29 September 2012

Progress Report 17: Madeline at 70

A favorite picture of her — relaxed, beautiful, happy.
On the set of Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1975).
Photo by WVM of a photo from Madeline’s collection.

Madeline Kahn would have turned 70 today. She’s not here to help us celebrate, of course — she died in 1999, of ovarian cancer. As I prepare her authorized biography, I realize that death cut short a remarkable comeback in Madeline’s career, with triumphs onstage and onscreen after so many years of working hard and waiting for a hit — and even fearing unemployment. Now I often find myself wondering what might have been, had Madeline lived and worked a little longer.

Like so many other actors who make a lasting mark in comedy, Madeline yearned to take on more serious roles. It’s telling that, in interviews, she often pointed to David Rabe’s harrowing stage play In the Boom Boom Room (Lincoln Center Theater, 1973) as the work she was proudest of: as the much-abused go-go girl Chrissy, Madeline won her first Tony nomination.

Certainly she knew how to inject a note of pathos into otherwise comic roles, as we see even in the broad characters of Lili von Shtupp (“Vot a nice guy!”) and Miss Trixie Delight (whom we remember perhaps least of all for “going winky tinky all the time”). But her final film role points her in what should have been new directions.

As Alice Gold in Judy Berlin (1999).

In Eric Mendelsohn’s Judy Berlin (1999), Madeline plays Alice Gold, a Long Island housewife who is enlightened — paradoxically, during an eclipse — coming to a new understanding of her life and her closest relationships. A middle-aged character actress by now, Madeline is indisputably cute as she roams the dark suburban streets in her down jacket and tennis shoes, but she’s relieved of the burden of playing a glamorous sexpot, the kind of role she took in most of her best-known films. And as the wondering Alice, she delivers a subtly nuanced performance that surely would have captured the attention of casting directors and the admiration of other filmmakers.

“I’m so glad I was able to make that movie before I died,” she told her friend David Marshall Grant, during one of their last conversations.

“In our circles, in our circles”:
As Mavis Danton, with Carol Burnett as Eunice Higgins (1976).

Madeline almost certainly would have continued to work on television. She tried for years to break through in a weekly series, beginning with her own, Oh, Madeline! (1983–84), and proceeding through Mr. President with George C. Scott (1987–88) and New York News with Mary Tyler Moore (1995). Each of these series fell victim to the ratings, but at the end of her life, Madeline’s luck improved.

Beginning in 1996, Bill Cosby’s final sitcom, Cosby, reunited him with Phylicia Rashad, again playing his wife; Madeline played her best friend and business partner, Pauline, amiably sparring with Cosby and generally playing a reliable sidekick. The show earned solid ratings (albeit not comparable with those of Cosby’s legendary 1980s show), and provided Madeline with colleagues who appreciated her. As executive producer, Cosby advocated strengthening the character of Pauline — and given more time, he might have succeeded in persuading the writers to do so.

In Hello, Dolly! (1992).
Photo courtesy of Richard Skipper.

Buoyed by positive experiences in a touring production of Hello, Dolly! in 1992 and The Sisters Rosensweig in New York in 1993–94, Madeline might have returned to the stage, too, despite a spotty track record and her own resulting ambivalence. Yes, Two by Two (1970–71) and On the Twentieth Century (1978) left lasting scars, but a Tony award for Sisters Rosensweig surely boosted her morale. Since she understood Miss Trixie as a Tennessee Williams character (not Blanche DuBois as it happens, but Baby Doll), she might successfully have ventured Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, for example.

She might have tried other musical roles, as well. Though her lyric soprano had mellowed somewhat with age, Madeline remained an excellent musician and pursued voice lessons on a regular basis. As a Kurt Weill fan (like Madeline herself), I thrill to think what she might have done in a revival of Lady in the Dark. Her old friend Michael Cohen, who wrote the Weill parody “Das Chicago Song” for her at the start of their careers, had resumed writing music-theater pieces, and a new collaboration might have served both exceedingly well.

Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey.
Please note that, in a manner of speaking, there are flames on the side of her face.

But these are all “mature” roles, as casting directors say: what if Madeline were alive right now? What sorts of roles might she play in her golden years? I got an inkling one night while watching Downton Abbey, in which one of Britain’s best-loved actresses fires off withering yet elegant zingers like ordnance from a tommy gun, week after week. Who else has had that brilliant sort of delivery, the ability to make the mildest line most telling, the power to invest any sidelong glance with meaning?

