30 December 2010

Pop Culture Roundup for 2010

Teenage Dreamboat Darren Criss
Okay, he’s not really a teen. But who’s counting?

Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I’ve been able to catch up on culture — the kind that everybody else is enjoying, in this, my own era. And so, while I haven’t been able to watch certain American TV shows in real time, or even DVR, and I couldn’t possibly keep up at the water cooler, I don’t feel entirely left out anymore. And while I haven’t actually purchased a single pop album this year, I have (brace yourself) down­loaded a couple from iTunes. No, seriously. I have.

I’m not in a position to post Top 10 Lists or the sorts of year-end acco­lades that are the purview of other publications, but I’m pleased to offer a few reactions to the pop culture of our time.

Regina Spektor actually knows how to play this instrument.
No, seriously. She does.

Intrigued by Regina Spektor’s song “Us,” which I first heard in last year’s rom-com hit, (500) Days of Summer, I went to iTunes and picked up two albums by the artist in question. She turns out to be Russian by birth, Brooklynese by education, and a very great talent. Her Classical piano studies in particular afford her a compositional range that other pop stars — even the similarly trained Mika — can’t even begin to grasp. We’re ’way beyond three-chord progressions here. It’s not merely that no two songs sound alike; there are variations within songs. And her lyrics are witty, wise, and gratifyingly complex. I’ve listened repeatedly to Begin to Hope and Soviet Kitsch, without once growing bored.

She makes me think of that high-school oddball, moody, always sitting by herself in the cafeteria, laughing at strange, unfunny words, writing poetry, leaving school early for piano lessons. And then one day — the senior talent show, perhaps — she walks onstage and blows everybody away. She’s still odd: nobody who indulges so often in those glottal stops and yelps (designed, I think, to add spice and vinegar to her essentially sweet instrument) is ever going to be normal, man. And yet you hear her speaking directly to you. All the time she was keeping to herself, you realize, she was watching you.

The next thing you realize is that she’s gorgeous.
When did that happen?

My particular favorite songs are “Samson,” “That Time,” “On the Radio,” “Uh-merica,” and of course “Us.” But really, just trying to pick a handful of favorites, I think of even more I wouldn’t want to do without: “Fidelity,” “Après moi,” “Music Box,” almost every title. Spektor’s music is consistently rewarding, and I look forward to hearing more from her.


The big news around the water cooler, I suspect, would be Glee — if indeed there are any water coolers anymore. This is not only be­cause the show is topical (best exemplified in the bullying story line), or because of the special guest stars (Carol Burnett! Gwyneth Paltrow — singing! Meat Loaf — not singing!), but because the show is so infu­ri­at­ing­ly inconsistent. Characters don’t behave the same from one scene to the next; plots and motivations are forgotten for weeks on end; abrupt changes in tone seem to serve no purpose than to cue another song. Glee simply refuses to be the show I want it to be.

And yet it remains great fun, and like almost everybody else, I’m finding the Kurt story line just about irresistible. It doesn’t hurt that Chris Colfer’s voice is imbued with angelic purity and eerie emotional power, or that he’s a terrific actor even when Kurt has nothing to say. (Watch his eyes during “Teenage Dream,” glimpsed in the picture above. So much going on there!) It also doesn’t hurt that his friend-slash-potential-love-interest is played by the best-looking, most charming, most straight-but-gay-friendly actor to come down the pike since James Franco. Ever superlative as Blaine, Darren Criss made the most stun­ning small-screen debut in memory, a swift-moving, explosive spotlight that made him an instant star.

Meanwhile, a thuddingly banal pop song took on exciting new mean­ings — something Glee at its best does rather well.

The producers have played coy with us, keeping the boys apart. I mean, come on: there’s no way that their “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” duet (above) wouldn’t end in an incredibly passionate kiss!

That said, I am prepared to go on the record, quoting Pretty in Pink’s Duckie as I remind you that Blaine “is a major appliance, not a name,” and predicting that the inevitable love affair between these two will not end happily. (Unless of course Glee ends its run prematurely, as Ugly Betty did, and the boys are preserved in happily-ever-amber, as Justin and Austin were.) Don’t even try to tell me John Hughes movies exert no influence on Glee.

The show’s other pleasures are primarily a matter of good casting and (sometimes) apt song choices. Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester and Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry remain two of the most ingeniously comic char­ac­ter creations on television, and Jayma Mayes’ Emma is hys­ter­i­cal­ly funny, too, when she gets the chance. Dianna Agron (Quinn) and Naya Rivera (Santana) are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and yet, by golly, they can sing and act, too. Among the men in the cast, I’m most impressed by Kevin McHale as Artie, by turns heartbreaking and ob­nox­ious, in a refreshing divergence from the well-worn After-School Special tropes.

