30 October 2009

Miles Kreuger & the Institute of the American Musical

All Singing! All Dancing!
Ethel Merman and a few friends.
Miles Kreuger knows what show this is from.

Though I have yet to make a complete inspection, I have been assured that the collections of the Institute of the American Musical fill 17 rooms. Even a quick glance at Miles Kreuger’s headquarters suggests that another five rooms may be in order: the place is carpeted and furnished with memorabilia. Books are shelved in double decks, file cabinets creak under the weight of scripts, correspondence, and other archival documents, photographs practically paper the walls, and a massive cabinet contains nothing but original-cast albums — every original-cast album, ever. Many feature liner notes by Kreuger himself.

In conversation, Kreuger has but little need for his archives: he happily cites from memory names, dates, addresses, and every kind of statistic, even phone numbers long since disconnected. He remembers with extraordinarily vivid clarity the precise details of the first show he ever saw on Broadway — when he was four years old.

Kreuger, right, with the sublime Nanette Fabray

As young Miles prated on, asking his grandmother about the purpose of the stage curtain and why the musicians were punished by being thrown into the pit, a woman remarked, “Imagine! Bringing a child of that age to the theater! He’ll do nothing but talk and talk!”

“Look who’s talking,” replied little Miles.

The play in question, he informs me, was Knights of Song, about Gilbert & Sullivan, whose work Miles was already learning by heart. Nigel Bruce starred as W.S. Gilbert, and the play ran (very briefly) at the Fifty-first Street Theatre, one of the most ornate venues in New York.

Years later, on that same stage — by then renamed the Mark Hellinger Theatre — Miles missed out on what should have been his big break as a performer. While he was working as an assistant on a new musical adaptation of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, director Moss Hart and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner asked him to audition in the producer's office. They liked what they heard, and the part was his. But once arrived at the Hellinger, Miles was overwhelmed by the vastness of the auditorium, so much bigger than his college theater, and he chickened out.

That’s how he didn’t create the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady. Julie Andrews still teases him about the incident, he says. (“If you hadn’t been so shy, we could have worked together for two years!”)

The Hellinger

So much for the street where we lived. The Hellinger didn’t bring me much luck, either: that’s where Rags played its four performances, in 1986. Today, the theater is owned and occupied by the Times Square Church.

Many of the great theaters of Broadway are gone, and their only remnants are in Miles Kreuger’s home: just inside the front door are two seats from the old Empire Theatre. (Not the multiplex cinema on 42nd Street, but the legit theater on Broadway and 40th.) “These seats saw Maude Adams in Peter Pan,” Kreuger observes. He can recite whole catalogues of lost treasures, and the changing cityscape, he says, is why he moved away: “By 1978, there wasn’t a trace of New York City left,” he says. “Times Square was gone. Penn Station was gone.” He decided to move to Los Angeles.

Kreuger is such a New York type (who can drive, but doesn’t), and his subject so Broadway-centric, that Los Angeles seems an unlikely destination for him. However, he’s quick to remind a visitor that Hollywood made important contributions to the American musical, too. Lest we forget, Judy Garland never appeared in a Broadway play.

I first met Kreuger when I worked at the Kurt Weill Foundation — he remembers Railroads on Parade, Weill’s contribution to the 1939 World’s Fair — and he was a guiding force behind John McGlinn’s recording of Show Boat, on which Teresa Stratas sings “Bill” (to me, need I point out). We were long overdue to get reacquainted, and my research into the career of Madeline Kahn provided the perfect opportunity. (Indeed, Miles welcomes any qualified researcher to the Institute, and provides advice and other assistance in addition to access to the collections.)

When our conversation touched on Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, an homage to Cole Porter in which Madeline co-starred, I learned that Kreuger knew Porter and had introduced Bogdanovich to some of his songs. Kreuger wrote the liner notes for the soundtrack album, too. But the movie was a failure, Madeline and Bogdanovich never worked together again, and the recording is a collector’s item of which she herself owned no copy, and on which I’ve never set eyes.

Maude Adams did it differently:
Jerome Robbins and Mary Martin rehearse Peter Pan

Mostly, we talked about New York, and the remarkable personalities Kreuger knew there. To cite but one example: freshly graduated from Bard College at age 20, he worked with Helen Hayes, Lena Horne, Ezio Pinza, and Ruth Draper. (Not a bad start.) And one more example: Goddard Lieberson’s secretary sounded so much like an Elaine May character that at first Kreuger thought Mike Nichols (who’d told him to call the legendary record producer) was playing a trick on him.

Kreuger is nostalgic for New York, certainly, yet what strikes me is how much of it he brought West with him. Not only the artifacts that surround him but the spirit he exudes. He serves as a useful role model as I try to decide where I should live — as I mourn my own “lost New York” (which I never saw until after Kreuger had left) — and as I frolic in the eerily seductive California sunshine.

And he reminds me of a scene in Diva. Jules the mailman is talking about music, and Cynthia Hawkins interrupts him. “If you didn’t exist, you would have to be invented,” she says. So it is with Miles Kreuger. Such fans are the keepers of the flame that warms the rest of us.

Kreuger’s latest project is a collection of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics.

