27 March 2013

Where Credit Is Due: The Wedding of Pedro Zamora

Pedro Zamora

In the days leading up to the arguments before the Supreme Court yesterday in two cases concerning equal rights for gay married couples in the United States, we heard a lot about the dramatic shift in popular acceptance of gay marriage and of homosexual rights in general. In the past few years, polls have shown a rapid increase in support, especially among young people, and commentators observe that one factor in this trend is surely the increasing visibility of gays in popular culture, especially on television. Will & Grace is often cited as an example of the mainstreaming of gays on TV, as are Ugly Betty and the current Glee, to say nothing of talk shows (notably Ellen) and reality TV.

Seldom mentioned is Pedro Zamora (1972–94), a Cuban–American AIDS activist who used the platform of MTV’s Real World to educate audiences about the epidemic that had already claimed him. From the start, it became almost impossible not to sympathize with him. He was intelligent, well spoken, almost painfully handsome — and he was dying. Viewers watched him cope with his disease while coping simultaneously with a houseful of strangers in San Francisco, a continent away from his Miami home. The stress of constant clashes with the notorious Puck (ranked in some surveys among the top TV villains of all time) made him fear for his health and nearly led him to leave the show. The roommates banished Puck instead.

Today Zamora occupies an uneasy ground between secular sainthood (his canonization began while he lived) and oblivious obscurity. He’s most often remembered for putting a recognizable face on AIDS for millions of young viewers — for sending the message that, if this could happen to him, it could happen to you, too. But Pedro Zamora did something else pioneering: he exchanged vows with his partner, Sean Sasser, on national television in 1994.

The cast of MTV’s Real World: San Francisco.

This was a commitment ceremony, not recognized as marriage by any state in the Union, and it would take another seven years before the Netherlands became the first national government to grant same-sex marriages. But no one who watched Pedro and Sean doubted the significance or sincerity of the words they spoke or the feelings they shared. These were people who wanted to stand together before the world, for the rest of their lives — the way anyone else wants to be married.

Who could object to that? Some people, certainly, could and still can. But the process of chipping away at prejudice and false perception had begun.

A new season of Real World starts this week, and in the proliferation of housemates and conflicts over the intervening years, Pedro Zamora’s story has receded into the background of our collective memory. However, the show’s producers prepared a tribute program, shortly after his death, and in 2008, MTV aired a feature film, in which actors played out the scenes of Zamora’s life, including those that the Real World cameras never saw.* A number of charitable organizations grew up in Zamora’s name, including the Pedro Zamora Foundation, launched by three of his Real World roommates. One of these, Judd Winick, has carried Zamora’s memory and spread his educational messages into several comic books, including one acclaimed graphic novel that tells Zamora’s story. Another rooommate, Pam Ling, became a doctor engaged in AIDS research.

All these tributes have focused primarily on AIDS, a disease that continues to claim too many young lives, despite the efforts of Zamora and his friends. I don’t dispute the emphasis. But Zamora’s role as a pioneer in the fight for marriage equality was as real as anything that ever happened on reality TV, and the kids who watched in 1994 are voters now.

Whether you remember the wedding, whether it’s lodged in the back of your consciousness or whether it was just floating out there in the pop culture ether, it helped to make a difference, one that we see today. And it’s one more way that Pedro Zamora left the real world a better place than he found it.

A poster for the movie Pedro.

*NOTE: My friends Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer were among the producers of the Pedro movie, and Richard has a cameo role in it. The film also played at the Toronto Film Festival. Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Gus Van Sant’s Milk, co-wrote Pedro, but for all the strengths of both films, I don’t find anything in them to be as compelling as the documentary footage from The Times of Harvey Milk and Real World: San Francisco.

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26 March 2013

Interview: Ed Dixon on His Memoir of a (Secret) Life in Theater

Ed Dixon has done so many things in show business — from acting on Broadway (15 shows so far) to composing opera — that it’s futile to try to invent some hyphenated descriptive phrase for him. So let us say simply that he is a Man of the Theater, in a way that very few others ever have been.

Meeting him a couple of months ago, I could hardly believe that our paths never crossed before — though I did once review a Kurt Weill show in which he appeared with his friend Bebe Neuwirth. Ed made his Broadway debut with my beloved Jack Gilford in No, No, Nanette; he opened the Kennedy Center in Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, alongside two of Madeline Kahn’s favorite colleagues, Walter Willison (Two by Two) and Alan Titus (La Bohème), conducted by Maurice Peress, who led Madeline in Candide and Bohème.*

He got an important early break at Fort Worth’s Casa Mañana, just down the road from Bass Hall, where I’ll make my debut with Fort Worth Opera in May. He starred in the most famous of all Weill revues, Berlin to Broadway; and he knows every corner of the 890 Studios, where we rehearsed Rags.

His colleagues include Terrence Mann and Joanna Glushak, who worked on Rags; my sometime workout buddy Hugh Panaro; and Christine Baranski, Madeline Gilford’s beloved neighbor — I could go on. Even some of Ed’s opera connections nearly intersect with mine, I realized as I read his recollections of the Oklahoma-born soprano Roberta Knie — my first Isolde — and his accounts of performing with Santa Fe Opera, where several of my friends have sung. Now I feel as if I’ve known Ed forever.

Les Miz Mister and Missus:
Ed and Jennifer Butt as the Thénardiers.

He’s written a memoir, Secrets of a Life on Stage … and Off, crammed with anecdote and incident, from his repressively religious Oklahoma childhood to success in New York. And there’s a stunning detour through substance addiction that found Ed living in his dressing room, then on a rock in Central Park — dodging bill collectors and drug thieves all the while — even as he played the juiciest role in Les Misérables, the hottest show in town.

That’s just one of the so-unbelievable-it-must-be-true stories that Ed shares. Take the onstage flameout of K.C. Townsend, a blonde bombshell in Nanette, which reads like the scenario of some melodramatic theatrical potboiler. And Ed’s got insights into everybody from Ann-Margret to Ben Vereen, from Birgit Nilsson to John Crosby. His portrait of his dear friend George Rose stands as the best monument I can imagine to the late, great character actor.

It’s clear to me that theater not only has defined but also has saved Ed Dixon’s life. First, by getting him out of his stifling boyhood environment, and most certainly later, by making him master of his own house.

The book is just one indication that Ed has bounced back, better than ever. The Signature Theater Company in Arlington, VA, has just announced a production of Ed’s musical, Cloak & Dagger, for next season. And when Ed spoke with me, he was in Denver, rehearsing a role for the world premiere of a musical adaptation of Sense & Sensibility at the city’s Center for the Performing Arts, with book and lyrics by Jeffrey Haddow and music by Neal Hampton.

Man of the Theater.

Q: What compelled you to write the book?

ED: I actually was compelled. It’s an idea that I’d had for a long time about writing about show business. My early days when I was with Ruby Keeler and Busby Berkeley and Bobby Van and Patsy Kelly — those stories were so amazing, and I told those stories over decades. Then opening the Kennedy Center and working with Leonard Bernstein. Those people are gone. And working with K.C. Townsend, I’ve never heard a story like that. And if I don’t tell the story, there’s no one else who can do it.