So — yeah — I put up with Glee, waiting for the moments when it lives up to its potential.

Some day, lad, all this will be yours!

Other Shows
My taste for Reality TV is limited in the extreme — even though friends did manage to sucker me into watching the finale of Project Runway. (When valiant Mondo lost to duplicitous, less-talented Gretchen, I was duly outraged, it’s true, despite the fact that I know nothing of fashion and care less for the show.) As the historical ascendancy of Reality continues, I’m surprised to discover that several genuinely worthy scrip­ted shows are flourishing. Thus far, I’ve gravitated toward comedies.

It had been clear to me already that, one of these days, I would need to go back and watch 30 Rock from the beginning. Tina Fey’s micro­cos­mic view of network television and contemporary Manhattan is simply too smart, too funny, and too well-acted to be consumed in occa­sion­al small doses. But it’s fun to watch new episodes, more or less as they’re broadcast, and my admiration is thriving.

Even so, I’m constantly puzzled: how is it possible that The CBS Evening News so little resembles The Girlie Show, and yet I recognize every character and element? The principal mystery is whether the Bill Madison counterpart is Liz Lemon or Kenneth the Page.

Modern Family (above) seems likewise destined to wait until I can devote closer study to it, starting at the beginning and working my way forward. The Office seems almost insurmountable, since I feel obliged to start with the BBC original, then work my way through the NBC spinoff: as of now, relationships and references go over my head.

Vying for the title of Guiltiest TV Pleasure of 2010 is Cougar Town, which I glanced at only because Ryan Devlin, who works with my friend Michelle Grant, was scheduled to appear in a few episodes. To my surprise, I enjoyed the show and have stuck with it. Although Cougar Town is saddled with the world’s worst title (and they know it, they know it) and concerns a group of characters I would never, ever want to hang out with, the dialogue is so fresh and characterful that I’m happy to listen to the appealing cast sit around and talk about nothing. (Which is what they typically do, in most episodes.)

New to me and most impressive are the actresses Busy Philipps (as sexy Laurie) and Christa Miller (as acerbic Ellie). Freaking me out is the concept that Courteney Cox can possibly be middle-aged. Wasn’t it just a few minutes ago that we were dancing in the dark? Can’t we still be Friends?

Former young person Cox (left) with Philipps and Miller

Yes, I still need to catch up on Community and longer, more serious pro­grams, as well as shows that are long since finished: Xena: War­rior Princess and Heroes, Brothers and Sisters and heaven knows what else. But any goal is within my reach, now that I know the secret to success — yea, not merely success but global domination.

Just look ’em in the eye and say,
“I’m Chuck Bass!”

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29 December 2010

Smack in the Middle of Barsetshire

The odious Mrs. Proudie and the unctuous Mr. Slope,
as portrayed by Geraldine McEwan and Alan Rickman.
In looking for pictures to illustrate this essay, I’ve discovered that several of my favorite actors took part in a TV adaptation of the novel.
Now I’ll have to find it on DVD.

Anthony Trollope set Barchester Towers in the time in which he wrote, almost to the day, with important thematic developments almost literally ripped from the headlines — which must have made the task of research quite a bit easier for the old boy. Coming to the novel more than 150 years later, I was impressed with but not much interested by the minutiae of Anglican Church politics, and it’s for this reason that my next Trollope novel is unlikely to be a Barchester chronicle. However, my reading experience has been in every way happier than previous (and very limited) samplings of Trollope’s work, and it’s a safe bet that I’ll venture in once again.

Shameless! (Sometimes)

Long hours spent in the subway necessitated some sort of reading material, and sent me to the used-book store; I’m not sure what steered me toward Barchester Towers, excepting its low, low price and a paperback edition of a comfortable size (not easy to find in Trollope Land). Let us say that the novel fit the dimensions of my pocket, in two different ways.

But I hadn’t read The Warden, the first in a series that, given the opportunity, runs to six novels altogether. Barchester Towers is a sequel, the second book in the series, and Trollope devotes so much of the early chapters to reference to The Warden that for a long time I didn’t think I’d last — any more than I did with the Palliser novels, when I was 16.* A few years later, I managed better with The Way We Live Now, finishing it and admiring it. But really, the odds were against me this time: picking up in medias res the multi-volume work of an author whose prose has always quite reliably put me to sleep.