The Institute of the American Musical has been described as “a national treasure” by Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, and its vast collections are open to researchers and students by appointment. As a 501 (c)(3) not-private, not-for-profit corporation, the Institute gladly accepts donations — which are tax-deductible. For more information or to make a contribution, please write to

The Institute of the American Musical
121 North Detroit Street
Los Angeles, CA 90036-2915

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25 October 2009

Lou Jacobi

Look up the beach. Look down the beach.
Do you see one Chinese?

I never met the Canadian actor Lou Jacobi, though I once spotted him at a bus stop in Manhattan. At six-two or so, he was much taller than I’d expected, and perhaps shy: for when he saw me looking at him, he tried to recede into the shelter, to make himself invisible. But there was little chance I’d fail to notice the man who made me want to be Jewish, and whose performances set in motion the long and ongoing process of my judeophilic cultivation.

Jacobi’s resonant voice made some consonants linger whole minutes after he’d finished pronouncing them. This made his delivery memorable, and it elevated even flat or silly dialogue to the status of genius. He wore fatigue and disappointment like body parts that could not be shrugged off. Though he could moderate his accent, it remained unmistakably Northeastern and Jewish, and it elicited nostalgic affection from more assimilated audiences. They might not get along with their real-life uncle Lou, but this stage-and-screen one they could embrace.

He’s probably best known for his delicate, honest, and howlingly funny performance as the transvestite in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex — the rare role that doesn’t rely on his speaking voice to make its impact. On Broadway, Jacobi also appeared in The Diary of Anne Frank opposite my beloved Jack Gilford, and he replaced Jack in the series of comedy albums that introduced me to his work. When You’re in Love, the Whole World Is Jewish taught me the meaning of the word shtick. Among other things.

As a baby, my first word was “Oy” (though among my Texan relatives, only my father recognized it as a word). Over time, many other artists and many more friends would build on that foundation, sharing with me their culture, and at last adopting me. But Jacobi was the first.

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23 October 2009

Julie & Julia & Zombies

Bone appétit: Eisenberg, Stone, Breslin, and Harrelson
versus the Zombies
It’s a measure of how badly Nora Ephron failed, in her big-screen adaptation of the lives of nitwit blogger Julie Powell and foodie icon Julia Child, that I preferred Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland to her Julie & Julia. Ordinarily, you can’t get me to go near a zombie picture, much less to enjoy one, yet in this case, I’d rather go near a zombie — a real one — than spend another minute in the company of Ephron’s characters.

Watch Me Acting! Over Here! Look! It’s Me — Meryl Streep!
I Know It’s Hard to Believe, but It’s True! Really!
See My Impressive Choices?
Judy Graubart’s Julia Grownup did it better.

Perhaps Julie & Julia struck too close to home: Powell turns to her blog for many of the reasons that compelled me to begin “publishing” my “work” in this space. However, I felt no special sympathy for her, and the movie’s Julie (Amy Adams) never quite confronts what any viewer must: though her husband (Chris Messina) insists that Julie’s a writer, and presumably the movie has been an account of her personal growth and self-realization (explicitly compared with Julia Child’s), she is by far the least interesting character in the movie, and whatever charms her writing may possess are kept far offscreen.

By trying to link two very different stories, everything about the movie is thrown off-balance. For example, the scenes that deal directly with Child feature fun cameos by New York theater actors (Linda Emond! Deborah Rush! Stephen Bogardus! Richard Bekins! Marceline Hugot!), as well as superlative work from Stanley Tucci and Jane Lynch as Child’s husband and sister; the portions of the movie that deal with Powell feature ... a lot of whining from poor old Amy Adams.

Message to Julie Powell: Nut up or shut up

We never get much sense of what’s at stake — we seldom get much sense of what Powell is cooking, what ingredient or technique is involved, or why she finds it difficult. It’s God’s truth that 76 percent of the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking aren’t difficult at all. The rest require a little more time or technique than most American cooks possess, but they’re not impossible. (I’ve had no training whatever, yet I manage just fine.)

The real-life Child wasn’t far wrong when she observed that Powell “wasn’t serious.” Ephron gives us even less sense of Child in the kitchen, though we do get a couple of lovely scenes in which Meryl Streep (as Julia) savors a dish that someone else has prepared.

In short, Ephron has created a movie about aesthetic and sensual pleasures that is almost completely lacking in them — at least, in a form that a viewer can share. Only in depicting the conjugal bliss of Julia and Paul Child does Ephron observe the all-important Rule #32: “Enjoy the little things.”

Does Jane Lynch’s performance here mean that Meryl Streep will make a guest appearance on Glee this season?
Please? Pretty please?

That rule is central to Zombieland, a movie that does very little but enjoy the little things: character quirks, relationship-revealing dialogue riffs, offbeat monomania, and one of the funniest “mystery guest” cameo performances I’ve ever seen. Gore is secondary here, and so, for that matter, are zombies: it’s all about what gives you pleasure when everything else has let you down.

Even the movie’s rampant product-placement turns out to be telling (and who thought we’d still care about brand names, in the post-zombie apocalypse?), as Woody Harrelson’s obsession with Twinkies and his anguished cries of “I want my Caddy back” accrue to create a character portrait — something like those Arcimboldo paintings where all the fruits and vegetables combine to depict a human face.

