25 May 2014

Matthew Cowles

As Billy Clyde.

The actor and playwright Matthew Cowles has died. Our paths crossed several times, and to this day he’s the only person ever paid to perform a script I wrote: a concert narration for Weill’s Happy End in Princeton, New Jersey. He’s best known for playing Billy Clyde Tuggle, on All My Children, a villain so outrageous that everybody else in soap operas seems dull by comparison — but in life, Matthew was unfailingly kind. Maybe he channeled all his demons into Billy Clyde.

A strutting, scheming pimp, Billy Clyde figured prominently in one of the most satisfying story arcs I saw on All My Children, tormenting Dixie Cooney (Cady McClain) and murdering Tad Martin (Michael E. Knight) in a diabolical explosion that also took Billy Clyde’s life — or so we thought, until Tad returned some time later, and until Billy Clyde showed up again in Pine Valley last year. McClain and Knight brought so much humor to their work and such an easy, appealing chemistry that this viewer somehow didn’t feel guilty for giving a damn about soap opera characters. Matthew stepped between them with a swagger and an irresistible pleasure in his own performance.

The show’s writers rose to the occasion, delivering up terrific material: silly plots, yes, but fun dialogue and abundant opportunities for Matthew to chew every scrap of scenery. Matthew loved the role, and he enjoyed the audience response to Billy Clyde’s endless, extravagant awfulness. I don’t know that anybody ever took seriously a character who, for example, once buried a woman alive, but the reactions were mostly good-natured, and Matthew could sort out gracefully the love that viewers felt for a villain they loved to hate.

With Cady McClain in All My Children.

He came to theater naturally: his father, Chandler Cowles, was a sometime actor and the producer who brought Gian Carlo Menotti’s operas to Broadway. Exuding patrician authority and a clubby bonhomie, Chandler was a frequent visitor to the Kurt Weill Foundation, and nothing at all like the scruffy characters his son played. Matthew was a bit scruffy offstage, too, eccentric and almost otherworldly. His eyes were always twinkling, illuminated by the spins and swirls of his constantly active imagination: he was watching, observing, but you could never quite tell what he saw.

We met again in the 1990s, through my foster mother, Madeline Lee Gilford; with her, I visited Matthew and his wife, Christine Baranski, at their home. My friend Bernard came along, and since he knew fewer people at the party than I did, Matthew did his utmost to make him feel welcome at once: speaking French with him and focusing his attention on him. Even at the time, I was struck by Matthew’s thoughtfulness, and of course anybody who cared about Madeline Gilford would rate highly with me: Matthew spoke at her memorial, the last time I saw him.

He found his match in Christine, whose peppery wit (so close to that of the characters she plays) helped to ground him: they amused each other, and they were generous in their affection. Together they brought up two beautiful daughters, whom frankly I envied — despite constant reminders that one must never take actors’ lives at face value — because the girls had two such cool, creative, fun parents.

Years ago, another fellow tried to impress people by telling them that he was the actor who played Billy Clyde: when he died, word spread that Matthew was dead. This news came as a surprise to Matthew. I hoped that something of the sort had happened again this week, that the rumors would prove untrue, and that Matthew, like Billy Clyde, would reemerge, unscathed.

Yet if there’s a lesson here, it’s not that life is a soap opera. It is rather that, if we enjoy what we do, we may excel. Matthew had fun with Billy Clyde, and no one who watched All My Children will ever forget him.

With Christine Baranski.

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13 May 2014

Michael Sam Criticized for Having Hot Boyfriend

Shock waves raced through the Internet following Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year Michael Sam’s widely seen celebratory kiss upon receiving word that he’d been drafted by the St. Louis Rams. Sam will be the first openly gay player in professional football; the kiss was broadcast on ESPN, and reaction was immediate.

“It’s disgusting,” said one viewer in Texas. “I am a decent, God-fearing American, and I don’t want to see two men who are better-looking than I am kiss like that. If ESPN is going to force me to confront the fact that I will never be as hot as either of these guys, then I will switch to another network for my sports news.”

“Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable,” said one NFL player, who asked to remain anonymous. “When I realize that Michael Sam could potentially see me naked in the locker-room shower, and when I think that, on a regular basis, he gets to look at a guy who is much hotter than I am — it’s just not what God intended, I have to say.”

“They’re rubbing our faces in their hotness, just the way they rubbed cake in each other’s faces,” said a viewer in Mississippi. “I mean, I’m a football fan. If I want to see good-looking men together, I’ll watch soccer. Oh, Lord — now that there are gays in the NFL, are we going to have to start calling it ‘American football’? Jesus wept.”

“Tom Daley and Dustin Lance Black were bad enough,” said a viewer in Arizona, “but this is beyond the pale. When I think of attractive men, pressing their lips together in celebration, when I think of their fit bodies locked in a tight embrace, openly and proudly expressing their love, it makes my blood boil. Is it just me, or did it get hot in here all of a sudden?”