There you have it, I thought: if Madeline had lived, she’d be America’s answer to Maggie Smith by now. And as Dame Maggie herself has become something of a cottage industry in British films and television, we can see that Madeline might have been very busy indeed at this point in her career. Around her, some canny American producer might even have constructed an American adaptation of Downton Abbey — or Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — to cite just two of the permutations that would have been possible.

I’d love to know what other roles you think Madeline might have played — and I hope you’ll join me in wishing her a very happy birthday.

Celebrating someone else’s birthday: As Bunny Weinberger in Happy Birthday, Gemini (1980).
That’s David Marshall Grant at far left, in the Harvard T-shirt.

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25 September 2012

San Francisco to Premiere ‘Dodger’ Opera in 2013

Consider Yourself:
Joyce DiDonato stars as the Artful Dodger.

SAN FRANCISCO -- An operatic sequel to the hit Lionel Bart musical Oliver! will have its premiere at San Francisco Opera next season, David Gockley, the company’s general director, today announced, featuring mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as a grownup Artful Dodger.

Oliver! Part II: The Dodgering resumes the tale of plucky Victorian orphans some 20 years after the musical ends. The Artful Dodger is now a successful London pimp, but when he is mistaken for Jack the Ripper, he turns to his old friend Oliver for help. Now a wealthy barrister in Bloomsbury, Oliver must decide whether to risk his social standing in order to save the Dodger from the hangman’s noose.

“Obviously there’s a certain element of Brechtian thematic material here,” Gockley said. “That’s only natural, since Brecht was influenced by Dickens when writing Threepenny Opera, and the Dodger has always been a kind of pubescent Mack the Knife.”

Famed French couturier Christian Lacroix will design costumes. Joining DiDonato onstage will be countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Oliver. “He’s the only singer we could find with notes high enough to manage a reprise of ‘Where Is Love?’” Gockley said.

No composer or librettist has signed on to the project, scheduled to open in November 2013. “These things will work themselves out in the end,” Gockley said. “They always do.”

Lacroix, sweetie.

Seriously, the photo above shows Joyce in costume as Romeo in I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, Vincenzo Bellini’s recounting of the Romeo and Juliet story. The luscious Nicole Cabell stars as Giulietta, and rising Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu sings Tebaldo (that’s Tybalt, to you Shakespeare fans), in a staging by Vincent Broussard. Riccardo Frizza conducts performances beginning September 29 through October 19.

Joyce is so good in the role of Romeo — which I was lucky enough to hear her sing in Paris a couple of years ago — that I’m going nuts trying to figure out how to get to San Francisco to hear her again. Besides, Nicole is going to nail Giulietta’s entrance aria, “O, quante volte.”

For more information, go to San Francisco Opera’s website, here. (They company is promoting the opera as The Capulets and the Montagues, but who wants to deny herself the satisfaction of pronouncing the Italian title?)

Joyce as Romeo in Robert Carsen’s staging for Paris.
In Bellini’s telling, the family feud is tied up in the larger political struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines. This makes absolutely no difference whatsoever.

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23 September 2012

Progress Report 16: At Long Last ‘Les Miz’?

Singing on the set: Madeline cavorts with Duilio Del Prete

Anticipation is building for Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Schoenberg and Boublil’s musical-theater adaptation of Les Misérables, that great novel by Victor Hugo that I never finished reading. A trailer, featuring Anne Hathaway as Fantine in the number “I Dreamed a Dream,” has been playing for weeks in movie theaters and other venues, including Musical Mondays at Splash, the Manhattan gay bar, where audiences respond rapturously. Even this writer gets verklempt.

Now the producers have released a behind-the-scenes clip in which members of the Les Miz cast discuss the filming process: rather than lip-synching their songs on camera to pre-recorded vocal tracks, they performed “live” on camera. Off-set, a pianist accompanies the actors, who are equipped with ear pieces; the instrumental tracks are added in post-production. Again and again, we are assured that this technique is completely revolutionary and has never been attempted before at any point in motion-picture history.

I’m sure the producers have employed some modern technology that makes this claim something other than completely fraudulent. But as a general practice, filming musicals with “live” singing is not at all new — as Madeline Kahn could have told you.