Then the amazing thing of me recovering from the worst situation imaginable and then having a better life than I had before. People don’t even know that’s possible. Things that happened are so unbelievable to me, even though I was there. It feels like a novella, and so there’s a part of me that wanted to do that.

Then I was having a sort of giant renaissance where everything was going full tilt in my life. Some friends met a well-known publishing person and she encouraged me, so that got me fired up. She turned out to be a complete flake. Another company got interested, but they wanted to take the rights. At this point it was a giant sprawling manuscript, it was hardly a book.

Recording Nanette: In the background, Jack Gilford, Ed, and Patsy Kelly. In the foreground, Ruby Keeler.

A writer and blogger named Nick Cavarra told me, “You have to write these stories down. I’m going to announce on my blog that you’re going to write this book, you’ll write a chapter every week, and I’ll publish it on my blog.”

My biggest concern was how to get through the early horrors of my life and get to the Broadway part. I’d hardly submit a big chapter before he’d say, “Where’s the next one?”

I knew the book wasn’t done, and I knew I needed an editor and I needed to interact with somebody about it. At one point, I hired two different editors. Both of them did things that didn’t help with the book. They changed the meaning or altered the intention of a particular line. I ended up having to go back and do it all over again, twice. Still it wasn’t a book.

North Texans know how awesome it is that Ed has worked at Fort Worth’s Casa Mañana with the great Ruta Lee. He got his Equity card there in a show with Ruta in 1969, and years later returned with her in Best Little Whorehouse.

Then a woman offered — she had been at the helm of like forty large books. She said, “This is going to be a huge hit,” and she talked to me for about an hour and half about what it needed to be a book. She said, “Just give me $40 thousand.” I said, “Can’t you take it on the back end?” She said, “No, I need it up front.” That was the end of that conversation – and I paid for dinner! But I realized she’d just talked to me for an hour and a half and said some useful things. I sat down and started writing.

Around this time, I heard a famous writer on TV say that, from now on, he’s going to do nothing but self-publish. I started shopping around for the best self-publishing deal I could find. Dog Ear was the best deal I could find; it looked superior to everybody else. In the end, I got exactly the book I wanted. Still when I was ready to push the button and release the thing, I was in Mexico City with Mary Poppins, and I thought, “Are you really gonna do this?” I thought, “I’m 64 years old, why not?” And I just did it.

Such a cutie. Photo by George Rose himself.

Q: You’ve worked with dozens, even hundreds, of truly fascinating people.

ED: I’ve worked with everybody. I’ve done 15 Broadway shows, and two times I was in two different Broadway shows at the same time! The last time was last year. At this age, you’d think it wouldn’t be possible. At the same time, the Signature Theater is launching my most recent work: all their other writers are 24 years old, and they’re launching my new musical. It’s like a fairy tale, it’s fantastic.

Ed looked a little different as Max in Sunset Boulevard.

Q: There’s such a contrast in your story, because at the time you had a great part [Thénardier] in a hit musical that ran for years [Les Misérables], you were also going through the worst of your addiction.

ED: If it had been any other part, I wouldn’t have been able to do it, but because of the nature of that devious destroyed Machiavellian character, I was able to bring my life experience to it. I was able to keep functioning.

Q: Do you think that was a blessing or a curse?

ED: Who knows? It’s done. This is the life I had. This was the hand I played, the hand I got. It’s what I did. It has made me who I am. Honestly, I do not regret. Within a year after it was over, I thought that was the greatest blessing of my life. My life had been assembled incorrectly. I blew up the whole thing, took every brick and rebuilt the whole thing from the ground up. If it had been any less serious situation, I would have continued as I had been put together. My life now is fantastic, it’s such a blessing. I’m surrounded by people who support me and care about me and offer me jobs and offer me situations. I’m in such a gracious place in my life. And it wouldn’t have been this way, otherwise.

With Kevin Spacey in the acclaimed revival of The Iceman Cometh.

Q: Much as Proust says the past has made him who he is.

ED: Besides, you know, there really isn’t an option this is the way it went, so that’s the way it was supposed to go.

Q: Tell me about Cloak & Dagger.

ED: When I saw The 39 Steps on Broadway, I thought, “Someone needs to take this concept of an extremely theatrical concept with no scenery, a man and a woman and two character men, and make it a musical.” I thought I would take The Maltese Falcon and treat it that way, in about a 90-minute musical. Then I found out it was almost impossible to get the rights, but I thought, “What the hell, I only need the bullet points.”

I came up with a down-and-out detective, a blonde bombshell, and then the two character men. We go uptown, downtown, Chinatown, every possible locale in New York City. It moves at a breakneck pace. The leading character, the detective, is narrating in a 1950s noir style, and then all it takes is a sign that says “Chinatown” and we can move so swiftly. The two character guys play all the other characters, many of whom are in drag, so it’s really fun.

It practically wrote it self. The entire time I wrote it, I was in Mary Poppins, and I had a long break between my scene in Act I and my scene in Act II. I wrote the entire book between scenes in my dressing room, with the Disney Company paying me. That was a very nice turn of events. Next door to me was Ruth Gottschall playing Miss Andrew, and now she’s with me in Sense & Sensibility, and we’re laughing because that piece that I wrote next door is now being done.

Coming soon to a theater near you.
(Or near me, anyway.)

Q: What makes a colleague memorable to you? So memorable that you wind up writing about her?

ED: Ones that really stand out for me are the ones that are loving. I’ve met so many loving people. There are people in the book that that’s not why I chose them – I chose them because they were so unbelievably theatrical, like that business with K.C. Townsend. That whole demise of hers. Was she a loving person? No. She wasn’t a mean person, but that’s not what drew me to her. It was the unbelievable way she ran her life so theatrically.

But somebody like Ann-Margret is such a loving, genuine person. Perhaps “genuine” is an even better word than “loving.” Or Charles Durning: he wasn’t cuddly, but he was so fucking genuine. The way he was, was the way he was. When you were with him, you knew you were with him.

Q: There’s always something so sly about Durning, something going on that we can’t see — except possibly when he dances the “Side Step” in Best Little Whorehouse.

ED: He told me he was so shocked that it took so long for [professional recognition] to happen to him. He had done all of the works of Shakespeare, and nobody knew who he was. When I told him about my drug addiction, I thought, “Oh, gee, I probably shouldn’t have said so much.” He paused and said, “Well, I went crazy!” It was the war!

In rehearsal, ready for his next entrance.

*NOTE: Ed didn’t know Madeline Kahn, but he’s been heroically helpful in tracking down interview subjects for the biography I’m writing.

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23 March 2013

Joyce Castle Works the Room at Café Sabarsky

Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!
Photo by WVM, taken with my phone, which I really don’t know how to use.

