17 December 2014

Cuba Welcomes Discussion of Human Rights

HAVANA -- As President Barack Obama declared that normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba will give the United States the chance to engage the island dictatorship directly on the subject of human rights, Cuban President Raúl Castro announced that he welcomes such discussions.

“Obviously we have a great deal to talk about,” Castro said. “For example, 716 in every 100,000 Americans are incarcerated. We’re nowhere near that level! Granted, our prisons are in some ways even more brutal than American prisons are, but that’s what these discussions are about: a frank exchange of ideas about making people even more miserable behind bars.”

Castro also indicated that the recent Senate report on U.S. use of torture in the war on terrorism could be of particular interest to the Cuban government. “There are several areas where we could really refine Cuban techniques,” Castro said. “That whole ‘rectal feeding’ thing? Genius!”

Among the other topics Cuba hopes to address is voter suppression. “Let’s face it,” Castro said, “we’re a bunch of hopelessly clumsy amateurs compared with statehouses across America.”

In all, Castro said, Cuba “eagerly awaits stern moral lectures from a country that jails one in every three of its black males, a country that makes basic health care all but inaccessible to millions of its citizens, a country that enslaves its college students in debt, a country that subsidizes its banks and large businesses but lets its children go hungry. Yeah, seriously, America. Bring it on.”

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16 December 2014

Interview: Isabel Leonard on Kapilow’s ‘Gertrude McFuzz’

One of the more eagerly heralded recordings of this holiday season is Rob Kapilow’s Polar Express and Gertrude McFuzz, concert adaptations of the beloved books written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg and Dr. Seuss (respectively, of course). Aiming to engage young audiences with music that’s fun but not dumb, Kapilow has composed lively scores with plenty of appeal for grownups, too, and he mixes child singers (a chorus in Polar Express, a preternaturally red-hot jazz-baby soloist named Olivia Lombardi in Gertrude) with Opera World grown-ups Nathan Gunn (in Polar Express) and Isabel Leonard (in Gertrude).

Especially when seen in excerpts on video, Leonard’s performance really makes you wish you could just bring her home and let her do her stuff for you. She’s a busy woman, of course, so in all likelihood you’ll have to settle for buying the album. But it’s spectacular work in any case. Even having seen her as Rossini’s Cinderella with Fort Worth Opera in 2009, and as Mozart’s Cherubino at the Met this fall (among other roles), I was only barely prepared for the wit and charm — and vivid acting — she brings to bear as Gertrude’s Narrator.

“Rob created a very fun, funky, musically narrative score for the book,” Leonard told me in a phone interview several weeks ago. “It’s perfect for kids, and that’s what this whole CD is about, not only bringing classical music to kids but bringing classically trained voices who can do a variety of things with their voices, to show kids what’s possible.”

Mezzo Isabel Leonard

For Leonard, the Gertrude score represented an opportunity “to play with my voice, to sing in a classical style and maybe in a more musical-theater style and jazzy style … a combination of colors and different styles,” she says. “Sometimes when you’re entrenched in the opera world, you forget what it is that you can do, in general. I’ve done jazz and musical theater, and it was great to put it all together.”

Renowned as the host of NPR’s What Makes It Great?, Kapilow has adapted Dr. Seuss before — his Green Eggs and Ham is widely considered a contemporary classic — and he has a pretty good idea what makes Seuss great. His music exults in the author’s imaginative use of language, and, much though we love the illustrations in the book, Kapilow rises to the challenge of substituting sound for image. He provides his own ingenious surprises, characters and curlicues and improbable landscapes, until we feel as if we’re listening to the pictures.

“[Kapilow’s] vocal writing has a range, so the singer has to have range and good rhythm, good funk in your voice,” Leonard says. “I was able to do that, and play around with accents and being goofy, and really, really telling the story, not just by way of beauty — which is what you hear so much in opera — but even more with the texture of sounds and words.”