Septimus Harding, the sometime Warden,
as portrayed by Donald Pleasance

The pleasure of Barchester Towers for this reader is the keenness of the satire. As his country clerics vie for power, they are every bit as cunning and as ruthless as the great British generals who were busily conquering a global empire even as Trollope wrote. Here, as in E.F. Benson’s Lucia novels**, I have the sense that Britain’s glory is entirely predicated upon a shared national desire for conquest and domination, whether it’s the playing fields of Eton and Harrow, or the jungles of Africa and Asia, or the dinner tables of Riseholme and Tilling — or the churches of Barsetshire.

The two wiliest characters in Barchester Towers are also the most power-hungry — the most shocking to other characters and the most entertaining to the reader. Mrs. Proudie, wife of the new bishop, and her favorite (but soon-to-be adversary), Mr. Slope, the bishop’s chaplain, are exaggerated, improbable, but thoroughly delicious. Their nearest rival in cunning is an English cleric’s daughter with a shady past, who has dubbed herself the Signora Vesey Neroni. (As ever, the contrast between English and Italian mores yields high comedy.) Among them, a remarkable triangle is formed, in which sexual desire is at least as important a motivator as social power or church doctrine. French novelists of the same period would have spelled this out more explicitly, but there’s a genuine satisfaction to the reader who discovers for himself what moves these characters.

The Signora (Susan Hampshire) entertains her admirers.

Arrayed against these three are the forces of good, who prevail primarily because the novelist decides that they should, and he does so, one suspects, because he lived in Victorian England. The nicer characters are not surprisingly less interesting and at times less sympathetic than their machinating antagonists. If we feel charitably toward Eleanor Bold, the headstrong, widowed daughter of the eponymous Warden, it’s mostly because her priggish friends unfairly malign her; we’re quite happy when things turn out well for her.

This is Trollope’s intention, and he announces it early — and so audaciously that this reader’s singularly un-Victorian reaction was a loud WTF? Eleanor’s hand will not be won by either of two unsuitable suitors, the author tells us, smashing every bit of suspense except the lingering question of how she’ll escape their clutches. (Once it becomes clear that a third suitor exists, some suspense is restored.)

The Good Guys: Nigel Hawthorne as the disapproving Dr. Grantly,
with Pleasance as Harding

In many ways, Trollope shows himself to be a remarkably clumsy novelist — he’s terrible at character names, too — and yet he sprinkles enough wit and just enough action that one keeps reading quite happily. And he’s quite good at set-piece parties, such as Mrs. Proudie’s ill-fated reception, or Miss Thorne’s only slightly more successful fête, when many characters come together, clash, and send the plot spinning off in new directions.

Nowadays the market is limited for old-fashioned fiction such as Trollope’s, and yet there’s no denying how well it works. Moreover, it’s exceptionally good reading on a long subway ride.

The corner mailbox, Trollope’s most practical — and arguably most enduring — contribution to his time and to ours.

*NOTE: Forced by my travel plans to miss the conclusion of the television adaptation, I carried the first of the Palliser novels with me on my maiden voyage to Europe. The Continent provided far too many distractions, and I set the book aside, never to pick it up again. Can you forgive me?

**Speaking of adaptations, it’s vital to remember that the sublime Geraldine McEwan is the incarnation of Benson’s Lucia in a memorable TV adaptation, opposite Nigel Hawthorne as her Georgie. Surely no two actors are better-equipped to prevail in any tea-party arena. And Susan Hampshire is a shining paragon of Trollope, having portrayed Glencora Palliser.

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24 December 2010

Epstein & Friedman’s ‘Howl’

James Franco (right) as Ginsberg,
with Broadway star Aaron Tveit as Peter Orlovsky
These pictures recreate a series of photos of the real Orlovsky and Ginsberg.

I suspect that writer–directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman meant for audiences to leave their film Howl in a cheery mood. There’s a happy ending, after all: good (freedom of speech) triumphs over evil (censorship), a controversial poem endures to find general acclaim, and a lonely artist finds true love, regardless of the fact that, in real life, he once cruised me in an East Village coffee shop. What’s not to be happy about?

