should have trusted my too-good-to-be-true instincts. I contacted them through their online form, complaining, but I didn't expect a response. And guess what? I got one! I almost missed it, since (of course) it went straight to my spam folder. The guy who wrote back apologized and said, "It sounds like it was defective, so we'll send a replacement." And they did! I got it yesterday, and now my laptop can keep on working for a few hours after I unplug it, just as God intended. So I recommend for all your discount electronics needs. Just make sure you check your spam folder.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Words fall through me

"This is the strangest cross-over between the Worthiverse and reality that I think I've ever seen."

So says Wanders, who blogs daily about Mary Worth, and I am inclined to agree. I'm guessing you haven't thought about this at all, but say you were to construct a speculative Venn diagram of "People who are familiar with the movie Once and/or independent Irish rock band the Frames" and "People who are familiar with Mary Worth (in a nonironic fashion)." You would probably project a very, very small overlapping space (which I guess you would label "Mary Worth readers who might recognize the song 'Falling Slowly'"). And yet Mary Worth herself is an enthusiastic Glen Hansard fan, if the July 27 strip is to be believed. Truly, we live in interesting times.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

To tell the truth

So I have this copy of Brideshead Revisited -- which, yes, was actually a novel once upon a time, even though you'd never know it from reading the advance press for the new movie version, all of which proceeds from the assumption that this film is based on the 1981 miniseries, which was so splendid that art essentially did not exist prior to that date. But anyway, I've been flipping through my old, non-movie-tie-in copy of the book lately and wondering what to make of the blurbs for this and other works by Waugh. On the cover, between the men's legs, is this quick endorsement:
"Waugh's finest achievement." - New York Times
And a blurb on the back agrees:
"This is Waugh's best. Can one say more of genius?"
- E.L. Lewis, Library Journal
Very well. But look what happens when you turn to the final page, the one labeled "Also by Evelyn Waugh":
"One of Evelyn Waugh's best..." - New York Times Book Review

"...Unquestionably the best book Mr. Waugh has written."
- Saturday Review

"...Mr. Waugh has never written more brilliantly."
- New York Times
I think this collection of praise is meant to make me want to read one, or all, of these reputed masterworks, but all that contradictory hyperbole leaves me feeling a bit dizzy. I have the uneasy sense that, when I close this book and put it back on the shelf, the various reviewers will begin to argue among themselves. I am tempted to maintain my conscientious objector status.

Supposing I do decide to read on, maybe you can advise me: What's your favorite Waugh? ...Ha ha, only joking! If God meant us to read, He wouldn't have given us television. I won't fight the zeitgeist: What's your favorite miniseries?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Marian the septuagenarian

Seen yesterday trying to exit Columbus Circle through one of those awful high entrance-exit turnstiles: Marian Seldes! (Obligatory list of things I have seen Marian Seldes in: Dinner at Eight, Beckett/Albee, Deuce, and an episode of Law & Order: SVU where she played a protective mother and memorably scolded Detective Stabler for being "bold as brass.") She was politely waiting on the platform until I came through, and I thought, Good heavens, Marian Seldes takes the subway? In this heat?! I have this unrealistic notion that theatre royalty should be treated more or less like actual royalty, at least in New York. And if Dana Ivey is regal, well, Marian Seldes is virtually celestial. It seems like she ought to be carried around the West Side on a litter, not left to fight her way out of the 59th Street station on a hot, muggy afternoon. I hope she at least got a seat on the train.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Exciting blog news

Chaucer's blog has been updated -- and rebranded!
This is nowe a blog that ys dedicated to bringing yow the hottest and moost up to date content about the worldes of entertaynment, political societee, hangings, filmes, culture, quarterings, and defense of the noble realme of Engelonde. Prepare to be virtuallye beaten ovir the head and neck by the sheere force of the hot and up to date content ye shall see on this blog. Ther shal be verye funnye thinges. The thinges ye shall see shal be so funnye they shall maken yow to “laughen out loude” (LOL).
It's the first time I've seen any action there since I added Chaucer to my Bloglines feed, and to quote Thomas Favent, "Ich am so totallie ypsyched."