In short, though I risk comparison to Billy Sol Hurok and The Farm Film Report, I admit that I’d have enjoyed Julie & Julia more if it had been more like Zombieland.

Blowed up good!

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19 October 2009

The Hollywood Walk of Fame

A brunch date yesterday on Hollywood Boulevard afforded me the opportunity to examine — for the first time in many, many years — the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s quite a brilliant idea: so many mythical cities pave the streets with gold, but Hollywood is paved with stars! Yet almost nothing about the Walk of Fame makes logical sense.

We do exalt certain artists, we elevate them to the status of stars — something over our heads, both in the sense that we look up to them as superior to us, and in the sense that we can’t quite understand them. And yet on the Walk of Fame, we take those stars and we abase them, we place them on the ground, where we step on them: and just so, there are a good number of “stars” whose names we don’t know.

Naturally, I’ve forgotten the names of those I didn’t recognize, but I can give you an obscure example: Michael Ansara. He was married to Barbara Eden for a while, and he appeared in an episode of the original Star Trek. These things I know off the top of my head, without consulting the Internet Movie Database. Does the average twentysomething today know who he is? What will we remember about him, 20 years from now?

‘Day of the Dove’: Ansara as Kang

It’s fascinating to stroll along the Walk, and to watch others doing the same. We hunt and gather, searching for, then pouncing on names we recognize. We collect: in just two blocks, I found Nichelle Nichols, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, and Gene Roddenberry, a matching set of Star Trek luminaries!

Collecting stars is impulsive behavior, it’s true, yet not completely divorced from reason. Not so the reverence we feel toward the pavement. I felt it myself — that graveside awe, much as if the celebrity in question were buried under that star. Yet the pavement in this spot has only scant connection to the person: it’s possible that Ginger Rogers came for the unveiling of her star, but apart from that, why should this bit of pavement be any more significant to her, or to her fans, than any other? I daresay there are plenty of sidewalks she frequented more than this one, and she left her handprints in the sidewalk in front of Grauman’s Chinese. On the Walk of Fame, we have only her name, not even her signature.

When you’re on the Walk of Fame, you don’t think this way. You get caught up in — what, exactly? Is it excitement? Yes. (But why?) Is it glamour? Sort of. (But we’re stepping on it.) Is it nostalgia, the magnetic attraction of our personal memories, summoned by the glimpse of a name?

I watched others taking pictures of Jimi Hendrix’s star, which lies just outside the restaurant where I ate. It’s a most unlikely shrine, and I’m betting Hendrix never set foot anywhere near it. You could take a piece of chalk and write his name on the sidewalk in front of your own home, and it would be equally relevant. Why do we feel that this sidewalk, in this place, is more worthy of our tributes?

And yet we come, and linger and gape, and remember. We pay homage to people we didn’t know, on a spot they never (or seldom) visited; we thank them for communicating directly with us and millions of others just like us. And then, at last, we walk on.

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18 October 2009

Rest in Peace, Mr. Kaufman

Mr. & Mrs. Kaufman and the Collection

A fellow named Donald Kaufman has passed away in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. This is in itself a sad occasion, I’m sure, and yet how joyous is the headline of his obituary in The New York Times: “Donald Kaufman, Collector of Toy Cars, Dies at 79.”

Collector of Toy Cars! What a lovely way to be remembered! It got me thinking about the headlines that all our obituaries might get, if we had our priorities straight.

One of Kaufman’s Toy Cars

Exceptionally Good Listener, Murray Greshner, Dies at 79

Marie Slaughter Is Dead: “Made the Best Brownies EVER”

Teresa Rinteria, 87, a Lively Dancer

Louise Tate, 69, Never Missed an Opportunity to Vote

Hector Lozon, 91, Possessed “Rare Gift” for Choosing Inexpensive Table Wines, Say Friends

Bess Lindstrom Smelled Like Cookies

For my part, I’m torn. Do I want to be remembered for my compulsive collection of plastic figurines of cartoon characters, for my opera recordings, or for my Playbill collection that covers every theater and opera performance I've seen since high school? For a while there, I really wanted to be remembered for my abdominal muscles, but these days it’s looking less likely that they’ll last long enough to figure prominently in my obituary. Maybe choosing the right headline is best left to those who survive me.

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15 October 2009

Gilding the Roses ... or Not

Tedium: Act I of Tosca
New York’s Metropolitan Opera offered me a study in contrasts this week, as I bounced from Nathaniel Merrill’s 40-year-old production of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier to Luc Bondy’s spanking-new take on Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. Physically but also spiritually, the former is a bourgeois fantasy of Viennese nobility in the 18th century, all satin and scrollwork, while the latter is stripped-down, as stark as the blade that strikes at the villain’s poisonous heart.

Since the new Tosca replaces the Zeffirelli production — even more elaborate than Merrill’s Rosenkavalier — it was bound to find detractors. You can’t tell from looking at Richard Peduzzi’s new sets that this is Rome, for example, and only Milena Canonero’s costume designs (and the program notes) give any hint that the year is 1800. I have no objection, in principle: the power of Puccini’s music is hardly subtle but entirely direct, needing little help to make its points, and Zeffirelli’s sets and costumes always struck me as too damned much. The trouble is that, apart from a few bits of blocking seemingly devised with no other intention than to provoke the Met audience, Bondy had nothing particular to say. This was the dullest Tosca I’d ever seen — and hitherto, I’d always considered the words “dull” and “Tosca” entirely incompatible.