The program that Joyce Castle brought to the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky on Thursday night started out aptly enough as a (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) tribute to Vienna, with Gershwin’s “By Strauss!” followed closely by a couple of operetta numbers by Oscar Straus. Soon enough, though, it became clear that simple Gemütlichkeit was hardly Joyce’s goal.

In so far as there was a theme to this cabaret act, it was simply this: what spells “fun” for Joyce Castle? And as she sailed through numbers by everyone from Flanders & Swann to Friedrich Holländer, she proved that what’s fun for Joyce is fun for the rest of us, too. She scooped us up in her arms, and together we followed her bliss.

Much as she did last year at this venue, Joyce demonstrated her absolute and utter command over the audience. Elsewhere in Opera World, probably only Anna Russell in her prime could compete with Joyce’s comic timing, and of course dear Anna isn’t around any more. Joyce had us in stitches merely by observing that “March is Women’s History Month.”

With the richness of her voice, scaled back for the tiny room, and with the clarity of her diction in English, German, and French — and with her frequent collaborator Ted Taylor on piano — she elicited both laughter and tears. I can’t tell you how she does it. I’m barely aware that she’s doing it, until I realize that she’s done it.

As Yvette Guilbert in Belle Epoque, Lincoln Center, 2004.

So mixed in with Yvette Guilbert’s saucy saga of the Boudins and the Boutons, we got three of Hanns Eisler’s Hollywood Elegies, troubling tales of nightmares in Dreamland. (Joyce sang both the Guilbert and two German-language Elegies in evocative English translations by Michael Feingold.) A Lied by Alma Mahler was cut short by a rendition of Tom Lehrer’s irreverent ode to Alma. And Weill’s lighthearted “One Life to Live” (from Lady in the Dark) met a haunting account of Poulenc’s “Les Chemins d’amour,” Joyce’s encore, which found the ever-inspired Ted Taylor drawing an array of orchestral colors from the keyboard.

Naturally, I loved the new act. And in my case, this was an occasion to reflect on the ways in which our tastes overlap, whether because of preexisting affinities (Kurt Weill!) or because I have been listening to Joyce long enough that her tastes have informed my own. Sure, I knew a lot of these songs, but several were songs to which she’d introduced me, such as the Guilbert song (which Joyce performed in Martha Clarke’s Belle Epoque at Lincoln Center in 2004). And it was Joyce who introduced me personally to the composer of “Lady Luck,” the great William Bolcom, clearing the way for me to interview him and his wife, the singer Joan Morris.

I started out on this path one lucky day in the 1980s, when I decided that Joyce Castle was intriguing, and I ought to go to hear her at the New York City Opera — and, ultimately, at opera houses from Boston to Fort Worth. She helped me to hear in a new way music that I knew well (notably Sweeney Todd, Candide, and Mahagonny), and to discover music that I might have missed (Menotti’s Medium and Consul, Britten’s Turn of the Screw), or might never have heard at all (von Einem’s The Visit of the Old Lady, Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale, both stunning).

In sum, I’ve been listening to Joyce work a room just this expertly for many years, no matter the size of the room or the material she’s performing. She may have been born with the instincts, but by now she’s honed them to precision. And she’s still casting new spells. After noting that younger singers exasperate her when they attempt Weill’s wry, almost world-weary “September Song,” Joyce herself gave it a whirl — for the first time ever, she told us.

You’ve got several chances in the coming months to catch up with me and to experience Joyce’s magic for yourself. She sings the Marquise in Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment at Fort Worth Opera this spring, alongside Ava Pine and Darren Keith Woods. Beginning in June, she takes up another signature role, Klytämnestra in Strauss’ Elektra, with Des Moines Metro Opera. In October and November, it’s Daughter of the Regiment again with Seattle Opera. And in March 2014, she’ll take on a new role: Mme Armfeldt in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with Houston Grand Opera. With any luck, I’ll see you there.

As Klytämnestra with Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera.
Was this 2008? I think so.

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22 March 2013

‘Hands on a Hardbody’ on Broadway

The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!

Hands on a Hardbody takes an unlikely subject for musical theater — a contest to win a pickup truck — and does something even unlikelier for Broadway. With a book by Doug Wright, lyrics by Amanda Green, and music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda, this is nothing less than an exploration of faith, in which the truck becomes a vehicle for spiritual redemption.

In the secular, socialist People’s Republic of Manhattan, that’s daring, but the creators of Hands on a Hardbody sneak up on you. One character complains in Act I about “people who shove religion down your throat,” but that’s not what’s going on at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. You’re never preached at, and by the time you realize the philosophical purpose of the enterprise, you’re already caught up in the characters, the suspense, and the songs.

The show is set in Texas, and based on a documentary film. It would be downright weird if the characters didn’t allude to their Christian faith at some point. But they do so meaningfully, not casually (the way that many Texans speak of faith), and as the story unfolds in its quirky, disarming way, we see that each of the contestants has been tempted and tested by at least one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and they’ve broken at least one of the Ten Commandments: they start at a disadvantage, because of course all of them covet that truck.

Opening-night curtain call.

I predict with confidence a future in which Hands on a Hardbody will be produced by community theaters and church groups — anybody who can figure out how to get a truck on the stage. But what struck me at Wednesday’s matinée (the penultimate preview performance) was how the show affected an audience of jaded New Yorkers. They began by snickering at the Texans: I wanted to yell out that, funny though they are, there’s not a single caricature among the characters. But as the contestants were eliminated, gasps rang out in the audience, and folks got teary, too.

And is there any purer expression of faith than Keala Settle’s performance of “Joy of the Lord”? As the devout Norma Valverde, for whom hundreds of churchgoers are praying, she begins the number by listening to gospel music on headphones and feeling the presence of God — and it makes her laugh.

She starts with a chuckle and, in a perfectly calibrated crescendo, moves on to giggles and then to guffaws. This is infectious, and even before we really understand what she’s laughing about, we’re joining in. By the time she launches her song, we are ready to listen — and it’s a hell of a number.

Settle (far left) feels the spirit.

This is a breakout performance, and if there’s any justice it will make Settle a star. But it’s indicative of the overall approach of Hands on a Hardbody: this is a show about character. It’s not one of those infernal manufactured Broadway machines, in which the actors are anonymous and interchangeable and rely on our knowledge of the source material in order to score their points. But neither is Hands a star vehicle, and it features one of the most self-effacing performances you can imagine from the biggest name in the cast, Oscar-winner Keith Carradine, who wears his role like an old pair of jeans and who blends easily into the ensemble.

The juiciest role goes to Hunter Foster, playing an unrepentant (for now) cuss who’s already won the contest once and is determined to win it again, no matter who gets hurt. Yet in some ways the real star of the show is the red pickup itself. It gets most of the best choreography in the show, pushed and spun around the stage by the contestants who, by the rules of the competition, must keep one hand on the truck at all times. The actors do dance around the truck, and Serge Trujillo’s musical staging is inventive and fluid. But really, there’s only one prima ballerina in this show, and she’s got wheels.

Reality meets Broadway: Contestants from S.R. Bindler’s documentary film, opening night.