Hathaway as Fantine: Let the Oscar© dream begin!

For his Cole Porter musical At Long Last Love (1975), a period piece set in the 1930s, director Peter Bogdanovich wanted to evoke the glory days of the earliest Hollywood musicals. To do this, he did what earlier directors did: he instructed his actors to sing “live” on camera. He went so far as to hire a pickup truck for outdoor tracking shots, so that a pianist could follow behind the actors — who used earpieces to hear the music while they sang.

The result was a complex and time-consuming process that required multiple takes and retakes and prolonged production of the movie, driving up costs while driving the actors to distraction. Madeline generally preferred short shoots like the one she’d just wrapped: Young Frankenstein required her services on-set for precisely one week, plus an extra day of pick-ups and a wrap party.

Swell party? Del Prete, Madeline, Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, and ensemble.

As the filming of At Long Last Love wore on, she expressed her frustration in her appointment book — the nearest thing to a journal she ever kept — her elegant script turning into angry block capitals, and particularly frustrating days boxed in with hard red lines.

Eileen Brennan, one of Madeline’s co-stars in At Long Last Love, has told me that everyone in the cast found the shooting difficult. Take the example of Burt Reynolds, who among the leads had minimal singing experience and was suffering from a head cold besides. If there was a bright spot for Madeline and Eileen, it was the friendship they forged while commiserating after hours — and sharing their love of music.

“God, I love music!” Brennan exclaimed during our conversation. “Even more than dogs! Even more than cats!” (This is possibly the best thing anyone ever said to me in an interview.)

“Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love”: Shepherd, Brennan, and Madeline.

As I say, the idea of shooting a musical comedy with “live” singing wasn’t original to Bogdanovich: it was standard (albeit not universal) practice in early talkies. Robert Florey, the director of the Marx Brothers’ first feature, The Cocoanuts (Paramount, 1929), to a score by Irving Berlin, tried hard to open up the stage production — and turned off the sound equipment in order to film some sequences, notably the overhead shots in the “Monkey Doodle Doo” dance number, for which the musical tracks were laid in during post-production. This raised Groucho’s eyebrows, and perhaps his dander, but would he have noticed at all if other directors typically did the same thing?*

So yes, we’re right to be excited by Hooper’s Les Miz movie, and on the strength of the clips I’ve seen, he’s elicited some tremendous performances from an authentically stellar cast. But his method is a little less original than the producers claim, and you shouldn’t take their word at face value.

This much is certain: given her inherent anxieties about her appearance, exacerbated by starring opposite the supermodel Cybill Shepherd, if Madeline had been required to get her hair chopped off in any scene of At Long Last Love, then she’d have cried much harder than Anne Hathaway does in “I Dreamed a Dream.”

One of the highlights of At Long Last Love is Mildred Natwick’s appearance as Burt Reynolds’ mother. For Bogdanovich, a John Ford fanatic, having her on his set must have been a thrill. And she sings, too!
Seen here: Shepherd, Madeline, Brennan, John Hillerman, Natwick, Del Prete, and Reynolds.

*NOTE: For the Marxes’ next picture, Animal Crackers, in 1930, director Victor Heerman basically replicated the original stage production: the audience is never in any doubt where the proscenium arch of the theater would be.

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19 September 2012

Why I Enjoy ‘Modern Family’

I admit I may be a little fuzzy on the details.

By W. Mitt Romney,
Guest Columnist

Ann and I were talking to our good friend Kelly Ripa yesterday, when she asked what my favorite TV show is. I gave her the same answer I always give: Modern Family, the popular half-hour documentary series on ABC, which is part of the Disney-ABC Television Group, owned by the Walt Disney Company, the largest media conglomerate in the world in terms of revenue.

Now, when I say that I enjoy Modern Family, some people are always surprised. I don’t see why.

After all, Modern Family has the word “family” right there in the title, and family is what makes this country great. Also, the word “modern” is a reminder that it’s important to keep up with the times, which I certainly do. Now, this is a time when Americans need to hear specificity from their leaders, so let me get specific about why I like this show. In many ways, this is the best reality series on TV today, showing how most Americans really live.

The Pritchetts are a lot like the Osmonds, really.