Venal? Scarpia (Gagnidze) menaces Tosca (Mattila)

It’s possible that some of the detail of Bondy’s direction was lost on me, since I was seated in the Family Circle (but is high-definition television, close-up and in stereo, the only way one can appreciate an opera anymore?), and since I heard Russian soprano Maria Gavrilova in the title role, covering Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who was indisposed, and for whom this production was intended. Unlike Mattila, Gavrilova didn’t have the benefit of extensive, one-on-one rehearsal with Bondy — and moreover, it’s unlikely she could rival the close collaborative relationship between Mattila and Bondy. Obviously Bondy’s work speaks to Mattila in a way that it may not — to the same degree — speak to other singers. But eventually, other singers will be performing in this production: are we to assume that they'll be equally lost, forced to rely on generalized gesture and thrashing around?

Still — I’m inclined to make allowances for some of the lapses in Bondy’s Tosca. But how to account for the end of Act I, when Baron Scarpia starts humping a statue of the Madonna? What about his perversity had we not already learned from the music? After all, he’s roaring on about his lust for Floria Tosca in the middle of a church service. Did we really need the underlining and the humping? And why did Bondy think it made more sense for Scarpia to frolic with prostitutes at the beginning of Act II, rather than awaiting Tosca in solitude, as the libretto prescribes? Isn’t it more interesting if he’s alone, entirely focused on his conquest, coiled and ready to pounce? Apparently, Bondy thinks not.

Extreme interrogation aftermath: Mattila and Alvarez

And never mind that the stage business for Tosca, following Scarpia’s murder, isn’t the Catholic ritual called for in the libretto: it simply makes no sense at all. Why does Tosca start to jump out of a window? (That isn’t what the score tells us she’s doing — after all, we have very clear musical directions as to what impels Tosca to jump, in Act III, and the music at the close of Act II sounds nothing like it.) Why does she then lie back on a sofa and fan herself? Why would anybody do that? Tosca isn’t a work of great psychological complexity, yet I couldn’t make sense of Bondy’s blocking here.

The musical performance profited from Paul Plishka’s well-practiced traversal of the Sacristan and from Marcelo Alvarez’s intelligent, idiomatic, yet emotionally restrained interpretation of the revolutionary painter Mario Cavaradossi. As Scarpia, baritone George Gagnidze offered plenty of stentorian force but very little aristocratic elegance. In the pit, Joseph Colaneri elicited some of the most beautiful string playing I’ve heard in this opera, but elsewhere he missed opportunities. The music following Cavaradossi’s execution, for example, neither blazed with heroic fervor nor scalded with irony — either of which would be a legitimate artistic statement. Colaneri is filling in for James Levine, who presumably got the bulk of rehearsal time with the orchestra; I tend to think that this is a work in progress.

Dude looks like a lady:
Fleming & Graham as the Marschallin and Octavian

Though Levine’s absence was felt in Rosenkavalier, too, this was in other ways a reunion, as Susan Graham and Renée Fleming returned to familiar roles and a winning partnership, under the baton of conductor Edo de Waart, with whom both have often worked. The result was a kind of comfort zone, in which extra attention could be paid to detail, because all the bigger pieces of the puzzle had been worked out long ago. Traditional, yes, but wholly satisfying, and paradoxical though it may seem, this is the simpler, more direct staging.

I’m nuts about this score, which after all permits me to hear the scent of rose perfume. Strauss’ greatest achievement here, however, is that he makes time stand still — twice — when Octavian presents Sophie with the silver rose, and again at the end of the opera, when the Marschallin gently releases Octavian into Sophie’s arms. Dramatically, these are tiny moments, a matter of seconds, but Strauss spins them out musically, making blissful eternities of sound.

Pretty Woman: Fleming

Though I’d heard Susan Graham and Renée Fleming sing this music on recordings, I’d never attended a performance. Three dimensions make all the difference! Fleming’s Marschallin was the most fully rounded dramatic portrayal I’ve ever seen her give, and her voice — actually too pretty in some roles — seems perfectly suited to a woman who despite her outward grace and gentility must navigate insurmountable heartbreak.

Octavian gives Susan a chance to explore knockabout physical comedy, youthful passions, and innate nobility. She made me laugh out loud, and she made me cry — with happiness. I have been trying so hard in this space to explain the effect her voice has on me; for now, let it suffice to say that she did it again. A lot. I can’t believe that I nearly went without seeing her in this signature role.

Susan in the Presentation Scene,
from San Francisco Opera a few years ago

Luckily for you, you can see it, too, even if you’re far from New York. Der Rosenkavalier has been selected as one of the Met’s upcoming high-definition simulcasts, in movie theaters, on 9 January, with encores on 27 January (in the U.S.) and 6 March (in Canada).

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12 October 2009

Tempus Dilectionis, Tempus Belli

Mackie (left) and Renner in The Hurt Locker
Apart from excellent critical reception, English-language dialogues, and the fact that both were directed by women, The Hurt Locker and Bright Star could hardly be more different — so I herewith renounce any attempt to link them. I saw both pictures this weekend.