Do you have a favorite RSS feed? I know a few of you have added me to yours, and I thank you humbly. Knowing you're not checking every morning to see whether I've updated makes me feel better when I fail to update. I only just caught on to the RSS thing recently, and my word, but it's a wonderful thing. It makes my procrastination time so much more productive! If you haven't figured it out yet (Mom), remind me to set one up for you. You won't regret it!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It don't make sense to me

These days a lot of people are filling up column space with benighted "think pieces" about social networking online and What It's Doing to Society and Why the Kids are So Into It and so on, and they usually turn out to have not very much to say, and probably a week's experience with having a profile of their own (which they set up right after they pitched the idea to an editor -- "Say, my kids spend a lot of time on this thing called 'the Facebook,' and I thought maybe I'd see what that's all about"). I always read stuff like this, and then at the end I'm annoyed because I didn't gain much insight, or entertainment, from reading it, and it took up time I could have spent messing around on Facebook. I like that article's intro, but it lost me after the first paragraph, because it stops describing anything I've ever experienced. This one, also from the NYT (your source for bemused "What will they think of next?" trend journalism), is a little bit better, but in the end they all leave me feeling cold, and a little bit condescended to.

If you have had the same experience, I'd like to call your attention to the latest entry at Jason Robert Brown's blog: "The Perils of an Online Life." It helps that he starts out with something concrete to say -- namely, if you're my Facebook Friend but I don't actually know you, don't be surprised/offended if you get axed. But from there he spins out a really entertaining and even insightful-without-being-smug essay on the social networking experience, and the repercussions of Facebook's user-base expanding, age-wise, both up and down. (I linked once to a post he wrote about his particular brand of fame -- that's good background for this one.) I can remember when I was one of the oldest people on Facebook -- which started just after I graduated from college, and was then limited to college students. But now I'm very comfortably in the middle, and all the newbies are older than I am! Anyway, JRB says:
It should be obvious to the reader that I do not in fact have five thousand friends. I don't actually think I could cobble together the names of five thousand people I've met in my entire life. Five thousand is a lot of people. And I don't even like people. No, a Friend is someone who comes upon or searches out my Facebook account and asks to be linked to it. I don't really know what benefits accrue from this. I myself have asked to be several people's Facebook Friend, and all that it gets me is the opportunity to see whether they spend more time jerking around on Facebook than I do (the answer is no, with the possible exception of Deborah Abramson). So what you're really getting with a Facebook Friendship is a sort of approved association with someone; if you're a fan of Jason Robert Brown, becoming my Facebook Friend confers some kind of status upon you, I guess. You're not just a fan, you're not a stalker or a groupie, you're... well, you're a Friend. It's all very meta and Web 2.0 and new-media and of course the kids in my cast of "13" could explain it far better than I just did. Regardless, I am grateful for the fact that anyone desires that association, and clearly it is not an uncommon desire or my account wouldn't have maxed out. So there's the news: I'm popular for the first time in my life, and the Facebook Gestapo wants to stop me before I go too far and TAKE OVER THE WORLD.
I'm not worried about getting cut, because I'm not a "Friend" of JRB in the first place; I have a relatively strict people-I-actually-know policy on my "Friends" list. Of course, I actually have sort of met Mr. Brown, ahem, ahem... But I'm not one to claim "Friend"-ship with someone of whom I'm really just a fan, and now that I have the opportunity to be a "Fan" on Facebook, it just seems a little too dorky to actually make the request. So as of this writing I am a "Friend" only of people I actually know, and a "Fan" of no one and nothing. But that could change. The culture moves fast.

Meanwhile, in case you're curious: Like everyone else, I too have abandoned Friendster, even though it was a follow-up Friendster message that got my husband and me back in touch after our first meeting. (Six weeks after!) Armed only with my first name -- not even the correct spelling! -- and a few details about something I'd written, he put Google to work and ended up Friendster-mailing me. So I guess you could say we owe our marriage to Friendster, and I am grateful and all, but you have to stay with the times. As for MySpace, I totally agree with JRB's assessment. In fact, a while back he explained that he does not have a page there because "it looks like a 13-year-old girl's sleepover party threw up," or something equally lovely, and every time I log in I think of that image. I do have a profile there, but only because I use it to keep track of a few friends who have not yet made the switch to Facebook. Maybe now that Facebook has suddenly moved everything around (What the hell, Facebook?!), they'll make the switch and allow me to put my MySpace page out of its misery?

Speaking of Jason Robert Brown, I've finally gotten around to buying and listening to his album Wearing Someone Else's Clothes, and if you're a JRB fan you should probably already have it. All the super songwriting and intelligently confessional lyrics you've come to expect, plus lots of hammy piano-playing and a fun "Last Five Years" outtake. There's a song about his brother, "Nothing in Common," always makes me a little teary. I bet it will do the same for you.