But perhaps the filmmakers weren’t expecting writers in their audience — or anyway, not unpublished ones. At the end of the movie, Allen Ginsberg (our protagonist, portrayed by James Franco, himself a writer) suggests that superior art — that which is honest, meaningful, true — is created only when the artist stops giving a damn what other people think of him. Ginsberg is able to write “Howl,” he says, only because he believes his disapproving father will never see it. The only durable censorship may be that which comes from within.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that, once the poem is published, Ginsberg’s career is launched and his stature assured, while he is still a young man. Not all of us are that lucky, and I left the theater regretting the books I didn’t write. Most exceptionally, I wished that I’d been able to read the shooting script while I watched the movie, less for the poem (which I’d read for the first time only a few weeks ago*) than for the eternal verities that Ginsberg and other characters express so eloquently.

Epstein and Freidman are best known as documentarians (The Times of Harvey Milk, Threads from the Quilt, The Celluloid Closet). Their present film is a fairly daring conflation of genres: part biopic (in accordance with time-honored Hollywood tradition, all the actors are much, much better-looking than their real-life counterparts), part documentary (the dialogue is taken from court transcripts and a long interview with the poet), part recitation, part animated explication du texte. Glancing over the Internet, I see that this approach confounded some critics, though I found it successful.

Certainly the trial scenes, for all their documentary integrity, are more compelling than transcripts when enacted by the likes of Jon Hamm and (especially) David Strathairn, as the prosecutor in over his head and all-too aware of it. The animated sequences were no less beautiful when over-literal, which they sometimes were. As a couple of exchanges in the trial scenes make clear, looking for literal meaning in this poem is its own particular fool’s errand; better to give oneself over to the music of the language.

Hamm (standing) and Strathairn (seated)

Franco does just that in a recreation of the first public reading of “Howl”: he gives us something very much like an extended jazz solo. He delights in the sounds and the rhythms for their own sake, and while he really doesn’t look anything at all like Ginsberg, he captures the voice so precisely that, at the end of the movie when we hear the real poet, off-camera at first, I thought it was still Franco speaking. He remains one of the most intriguing actors working today, and it seems more and more as if his own artistry has been liberated in recent years. He pursues the projects that please him, regardless of career or commercial considerations that rule most other stars his age; the results are consistently worthwhile.

In Howl, Franco confronts not only Ginsberg’s artistic process and his quirky wisdom — which would be enough for most actors, in most movies — but also the poet’s complex emotional life. Even as Franco’s Ginsberg is falling in love with straight guys, his eyes are yearning, lonely; he stands apart, sometimes connecting only through a camera that keeps him at an extra remove from others. Physically, the character really comes alive only during the scenes of that public reading. Grooving on his genius and the responses of his listeners (who include a couple of the men he loves), made beautiful and desirable by words, he’s practically dancing to the music he makes.

I’ve been there myself. And that, for this reader, is what “Howl” is about.

Most of the language of the poem is commonplace now, and most of the activities it describes are legal. We live in better times; it’s easy to look back and smirk, if not laugh outright, at those who found the poem shocking, half a century ago, and who would have suppressed it. Yet “Howl” is by design subversive, as it always is to call things by their right names. If it doesn’t shock us now, at least a little, if it doesn’t reveal something we haven’t seen already, then it isn’t doing its job.

I’m glad I read the poem, glad the film made me do so at last, and glad I saw the film. I’m only sorry that I left the theater so depressed. At the very moment Ginsberg cruised me, I should have been liberating myself — albeit not necessarily with Ginsberg, in the way he had in mind. The artistic lesson of Howl is, then, not so very different from that of The Pee-Wee Herman Show, though the effects are entirely different.

*NOTE: You can’t seriously think that, in my suburban Texan high school, we were taught “Howl,” and I’d be willing to bet that no copy existed in our public library, either. By the time I got to college, we were expected to know “Howl” already, and I pretended to, in that way that I had.

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23 December 2010

Catharsis, or ‘The Pee-Wee Herman Show’

Theater as religious experience:
Brothers and sisters, let us scream really loud.

I had intended to write about The Pee-Wee Herman Show, now playing in a limited engagement at New York’s Stephen Sondheim Theater, without any reference to the scandals that several years ago beset Pee-Wee’s creator, Paul Reubens. Even when those were current and at their height, they seemed so idiotic that they gave teapot tempests a bad name, and they seemed to have nothing at all to do with Reubens’ art. Watching the show, however, I understood that I’d been wrong.

For in the event, the great pleasures of seeing Pee-Wee again are not merely nostalgic. Yes, we are delighted as we should be, back in the company of a familiar figure from childhood (or, in my case, second childhood). But that’s only part of what’s going on. We are also feeling catharsis of an unexpected yet thoroughly authentic sort. Reubens has weathered many a storm — and Pee-Wee is still standing, heroic, defiant and disruptive as ever, and utterly indomitable.