Both Polar Express and Gertrude McFuzz are a particularly effective kind of composition for young audiences. They’re not didactic, explaining what a woodwind is; instead, they’re exemplary. These pieces demonstrate an original way to tell a story, and they showing that music isn’t just for Wotans and Valkyries and venerable conductors with great profiles, because kids can take part, too. You wind up with gateways to more and more music — which will seem less intimidating, because kids already have a sense of the potential pleasures and rewards.

As a parent — and as a former child — Leonard describes music education as “paramount, just like any arts education,” and she’s worked with children and young adults many times. “They’re still at that stage where they’re an open book: they can be inspired, and they’re still willing to be inspired,” she says. As audiences, kids “respond to something that’s true, their response is very genuine. It’s something they don’t forget, so they’re impacted on a level that really lives with them, for the rest of their life, most likely.”

Gertrude McFuzz does contain a moral — and wouldn’t we all like to be smart enough to know what’s enough? But Leonard was smart enough to have a good time with Kapilow’s score. “You can’t go far from the microphone” in the recording studio, she says, “but I was definitely rocking it out and having fun. It’s that kind of music. It’ll get little kids and older kids up on their feet, bouncing around and having fun with it.”

The Polar Express/Gertrude McFuzz album is available now from Amazon.com, in plenty of time for holiday giving.

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13 December 2014

Meatballs à la Madeline Kahn

Madeline knew her way around the kitchen.

If you’re a Madeline Kahn fan and you’re looking for the perfect hors d’œuvre for your next cocktail party, here’s your solution. Thanks to Betty Aberlin, I’m able to share with you Madeline’s own recipe for sweet and sour meatballs, as reported in the Chicago Tribune in 1975.

A few provisos: I haven’t tested this recipe, you’d better have no moral objections to veal, rolling the meatballs can get your hands messy (Madeline herself offered this warning), and some of the ingredients are processed. For example, you might prefer to mince and sauté a fresh onion, instead of taking “instant minced onions,” soaking them, and then sautéing them. Johna Blinn, the reporter on this story, noted that, at the time, Madeline was “learning how to live a healthier, happier life by studying homeopathic medicine, herbs and organic foods!” (Exclamation point in the original.) So as you follow the recipe, just consider that this may be what passed for organic in 1975.

Like the recipe itself, the Tribune article is a product of its time, taking a tone that’s simultaneously admiring and condescending as Johna Blinn notes that Madeline “is an operatic singer, speech therapist and a voracious reader” — and she can cook, too! Gee, fellas, this one’s a keeper!

Fifteen meatballs is my limit.

Madeline was still living on East 73rd Street at the time, and she complained of her tiny kitchen, which prevented her from throwing real dinner parties: “I don’t like doing things halfway, so I really don’t try and cook whole meals very often. I’m more apt to invite someone in for cocktails, and that’s when I bring on the meatballs!” Shortly after the article appeared, Madeline moved to her Park Avenue apartment, where the kitchen was (from what I can tell from photos) spacious by Manhattan standards — or anyway, I’d gladly trade with her.

Madeline’s description of her approach to cooking chimes with her approach to acting. “When I cook, I just improvise as I go along,” she said. “It’s never quite the same from one time to the next.” In the movies, this improvisational approach to acting led to “Flames! Flames on the side of my face!” and gave directors a variety of takes to choose from. In theater, her approach yielded admiration from some colleagues (Kevin Kline, for example), frustration from others (Victor Garber — affectionate frustration, I hasten to add), and fury from others (notably Hal Prince).

Madeline’s meatball recipe is the result of sampling other recipes and experimenting with her own — and since that’s the way I cook, I’m in no position to say she’s wrong.

An improvisational approach.


1 cup tomato sauce
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon instant minced onion
1 tablespoon salad oil
1 tablespoon powdered mustard
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon ground red pepper
1 cube chicken or beef bouillon
Combine all ingredients. Bring to boil, stirring constantly. Set aside. Makes about 1¼ cups.