And speaking of my husband (and his awesome online research skills): Happy Birthday!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Maybe the party's back on!

Consumer update! Today I got a message on my voice mail from, no kidding, the director of customer service for the until-recently apple of my eye, Fresh Direct! She very nicely apologized for my bad delivery experience, and for my subsequent correspondence with her team, which was brought to her attention. She didn't say how it was brought to her attention, but I suspect it may have something to do with the multiple visits my blog has had from "Fresh Direct Inc." in the past several hours. One more reason to love the internet!

Of course, Fresh Direct was always one of my top-five reasons for loving the internet, so I am very excited about the potential for repairing this relationship. I'd like to stick to my jilted-consumer guns, in theory, but seriously: Have I mentioned how much I hate grocery shopping in Manhattan? Baby, you know I'll always take you back.

ETA: My love and I got back together in the end.

We don't need no education

It's Monday! I'm busy writing other things! That means it's time for another "odd shots" entry!

A few weeks ago, the husband and I rode to New Haven via Metro North. This was what we saw on the back of the seat in front of us:

In case you can't read it, the series of capital letters has been helpfully labeled "My inisalls." Leaving us to wonder - But are they really? For one thing, that's a lot of initials for any one person. More important, given the evidence, I'm not sure we should trust this person's judgment when it comes to knowing what his or her initials actually are. So, what do you think "C.H.S.S.Z." stands for? Leave your guesses below!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The party's over

The grocery delivery service Fresh Direct and I have a long-standing, ordinarily blissful relationship. My tremendous devotion to Fresh Direct is proportional to my intense dislike of shopping in Manhattan grocery stores, and dates to the days when I lived on Roosevelt Island, where the only grocery-buying option was a filthy Gristede's with fuzzy in-store speakers blaring contemporary R&B hits as you waited in maddeningly slow check-out lines. It was right across the street, but every time I went there I found the experience so infuriatingly awful I vowed never to return. And thanks to Fresh Direct, I was finally able to keep that promise to myself.

I've been known to sing the praises of Fresh Direct so ardently that a roommate once asked if I was recording our conversation for a radio advertisement. Which is why, in fairness, and at the risk of seeming petty, I feel I should share the story of my disillusionment. Because, at long last, the honeymoon is over.

On Thursday evening, I had a delivery scheduled to arrive between 7 and 9 p.m. Around 10, as I was starting to consider going to bed, I realized the Fresh Guy (as my nephew would say) still hadn't shown up. I checked my cell phone to make sure I hadn't missed a call -- I've given them my cell and home phone numbers, so they can call if something unexpected happens. And in the past I've received calls now and then, usually to ask if I'd be willing and able to accept my delivery earlier than expected (would I?!). But I had no missed calls. They don't supply customers with a number to reach the delivery person or dispatcher, so I couldn't do anything but wait. In the meantime, I sent this email via the company's online "contact us" form:
My order was scheduled to be delivered between 7 and 9 p.m. -- it is now 10:15 and there's no sign of the delivery. I have not received a call to tell me it's delayed.
The Fresh Guy showed up half an hour later, at 10:45 on the nose. He had nothing to say (except "sign here"): no apology, no explanation, not even an acknowledgment of his tardiness. (I would have thought he didn't realize he was late -- maybe they packed my boxes in the 9:00-11:00 part of the truck? -- but the boxes had the delivery time marked right on the labels, right under my name and address.) I put all the groceries away and went to bed. In the morning I had an emailed reply from Fresh Direct:
Thank you for contacting FreshDirect. We sincerely apologize your order arrived later than anticipated. You can be assured that this is not the type of service you can expect from us in the future. Going forward, every effort will be made to arrive during the scheduled delivery period. We apologize for any inconvenience, and we hope everything in your order arrived to your satisfaction.

If you have any other questions or concerns, kindly respond to this e-mail. To reach us via phone, please review the 'Get Help' section of our website.

I'm glad that they have the confidence to assure me that "this is not the type of service [I] can expect from [them] in the future." But I'm not quite as optimistic, and I wouldn't mind a little evidence that they're actually working to prevent it. In short, I had other questions and concerns. So I kindly responded to the email with an update:
My order finally arrived at 10:45 p.m. -- nearly 2 hours after it was supposed to have arrived, and well after I was expecting to be awake and accepting deliveries. Although the delivery information included my phone number, no one ever called to tell me there was a problem, and the person who finally delivered it offered no acknowledgment of or explanation or apology for its lateness. This isn't the first time a delivery has arrived late, but a delay of nearly two hours, that late at night, with no notice is unacceptable, and will make me much less likely to rely on Fresh Direct in the future.