What’s more, Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne)
is still the Most Beautiful Woman in Puppet Land.

Watching the earlier incarnations of the Playhouse on television, I never found the character of Pee-Wee the most interesting or amusing of the many attractions on display. He was, if anything, ringmaster of an exceptionally giddy circus, and my attitude toward him was close to that of Reba the Mail Lady (S. Epatha Merkerson) — gently bemused exasperation — even while the show’s delirious art direction (an orgy of retro pop art) and Lynne Marie Stewart’s Miss Yvonne proved irresistibly compelling. In order to sample the nonpareil treats, I had to put up with a dose of the Pee-Wee who had assembled them.

¡Viva la Computadora!
Reubens and the combustibly gifted Garcia

Today, however, Pee-Wee’s persona — childlike, anarchic, often irritating but always wildly imaginative — resonates all the more strongly, simply because it would have been so easy for Reubens to walk away from it, or to bury it altogether. Indeed, for too long, he did just that. So we’re more appreciative, perhaps more grateful and admiring, to see Pee-Wee now, springing up there. It’s little less than a triumph of the human spirit.

He cavorts with most of the energy he possessed 30 years ago, his voice somewhat huskier but no less insistent, his subversions more daring. Pee-Wee can even joke about masturbation — and he does — because quite honestly he has nothing to lose.*

Much of the material in the stage show is thoroughly familiar from the television series: we know by heart great portions of the script (particularly the plot, Pee-Wee’s wish to fly, and the courtship of Miss Yvonne and Cowboy Curtis), to say nothing of elements of décor and even individual amusements, such as “Mr. Bungle,” an unintentionally hilarious educational movie. That familiarity is a good and great thing. We want Pee-Wee to push our nostalgia buttons, of course — but, as I say, we also want to see him undaunted and unchanged. Meanwhile, the script becomes a sacred liturgy, attended by the ritualized responses of our laughter and screams.

Most welcome are the original Jambi (John Paragon) and Miss Yvonne (Stewart), whose characterizations were, respectively, the most subversive and the most ingenious of the old shows. Paragon (who also wrote a great deal of the old Pee-Wee show, and some of this one) makes Jambi the most overtly campy denizen of the Playhouse, operating on a level that’s virtually guaranteed to fly over children’s heads, even as he instigates purely childish naughtiness. (Jambi’s famous “Mekka lekka” incantation is an excuse to say “heinie.”)

Familiar faces, as seen on TV

Stewart’s Miss Yvonne is so funny, so sharply observed, so close to the sorts of children’s hostesses who were still prancing on TV when I was a boy, that I’ve been in her thrall from the start. If Miss Yvonne isn’t quite the most beautiful woman alive, she remains blissfully unaware of the fact, and yet she’s never mean about it. She’s brilliant, and if I had any reservation about the stage show, it’s that Stewart wasn’t given more to do.

John Moody’s Mailman Mike also has been part of the Playhouse troupe since its inception; he appears in several sequences, though not all of his material is top-notch. Ringers, all excellent, are brought in to play some other beloved characters. Lacking the befuddled gravity that the late William Marshall brought to the King of Cartoons on TV, Lance Roberts more than compensates with exuberance (and a Penny cartoon); as Curtis, Phil LaMarr manages to evoke his predecessor, Laurence Fishburne, without being studied about it. They’re great fun.

Big boots: Reubens and LaMarr

Jesse Garcia, who burned up the screen in Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s film Quinceañera, proves equally dynamic onstage as the dancing handyman Sergio. Drew Powell’s Bear offers hilariously inept pantomime, and we greeted the familiar puppet characters (Conky, Chairry, Pterri, Magic Screen, the rest, many redesigned by Basil Twist) exactly as if they were real people. Rightly so. Stage director Alex Timbers didn’t always keep pacing snappy enough, but he gave us everything else we needed, and then some.

Timbers’ real achievement is getting this vast playground into a theater in the first place, and ultimately it’s refreshing to see how easily The Pee-Wee Herman Show returns to its stage roots and plays to an audience composed principally (but not entirely) of grownups. From the moment Pee-Wee himself appeared, leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance, we were actors, too, enthusiastic participants in the spectacle.

Pee-Wee with Pterri (voiced by Paragon)

I gather from reading interviews that Paul Reubens had no idea of the vast reserves of love and admiration awaiting his comeback; he can have no doubt now. We waited a long time for this moment, and we whooped and cheered and screamed at the Secret Word for all we were worth. This was a revival meeting, a participatory, religious experience, and Pee-Wee rewarded us abundantly for our faith. When he declared himself once again “the luckiest boy” and offered to share his luck with us, it seemed the best New Year’s present anyone ever got.