“I didn’t think much of the truck at first, but by the end, it was kind of beautiful,” said one woman (audibly not a Texan) near me as we left the theater. The same is true of the characters, and it’s here that Amanda’s special gift, her ability to give voice to and her refusal to condescend to the dreams of the people she writes about, reaches its peak and finds its match in her collaborators. Even the officious Cindy Barnes (played to perfection by Connie Ray) has a heart and a purpose inside her careful coiffure and her Chamber of Commerce suit. And some of the first to drop out of the contest in Act I will return in Act II — because they’re still looking for that redemption.

Perfectly cast, the show stays true to its characters, but it never forgets that it’s a musical: everybody gets a song (or two) to reveal the truth within. Small-town princess Heather (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) and hotshot truck dealer Mike (Jim Newman) engage in a dance of temptation and corruption, in almost sexual terms (“Burn That Bridge”). Virginia (Mary Gordon Murray, with the face of a worn-out country goddess) expresses resignation and disappointment in the wistful “Alone with Me.” Ronald (Jacob Ming-Trent) exposes his feet of clay in “The Problem Right There.” Jesus (Jon Rua) teases us with the question of his origins — is he an illegal? — before erupting in “Born in Laredo.”

I admired all the first-rate singing actors in this ensemble, which also includes Scott Wakefield as a grinning radio personality who discovers actual news breaking out at a promotional event; and the delectable Dale Soules as a cantankerous wife and William Youmans as the husband who can’t give her anything but love — and air conditioning. Jacob Ming-Trent is winning as a contestant who’s figured out every angle but one, and David Larsen is the unbending Army veteran who’s bound to melt. And in a musical, boy really must meet girl: Jay Armstrong Johnson and Allison Case field that assignment with unaffected grace.

The choice: Personal relationships, or a pickup?
Jay Armstrong Johnson and Allison Case
as Greg and Kelli, dreaming of Hollywood.

The design team is the same as that for the Met’s new production of Rigoletto*, affording writers like me the unique opportunity to use the words “Rigoletto” and “hardbody” in the same sentence. Christine Jones’ set could hardly be starker: just the truck, a dilapidated billboard, a couple of banners. But Kevin Adams’ lighting brings it all to life, and Susan Hilferty’s costumes are admirably authentic looking. Neil Pepe’s directing credits number far more straight plays than musicals, including a lot of David Mamet, and I daresay that’s why he knows how to keep the dramatic focus so clean and the characters so vivid.

As J.D., Carradine gives voice to a lament I heard from no less than Horton Foote, some 15 years ago: that small-town Texas has been conquered by impersonal national corporations, like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. It “Used to Be” that “every town was as different as its name, but now they’re all the same,” J.D. says. I wonder how many New Yorkers appreciate the fact that this is exactly what’s happened to this city — even to its Broadway musicals — under mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg.

But now there’s a Broadway musical that looks and sounds like no other. It’s got a pickup in it, but that’s not what makes it so moving. It’s not a tourist-trap thrill ride — it’s about real people — and not only because it’s based on a documentary film.

And yes, my darling Amanda Green has demonstrated conclusively that she’s more Texan than I am. No contest. Amanda, you win. Expect my mother to file formal adoption papers later today.

The creative team: Anastasio, Wright, Amanda, Pepe, Trujillo.

NOTE: I reviewed Rigoletto for the Italian online magazine GBOpera.it, here. You can read the review in English, but really, you should click to the bottom of the page for the link to the Italian translation. It makes me sound much more authoritative.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: Hands on a Hardbody takes place in Longview, Texas. I have been there, and I fondly recall that it is home to the largest chicken-fried steaks I have ever seen: asteroid-size. I wonder if that diner is still there.

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19 March 2013

Hands on a Hard Bagel: The Musical

A scene from Hands on a Hardbody on Broadway.

It is a matter of factual record that songwriter Amanda Green, who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has for years tried her durndest (as my Texan mother would say) to be more Texan than I am. The woman writes country songs. She wears boots. She has been known to use the word “y’all” in conversation. I could go on, but my mother is weeping.

The latest evidence of Amanda’s Lone Star affinities is Hands on a Hardbody, the new musical she’s written with Trey Anastasio and Doug Wright. Based on a documentary film about small-town Texans competing to win a truck, the show opens on Thursday at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, with a cast that includes Keith Carradine and Hunter Foster.

Amanda with Anastasio and Wright.

In celebration of Amanda’s triumph — two Broadway shows in one season, for mercy’s sake — and in observance of her mother’s birthday today, I’d like to present my response. I’ve written a new musical about New Yorkers, and while some might construe this as my attempt to be more an Upper West Sider than Amanda is, I prefer to view it as proof that Amanda taught me well.

Whether or not she was trying to.

The Musical

THE SCENE: The Deli. Located on Amsterdam Avenue somewhere in the 80s. Display cases full of bagels, cream cheese, pastrami, cold cuts, fish, etc.

THE TIME: When New York was still what it used to be.

As the curtain rises, the audience is treated to the heady aroma of appetizing. Don’t ask.

At the counter, MURRAY, a gruff older man, is taking the order of GENEVIEVE, an attractive but harried mother of two SCREAMING CHILDREN.

MURRAY: What’ll it be, lady? I don’t got all day!

Oh, I need the perfect bagel —
In fact, I really need two!
Give one each to both of my children —
Instead of screaming, maybe they’ll chew!
But the problem with my darlings
Is, they have really strange appetites,
And if I give them just the wrong things
They’ll be up and screaming all night!
Oh, I need the perfect bagel,
One without any cream cheese,
And lacking any whitefish,
Or anything else to which they have aller-gies!
Yes, I need the perfect bagel —
In fact, I really need two!
Make ’em tough and hard and plain,
Make ’em last the afternoon through!
Yes, I need the perfect bagel!
Make ’em last long as a young mother’s pain!
Oh, I need the perfect bagel!
Nothing less can possibly do!
’Cause I need the perfect bagel
And I’m running out of time!
And the worst part is that “bagel”
Doesn’t have a very good rhyme!
Oh ——

Good ol’ gal: Amanda Green.

MURRAY: I got it, I got it. Two plain bagels with a shmeer of butter. You want that toasted?

Behind GENEVIEVE, the line has grown longer. The OTHER CUSTOMERS begin to grumble: ESTELLE, an attractive woman in her mid-90s; SAM, an alte kaker; MIRIAM, an attractive woman in her mid-50s; and ELLIOT, an accountant in his 60s who looks remarkably like an accountant in his 60s.

Who is she to keep me waiting?
SAM: Does she think that I got all day?
MIRIAM: She’s got such undisciplined children!
ELLIOT: My kids never acted this way!

MIRIAM AND ELLIOT: Who was it who died
And made her Queen of the Upper West Side?

ESTELLE AND SAM: All I wanted was corned beef and tongue —
Could I get it while I’m still young?