~ Mollie
The response came quickly, and it sounded a little bit familiar:
Dear Molly,

Thank you for contacting FreshDirect. We sincerely apologize your order arrived later than anticipated. You can be assured that this is not the type of service you can expect from us in the future. Going forward, every effort will be made to arrive during the scheduled delivery period. As a courtesy, we have issued a two week extension to your delivery pass. We apologize for any inconvenience, and we hope everything in your order arrived to your satisfaction.

If you have any other questions or concerns, kindly respond to this e-mail. To reach us via phone, please review the 'Get Help' section of our website.

The only evidence that a human being was involved in responding to my email is the misspelling of my name -- a nice personal touch! But this is virtually the same response I would have gotten if the delivery I expected by noon had arrived at 12:15. I know, because when I lived in my previous apartment, a few consecutive deliveries arrived at the very end of, or minutes after, their scheduled window. After this happened a few times in a row, I sent a note to Fresh Direct to let them know that this route was being overbooked (or else this delivery person was slacking off), so they could adjust their plans accordingly. They wrote right back to say they were sorry for the inconvenience, and they refunded the delivery charge on my most recent order. I thought that was pretty darn nice of them, since I wasn't really all that put out by a 5-minute delay in the middle of the day. Now, though, I can see that "We're refunding the delivery charge" is their automatic response to "My order was late" (but only if you complain!). In my case it was a bit more complicated -- I signed up for a "delivery pass," meaning I made a (low!) one-time payment to cover an unlimited number of deliveries during the summer. It was a great deal -- unless, of course, it means I get immediately bumped to the low-priority list when the deliveries are running behind. But it meant there was no "delivery charge" on this order, so they extended the "pass" instead. However, I still don't feel "assured" that they will make an effort to improve their service, since I don't have any sense that they've identified the problem. So I felt compelled to try again, in the hopes of getting some direct acknowledgment of my specific complaints: it was not just late, but very late; it was quite late at night, which makes it that much more inconvenient; the delivery person could have called and didn't; the delivery person could have apologized and didn't. Their online form asks that you "include as much specific information as possible to ensure a prompt response to your inquiry." So I guessed I needed to be even more specific. I wrote:
Thank you. Can you tell me anything about why my order was so late, and why I wasn't contacted to let me know it would be delayed? I've supplied my cell phone and home phone numbers for exactly that purpose. This was a significant delay (an hour and forty-five minutes!), especially given the late hour, and if I had at least known it was on its way I could have adjusted my plans, instead of waiting to accept it when it was scheduled to arrive. I can't understand why I was never called, and I was especially annoyed that the delivery person didn't so much as acknowledge that he was late when he finally arrived at 10:45.
Surely that would get a real response. Surely now they would investigate and find the answers to my specific questions. Surely I wouldn't just get the same form letter again...
Thank you for contacting FreshDirect. We sincerely apologize your order arrived later than anticipated. You can be assured that this is not the type of service you can expect from us in the future. Going forward, every effort will be made to arrive during the scheduled delivery period. As a courtesy, we have extended your DeliveryPass by 1 week of free deliveries. We apologize for any inconvenience, and we hope everything in your order arrived to your satisfaction.

If you have any other questions or concerns, kindly respond to this e-mail. To reach us via phone, please review the 'Get Help' section of our website.

Fresh Direct! After all this time -- after all the good times we've shared -- are you telling me I'm just another girl to you?! By the way, I'm not sure whether my delivery pass was extended by another week -- i.e., three weeks total -- or whether "Mavis" just gave the standard response, and then saw that "Leanne" had already taken care of it (and had been more generous). I think it's the latter -- just a two-week extension. But that's not really the point, is it? As a consolation prize, it's sort of like that offer: "If you're not satisfied after six months, we'll give you an additional six months, FREE!" Sorry you're unhappy with our service -- please accept more of it! Except in this case it's "We are sorry you have complaints, which we intend to continue ignoring. We hope you will continue to rely on our service, despite the fact that we have given you ample reason to doubt it; we hope you'll care less about potential inconvenience if you don't have to pay extra for the privilege."