I left the theater elated. If Pee-Wee can emerge unbowed from troubled times, so too can I.

My wish was granted. Long live Jambi.

*NOTE: There’s a similarly instructive example for artists on display in the movie Howl, which I recently saw, recounting the case of poet Allen Ginsberg. I intend to write about that, soon.

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22 December 2010

Marcia Lewis

The lights of Broadway have been dimmed,
ever since her smile left town.

Other people will tell you that Marcia Lewis had a wonderful voice. Teresa Stratas once compared it to “a trumpet in her head,” when we were rehearsing Rags, in 1986. With that rafter-raising instrument, Marcia held her own opposite Ethel Merman in Hello, Dolly! (Marcia’s Broadway debut), but she could sweeten and soften it, too, perhaps most notably in “Anyone Would Love You,” the centerpiece of her cabaret act.

What other people may not tell you about Marcia, who died yesterday at age 72, is that she had great legs. Perhaps wisely, she reckoned early on that her figure wouldn’t make her fortune, yet her stems were indis­put­ably boffo, and I believe they explain a curiosity of costuming in the 1996 revival of Kander & Ebb’s Chicago. Marcia earned a Tony nomi­na­tion for her turn as the prison matron, Mama Morton, but she was the only woman in the cast who didn’t wear tights. I believe the pro­duc­ers realized that, if Marcia ever did unveil her shapely glory, she’d upstage Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth. So Marcia wore a pantsuit.*

When she sang, she was the joyous essence of New York theater. In the 1990s, she earned Tony nominations (not only for Chicago but for a revival of Grease), and we who loved her cheered. Even without sing­ing, she gave Elizabeth Ashley and Vanessa Redgrave a run for the money. Then in 2001, Marcia married a terrific guy, Fred Bryan, from Nashville, and retired from show business. We were happy for her, albeit full of remorse for Broadway’s sake.

Offstage, Marcia was soft-spoken, loud-laughing, very funny, and always dear. During the Boston tryouts of Rags, I was trapped by back­stage duties during the dinner hour and unable to visit Legal Seafood, a nearby restaurant beloved of all our company. At last I had a night free, but no one to go with: everybody else had eaten her fill of Legal Seafood. Marcia took me by the hand. “I’ll be your Oyster Bunny,” she said.

That evening, she told me stories of some of the odder roles she’d played, from a lady wrestler on The Bionic Woman (“My first lesbian character!”) to a frog-like alien in Ice Pirates. She told me about Merman and Miss Hannigan, whom she’d portrayed in Annie; about Massachusetts, where she was born, and Ohio, where she grew up. When dinner was done, she picked up the check — and thanked me for the privilege.

Marcia, acting in a movie from the 1970s.
In real life, this is an expression I saw only on those occasions
when Marcia had just received 38 pages of script revisions
and one of her songs was cut.

Marcia was in fact the only person I have known who never once said an unkind word about anyone else. Even when she’d more than earned the right.

In an incident that has itself become a Broadway legend, Marcia was performing opposite a big star actor who, one night before a show, called the entire company onstage to denounce her. She was miscast, he explained in the crudest possible terms, because she was not pretty enough to marry a man like him. Now, this fellow was a headline star and couldn’t be fired, though the horrified cast complained to their union (and he hasn’t worked on Broadway since). Meanwhile, the worst Marcia would say of her co-star was that he was “not a very nice man.”

She simply went on about her business, which was making people happy. You’ll get a clear sense of that when you listen to her exuberant rendition of Chicago’s “When You’re Good to Mama.” Or lend an ear to her big numbers from Rags, “Penny a Tune” and her duet with Dick Latessa, “Three Sunny Rooms.” As Rachel the fruit vendor, she makes you want to bite into every apple she’s got; you know they’re that sweet and juicy.**

The Fairy at Forty

I got an even better sense of Marcia’s mission — for really, that’s what it was — in her nightclub act. There, she’d resurrect the silliest songs and jokes if that meant getting a laugh. One character was a cruise ship lounge singer, “Miss Beverly Ames … to please”; another was a tippling child actress, Cookie Dimples. Most famous was the bedraggled sprite with a wilting wand who ruefully informed us that “Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s Forty.”