Few movies have ever made me so uncomfortable as Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker: while I admired the film and was caught up in it, I couldn’t wait for it to end. The plus-que-vérité style — with busy, hand-held camerawork and transparent, hyper-realistic performances — makes viewing even more excruciating, because it becomes harder to say to yourself, “Oh, it’s only a movie.” (Perhaps the wiliest device Bigelow uses to unsettle a viewer is to upend expectations: without giving anything away, let me say merely that star actors are not safer or more likely to survive than the unknowns who take other roles.*) A portrait of an Army bomb squad in Iraq, shot in Jordan, The Hurt Locker manages to avoid the pious preachiness of most other recent films about the war, yet a viewer does wind up asking the Big Questions of Iraq: how the hell did we get here, and what do we do about it now? Just as the central characters must wonder, each time they set out to defuse a bomb.

Bigelow’s moviemaking is wonderfully assured, and she elicits completely convincing performances from her trio of leading men: Brian Geraghty as Eldridge, more vulnerable than he appears; Jeremy Renner as the hotshot, thrill-addicted William James**; and most impressive, Anthony Mackie as the sane, sensible Sanborn. Sanborn has only a few more days remaining in this tour of duty — but if you expect a Lethal Weapon dynamic of crazy white guy partnered with reasonable (and doomed) black guy, Bigelow has a few more surprises for you. I’ll be on the lookout for all three actors in future.

Jane Campion’s Bright Star is an even more conventional film, and afterward I struggled to identify what theme or purpose the picture might serve, beyond simple biography. I confess that I came up short, and doubtless great numbers of Masterpiece Theatre-loving, dreamy-eyed audiences will enjoy the movie tremendously just because it’s a romance about a tony poet whose work they can read at home to their own lovers (or to their cats, depending). Which is fine by me.

But Campion is a smart filmmaker, and her work typically offers a pronounced feminist perspective. The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady, for example, were complex moral dramas with exceptionally strong female protagonists. I have a hard time believing that she meant for any part of Bright Star to be taken at face value, no matter how lovely the face. (It’s a strikingly beautiful film.)

Campion does present us with a bit of role-reversal here, toying with our expectations of a big-screen love story, though she doesn’t carry it very far. Yes, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is smart, talented, and outspoken, and it’s she who pursues the frail, timid man. Indeed, Cornish’s Brawne is brawny, so much more hale and hearty than Ben Whishaw (who plays the tubercular John Keats), that she looks as if she could knock him down with the bat of an eyelash. Her fashion sense is another sign of her power: in any given scene, Cornish’s costumes are by far the most vivid colors onscreen, while Whishaw wears only one tatty suit, as subdued in color as his surroundings. Thus the one who’s raring to burst out isn’t the superstar Keats, it’s Brawne — yet somehow these elements don’t add up to much. They’re only dressing.

Hot, hot, hot: Whishaw and Cornish

But they’re not un-dressing. In an era when even Pride and Prejudice becomes a vehicle for bodice-ripping, Bright Star differs most from other period romances in its utter chastity***. As the characters remind each other, Keats has no money and cannot honorably propose himself to Brawne. Yet their passion cannot be denied, and it expresses itself not physically (they kiss perhaps five times) but poetically. In the movie’s most telling scene, Keats and Brawne recite poetry to each other, alternating verses, ratcheting up the rhythms, in an ecstasy of shared language — and it’s like really good sex.

The wild card in these proceedings is Paul Schneider’s performance as Charles Armitage Brown, a fellow writer who lodges Keats and who, in his desire to protect his friend, effectively becomes Fanny’s rival. The trouble is that Schneider’s characterization and much of his dialogue are so loud, bold, and over-the-top, that he seems to have arrived from some other movie. The contrast he provides is more extreme than Campion can have intended, and it’s a relief whenever he goes away. Far more effective are Kerry Fox, as the cliché-busting Mrs. Brawne, who probably deserves some kind of posthumous medal for not opposing her daughter’s unsuitable attachment; and Thomas Sangster and Edie Martin as Fanny’s kid brother and baby sister.

Perhaps Hurt Locker and Bright Star do have this in common: Bigelow and Campion take two conventional genres and tweak them: building suspense and surprise; making us think, without ever telling us what to think.

Incredibly safe sex:
Edward and Bella could learn from these two.

*Hurt Locker is like a Star Trek picture in which the red shirts are in less danger than Kirk and Spock are.

**I failed to detect any correlation to the American philosopher and brother of Henry James. But I know Henry’s work better than William’s, so if any of you see a resemblance, please speak up!

***Also in its intelligence. How I wished Becoming Jane had been as thoughtful as Bright Star! Physically, the movies are similar — but I’m still insulted on Jane Austen’s behalf, you know, and smarting from the wounds inflicted on her.

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09 October 2009


The Nobel committee today awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to U.S. President Barack Obama, stunning even his biggest supporters.

As a service to my readers, I’m releasing the names of several other candidates for the Peace Prize this year. Though they may not have won (yet!), they deserve our attention and respect.

Pat Feuillete, Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX
This NASA Engineer persuaded his colleagues to blow up only part of the surface of the moon on 9 October 2009.

Joe Jonas, Hollywood, CA
Although he hasn’t done as much to promote world peace or to end human suffering as some rock stars, such as U2’s Bono, Joe is younger and cuter.