ALL: Oh, the service here is terrible!
This place used to be so nice!
I don’t know what’s happening lately!
This whole neighborhood’s gone downhill!
Yes, the service here is terrible!
And now we agree on it twice!
This whole neighborhood once was so stately —
Personally, I blame Koch!

GENEVIEVE (to MURRAY): No butter — my children are allergic to dairy. Just a shmeer of jelly, please.

MURRAY: We’re out of jelly.

Seems like only yesterday
That I checked, out in the back,
And I saw the rows of jelly —
Not one flavor did we lack!
Now the jelly’s gone from the pantry
And the magic’s gone from my life!
You want I should tell you ’bout sorrow?
Lady — please take my wife!
It’s like the jelly up and left me!
Now I got nothing but woe!
She ran off with the man from deliv’ry
And I got nothing to show!
When your wife just up and leaves you,
It can wreck all of your plans!
Now I got no wife and no supplies,
Not even jelly … on my hands!
[Dance break]
My baby left me —
Now the jelly’s gone.

[To be continued… maybe.]

Happy birthday, Phyllis!
It’s not every mom who gets a Broadway premiere for her birthday.

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17 March 2013

News Report: Depardieu Left France Because ‘It Is Sad’

Amazingly, this image is not photoshopped.
(Depardieu appeared on Russian TV with some folk dancers.)

BRUSSELS -- In an exclusive interview with Belgian television, actor Gérard Depardieu this weekend explained the reasons behind his recent, highly publicized decision to exile himself from his native France and to take up residence in Russia, complete with a Russian passport.

Best known for playing extremely large men in dozens of successful films, Depardieu denied that his decision had anything to do with higher taxes under the administration of French President François Holland, or indeed with any “financial reasons.”

“It’s above all the lack of energy,” Depardieu told a reporter from the Belgian Notélé channel. “France is sad, and I think that the French are fed up with it. The lack of conviction … I have the impression that these people [the government] don’t know how to do their jobs.”

Russia is, by contrast, “a very happy place, where everyone in government does his job extremely well,” Depardieu said. “Since I came here, I have seen nothing but happy people, and I like happy people. What’s more, the very highest leaders of the government — up to and including President Vladimir Putin — always have time to take my calls or to welcome me when I drop by for a glass of tea. What a country!”

Depardieu recently purchased a dacha in the village of Potemkin. He expressed some regret that the Russian president has nothing to do with the tasty Québécois dish poutine, though the name is spelled the same in French. However, he said, “I intend to make the best of things, exactly the same as everybody else in this wonderful country.”

Average citizens Depardieu and Putin.

“Really! The finest caviar in the world, and it is everywhere!” Depardieu told the reporter. “People just give it to you by the gallon when they meet you, instead of shaking your hand! And I can hardly take two steps without somebody handing me a Fabergé egg. This makes for an unusual omelette, but I’m getting used to the flavor.”

For several decades, French filmmakers have been required by law (known as “l’exception Gérard”) to hire Depardieu, solidifying his position as France’s largest export by far. As of last year, analysts estimated that he had appeared in roughly 37 percent of all movies ever made in France. He hopes to continue making movies now that he lives in Russia, he says, though roles may be limited due to his lack of familiarity with the language. Some of his other cultural activities may be curtailed, too, he said.

“To give you an example, for many years, as a public service, I have been attempting to prove that there is absolutely nothing wrong with foie gras,” Depardieu said. “I do this primarily by force-feeding myself, precisely as a farmer would force-feed a goose, and as you can see, I have suffered no ill effects whatsoever.”

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13 March 2013

Church Hires Latin-American Immigrant to Clean Up Messes

At least he’ll get health insurance.

VATICAN CITY -- With a puff of white smoke, Latin-American man Jorge Maria Bergoglio, 76, was given the least-desirable job in the world Wednesday when he was elected Bishop of Rome and leader of the worldwide Catholic Church. In his new position, Bergoglio, who has chosen the name Francis, will have to wear a dress and a funny-looking hat while coping with numerous sex and financial scandals as the head of a church that often finds itself out of step with modern times.

“Sure, we’d like to have found another white European male for the job, in keeping with a centuries-old tradition,” said one Italian cardinal, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to pending court action. “But frankly, there aren’t enough of them — and they’re so expensive! We took the advice of our ex-pope, followed German policy, and opted for a guest worker from Latin America.”

Bergoglio’s hopes of being overlooked were dashed, despite rising expectations when he misunderstood the announcement “Habemas Papam” to be a reference to German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, “an excellent, forward-looking choice for the job,” according to the Argentine native; and cheers of “Viva il Papa,” which turned out not to refer to Warhol Superstar Viva, “who would have been controversial in some respects, but altogether very capable.”

Shortly after being named pope, Francis was handed a red-bound binder detailing the activities of the long-rumored “gay cabal” within the Vatican. Beginning immediately after breakfast tomorrow, he will confront the ongoing child-abuse scandal within the priesthood, while also attempting to reform the Vatican Bank and apologizing for his predecessor’s frequent, apparently inadvertent insults and offenses directed towards Muslims, Jews, nuns and other women, and homosexuals, among many others.

“Good night, and sleep well,” Francis told the crowds assembled in St. Peter’s Square. “God knows I won’t,” he added, under his breath.

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10 March 2013

Charles Busch at 54 Below

The Laddie in Question.
He was striving for a look that summoned up the club Reno Sweeney’s in the 1970s.
Illustration by WVM©
Like so many things in life, this picture looks better if you blow it up.

Unlike Patti LuPone and Sarah Rice, the divas I’d seen previously at the New York nightclub 54 Below, Charles Busch is a performer known to me exclusively from his work in theater and film — until Thursday night. I had no idea what his solo act might consist of, whether he’d sing, whether he’d wear drag, whether he’d — oh, I don’t know — perform magic tricks and juggle. And how would he fare in what he called “this atmosphere of fake intimacy” that is a nightclub act?

As it happened, he did sing on Thursday night, and he did wear the drag that has made him one of New York theater’s most glamorous artists; and as for tricks, he juggled comedy with even more comedy, and his indisputable magic required no sleight of hand. A gifted writer whose plays don’t depend on his physical participation in order to succeed, Busch proved himself a gifted performer who doesn’t depend on a conventional (or even an alternative) theater.

Which isn’t to say that we didn’t get plenty of drama. In one sketch, Busch cheerily mashed up Mildred Pierce and Cinderella (“Yes, I killed my stepdaughter!”); in another, he ran through every conceivable cliché in the career of Golden Era character actress Gladys George, creating his own movie scenario. It’s always been clear that Busch knows his old movies, but at 54 Below he explained that he grew up on a steady diet of them, when Million Dollar Movie on New York’s Channel 9 used to run the same picture as many as 22 times in one week — and the young Charles watched every broadcast.