Modern Family is about the Pritchetts, who are solid middle-class Americans, earning upwards of $200,000 a year in this failed economy. Like most of us, they live in very, very small, very modest but comfortable houses in the suburbs, where the lawns are green and the trees are just the right height. All the Pritchetts have garages that are big enough for a couple of Cadillacs but no elevator.

The head of the family, Jay Pritchett, is a job creator of some sort, and he has a swimming pool. Not Olympic, but it’s a nice pool. His little dog sure does seem to enjoy it.

Jay lives with Gloria, his housekeeper; and her son, Manny. Now, Gloria and Manny are from Colombia, and I can’t understand anything they say, which is a little bit of a disappointment. While the show doesn’t go into specifics, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Gloria and Manny are in this country legally.

Slice of Life: Here, the Pritchetts’ housekeeper
serves the Sunday dinner.

Jay’s daughter, Claire Dunphy, lives down the street. She’s really not my favorite person on the show, I must say, because she can be a little too aggressive for my tastes. She drinks wine and she works outside the home, but she has three attractive children, and her husband, Phil, is a serious, down-to-earth guy who sells real estate.

After Jay, my favorite on the show is probably Cameron, who’s the very nice roommate of Mitchell Pritchett. Now, let me see if I can get this straight: Mitchell is Jay’s son and Claire’s brother, and he lives on the same street as the rest of the family. Mitchell reminds me of a boy I went to prep school with. He’s an attorney, while his friend Cameron is a nanny who looks after little Lily, a Chinese girl whose parents we never get to see.

Babysitting the little foreign girl: In a failed economy
like Obama’s, I guess her parents are too busy
to pick her up after work.

Some of you may say that being a nanny isn’t a very macho occupation, but don’t worry, because Cameron used to play football. Also, since he and Mitchell never even touch, I’m sure there’s nothing — you know — funny going on. I do hope Cam checked to make sure that Lily’s papers were in order! Usually you have to worry about whether the help is in this country legally, instead of the other way around.

Now, every week something goes wrong for some member of the Pritchett family or for Mitchell’s friend Cameron. Sometimes all at once! My goodness, that’s exciting. But the documentary crew manages to take it all in. And because Jay believes in the American way and the free-market system, because the Pritchetts don’t take handouts but do take responsibility, the family always manages to get through their troubles. Best of all: in the end, week in and week out, Jay knows best.

So that’s why I like Modern Family. I can’t always watch it as closely as I’d like, but it’s the best documentary show on TV right now. Things may get a little racy sometimes, but there’s no sex or violence. Modern Family tells it like it is.

For example, in these tough economic times, sometimes even single men have to live with roommates. You can see in this picture how lonely they are. But don’t worry! I’m sure Mitch and Cam will find some nice girls and get married some day!

NOTE: For those seeking a little more background, this article from the Advocate, entitled “Gov. Romney Didn’t Know Gay People Had Families,” may prove enlightening.

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14 September 2012

‘Glee’-nalysis: Here’s What I Missed on ‘Glee’

Glee launched its fourth season last night on FOX-TV, and I missed it. And I didn’t DVR it, because, really, that’s asking a lot of a middle-aged English-lit major, don’t you think? Because of Fox’s mingy policies, I won’t be able to see the season premiere until next Friday — unless of course some friend managed to record it and invites me over to watch.

But in a very real sense, missing the Glee season premiere doesn’t matter. Because over the previous seasons, I have come to understand something very important: Glee is a state of mind. The show on your TV screen almost never matches the show in your head. So why not kick off the new season with an episode that I made up entirely?

Graduation for the Class of 2012:
Don’t think you’re getting out of here yet.

We open with a scene of Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), on the telephone. Why is he on the telephone, you may ask? Because — in my imaginary show — stuff that happened in previous episodes actually has an impact on stuff that happens in current episodes! (I know it sounds crazy. But it’s my mind.)

So the point is that, an eternity ago, Mr. Schue was the campaign manager for a congressional candidate — who won election! Burt Hummel is now a United States Representative for Lima, Ohio. This means a couple of things. First, Burt wears a jacket and tie much, much more often now. Second, he is up for reelection in November. And finally, even if Burt did the pragmatic, realistic thing and hired a new campaign manager who, oh, you know, actually has a background in politics and isn’t trying to hold down a primary job as a high-school teacher — even if — then Mr. Schue is still an influential political player in a hotly contested swing state in a close national election!