Sasha and Malia Obama, Washington, DC
Did not raise their voices, strike each other, or lose their tempers on 17 June 2009, even though those were so Sasha’s favorite sandals.

The Cast of TV’s Glee, Lima, OH
After only a few episodes, this show can be sort of fun. What do you say we give ’em some kind of a prize?

Susan Boyle, Blackburn, West Lothian
Need we really explain?

Anyone Else Who Is Not George W. Bush
We saw a number of talented candidates from this pool, many of whom were not George W. Bush in any way whatever, and all of whom promoted the cause of world peace and international diplomacy through the nonviolent means of not being George W. Bush. The Nobel Committee wants to endorse this attitude, wherever it may arise.

Barack Obama recently renewed his pledge
not to be George W. Bush.

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06 October 2009

Robert V. Straus

Same room, different show:
Another cast rehearses at the 890 Broadway studios.

On Valentine’s Day, 1986, Teresa Stratas announced her intention to join the cast of a new Broadway musical entitled Rags. She and I had talked a little about the show, and she’d played me a recording of the title number, so I didn’t feel totally out of bounds in dropping off a note at her apartment: “If you think there’s anything I might be able to do, I’d love to be a part of this.”

As it happened, the show did need a production assistant, and Teresa believed I was sufficiently qualified for the (unpaid!) position. But first, she told me, I’d have to pass inspection by the Production Supervisor, Robert V. Straus.

I nearly didn’t make the call to set up an appointment. Stricken with nerves, I rolled around the couch on which I’d been sleeping (I was technically homeless at the time) and toyed with the idea of forgetting about the job interview, the show, and indeed the entirety of show business — until, at some point, a little voice said, “You idiot! Teresa Stratas just went out of her way to help you, and you’re gonna do nothing?”

I met Bob Straus in his apartment on the Upper East Side, and we talked for about half an hour. At last, he looked me in the eye and said, “I wasn’t gonna hire you, because you’re a friend of the star, and that never works. But I’m gonna take a chance on you.”

And thus I embarked on the greatest adventure of my young life.

Not least of the benefits of my experience was the opportunity to know Bob himself. He passed away Sunday morning after a long illness.

A walking bear hug of a man, Bob was among the tenderest, most nurturing people I ever knew. His heart was surprisingly unsentimental, yet he wore it openly on his sleeve. He protected himself — a little — with a sarcastic, teasing sense of humor. But I don’t think anyone was ever fooled for long.

Like a frigate Bob navigated the shoals of Rags’ fractious producers and frazzled cast. When rehearsals began, we had one director; when the show opened, we had yet another, and in between, we had sometimes two directors and sometimes none. Bob steered us all through those stormy seas. (Did anybody ever bother to thank him for keeping the show running during the weeks of changing directors, scripts, and designers?)

Watching his outward calm under duress and his supreme command of detail, I realized that, no matter how hard I tried, I could never grow up to do what he did for a living. That was a hard lesson, in its way, and yet it liberated me: I could focus on my chores and explore the experience, without having to worry much about what happened after. (I was probably the only person in the company so blessed.) I scampered after that brilliantly talented cast, lapping up Madeline Lee Gilford’s stories and gamboling to Charles Strouse’s beautiful score. I made and lost friends and a lover. I lived Rags not as a job or a show but as a little lifetime. Nothing has ever been more exciting.

This stained-glass piece hung in the window
of Madeline Gilford’s bedroom.

All the while, it became increasingly apparent that backstage was not my rightful place. One afternoon, Bob instructed me to take something stage left, and I promptly set out toward stage right.

“Can’t you tell the difference between left and right?” he asked.

“Not always,” I admitted.

He thought for a minute before continuing: “And just what were you planning to do in theater?”

He taught me a lot of other lessons about commercial theater, including its potential value and importance. Let it be noted that, with few exceptions, Bob signed on to very few frivolous entertainments. He preferred shows like Rags and Band in Berlin (which he produced), where social relevance so often took the spotlight. Both those shows closed before their time. And so it was that under Bob’s wing, I learned the fundamental unfairness of commercial theater, too.

It didn’t hurt his career or his peace of mind that, when he came home from work, he found his wife, Marguerite, a public-school administrator. They formed a truly perfect union — and I’ve seldom seen anything to rival the contentment they found in each other’s company. Whenever Marguerite was around, Bob began to glow like a sunrise.

I had no Marguerite, and only limited organizational skills and less patience, and I couldn’t tell left from right. I couldn’t do what Bob Straus did, and I never again worked in theater. But I never doubted that his lessons would hold true in other lines of work, and in the embrace of his affection, I never felt safer or more free.

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03 October 2009

Desperate Characters

The Terror and the Pity:
Tahar Rahim, in Un prophète

Because for the next several weeks it will be more difficult for me to see French movies without subtitles, I have taken refuge at the cinéma a few times lately, and I’m quite pleased with what I’ve seen.

Most impressive is Un prophète, a frankly harrowing account of a young man’s career path from petty urchin to hardened criminal — all the while in prison. Upon his release, Malik (Tahar Rahim) is a fully-formed gangleader in the classic style, with visual reference to Michael Corleone and the musical reference of “Mack the Knife.” This is, in its way, a success story, as Malik exploits his ingenuity to achieve power. (He even teaches himself to speak Corsican so that he can eavesdrop on other prisoners.) But it’s a grim story, too, and we are meant to ask whether a fellow of his potential and his determination couldn’t have found a more constructive métier.