This immersion has informed his scripts — The Divine Sister, for example, throws together elements of every nun movie ever made, and that was just the start. And who but Charles Busch knew what Judith of Bethulia was, much less that it was ripe for mockery? At his best, Busch knows exactly how far to push the melodrama to make it funny. And as a performer, he lovingly assembles all the mannerisms and inflections that make an actress distinctive — and therefore a star.*

Busch as Judith of Bethulia.
I was lucky enough to see a limited engagement of this show last year. Who knew there was a silent movie of the same title, starring Blanche Sweet?
Charles Busch knew, that’s who.

Thus we got a side-splitting “she-said/she-said” showdown between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, based entirely on statements those ladies made during interviews on the subject of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The Davis imitation would be lethal, if she weren’t dead already, and yet the Crawford imitation is more devastating yet: Busch brilliantly lays bare that lady’s cluelessness. She praises herself for her own genteel magnanimity even as she’s cussing like a sailor and insulting Davis, and she doesn’t seem to notice the difference.

When Busch granted a solo to his music director, pianist Tom Judson, I was inevitably reminded of a certain coloratura soprano who visibly had to restrain herself from checking her watch whenever Juan Diego Flórez launched into “Cessa di più resistere” in the Met’s production of The Barber of Seville. Busch didn’t really hand over the spotlight to Judson. Instead, he mugged from the sidelines — in a mix of bored approval and diva-like impatience to resume a rightful place at the center of attention — throughout an otherwise touching account of “Winter Was Warm,” from Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.** Really, the material in the show is drawn from everywhere.

As Madame DuBarry to Norma Shearer’s Marie Antoinette.
I may have run my college film society, but Busch’s expertise outpaces mine. I recognized Gladys George’s name but never could have picked her out in a police line-up.
Busch created an entire movie scenario around her.

Busch’s singing voice is less distinctive than his acting personae: though it’s a perfectly pleasant instrument and does what he needs it to do, he knows its limits. So when he made his entrance with the barnstormer “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (as logical a choice for an entrance as Groucho’s “Hello, I Must Be Going”), he stopped abruptly and sang another, less strenuous and very funny song, about the kind of opening number he requires.

A special guest star, Busch’s longtime collaborator Julie Halston, took the stage for a few minutes, demonstrating her ability to read a wedding announcement from The New York Times absolutely verbatim while still wringing tears of helpless laughter from the crowd — which included the legendary Phyllis Newman and the playwright Douglas Carter Beane, whose adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, co-starring Ann Harada, just opened on Broadway.

The presence of such luminaries reinforced the feeling that I’d had all through the show: that I’d been transported back to the Golden Age of New York Night Life, where swanky stars hobnobbed with the hoi polloi while glamorous performers served up sophisticated material. If you’d addressed me as Dorothy Kilgallen, I’d probably have answered you.

Granted, Charles Busch has taken this act beyond the island of Manhattan, too — but I found myself thinking, “Only in New York, kids. Only in New York.” And for one who feels so often as if he missed out on the best of this city in its heyday, that was a precious gift, indeed.

There’s one more performance in Charles Busch’s current engagement at 54 Below: Thursday, March 14 at 9:30 PM. For more information and reservations, click here.

Busch’s plays don’t depend on his performing in them:
Such classics as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Die, Mommy, Die!, and his hit Broadway play, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife (in which he didn’t perform at all), have enjoyed successful productions in theaters around the country.
He’s seen here in a publicity still from the film adaptation of Die, Mommy, Die!

*NOTE: I can’t imagine that cabaret performers 50 years from now will be vamping on Jennifer Lawrence, or even the more imitable Kristen Stewart. But time may prove me wrong.

**Judson is such a good sport about this that one supposes he’s borne the brunt of real-life, non-ironic diva antics.

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09 March 2013

Interview: James Marvel on Gotham Chamber Opera’s ‘Eliogabalo’

Illustration by Alfred Leslie for Gotham Chamber Opera.

Much as Clark Kent so often exclaims, “This is a job for Superman,” so I found myself exclaiming, “This is a job for Gotham Chamber Opera,” as I read the outlines of Francesco Cavalli’s Eliogabalo, from 1668. Inspired by the scandalous life of the rapaciously pansexual Roman Emperor Elagabalus, Cavalli’s opera provides abundant and completely legitimate opportunities for an innovative, sexy staging, something for which Gotham is justly known. Plus, the piece is obscure, having received its world premiere only in 1999, and having been produced only a few times since. For a company that got its start with the American premiere of Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione, that’s an irresistible opportunity.

With the Baroque Revival in full flower, Cavalli’s operas have found appreciative audiences, though he’s perhaps not yet a household name: La Calisto, Didone, and Giasone, among others, have been dusted off, produced, and recorded, in some cases several times. But Eliogabalo moves beyond mythology as it depicts a decadent Emperor and a corrupt Roman Senate, evidently in a conscious critique of the Venetian government of the composer’s time; the score languished for centuries as a result, and Gotham’s production will be the U.S. professional premiere.

Under artistic director Neal Goren, Gotham is pulling out the stops, engaging Grant Herreid as music director for the production (while Goren himself conducts Eliogabalo), and performing in the Box, a Lower East Side space where, it seems, just about anything goes. Looking forward to the premiere on March 15, I spoke with the opera’s stage director, James Marvel.

Costume design for the Owls by Mattie Ullrich.
Hoo? I expect I’ll understand once I see the show.
Courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera.

Q: From what I’m hearing, the plot of Eliogabalo is like The Coronation of Poppea, but even wilder.

JM: It is a bit, and the Emperor Eliogabalo was a very notorious figure during his life, and since then. The sort of allegations against him — or as I like to say, résumé credits — include elements of child sacrifice, castration — not just circumcision — and prostitution, and he was a priest of the Syrian Emesa cult.

It’s interesting in that he ruled from the time he was 14 to the time he was 18. He was essentially put to death because his sexual appetites were so outrageous, even by Roman standards. He had five wives during his lifetime, and a whole slew of male lovers, as well. A lot of what was happening at the time was — one way to say it was a cultural prejudice, since he himself was not Roman and engaged in ecstatic rites that would be the opposite of how we think of religion today, which is kind of repressed and a very shame-based culture.

This was quite the opposite. He attempted to merge his religious practices with those of the Roman sun god, and people didn’t appreciate it. They just felt as though their god was being usurped. The name Eliogabalo means “god of the mountain,” but after his death Heliogabalos became god of the sun, or the mountain god.

A lot of the allegations made against him were the same kind that romans made about any kind of foreigners, whether it be anti-Semitic or anything else. I’ve read a lot of historical criticism that sort of asserts certain facts about his life, and then as much contrarian research that says that many of the allegations against him have no basis in reality.

Costume design for Eritea by Mattie Ullrich.
Courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera.

It’s been an interesting thing, having no production history for this opera to draw from. There was one version done in England done a few years ago, and Aspen Festival did a production a couple years ago as well. Most of the research I drew from was history, reading history books and scouring for any kind of information for the kind of figure he was or was reported to be.