At least has a guarantee; technically, Fresh Direct isn't even obligated to issue a refund/extension if they fail to deliver on time. Reviewing their "Customer Agreement," I learned that they have a very specific set of guidelines for what happens if you, the customer, are unavailable to accept an order during the time slot you designate. Which is fine, because honestly, if you can't find two hours when you, or your doorman, or your neighbor will definitely be able to sign for the food, what else can you expect them to do for you? But what if you're home, and they're late? What if they waste your time? Suddenly their policy gets vague:
In the case of inclement weather, or unforeseen delivery complications, it may be necessary to make adjustments to our delivery schedule, which will cause us to suspend chosen delivery dates and times. If there will be a significant delay, a customer service representative may call or e-mail you to let you know the status of your delivery time. We will deliver your order the first possible moment the conditions permit. We will never deliver an order past 12:30 AM without a customer's consent.
They may call to tell you not to spend your night at home, waiting, if they're going to be a couple hours late. But hey, they promise not to wake you up past 12:30! And they'll refund the delivery charge if you complain that your delivery arrived late -- but only if you complain. They're not keeping track. And keep in mind that it's a "courtesy" for them to make reparations. I still think a "We're going to be late" call -- or even a "Sorry I'm so late" shrug -- would be even more courteous. But I guess that's asking for too much. And I guess that means it's time to go back to supporting my local grocer. At least I'll save money on the tip.

ETA: But wait! A surprising new twist that will restore your faith in romance! (Or at least in the power of venting your complaints via indirect bitching on the internet.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

You can't always get what you want

Today is the last day of my full-time freelance gig in the office where I've been copyediting, and I have one more tale of vending-machine woe to relate. Previous tales of my encounters with said machine can be read here and here. As a coda to that second one, I should add that the machine did, eventually, charge me for all of my purchases -- weeks later, and all at once. I had just gotten used to the idea that I was getting free snacks, and then one day I held my ID up to the sensor and the display greeted me by name. Eep. That's when I knew the party was over. I checked my card's account history when I got back to my desk and found this list of purchases:
    6/11/2008 12:05 PM Purchase - Vending Location $0.85
    6/11/2008 10:24 AM Purchase - Vending Location $1.50
    6/11/2008 10:24 AM Purchase - Vending Location $1.50
    6/11/2008 10:24 AM Purchase - Vending Location $0.85
    6/11/2008 10:24 AM Purchase - Vending Location $0.85
    6/11/2008 10:23 AM Purchase - Vending Location $1.50
    6/11/2008 10:23 AM Purchase - Vending Location $0.85
    6/11/2008 10:23 AM Purchase - Vending Location $1.50
    6/11/2008 10:22 AM Purchase - Vending Location $1.50
    6/11/2008 10:22 AM Purchase - Vending Location $0.85
    6/11/2008 10:22 AM Purchase - Vending Location $1.50
    6/11/2008 10:21 AM Purchase - Vending Location $0.85
    6/11/2008 10:19 AM Purchase - Vending Location $0.85
Boy, somebody was hungry on June 11! I would have liked to have been able to review these purchases with their actual dates and times (that's many weeks' worth of snacks, I swear!)... But getting charged all at once did cure me of the Peanut M&Ms habit I was developing.

Anyway, rather than tell you this week's story, I'll let these photos (taken by coworkers) do the talking:

And a close-up of the offending snack, still hanging on for dear life several days later:

We've submitted the top one to FAIL Blog, but since it's my purchase dangling there, I figured I had a right to share it with all of you in the meantime. And in fairness to the machine, I should tell you that there is a happy ending to this pathetic tale. The machine can sense that nothing has dropped through the door at the bottom (O brave new world!), and after a moment it dispensed another bag, which did not get caught on its way down. So I got my snack. The caramel-flavored "Soy Crisps" turned out to be lousy, though, so maybe the ending isn't that happy after all.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