Now Marcia’s gone, and I’m thinking not of the thundering, agonized Kaddish she sang with Teresa in Rags, but of another song from her nightclub act. In this number, she played a night nurse in a Boston maternity ward, Norma McCarthy (or, as she pronounced it, “Nawma McCawthy”), quite like the real-life nurse Marcia herself once was.

Alone on Christmas Eve with just the telephone, her own corny jokes, and one tiny newborn to keep her company, Norma at last took the baby in her arms and sang the words I’d tell Marcia now, if I could:

Anyone would — and I truly did — love you.

*NOTE: To compensate for the costumer’s neglect, I drew a sketch of Marcia as Mama Morton in tights, which she hung in her dressing room.

**Marcia won a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for Rags, as well as one for Chicago.

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20 December 2010

Your Constant Gaying Is Totally Ruining the Second Coming for the Rest of Us

This banner might as well read:
“Hello! We’re Going To Be Left Behind!”

Dear Godless Brothers and Sisters:

Well, I hope you are happy. You have just gotten the repeal you wanted so much, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is about to become a thing of the past. But not in the direction we wanted, which was of course “Don‘t Enlist, Don‘t Exist.” Instead, you have just pushed us that much farther from the return of our Lord and Savior. Really, I hope you’re pleased with yourselves.

Gays in the military:
Next thing you know, we’ll see sailors singing show tunes!
Leading inevitably to …

Next up, you’re going to want to get married — married! Folks, there’s a reason Jesus chose a wedding as the occasion to perform His first miracle, and I guarantee you, it was a heterosexual wedding, and a heterosexual miracle, even though He was effectively catering the affair. It was not the wedding of Adam and Steve. (My goodness, if He had turned the water to wine at a gay marriage, they’d probably have complained about the vintage!)

… cross-dressing sailors who sing show tunes.

You keep saying to me, “Why does my gaying obsess you? What difference does it make to you if we gay-marry? We’re not forcing you to gay-marry! Other countries allow homosexuals to serve in the armed forces; why shouldn’t the United States of America?”

As a good Christian, I feel great compassion for you, even though you are sinful and wrong. That’s why I’m going to try one last time to explain to you why it is my business; why I cannot support your having equal rights with Christians; and why I need for you to stop gaying right now.

This is not normal! Stop it! Jesus is watching!

It’s probably futile, I realize. After all, you cannot be reasoned with — otherwise, you would have accepted the only true reason, which is consistent with Scripture. Which, needless to say, is totally consistent with the U.S. Constitution, but inconsistent with gaying like yours.

So why am I even bothering to write to you today? Because I believe in miracles! (Heterosexual, of course.) Maybe you will see the light, after all.

It’s really very simple. If we don’t behave ourselves now, then Jesus won’t come back.

Recruiting Poster? No!
There is absolutely no room for homosexuality in Christian life.

After all, Jesus wants us to be perfect. All of us, including you. And gaying is not perfect; it is a sin. So long as any single one of us sins, He’s going to keep on waiting. That means that, every time you gay, you are postponing the Rapture and depriving me of my promised seat at the right hand of God in the New Jerusalem. Do you realize what a downer that is to me?

Yes, you say, but we live in the United States of America, where there is Separation of Church and State. And I agree: thank God for that! But there is such a thing as a little too much separation, and when the State is preventing the Church from getting into Heaven — well, you just have to draw a line.

Still more gay art! It’s everywhere I look!
If this painting were in the Smithsonian, we would have to demand
its immediate removal.

So please don’t make me stop you from gaying. Do what I do, which is to wake up every morning asking What Jesus Would Do. And then I do it. So should you.

Jesus did not gay. He was a long-haired mama’s boy who hung out with other confirmed bachelors in dresses, He sometimes worked in catering (besides that wine, there were those loaves and fishes, too), and His best friend was a woman with a shady sex life — but there was absolutely nothing gay about Him!

(Frankly, I can’t tell which is the Antichrist and which is the Whore of Babylon.)

If you will just stop gaying, then I can get back to more important policy questions, such as making sure that Armageddon starts in Israel within my lifetime.

Just remember: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Gay.

Thank you.

Totally not gay!
And doesn’t it look like fun? What are you waiting for?

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15 December 2010

One Touch of Janice

Strike a pose: Dietrich

It’s taken me a little while to register my impressions of Janice Hall’s first cabaret act, Grand Illusions: The Music of Marlene Dietrich, about which I wrote a preview here. Indeed, I’ve waited until the first run of the show, at New York’s Metropolitan Room, ended, because I didn’t want my observations to be construed as a review in any conventional sense; I’ve waited until I saw the show a second time, in a theater, Urban Stages, because Janice gave me so much to absorb.