The production itself is taking place at the Box. I attended the Box as part of researching. We considered many venues for this opera, and the reputation of the Box is one in which the kinds of variety acts that are presented there are really quite shocking. [Laughs] You definitely leave the space transformed afterwards, perhaps not for the better! The evening I went, there was a man who sodomized himself with a wine bottle and then drank the liquid from the bottle, in the direction of John Waters and Pink Flamingos. There was another act with a toilet and fecal matter, and a guy ate it. It’s like, okaaay.

But actually, if Eliogabalo were alive, he would either be an owner of the Box, a performer at the Box, or someone who attended regularly. He was known to prostitute himself at the temple and was a man to every woman and a woman to every man.

In looking at not only the figure of Eliogabalo but the other characters and the style of the opera, I thought that Mattie Ullrich would be the perfect costume designer for this show. One of the things I love about working with her is that I’ll present my original thoughts, and she’ll take those, improve upon them, and challenge them, shock me. It’s a collaboration and it’s fearless. There’s going to be a lot of skin showing in the opera, and it will be a visual extravaganza.

A scene from James Marvel’s staging of
Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria at Wolf Trap, 2009.
Photo by Carol Pratt courtesy of James Marvel.

There’s no part of me that ever feels a need to do anything gratuitous or be provocative for the sake of it. I do traditional operas as well, I’m happy to do La Traviata in 1850s Paris, but I’ve also done some out-there productions. At Wolf Trap, I did Monteverdi’s Ulysses and Mozart’s Zaïde, and those were visually inhabiting a world that you might not have expected them to.

I think Neal Goren, the artistic director of Gotham Chamber Opera, first got my name through Wolf Trap. He said, “We have this unusual Baroque opera, and do you know a director who has a reputation for taking difficult material and making it accessible to an audience?” Kim Whitman brought up my name, and Neal did an exhaustive background check, called everybody I ever worked for and wanted to make sure I was the right person.

Originally we were looking at doing this show at Lincoln Center during Fashion Week, but that wasn’t possible. We’ve been talking about the show for four years, and it’s gone through a lot of manifestations. At one point it was going to be a kind of pop-up nightclub kind of thing. The guy who runs the Box, Randy Weiner, who produced Sleep No More and The Donkey Show, and he’s doing a show for Cirque du Soleil, he’s a really interesting guy. We went and saw an evening of stuff at the Box, and it just seemed kind of perfect for the show, ultimately.

Actually, the space is a very challenging space to work in. there are no entrances stage left or stage right, there’s only one entrance in the center. So we built a kind of catwalk so the singers can enter through the audience. I thought it would be fun to have a big phallic element right in the middle of the audience, so that worked out.

Costume design for Flavia by Mattie Ullrich.
Courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera.

It’s a small space, the musicians are right there with the performers, there will be times when it’s gonna seem very crowded.

We’re in very good shape, we just had a final rehearsal yesterday, and I can’t wait to unleash it on the public.

Q: What about the music? There’s a lot of recitative, I’m told. Does that provide you with opportunities or with challenges?

JM: I would say both. Whenever I direct any show, it’s always my goal that if you can’t read the supertitles in English or you don’t speak Italian, you should understand everything that’s happening. Just the way the actors and singers are relating to each other physically and spacially. Every single moment is crystal clear. This is probably more recit than any other opera I’ve experienced, it’s really quite a lot. But as a result, and this was something we acknowledged at the beginning of musical rehearsals and staging process, we had to make the recit really compelling and dramatically viable. That was of the utmost importance.

There are arias. Some of them are really quite beautiful. One of the interesting things stylistically is that frequently the arias will come in the middle of a scene. It’ll start with recit, there’ll be an aria, and it will end with recit. The later contemporaries of Cavalli didn’t usually have the aria section in the middle.

Colorful guy: Director James Marvel.

I think actually that the show flows quite well. We made some cuts to the piece, because there were scenes that had no bearing on any of the dramatic action, but also we reordered some scenes so that the flow of the show would be more linear and logical and assist in our telling of the story in a way that we feel today’s audience would be most receptive to.

But yeah, the music is stunning, and people who are really into Baroque opera, it’s every bit as much a fetish for them as any sexual fetish that someone might have. There are people who seek it out really seek it out, and know what they love. We’re mixing a Box audience with a Gotham audience and a Baroque audience, and that’s gonna be a lot of the fun.

Cavalli’s Eliogabalo
Gotham Chamber Opera

March 15, 19, 21, 23, 26, and 29 at 8PM.
The Box, 189 Chrystie Street, Manhattan
For more information and tickets, click here.

NOTE: Where the context is clear, some of my questions have been removed from the transcript.

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06 March 2013

Sarah Rice at 54 Below

This and other photos from an earlier gig at 54 Below.

With her sparkling soprano voice and crystalline diction, Sarah Rice took the audience at 54 Below on a journey back in time on Sunday night, to the between-the-wars era of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park, as she’d promised. As it happens, this was also an era when sparkling voices and crystalline diction were absolutely necessary to perform the songs of English theater composers. I daresay Rice’s skills and artistry would be admired at any point in history, but back in the day, producers simply couldn’t mount a show at all without finding someone like her.

The Downton fad may fade — I’m still assessing the backlash to the Plot Development that ended Season 3 — but Rice made a persuasive case for the songs she brought to 54 Below. They’re important, they’re meaningful, and we’ve lost touch with too many of them. The sly wit and ever-present melancholy that pervade this music tell us what it’s like when the dawn of a new century begins to dim, when empires are smaller than they seemed, when the causes you fought for turn out to be something other than what you believed, and the victories you won make less difference than you hoped — and still you have to carry on. (Not that anybody in the United States in 2013 could identify with such feelings.)

So it’s to be hoped that the 54 Below gig was just the first of many for this act, with or without the Downton label. A welcome showcase for Sarah Rice’s voice and charming presence, “Glamorous Nights & Careless Rapture” is also an introduction to music that’s as enlightening as it is entertaining.

Noël Coward’s music, while very much occupying a niche of its own, is still heard from time to time, but the lion’s share of Rice’s program went to the work of Ivor Novello, a superstar in his own time now fallen into such neglect that Rice had to air-lift the sheet music out of Britain, with barely three days to prepare for her act.

Rice gave us a good sampling of Novello’s range, from “Keep the Home Fires Burning” (surely his best-known song) to the romance of “Someday My Heart Will Awake” and the comedy of “And Her Mother Came, Too” (cleverly updated as “And His Roommate Came, Too”), as well as several others, including the “Glamorous Night” and “Why Is There Ever Good-bye?,” a number from Careless Rapture, which together inspired the title of the act. Three numbers represented Coward: the perfumed “Zigeuner,” and back-to-back renditions of “If Love Were All” and “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart,” a profoundly poignant combination. Between numbers, Rice sketched the outlines of Novello’s career, with a special emphasis on his relationship with the younger, rather envious Coward.

A handful of songs by other writers elicited big laughs from the audience: Cole Porter’s “When I Was a Little Cuckoo,” as well as two kindred classics, “There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden” and “Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s Forty.” A haunting Irish ballad, “She Moved Through the Fair,” suggested what the folks downstairs at Downton might have sung.