So funny I forgot to laugh

Like Mary Worth and Dr. Jeff Cory, The New Yorker and I have been on a break. We were happy together for a long time -- despite the occasional public tiff -- but the relationship was getting to be too much pressure. We needed time apart to pursue other interests; I wanted to try seeing other reading material. I wanted to stop having endless discussions about why the "Cartoon Caption Contest" results in such lousy cartoons. I wanted John Lahr to stop spoiling plots and punch lines for me. Oh, I've missed it now and then -- when I see someone reading on the subway, or when I wonder what Malcolm Gladwell is writing about these days. But just when I was thinking maybe I should resubscribe, this week's cover changed my mind. I'm not offended by its content. I don't question The New Yorker's right to make this joke. I'm just offended by its lameness. I'm surprised that The New Yorker couldn't make this joke more effectively. I'm disappointed, like I am when "Shouts & Murmurs" is a half-baked Bruce McCall piece that would have worked better as a cartoon, or when a profile of someone fascinating turns out to be a bore. I think, Isn't The New Yorker supposed to be better than this? And if they misfire, shouldn't they be able to admit it? Instead of "defending" his decision to lampoon Obama -- or are they lampooning people who criticize Obama? -- and flattering himself with comparisons to The Colbert Report, Remnick should be offering a simple mea culpa for greenlighting lousy "satire." Because, come on, do you watch The Colbert Report? "Is Barack Obama a secret Muslim?" makes me laugh every time, but this cover just made me roll my eyes. If you have to explain the joke, you told it wrong.

So I guess The New Yorker and I are going to stay separated for a bit longer -- I have several books in the works, anyway. But for more intelligent analysis of why and how this cover disappoints, please visit the blog of my pal Mike Gerber. He breaks down the reasons why this "satire" fails, thanks to Blitt's "slight, watery, wan style," much better than I or anyone else could. I would only add that the inaptness of this style to this joke becomes pretty obvious when you take a look at Blitt's other recent political covers. Did he depict Bush and his advisers in danger of drowning, back in 2005, in order to send up the absurd notion that they are in deep metaphorical water? Did he draw Bush and Cheney as housewife (or maid?) and insensitive, boorish husband to lampoon the ridiculous idea that Cheney dominates the executive office? And if not, why should he, or Remnick, expect the Obama cover to read any differently?

ETA: Mike's take is also posted at A Tiny Revolution, and there's more from him in the comments.

Monday, July 14, 2008

With an emphasis on the former

When I was in college I bought a copy of The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, the Douglass Wallop novel on which the musical Damn Yankees is based, at a used-books store for about $1. I intended it to be a gag gift for a Yankees fan, but I never got around to giving it away; I never got around to reading it, either, at least not past the first chapter. But I did, at least, read the first paragraph, and I was very surprised to learn that in Wallop’s version, the story of Joe Boyd, who sells his soul for a chance to lead the Washington Senators to victory as Joe Hardy, takes place in the future. Not the distant future, to be sure; the book was published in 1954, and the story is set in 1958. It was an of-the-moment fantasy, a fairy tale grounded in ordinary reality. Then it became a musical, with a score by the young songwriting team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and a book by novelist Wallop and George Abbott. It opened on Broadway in 1955 (an impressive turnaround, but not atypical in the era before the 10-year workshop process), and immediately introduced a number of new standards to the American songbook. Like the novel, the musical -- according to the IBDB listing for that production -- was set in "Washington, D.C., some time in the future."

Nowadays, no one could get away with setting Damn Yankees in the present, let alone the future; it is very definitely a period piece, a relic of the past, in both historical and musical-theatre terms. Acknowledging and working with that fact was the genius move of director Jack O'Brien, whose 1994 Broadway revival of Damn Yankees was an affectionate love letter to the 1950s. He reworked the book, undoing the kinks in the story and clarifying the details of the plot. He redistributed the songs, cut some redundant reprises and superfluous characters, and commissioned new dance and vocal arrangements (including a brilliantly witty sequence that reimagines “Shoeless Joe…” as a string of advertising jingles). I never saw that revival, so I am basing my estimation of its success on its cast recording. As represented on the album, the show sounds vibrant, vivid, suspenseful, moving and hilarious. I knew the revival had made some adjustments to achieve all of that, but I never realized how many, or how very crucial they were, until this week, when I saw the original, unedited version of Damn Yankees in its Encores! production, now running at City Center.

While I'm giving background, I should note that the mission of Encores!, as I understand it, is to provide a venue and an airing for nearly-forgotten, seldom-performed gems. It's the cheaper, lower-stakes alternative to a real Broadway revival. A chance to have a fun date with a musical (like Kismet) that you wouldn't want to marry. Lately, though, it's become a backdoor backers' audition for a proposed revival that no one wants to commit to upfront -- especially crafty because, if it works, you can do your full revival with a budget set and claim that it's Encores!-inspired. During the "regular" season, Encores! shows are staged concerts, performed with scripts in hand; the "Summer Stars" shows (like last year's Gypsy) are more commercial, and ostensibly "fully staged." That means there are sets, though simple ones, and everyone is off book and choreographed, though they haven't had nearly enough time to rehearse. With only three weeks of prep, the shows inevitably have a summer-stock feel. That can be an asset. After all, this game of musical theatre is only one-half skill. The other half is something else, something greater... Sing it with me: You gotta have heart.