Arestrup and Rahim

French pundits waxed ecstatic over this incisive analysis of the failures of the French penal system (surely the furlough policy will come in for review soon, and recidivism is the hot topic now*), yet director Jacques Audiard isn’t making a polemic — or a documentary — and he doesn’t stint on the drama. He makes brilliant use of the frankly scary actor Niels Arestrup, who was so memorable in Audiard’s De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (The Beat My Heart Skipped, 2005), and who exudes rot and violence from every gaping pore. And Rahim, as the visionary (literally — that’s where the title comes from) Malik, is a revelation, pitiable and terrifying in equal measure.

Arestrup has a smaller role as the head of a French intelligence agency in Christian Carion’s L’Affaire Farewell (Farewell), a gripping espionage drama that brilliantly skirts most of the genre’s clichés. It is, after all, the story of two engineers, so why would we suppose they’d behave like James Bond?

Think of it as a buddy picture ... with espionage, torture, and executions.
Kusturica and Canet, in Farewell

Based on a true story, the film shows Sergueï Grigoriev (played by Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica), a KGB officer who, disillusioned with the Soviet regime, begins to collect evidence of a vast network of moles in the West, then funnels it through a French intermediary (Guillaume Canet) to the Western powers. Not only did this leak prompt the exposure of dozens of double agents — who had kept the Soviets fully informed about every aspect of Western security and technology — but it meant that, when Ronald Reagan (the uncanny Fred Ward) proposed his “Star Wars” campaign, Mikhail Gorbachev was stranded, unable to assess the seriousness of the threat or how long it would take his regime to match it.

There’s only the mildest chauvinism at work here (You see, it was the French who ended the Cold War!), while the political perceptions are often more personal and psychological than didactic. Grigoriev, for instance, dreams of exactly the sort of USSR that Gorbachev hopes to build — yet his actions undo the whole Perestroika experiment.

In the main, L’Affaire Farewell concentrates on the personal relationship between Grigoriev and his contact, Pierre Froment (Canet), two ordinary guys in extraordinary circumstances.

It’s noteworthy that both Farewell and Prophète feature French actors speaking abundant quantities of foreign languages. Canet’s Russian is fluid but forced; his English is impeccable. Both Arestrup and Rahim speak Corsican, and Rahim speaks Arabic, as well. In the recently released L’ultimatum, dishy young Gaspard Ulliel plays an Israeli and speaks fluent Hebrew. Several, perhaps all of these guys received language coaching, but it’s an interesting indicator of the state of American education and filmmaking: we may expect that Meryl Streep will speak Polish or Danish or French in a movie, but can you imagine Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, or Keanu Reeves doing anything like this?

Chiara, daughter of Deneuve and Mastroianni
(As if you couldn’t tell)

Christophe Honoré’s Non, ma fille, tu n’iras pas danser (No, my daughter, you won’t go dancing) is — according to the director himself — a depiction of the violence that society does to women, yet in the playing, it’s the central character, Léna (Chiara Mastroianni), who does most of the damage. She has no idea what she wants from life, and she bruises everyone around her. The exception to this pattern is important, however: without warning, her mother (Marie-Christine Barrault) invites Léna’s ex-husband (Jean-Marc Barr) to a family retreat in the country. That would be enough to throw anybody off-track, I expect, and it helps to build sympathy for Léna.

The movie is most interesting in its acting. Mastroianni’s character, as written, doesn’t amount to a coherent statement, but she delivers a helluva performance, seething beneath that fascinating surface. (How she resembles both her parents!) Barrault comes up with a fully realized characterization, intelligent, tender, and wonderfully sexy. She actually gets a couple of sexagenarian sex scenes, and I’m here to tell you, you’ll regret that there aren’t more. As Léna’s quirky, overbearing sister, Marina Foïs manages to be funny, irritating, and lovable. The precocious Donatien Suner plays Léna’s son, Anton, by far the most sensible person in the movie — and therefore doomed to no good end.

Honoré (who also made Dans Paris and Les chansons d’amour) is at his surest in an extended sequence that enacts a folktale Anton tells Léna, of a country lass who dances her suitors to death. The scene is more interesting than anything else in the movie, and I expect it’s because Honoré didn’t really understand the larger story he was telling. That’s a shame, because he had so many promising ingredients.

So often that’s the case with French filmmakers: they crank out one picture a year, and their plots always fall apart in the third act. Eventually, you think, they’d figure out that they need to spend an extra month or two on the script.

Better luck next time: Suner, Mastroianni, and Foïs

*NOTE: This week’s headlines have been absorbed with the story of the rape and murder of a French woman by a man with a record of sex crimes and prison time.

UPDATE, 28 February 2010: At last night’s César Awards presentation (French equivalent of the Oscars), Un Prophète carried off nine wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Tahar Rahim won not only the Best Actor award but also the Meilleur Espoir Masculin, a newcomer prize; he’s the first actor to win both. Niels Arestrup won Best Supporting Actor.