“It’s outrageous,” agreed a viewer in Louisiana. “I mean, can you imagine what they did later that night, after the television cameras were turned off? I mean, they were turned off, weren’t they? Has anything surfaced on the Internet yet?”

Women viewers expressed their outrage, as well. “What right does ESPN have to remind me that I will never have a boyfriend as hot as Michael Sam’s boyfriend?” one viewer said.

“Did you see how hot that guy is?” agreed another female viewer. “My boyfriend can’t compete with that. Now, whenever he wants to kiss me, mental images of Michael Sam’s boyfriend are going to flash through my mind.

“And the worst part is, whenever my boyfriend and I have cake, we just eat it,” she added. “We would never do anything cute or sexy with it, like smearing it on each other’s faces and then kissing off the icing. I mean, what a waste of cake! It’s disgusting.”

“I hear he’s a swimmer,” said a woman in Tampa. “He probably owns more than one Speedo. He’s probably all smooth and crazy ripped. And then he gets out of the pool all sleek and wet, slowly, and he has to reach back and discreetly tug up the Speedo a little bit because it’s kind of sliding off his tight little butt, and he grabs a towel and slowly, gently dries himself while the sun shines on his glistening muscles, and do you have any idea what my boyfriend would look like in a Speedo?”

Sam’s boyfriend has been identified as Vito Cammisano, 23, a swimmer and fellow University of Missouri alumnus.

“Oh, God, you mean he’s Italian, too?” said one sports fan. “Oh, man. This is just cruel.”

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10 May 2014

Congress to Investigate ‘Ben Casey’

Kathy Nolan and Vince Edwards in Ben Casey.

WASHINGTON, DC -- Congresswoman Emily Litella (R-Mich.) today called for a full-scale investigation into the scandal surrounding Ben Casey, which she described as “an outrage,” “one of the most troubling developments of our time,” and symbolic of “the corruption at the heart of this lawless administration.”

“Americans have a right to know, they deserve to know, what the President knew about Ben Casey and when he knew it,” Litella told reporters. “And what about Vince Edwards? No one has heard from him on the subject of Ben Casey, not in years, not so much as a peep.”

Litella has repeatedly called for Edwards to testify before Congress, she said, “but this Administration continues to stonewall.” Litella said that President Obama has refused to answer any of the lingering questions about Ben Casey, or even to mention Ben Casey. “What is he trying to hide?”

“To refuse to come clean on an issue of such vital importance to every American is an outrage,” Litella said. “The American people won’t stand for that.”

Rep. Emily Litella (R-Mich.)

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the Administration has already told Congress everything it knows about Ben Casey, a CBS Television medical drama that aired from 1961–66. “The President agrees that the disappearance of Ben Casey is regrettable,” Carney said, “and his grandmother really loved the show. But it’s time for all Americans to move on.”

Litella also called for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to testify. “I don’t need to remind you that she’s got an unfortunate record when it comes to people named Vince,” the Congresswoman said.

While insisting that the investigation should be non-partisan and “above political considerations,” Litella pointed out that during Republican administrations Ben Casey was never attacked.

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09 May 2014

A Single Night at the Opera

If I could see only one performance this season,
I’m grateful this was it.

Ya think ya know somebody. On Tuesday evening, I emerged from my writer’s seclusion for the first time all season to attend a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. I thought I knew what I was getting into: Joyce DiDonato was singing the role of Angelina in Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella). I’ve heard her do this. I’ve seen her do this. I have a CD and a DVD to play any time I want to relive the experience.

What’s more, I’ve heard her sing the tour-de-force double aria, “Nacqui all’affanno … Non più mesta,” several other times, in concert. Really, I knew what to expect. It’s not that Joyce’s interpretation is graven in stone, mind you: she’s always got surprises for me, and she’s always looking for ways to enrich her singing. Each time, she finds something fresh and meaningful. If she’s ever said, “That’s good enough, we can stop now,” I’m unaware of it, and frankly, I can’t even imagine it.

Reader, I’m a fool. When we got to the end of Act II, and Joyce knocked me flat. Nothing — not even the performance she’d given leading up to “Nacqui” — could have prepared me for what she did.

All evening, she’d been locating new colors, new tones. The way she sings her little fairy tale at the start of the opera — so internally, just daydreaming, but we hear her (and so do her Stepsisters). The way she pleads with the Prince’s Valet to persuade her Stepfather (yeah, in this version, the Stepmother is a dude) to let her go to the ball. The way she takes her leave of the Prince at the ball. It was all new, all truthful, all gorgeous.

In this production, when the Prince asks her to marry him, Angelina runs offstage for half a second, changes into a wedding gown, and ascends to join him atop a giant wedding cake. But for “Nacqui,” she descends again, to tell her Stepfather and Stepsisters that she forgives them: she is their “daughter, sister, friend.” And in the coloratura fireworks that follow, Joyce never loses the heart that lies within the notes: the joy she feels and expresses stems directly from her embrace of the people who were cruel to her.