"Heart" is precisely what's missing from the current "Summer Stars" offering, John Rando's production of Damn Yankees.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Today's office irony

During the workday, many interoffice emails arrive in my inbox with this message at the bottom: "Please consider the environment before choosing to print this email." There must have been a company-wide campaign at some point before I arrived; I don't have the banner, but it seems like most people do. And bless them for it. Of course, I've never had a printer of my own -- in college I had to go to the computer cluster to print anything at all, and although, in theory, I now have access to the husband's, in reality we can't get my laptop to make friends with it -- so it really never occurs to me to print out an email. That means, in my case, the banner has the opposite effect; instead of considering the environment, I find myself elated by the idea that I could easily create a paper copy of this particular message if I so desired.

But that's not the irony I want to share with you. You see, this consciousness-raising banner doesn't just appear onscreen; it shows up at the bottom of the page if you decide to go ahead and hit "print." I suppose that increases its effectiveness -- every hard copy is stamped with a reminder that you chose to prioritize its contents, and your convenience, over the welfare of Mother Earth. But sometimes, that little inch-high banner is enough to push the printout onto a second (or third, or fifth) page. And so, right now, on my desk, I have a piece of paper -- the final page of an email I chose to print -- that is completely blank, except for the "consider the environment" warning against wastefulness. I believe this is what the folks at FAIL Blog might call an "Environmentalism Fail."

And now for a message from our sponsors: If you enjoy workplace irony, please drop everything you have planned for the day and go buy Personal Days, the wondrously funny and unsettling new novel by friend-of-Restricted View Ed Park. I thought The New Yorker's writeup described it particularly well, and that will have to do for the moment, as I am going to be late for my own job if I don't leave now.

In other office-culture news: Aren't you glad you don't work with the author of this note? She wants you to think she has a sense of humor, but I'm pretty sure she wouldn't enjoy Personal Days at all.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Don't pass me by

Since Passing Strange opened on Broadway, a lot of the press has focused on insisting that it's totally not a "Broadway musical." As if there were some set of characteristics common to all "Broadway musicals" besides the fact that they're performed in a small number of designated theatres in midtown New York, and only Passing Strange has ever broken the mold. It's a hacky approach, one that rings false to anyone who has seen more than a few musicals on Broadway, and the more I read about how completely different this show is (in articles where I could practically see the authors and/or persons being interviewed wrinkling their noses in disgust at the phrase "Broadway musical"), the less I wanted to see it for myself. This is a shame, because there is quite a lot that's fresh, bracingly so, about Passing Strange's approach to telling a story through song. Instead of insisting that it has nothing to do with "Broadway musicals," I think it might be more interesting, and certainly more fruitful, identify the new ground it's breaking by first considering the preexisting foundations it's built on.

How do you come up with a Broadway show as unique and exciting as Passing Strange? Start with a base of Stop the World: I Want to Get Off (with a dash of The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd for a thicker consistency). Throw in a touch of Candide, to give it shape and lightness. Mix with some Hair-style rock-musical flavoring. Add a generous scoop of Jelly's Last Jam for texture and color. Season with a few handfuls of Cabaret.

Those are some of the shows that came to my mind as I watched Passing Strange -- maybe some others occurred to you. I'm not trying to say Passing Strange is derivative -- the way it engages and builds on those models is enormously creative, and I was consistently impressed by how effectively it used all the available tools. It's insightful, thought-provoking, rewarding, and very novel. And yes, miles ahead of much that has opened on Broadway lately in terms of intelligence and invention. But to claim Passing Strange is "not a Broadway musical" is to miss out on a huge part of its achievement and its appeal. And whatever they might tell the press about their discomfort with the Broadway scene, Stew and Heidi Rodewald are certainly aware of their debt to the form, and they acknowledge it during the show with cheeky references to My Fair Lady and Cabaret (and maybe others I'm forgetting?). So let's just dispense with all the "This is so not a Broadway musical!" nonsense.

Stew et al. want Passing Strange to feel like a rock show -- no curtain, no follow spot, no pretense that the performers don't know the audience is there. At first I wondered whether I'd be able to get into the characters and the story, since the presentation goes beyond metatheatrical into flatly atheatrical. But once the show gets started, theatrical principles are set into place, firmly but never rigidly, and the relationship between Narrator, musicians and actors becomes a compelling, ever-evolving aspect of the story. These guys know what they're doing.