Not the first time Rice has worked
with young violinist Jonathan Russell.

Rice has been learning to play the theremin, and she favored us with the Doretta song from Puccini’s La Rondine (fondly remembered even by non-opera fans from the film A Room with a View, aptly enough another Maggie Smith vehicle). But not only in her theremin playing is Sarah Rice an atypical diva: she even invited another soprano to join her onstage, none other than the legendary Marni Nixon, who confided that, over the course of her distinguished career, she actually dubbed the sound of a theremin in movies such as Daughter of Horror. Who knew? The ladies’ duet, Novello’s “We’ll Gather Lilacs,” evoked tender sentiments above and beyond the context of the song, much as “One Last Kiss” (from Sondheim’s Follies) never fails to do.

A trio of excellent instrumentalists backed up Rice and performed the opening number: the theme to Downton Abbey, of course. Seth Weinstein commanded from the piano, and Maria Banks summoned up irresistible atmosphere on harp. Jonathan Russell’s nimble, flavorful violin playing was altogether admirable for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that the kid is 17 years old.

Throughout the evening, Rice’s tone remained secure, beautifully placed and cleanly projected, and even in her highest registers (which are indeed very high), every lyric hit home. As I say, this material is an ideal fit for her, and even if crowds of other artists were singing it nowadays, it’s hard to imagine anybody doing it better. This occasion deserves further hearings.

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02 March 2013

The Auteur Theory of Concert Programming

Heirs of Tantalus: Actors, instrumentalists,
and vocalists delve into ancient drama.
Judith Hawking (in black), Jessica Gould (in red), José Lemos (in shadow),
Steven Rattazzi (against column at right).
Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

By happy circumstance, my return to the New York Festival of Song (February 19) preceded by only a few days my return to Salon/Sanctuary Concerts (February 22), and in the afterglow of two fine performances, certain ideas I’d entertained began to coalesce. Call it the Auteur Theory of Recital Programming: that constructing a program is an art in itself. In selecting and ordering the material, the programmer becomes an interpreter, a creative artist, constructing fresh song cycles out of diverse repertory, lending the music meaning beyond its isolated contexts. Of such artists, there are few better examples than those of pianist Steven Blier, who pioneered this approach, and soprano Jessica Gould, who ably represents the next generation.

I’ve been kicking this theory around for a while, as I say, and I want to return to it, but first a few observations on the SSC concert, “The Heirs of Tantalus,” which persuasively linked the history of the Roman Emperor Nero and his mother, Agrippina, to the legend of Orestes and Clytemnestra, through the music of three (or, more precisely, four) Baroque composers, one Roman historian, and two Greek tragedians. With Jory Vinikour on harpsichord and members of the Sebastians Chamber Orchestra lending accompaniment, Gould and countertenor José Lemos led us through a story as lurid as the music is gorgeous. Darting among the Doric columns of the Broad Street Ballroom, three actors recited passages from Suetonius, Aeschylus, and Euripides, under the direction of Erica Gould, Jessica’s sister.

I Dismember Mama?
Gould and Lemos as Agrippina and Nero.
In background, Jory Vinikour on harpsichord.
Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

To the best of my recollection, this was the first time I’d heard either singer, and both in solos and duets, they proved delightful. There’s a distinct nap to the plush velvet of Gould’s soprano. Its texture is soft, caressing, and beautifully matched to the similar qualities of Lemos’ voice, which moves seamlessly from soprano to “man voice” (as a certain Polish contralto might call it) and back again. While most of the selections on the program were solo arias (and most of those drawn from Handel’s opera Agrippina), in the duets “Pur ti miro” from L’Incoronazione di Poppea (not actually from the pen of Monteverdi) and “Ahi, nelle sorte umani,” a chamber duet by Handel, Gould and Lemos blended so exquisitely that one really wished the old boy had written even more such numbers.

As actors, Gould and Lemos had a high time incarnating the sheer nastiness (and some nobler qualities, too) of the characters, and they were abetted by actors Steven Rattazzi, expertly handling the passages from Suetonius; and Judith Hawking, an aptly regal Clytemnestra. (Even her hairstyle was just right.) Ben Leasure’s rather contemporary reading of Orestes proved intriguing but ultimately too callow for that tormented protagonist. Jessica Gould’s sister, Erica, collaborated on the concept, constructed the script, and staged the performance, making excellent use of the space as she moved the actors around the ballroom; dramatic spotlighting kept the audience’s focus where she wanted it. “All too late is it now to unweave what has been woven,” the actors repeated, heightening the sense of ritual.

Vinikour (at harpsichord) and members of
the Sebastians Chamber Orchestra.
Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

The headliner of my previous SSC concert was Anthony Roth Costanzo, a singer whose work I know a bit and one who has pursued other multi-disciplinary programs in the past. Thus Friday night delivered my first taste of the SSC Aesthetic with the Pure Gould Effect, as it were. Since appropriate venues are central to the SSC philosophy, let’s start with the Ballroom, not only appropriate but evocative, with good acoustics further recommending the space for future concerts.

In terms of programming, the interdisciplinary approach meant that the “Tantalus” concert never resembled a lecture with musical examples — as it easily might have done. Moreover, everyone involved revealed a clear confidence in the strength of the material: songs complemented readings, and vice-versa. The result was a pleasingly mathematical elegance in a swift-moving performance, without overstatement or extraneity. We got exactly what we needed, no more and no less, in order to understand and to admire.

Harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire, dancer Jared Angle,
and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo
at the Players Club last year.
Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

In a broader context, I can sense, as I say, a still-growing freedom among concert artists and programmers in the U.S. Just as Steven Blier makes a statement by bringing in music of any period or style, so Jessica Gould makes a statement by incorporating history and theater, so ARC-en-Ciel incorporates dance, and so David Adam Moore incorporates videography. Singers like Joyce DiDonato and Susan Graham may program recitals that encourage us to focus on particular themes: how Baroque composers treated “Drama Queens” or how male composers have depicted women as “Virgins, Vixens, & Viragos.” And so on.

Sure, thematic programming isn’t a brand-new thing, and I can even think of examples that pre-date Steven Blier, pioneer though he truly is. More conventional programming may still yield enormous rewards, too. (At Carnegie Hall several years ago, Ewa Podles´ sang one of the most memorable concerts I ever heard, organized around no more precise theme than that every aria was written by Handel, and that she could sing the bejeezus out of them all.) But when I compare my concert-going experiences today with those of my youth, I find greater excitement and anticipation now. I can be confident that several parts of my mind will be stimulated and satisfied — but beyond that, I don’t really know what to expect. The sky is the limit, and it’s a great moment in history to be an audience.

This may not be news to the people who actually program concerts, but for me “The Heirs of Tantalus” was the final piece in the mosaic — and given the theme of the evening, that strikes me as just right.

Brel à la NYFOS: Steven Blier at the piano,
mezzo Marie Lenormand, tenor Philippe Pierce,
and accordionist Bill Schimmel.
Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy New York Festival of Song.

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