Incredible though it may seem, this man
once starred on a popular TV show.

So Mr. Schue spends this entire episode manning a phone bank and trying to get out the vote for President Obama. We don’t see him again for the rest of this episode. Maybe not until the November sweeps. Nobody notices his absence, however, and we’re free to continue with this exciting season premiere.

Next, we go to the choir room, where Artie (Kevin McHale) takes advantage of Mr. Schue’s absence to indulge his growing desire for power. He declares himself the King of All Glee, and tells all the new kids who just arrived from Glee Project that they have to sit in the back of the room and keep quiet, because he’s waited too long for his spotlight and he’s not about to let them upstage him, the way Rachel and Kurt always did. In fact, King Artie decides that he’s not even going to let them have names, just assigned serial numbers, and the new boys will have to wear bags over their heads.

Upstaged no more?
Kevin McHale (Artie) and Jenna Ushkowitz (Tina).

Just then, Blaine walks in, and since he is still played by Darren Criss, everybody immediately forgets about Artie, and Blaine sings a song that will hit #1 on iTunes by 4:30 this afternoon.

In the background of Blaine’s song, Brittany (Heather Morris) dances like crazy, and in my imaginary Glee, the camera actually lets us see her moves. And Sam (Chord Overstreet) keeps his shirt on because — have you noticed? — he’s lost a lot of ab definition since he made his debut on the show. Don’t tell me I’m imagining that.

Meanwhile Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) sighs and says, “I wish Mike (Harry Shum, Jr.) were still here. He really knew how to flex a number.”

Darren Criss as Blaine: And now for a musical interlude.

Meanwhile, back in New York City, Rachel (Lea Michele) has developed the strange habit of prefacing all her speeches with the words “Meanwhile, back in New York City.” This is deeply confusing to the people around her, although it’s at least reassuring that she hasn’t sustained a major head injury.

Happily enrolled at NYADA, although she’s forgotten what NYADA stands for, Rachel is taking a dance class with Kate Hudson, which we know because Kate Hudson is a huge, huge Hollywood star and Fox sent out clips and pictures weeks ago, so that all Kate Hudson fans would be sure to tune in.

Because, really, when you think of New York icons,
you think of Kate Hudson.
Granted, it’s probably Kate Hepburn and the Hudson River,
but close enough.

In a poignant scene, Kate reminds Rachel that she once had a promising movie career, but that even though no one comes to her movies any more, people still like her because her mother is a beloved star who could giggle while wearing a bikini at the same time.

Really. This is true. You can ask your grandparents. They’ll tell you.

Also, Kate says, wouldn’t it be great if they did a remake of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes?

Meanwhile, back at McKinley High, Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) has had her baby! And she’s named her after her late sister, Jean. We’re all so happy for her. However, because Glee is basically a soap opera with dancing, Baby Jean will mature at a soap-opera rate. Look! There — she’s seven years old already! By the end of this episode, Baby Jean will be a sophomore at McKinley and, much to Sue’s consternation, she will join New Directions.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jean?
Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester

Naturally, obsessive-compulsive guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (the sublime Jayma Mays) is the only one who notices Baby Jean’s rapid growth. “Don’t you think you’re pushing her a little hard?” she asks Sue.

“You think that’s hard? Try putting on a weekly musical comedy in which most of the so-called ‘high-school students’ are in their mid-20s and depend on AutoTune the way most people need oxygen! That’s hard!”

“This is a musical?” Emma gasps. “I had no idea!” She promptly sings seven entire songs in a row, to make up for lost time.

Jayma Mays as Emma.
I love her. There. I said it.

“Meanwhile, back in New York,” Rachel murmurs softly as she wanders the cold and empty streets, which are really a backlot in Los Angeles. Rachel is lonely, lonely, lonely, without her friends from home. But we know in our hearts that she’ll make new friends, each of whom will make this show even more confusing to watch. She sings the classic New York number, “Another Hundred People Just Got Off of the Bus,” as another hundred people join the cast.

One of these people getting off of the bus is, of course, Quinn (Dianna Agron), who in her latest radical changes of character, is now majoring in Feminist Theory at Yale and carrying on a torrid affair with her professor (special guest star Anne Heche).