The rock-show approach does have one major drawback -- rock acts don't play the Belasco very often, and the sound system isn't well suited to this approach. Depending on where you sit, one or another of the mics on stage will be disproportionately loud; my rear orchestra seat was near a speaker fed by Heidi Rodewald's mic, and every time she piped up, I felt like one of the women behind me was singing in my ear. More damaging was the fact that I couldn't make out a lot of the lyrics. The ones I caught were so good I found myself straining to hear more, but a lot got lost in the noise, and I'm sure if I read the libretto now I'd find a number of surprises.

I liked the music, and I think I'd like it better on a second visit. The pace is brisk, for the most part, but there are repetitive stretches that go on a bit too long ("Keys" is a pivotal moment in the story, but as a song it wears out its welcome long before the final verse). And the second act has an uncertain stride, with strong emotional peaks spaced at odd intervals; it drags its heels, then suddenly accelerates downhill to a slightly abrupt ending. I went from checking my watch, to weeping, to checking my watch again more than once. (I'm seldom sorry to see the end of a rock show, so I guess that's authentic.) The cast is terrific, especially Daniel Breaker as the central character, "Youth." Once he takes the stage, you'd be foolish to take your eyes off him, because his physical presence communicates more than the lyrics do, even when you can understand them. Without Breaker, Passing Strange's story of growth and artistic development would be far less compelling. When I saw the show, a few nights before the Tony Awards, I left thinking, "He'll win the Featured Actor Tony for sure -- how could any voter see this show and not vote for him?" He didn't win, as it turns out, but that's not hard to explain: a lot of those voters didn't see the show. But do yourself a favor and see him onstage; "The Black One" alone is worth the price of admission.

You might call Passing Strange a "song cycle," if you were feeling academic. It's not divided into distinct "numbers," at least not as the audience experiences it; one song flows into another, hewing to a structure that feels loose and impromptu but is actually quite solid. For that reason, it flops in excerpted form; the number performed on the Tonys made little impression on most people I've heard from (and on me). It depends on the presence of the audience, even more than the average currently running musical; you can't get a real feel for how Passing Strange works unless you are a part of that audience. And I think you should be, at least once. Not because it's nothing like a Broadway musical, but because it's an important entry into the Broadway musical canon.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

People who annoy you

Planning an outdoor theatre production? You might want to read that script before you start rehearsing with the sound system. As reports, a Chicago-area outdoor production of Ragtime was canceled when a park executive got worried about what might happen if non-audience-members in the park happened to hear a certain term broadcast through loudspeakers. learned that a June 17 letter to the show's licensing agent, Music Theatre International, asked for changes in the script, and even included suggestions from Robert Bierie, performing arts supervisor of Wilmette Park District.
As you can imagine, the folks at MTI just loved that. In fact, I hear they're putting together a list of suggested improvements to the infrastructure of the Willmette Park District as we speak.

...Not surprisingly, permission was denied. My favorite part of the story is the reaction of Ragtime lyricist Lynn Ahrens:
"It seems to sum up the blind ignorance of people who sit busily cherry-picking bad words, while not even bothering to read the script they are producing to understand its ideas or the context in which these words are spoken. We authors have always said that if people were uncomfortable producing the show, they shouldn't produce it. We feel the language is accurate and honest in the context of the era, and important to preserve. That hasn't stopped Ragtime from being produced in numerous theatres, high schools and colleges, where the heads of these institutions don't underestimate the intelligence of their audiences, whether comprised of children or adults, nor feel the need to censor and protect them from their own national history."
Do you get the feeling Ahrens missed the part about the show being performed outdoors? And also the part about the hypothetical (perfectly intelligent but possibly underinformed) parkgoers who are not audience members? This isn't about censorship, or whitewashing history, or respecting an author's intentions. It might be about respecting the intelligence of the general public, but I don't think the park executives' concerns are totally unreasonable. What are they going to do, put up signs all over the grounds that say, "Attention: art in progress. Please ignore any provocative racial epithets you may hear being shouted as you and your children are enjoying an evening stroll"?

I think the horse Ahrens is on might be a little bit high, considering she's the woman who wrote the lyric "I was your wife/It never occurred [sic] to want more." And who rhymed "negroes" with "gazebos." Do you think the Willmette Park folks suggested some improvements for those lines too?

(Related on Restricted View: more fond Ragtime-ripping.)