What Janice is doing turns out to be neither imitation nor incarnation, per se. She’s a better singer and actress than Dietrich, and for my money she’s better looking, too. She doesn’t sound or dress like Dietrich — she evokes the great star in other, far subtler ways, and on the surface, her act is more a survey course than a tribute. The key to Janice’s approach comes with the almost offhanded observation that Dietrich reinvented herself constantly throughout her career — and it is this that guarantees that Grand Illusions will stay with me for a long time to come.

The evocative Janice Hall

For Janice is reinventing herself, too. Yes, Dietrich’s songs play to some of her established strengths, notably her languages: Janice not only sings in German and French in the act, she also provided translations for some of the songs. For most cabaret artistes, that would be a stretch; for Janice, it’s a comfort zone. And yet all the while, with the help of stage director Peter Napolitano and music director Paul Trueblood, Janice is striking out in entirely new directions.

First among these is the voice, employing a sound that’s so far from the trained soprano she has deployed in her operatic career, as she demonstrates toward the end of the act. Her account of “Das Lied ist aus” becomes a sort of duet with herself, Cabaret Janice and Opera Janice, who pushes away the microphone and cuts loose. (Inevitably, I recalled “One More Kiss,” the duet from Sondheim’s Follies.)

Opera Janice shows you how to get ahead.
(As Strauss’ Salome)

Cabaret Janice is mellow, cool. She spins out the songs in a clear, vibrato-less alto; only her seamless range and her canny legato suggest that she’s ever been near an opera house. She’s already mastered tricks — jazzy rhythms, singing on consonants, masterful use of the microphone — that other sopranos never learn, or need to. Likewise, Janice possesses the wit (and diction) to put over comic numbers with ease, and I found myself thinking of other repertory she might essay in a cabaret setting.

When I’ve seen her in the opera house, she’s always created a sense of intimacy, an intense focus that made me feel I was watching her from very near by, though in reality she was playing on a relatively grand scale on the stage of Fort Worth’s Bass Hall. In cabaret, she’s dialed down, suiting her interpretation to the size of the room.

Her accustomary face

What she’s able to create with “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” accompanied only by plucked bass (Ritt Henn at the Metropolitan Room, Tom Hubbard at Urban Stages), is almost indescribable: she’s a still voice in the deepest recess of my mind. It’s my favorite number in the show, the one for which her operatic performances prepared me least.

The real Dietrich was a baritone who barked “Ich bin die fesche Lola,” rather than singing it, and perfect, or even reliable pitch was never one of her trademarks. Surely one reason “I’ve Grown Accustomed” appealed to her was that it was written to be sprechgesang, more spoken than sung. These aren’t the qualities to which Janice is paying tribute; if you think of Dietrich during the act, you are not thinking about her this way, or about the remarkable way she overcame her limitations.

Working Woman: Janice rehearses Angels in America in London

What you are thinking about instead is Dietrich as a woman, flesh and blood and not celestial icon; you reflect upon a working actress who, several times in her career, discovered that her old act urgently needed to change. Janice notes some of these turning points — such as the verdict in 1937 that Dietrich was “box office poison” — with a wry “Ooops.”

But Dietrich was nothing if not resilient, and she reinvented herself constantly. She went from face in the crowd to international sex goddess, from Germany to America, from screen to concert stage, from star to legend to recluse.

Another of Dietrich’s reinventions

Janice doesn’t emphasize — indeed, she doesn’t even mention — her own reinvention, yet Grand Illusions is a demonstration of that reinvention, a sort of test-drive of an entirely new vehicle for her. Thus she is allying herself not to the look or the sound but to the essence of Dietrich, paying tribute less to the music of the star than to the spirit of the woman.

That’s profoundly moving, both for Janice’s sake and for those of us in the audience who are contemplating reinventions now, too. In Janice’s reflections on Dietrich, I saw Janice — and myself.

I daresay others felt as I did. We can only hope that our reinventions are as graceful and as promising as Janice Hall’s.

The title for this essay alludes to Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus, which was conceived for Dietrich. Ultimately, she turned down the role: playing a love goddess, Dietrich felt, was inappropriate for her. (I’m not making this up, you know.) And so Dietrich never was a Broadway star. Was this a failure to reinvent herself, or a reinvention of another kind, beyond the scope of mortal minds?

In any case, if Janice wants to play Venus — or just sing a medley of the songs — I’m all in favor.

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