Dianna Agron as Quinn: Extreme Behavioral Swings As a Response to the Male Hegemony in Contemporary American Society.

But what of Glee’s defining star, Kurt (Chris Colfer)? When we last saw him, Kurt had inexplicably not been admitted to NYADA, despite the fact that he gave the world’s greatest audition, which was supposed to teach us enduring lessons about life and art. When he was rejected by NYADA, he didn’t even get a reaction shot, much less a single line to express himself — and we’ve waited and wondered about him all summer long.

Well, over the summer, Kurt made a movie and wrote a children’s book. (Chris Colfer really did!) Now he’s living in Washington, DC, with his Congressman dad, where he’s starring in a gender-bending revival of One Touch of Venus* at the Kennedy Center.

Kurt’s NYADA audition taught us to be true to ourselves and to embrace risk. Until it didn’t teach us that.
It also taught us the importance of carrying a spare pair of tight gold trousers at all times in case of emergencies.

The president of NYADA (very special guest star Kevin Kline) comes to Kurt’s dressing room to beg for forgiveness. Kurt is magnanimous, but he belongs to his public now, and he can’t possibly accept the offer to come to NYADA on a full scholarship and a guarantee of a full Broadway contract. Dejected, the president of NYADA leaves, while Kurt looks wistfully at a picture of Blaine and sings “That’s Him.”

So that’s what I missed last night on Glee. But what of all the other beloved cast members? Aren’t you dying to know what’s happened to Santana (combustible Naya Rivera), Mercedes (volcanic Amber Riley), Finn (Cory Monteith), Coach Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones), and bad-boy Puck (Mark Salling)? There are so many stories to explore!

Will Artie succeed in his fiendish quest for World Domination? Will he and Tina start dating again, or will he simply clone her? Will Jenna Ushkowitz have more to do if she’s playing two Tinas instead of one? Will Rory (Damian McGinty) develop a personality? Or will he just keep standing there like an idiot? In what fresh and exciting ways will Principal Figgins’ (Iqbal Theba) hands be tied this season?

We’ll have to watch to find out — or else make it up for ourselves!

*NOTE: They thought about changing the title to something more masculine, but Kurt declared that it was a big part already and they didn’t need to fiddle with it.

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10 September 2012

Republicans Would Have Been Happy to Invite a Former President to Address Their Convention, If Only One Were Available

Some analysts say part of President Obama’s
post-convention “bounce” can be credited
to former President Clinton’s speech last week.

WASHINGTON, DC -- In the aftermath of the two nominating conventions and the wave of popular nostalgia that greeted a speech by former President Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, Republican political operatives now say that they, too, would have been pleased to invite a former Republican President to address their convention, if only one had been available.

“Say what you will about Clinton,” Romney campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters, “he did serve two terms as President of the United States. That commands a certain amount of attention. Unfortunately, we haven’t had anybody like that in our party since Ronald Reagan.”

“George H.W. Bush served only one term, from 1989 to 1993,” agreed Romney speechwriter Lindsay Hayes, “though of course he’d have been a wonderful convention speaker. We’re very lucky to have run a video tribute to him in Tampa two weeks ago, and his son Jeb was terrific in his speech. But there’s just nobody else in the Republican Party today with the Bushes’ stature.”

At former President Bush’s advanced age, Hayes said, giving a major speech might have been too much strain. “We didn’t want to impose on him,” Hayes said. “And after that, we just didn’t have any other comparable figure to call upon.”

Republican nominee Romney: Forced to go it alone.

Analysts agree that, even a few years after a President’s term has ended, voters tend to overlook the controversies of the past — just as relatively few voters listening to Clinton’s speech last week focused on his impeachment or the scandals that plagued his administration. Almost any misstep, no matter how grave, is forgotten over time, analysts say.

“There’s an aura of success, even invincibility, that attaches to a former two-term President of the United States,” Fehrnstrom said. “The average voter sees that. It’s not as if we could ask Clinton to speak at our convention. I just wish we had somebody like that, but it’s as if we’re working from a slate that’s basically wiped clean. I mean, can you think of anybody else we could have invited to speak?”

“It’s about star power,” said Romney strategist Stuart Stevens. “Any former two-term President — Commander in Chief, leader of the free world, regardless of his politics — is an unbeatable star. Sure, you run the risk of upstaging your own candidate, which personally I feel the Democrats did this time. But there’s an immense potential impact we could have gotten from seeing any former two-term President endorse Mitt Romney, if only we had one.