I’d been thinking a lot about the theme of forgiveness that runs through so much of Joyce’s work — remarkable, when you consider that she didn’t write the words and music herself, and has to adapt her talent and her perspectives to those of other artists. Recently in Madison, Wisconsin, Michael Mayes and Susanne Mentzer sang Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, an opera that argues for the necessity of forgiveness, even in the face of the worst evil: we must ask forgiveness, and we must grant forgiveness. Joyce sang the role of Sister Helen Prejean in the opera’s New York premiere, and it’s stayed with her — as it’s stayed with everyone who’s come near it.

What does Cinderella have to do with Sister Helen? Forgiveness. Healing. Strength. Compassion. And Joyce.

Cenerentola is a comedy, and while it’s a truth universal that everybody cries at weddings, I wasn’t expecting the purely emotional reaction I had on Tuesday night. When I went backstage, I could hardly speak, I was so choked up. Though really, it’s okay that I didn’t try to monopolize her any longer than I did.

Joyce belongs to the world now, and since the Madeline Kahn biography is entering a new phase (editing and production!), I’ve got some catching up to do: for example, I haven’t written about the master class that I attended at Juilliard, where Joyce was greeted not merely as a kindred spirit, not merely as an artist, but as a role model and guide. (And in at least one case, she was greeted as a cougar. It was clear that one fellow had devoted a great deal of thought to Joyce before he met her, and not entirely about her musicianship, and seeing her before him, in sexy-sexy boots, he could barely concentrate.) She’s still the same darling woman she’s always been — but I have to share her with more and more people, every day.

You can share her tomorrow afternoon, when the Met simulcasts the final performance of Cenerentola in movie theaters around the world. There will be a repeat, and ultimately the video is liable to wind up on PBS and on DVD. You owe it to yourself to witness Joyce’s magic.

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03 May 2014

Looking Back: 157 Days Since ‘Frozen’ Was Released!

This movie is so fetch.

The recent retrospectives and tributes to the movie Mean Girls make me wonder why no one is paying tribute to another modern-day classic on its anniversary. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but it’s been 157 days since Frozen was released, changing American popular culture and the lives of countless little girls and gay men forever. My friends, this is no time to let it go.

Who among us doesn’t quote the unforgettable dialogue? “Who’s the funky-looking donkey over there?” “That’s no blizzard. That’s my sister.” “Wait, what?” And of course, “I’m Olaf and I like warm hugs.”

Who among us doesn’t sing “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “Let It Go” at least 157 times a day? And who among us doesn’t enjoy Ice Wednesdays? You know, where you freeze something, in homage to Princess Elsa, then say to everyone you see, “Have an Ice Wednesday!” I mean, everybody does that, right?

We live in a different world, thanks to Frozen. For the past 157 days, in classrooms and on playgrounds, and on car rides that seem much longer than they really are, we have seen the global empowerment of little girls, largely demonstrated in their refusal to stop singing “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “Let It Go” 157 times a day. Society has changed since the movie’s initial release.

You can just feel the empowerment, can’t you?

It’s time to take a closer look at how the movie was made. Did you know that Josh Gad was originally slated to play handsome Prince Hans — until directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee discovered that Gad really is made entirely of snow, and cast him as the lovable snowman Olav? Did you know that Frozen was originally planned as a live-action film — until the movie’s star, Adele Dazeem, froze to death on the set and had to be replaced by Idina Menzel? Did you know that Glee’s Lea Michele lobbied to play Sven, the reindeer? And did you know that Kristen Bell is also in this movie?

See? Kristen Bell!

But Frozen is held together by the extraordinarily energetic normalcy of Alan Tudyk as the Duke of Weselton. Yes, the character is very short, and yes, he looks like a weasel, two things that are not true of Tudyk. Unlike most of the roles Tudyk has played, the Duke keeps his clothes on. Yet in Frozen, Tudyk is an anchoring star who is, in effect, the Jamesian central consciousness. That’s where his art is most decisively revealed, and it’s why he’s perfectly, irreplaceably cast in Frozen. The Duke’s perspective — “Elsa is weird, and I can make a boatload of money here” — is also that of the Disney studio, and Tudyk brings it to life.

Ladies and gentlemen, your Jamesian consciousness du jour.

Frozen is certainly, deservedly a classic, sure to be remembered long after other movies from the same period — Philomena, Homefront, OldBoy — are forgotten. Also, did I mention that Kristen Bell is in this movie?

Coming Up!
What Might the Frozen Characters Be Doing 157 Days Later?
Can You Guess Famous Frozen Lines from Just a Freeze-Frame?
Take Our Frozen Super Quiz!
Tina Fey Says the Frozen Musical Will Be Better Than the Mean Girls Musical: “Disney Has More Money Than I Do!”
Looking Back: 158 Days Since Frozen Was Released!

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