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02 October 2009

DiDonato, the Muse

DiLightful, DiLicious, DiLovely

The mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato opens tomorrow as Rosina in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. It’s a super part for her, the vehicle for her debuts with the Paris Opera (in Coline Serreau’s production), Vienna Staatsoper and Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the first role I got to see her perform live, at Houston Grand Opera in 2004.* Less happily — though triumphantly, in the end — Rosina is the role Joyce was singing when she broke her leg, at Covent Garden this summer.

Her take on the character is compelling: Joyce’s Rosina is a match for every schemer in this seething plot, and her bel canto technique serves as a kind of audible indicator of her constantly whirling intelligence. A smart cookie, she’s not waiting around to be rescued (unlike some Rosinas). She’s also damned funny, and Joyce is one of the few singers I’ve heard who can get laughs in “Una voce poco fa,” though she resorts to no mugging or underlining, nor even English translation, to make her point.

It’s a good time to be a Joyce DiDonato fan. She’s just been named one of the recipients of this year’s Opera News Awards — not bad, especially considering that her professional career is barely a decade old, and that she’s the youngest artist yet to receive this honor. Even if you live far from New York, two new CDs and a DVD release offer plenty of reasons to admire her. And something Joyce wrote on her blog — in describing the “Lessons Learned” from her broken leg — has helped me to understand a little better what sets her apart as an artist.

I attended performances of both Rossini’s La Cenerentola in Barcelona (recorded for the new DVD) and Handel’s Alcina (one of the new CDs) in concert in Poissy. Though I could hardly sing along with either opera, they’re both reasonably familiar to me — so I was surprised by the psychological depth and emotional resonance Joyce found in her roles. Simply stated, I didn’t think this music had so much to offer. Where did she find these colors, this truth?

Here’s what Joyce had to say about adapting her performance, singing Rosina from a wheelchair in London this summer:
… I realized that because I could rely less on my physical body to “act” for me, I had to resort more and more to simply the voice. Back in my AVA days in Philadelphia, we had a brilliant monster of a Maestro who tormented us with unmatchable expectations and demands…. BUT, he would spend literally HOURS on a single page of recitative until we got all the myriad colors to literally burst off the page. “ACT WITH YOUR VOICE NOT WITH YOUR HANDS!!!” It was exhausting, demoralizing work, (“Can’t I do ONE phrase right? WHAT MORE DOES HE WANT FROM ME? BLOOD!?!?!?”), and yet in the end, to this day, I can hear his voice in my head as I prepare those recits, and I drew on that voice while in my chair to concentrate even further my “vocal acting” to bring this character to life.
Uninterrupted Melody: Joyce at Covent Garden

Reading this, I had a Eureka Moment. Joyce finds all these nuances because she works. Her training — frustrating though it may have been, at times — seems to have led her to the conviction that any music worth singing must contain multiple dimensions, “myriad colors,” and no single solution. So in preparing a role, the longer and harder she works, the more deeply she must delve into the minds of both the composer and the character: Why these notes, instead of some others? What is being said here? What does it mean? How can I express that meaning?

Apparently, Joyce isn’t satisfied until she discovers a fully rounded character, one who can be described with more than a single adjective and a noun: thus, her Alcina isn’t merely “a vengeful sorceress,” but a kind of distaff Prospero, mingling desire and regret, righteousness and melancholy, tenderness and fire. That she did all this without benefit of a stage production is all the more remarkable, because she entered so completely into her role: one felt one was watching a play (with lots of very difficult music).

Watch Cenerentola to see the extraordinary range of emotion Joyce brings to this opera’s conclusion: newly engaged to the handsome prince (Juan Diego Flórez), Joyce’s Angelica turns to her father and stepsisters and tenderly pleads with them for reconciliation, almost as if it’s they who must pardon her. You sense the pain she suffered at their hands, because that can’t ever be wiped away, but you also sense that, to Angelica, the pain is not what matters.

All of this she communicates in one of the most technically demanding arias ever written, in which many a mezzo has been content merely to hit the notes and to convey a generic sweetness. Joyce’s communicative powers don’t rely exclusively on words and music. In the closing measures of Cenerentola in Barcelona, Joyce’s performance — silent — literally took my breath away. (Though video clips of this scene have been on YouTube since the opera was first telecast, in 2008, they’re blurry, so the higher quality of the DVD image will be welcome.)

Her other new CD, Colbran, the Muse, a collection of arias wirtten by Rossini for the legendary mezzo Isabella Colbran, consists primarily of material I haven’t heard Joyce sing — but I think you’ll understand why I’m so eagerly anticipating that first listen. Yes, it’s a very good time.

*NOTE: My first glimpse of Joyce was in the video of Mark Adamo’s Little Women, from the HGO production. Shot in high-definition and projected against an entire hotel-room wall, her performance was nuanced down to the batting of her eyelashes, and Joyce made Meg’s aria, “Things Change, Jo,” a genuinely transformative experience.

That video screening was quite an experience: the first time I heard or saw Joyce, the first time I heard Mark’s music, and the first time I met Joy Partain, who was in the HGO press office at the time. How often does one establish so many important and lasting relationships, just by watching television?

On the cover of the CD, Joyce (far right) is joined by Margaret Lloyd (Amy), Stacy Tappan (Beth), and Stephanie Novacek (brilliant as Jo).

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