“Wow, I wish Reagan were still alive,” Stevens added. “What a great speech he’d have made! Wouldn’t he and Mitt have looked great together? At least we managed to get Clint Eastwood.”

“Miss me yet?”

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06 September 2012

Blair P. Coleman

Ann and Blair, on the day he joined our family.

My godparents arrived at that designation rather belatedly and unofficially: it wasn’t until my godmother came to visit me at the offices of Opera News that she suggested the title change, since “my mother’s best friend who took me to the opera when I was 13” was an unwieldy introduction. (And that is, in fact, a significantly shorter version than the one I used as I introduced her to each boss and colleague in turn.) The more I thought about it, though, the righter the word seemed. Ann and Blair had, in various ways, been carrying out the duties of godparents for years already.

And not least in the realm of music. Ann and Blair had season tickets to the performances of the Metropolitan Opera on tour in 1975, and Blair knew far in advance that a schedule conflict meant he wouldn’t be able to use one of the tickets. So Ann invited me, with the result that I heard Beverly Sills — in Rossini’s Siege of Corinth — for the first time. I’d never encountered anything more thrilling in my young life. After the show, we went backstage to meet Miss Sills, and I remember quite distinctly that neither Ann’s feet nor mine ever touched the ground once as we left Fair Park Music Hall and crossed the parking lot. Physically, this was of course impossible, but physics don’t matter much when you’re an opera fan — and from that moment, I was one.

Yes, the credit here goes mainly to Ann, who chose me though she might have invited almost any other escort to the hottest show in town that night. But over the years I began to see that, culturally, I was in many ways created in Blair’s image. And as time went by he took greater delight in sharing with me the singers he loved. It’s because of him that I finally sat down and listened attentively to Leontyne Price and Eileen Farrell, for example, two artists whose work I’d taken (shamefully!) for granted until then. Blair scoured record stores and duped videotapes to improve my own collections — and then insisted on knowing my reactions to what I’d heard, because for him that was the real fun of sharing.

Blair P. Coleman, M.D.

It’s entirely possible that I’d have gravitated to opera sooner or later, even without the influence of Ann and Blair. As a disdainful East German (the worst kind) once remarked to a friend, “Oh, you Americans. Whenever you are ready to be taken seriously as intellectuals, you turn to opera.” Heaven knows, I have always yearned to be taken seriously as an intellectual: it may have been merely a matter of time.

But the reality is that, if I hadn’t gotten that early start, I might not have been up to speed as a young man, when my first job out of college was at the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music. I might not even have recognized Teresa Stratas when she knocked at the door to my office; without Teresa’s mentoring, I’d have missed out on Rags and the adventure of a lifetime.

If I hadn’t gotten that early start, I’d almost certainly not have been qualified to work at Opera News, and so would have missed a privileged perch from which to watch countless performances that have enriched me aesthetically and also spiritually. I’d almost surely have been too ignorant to seek out Ewa Podles´ or Thomas Quasthoff, to name just two examples. I might never have attended the 9/11 benefit when Leontyne Price came roaring out of retirement to sing the pride of a wounded nation. For want of such experiences, I’d have been much less a person.

On vacation in Colorado.

In much the same way I’d have been less a man without the friendships I’ve found in Opera World, among those artists who uplift me even when they’re not singing. As Ann and Blair have uplifted me, too, and steered both my brother and me through stormy seas.

Did Ann and Blair have any idea what they set in motion the night they placed Blair’s ticket in my hand? Perhaps not — at least, not in any specific sense. But this is what it means to be a godparent or a mentor. You take charge of some aspect of a child’s life like a field of rich soil freshly tilled. You may scatter seeds more than you plant them. And then you watch them grow where they will. A tomato here, a beanstalk there.

“Careful the things you say! Children will listen,” Mr. Sondheim’s friends reminded me just a couple of weeks ago. I wound up listening to opera. Which led to languages and books, histories and paintings, lives and emotions I’d never have been able to imagine on my own.

Within months of Siege of Corinth, I was back at Fair Park Music Hall, sitting in Beverly Sills’ dressing room, conducting my first-ever interview and launching my journalistic career.

As I’ve played the role of godfather in the lives of my friends’ children — sometimes even less officially than Blair did in mine — I’ve been conscious of the power and also of the chance involved. You can give a kid the Oz books who’ll never crack the spines, and yet when the same kid takes his date to the art museum, you think, “Yeah, some of that inspiration may be mine.” One way and another, my godchildren love theater and old movies and great art and good cooking — and football and calculus, computers and kayaks. I’d hoped at least one or two of my godchildren might develop a taste for opera, but so far I’m still waiting. Patiently. Because that’s how this works. And by the same token, they’re still waiting for me to develop a taste for football.

It’s not about turning out a generation of Mini-Mes. But it is about turning out a generation that you’d like to sit back and have a conversation with. People you’re rather glad to know, and look forward to seeing. People who are — just maybe — a little bit better than they might have been, because of something you once did or said.

Blair at the Fort Worth Opera Festival,
with Ann, Darren Woods, and me.

Blair remained a music-lover to the end of his days. I held out the hope that he’d rally somehow and be able next year to make the trip from Wichita Falls to Fort Worth (as he did so many, many times) for my debut as the Major-Domo in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. He loved German composers, after all, and our opening night falls just two days after what would have been Blair’s 90th birthday — and 38 years after the night he gave me his ticket to hear Beverly Sills.

In some spirit, I know I’ll dedicate the performance to him. But, oh! How I’d have liked to have shared the moment with him, to give him a (gentle) poke in the ribs and to say, “Do you see what a fine mess you’ve gotten me into?”

With one of my godsons, Tom.
I’m sure I don’t know what you mean when you say that you see my influence.

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05 September 2012

The Good Wives

A wife’s testimony cannot be compelled as evidence in a court of law. But all bets are off at nominating conventions these days.

My fellow Americans, I am here to tell you a few things about my husband that he’s too modest to say for himself. You’ve just nominated him as your candidate for the Presidency of the United States of America — but you don’t know him the way I do. And let me tell you, if you were married to my husband, you would definitely vote for him.

My husband doesn’t like to talk about it, but he knows what hardship is. Yes, he’s suffered just like you. Worse than you, in fact. He’s had to roll up his sleeves and work for a living, using his bare hands to grab money out of other people’s pockets, stooping day after day in the backbreaking heat to pick up dollars that fell on the floor of the Stock Exchange. He’s gone hungry on cold nights when we were out of gluten-free pasta. He’s gone without sleep, worrying whether he remembered to take out the trash.

My fellow Americans, I promise you that, if you elect my husband, he will never leave the toilet seat up. That’s right. That’s the kind of man my husband is. And let me tell you a few more things about his domestic policies. He will never hog the remote. He will always let me pick the movie. And take it from me, my husband really knows how to satisfy a lady. That’s why this man should be your next President!

America cannot afford the failed politics of a man who is not my husband.

America cannot afford the kind of President who can’t handle my mood swings, my shopping sprees, my mother, my O.C.D. approach to housekeeping, and my inexplicable crush on Michael Bublé. I ask you, my fellow Americans, how can we expect our President to cope with a global economic crisis, or Iran’s nuclear program, or war in Afghanistan, if he’s the kind of man who forgets our anniversary?

Vote for my husband, and he will never forget my anniversary!

My fellow Americans, I want to tell you a little story that will tell you so much about my husband. Shortly after we were married, I decided to bake him some cookies. Now, they don’t teach you much about baking at Miss Porter’s School, but I knew that, as a political wife, these were skills I would need in the future.

Well, I got mixed up and added salt instead of sugar! We’ve all been there — right, girls? Do you know, my husband not only ate three cookies and told me they were delicious, he went right out without another word and gave the rest of those cookies to Grendel, the family dog!

That’s the kind of leadership America needs!

Finally, my fellow Americans, I want to share with you something that our adorable children said to me just yesterday. I was standing there in the Situation Room when they trooped in, all 3.5 of them. “Mommy,” the littlest said — she’s five — “we want Daddy to be President!”

I ask you, America. Can you honestly stand there and disappoint my children?

My fellow Americans, I ask you to vote for a great father, a great husband, and a man who is easily the best lover I’ve ever had! I love my husband, so you should vote for him!

God bless America, and God bless my marriage! Thank you!

Also, I really want a new house. Thank you.

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