2 tablespoons instant minced onion
2 tablespoons water
1½ tablespoons butter
1 cup soft bread crumbs
1 cup light cream
1½ pounds lean ground beef
½ pound lean ground veal
1 egg, beaten
1½ teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon or curry
Rehydrate onion in water; let stand 10 minutes. In large skillet, melt butter; sauté onion 5 minutes. Soak bread crumbs in cream. In large mixing bowl combine onion, bread crumb mixture, meats, egg, salt, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon or curry. Mix well, but do not overmix. Shape into 1½-inch meat balls. Let meatballs stand in refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking. Line baking sheet or broiler tray with aluminum foil. Broil meatballs in preheated broiler until lightly browned. Turn to brown on other side. Watch carefully so meatballs do not overcook. Serve meatballs in heated sauce. Makes about 3 dozen.

Monkey’s brains, though popular in Cantonese cuisine, are not recommended for this recipe.

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10 December 2014

Emily Gilmore’s Stuffed Cornish Game Hens

EDITOR’S NOTE: The recent debut of Gilmore Girls on Netflix has led to a gratifying resurgence of interest in the hit television series (2000–07). With the holiday entertaining season upon us, we decided to ask the Gilmore matriarch, Emily, to share one of her favorite recipes.

Perfect for intimate dinner parties, my D.A.R.-approved recipe for stuffed Cornish game hens has been handed down from generation to generation. In fact, according to family tradition, my great-great-great — well, my many-greats-grandmother prepared this recipe for the crew of the Mayflower on the trip back to England, after she discovered just how hard it was to find good help in colonial Massachusetts.

Today, in our lovely home in Hartford, Richard and I enjoy serving stuffed Cornish game hens to all of our guests (excepting Tweenie Halpern, who’s a bore, and Pennilyn Lott, who’s a tramp — those two are no longer welcome at my table). I think you’ll find this recipe is as easy to follow as it is delicious to eat!

Special appearance by Emily’s husband, Richard Gilmore.

1. Tell Louisa, your new maid, to ask the butcher for four exceptionally fine Cornish game hens.
2. In the kitchen, tell Louisa to flame the hens.
3. Fire Louisa.
4. Tell your new maid, Consuela, to sautée one small onion and two ribs of celery.
5. Fire Consuela. Anyone who doesn’t know to chop the onion and celery before sautéeing them has no business in a kitchen.
6. Tell your new maid, Gudrun, to mix together wild rice, ten ounces of chicken stock, and one cup of finely chopped mushrooms. I think there are some kind of herbs in there, too.
7. Well, of course you cook the rice first. You’re making a stuffed hen, not a baby’s rattle.
8. Fire Gudrun.
9. While waiting for the agency to send over a new maid, check the other preparations for your dinner party. Those candlesticks should be precisely six inches apart.
10. Tell your new maid, Esmeralda, to sprinkle the hens with salt and pepper, both outside and inside each bird.
11. Not that much salt! Are you out of your mind? Richard has a heart condition!
12. Fire Esmeralda.
13. Tell your new maid, Diane, to stuff the hens with the rice mixture, then place them on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Cover the pan with foil, then let it bake for 40 minutes in the oven, preheated to 350 degrees.
14. Fire Diane. Don’t listen to her when she says it’s not her fault the oven wasn’t preheated, because she only just got here. Surely she didn’t expect you to turn on the oven!
15. Tell your new maid, Genevieve, to remove the foil from the pan, baste the hens with melted butter, and allow them to bake, uncovered, for another 25 to 35 minutes.
16. The remaining cooking time will give you the opportunity to greet your guests and to serve cocktails.
17. Pair the hens with a crisp white Burgundy, nicely chilled but not too cold, and serve with fresh asparagus and a tossed green salad.
18. Fire Genevieve.

We Gilmores enjoy nothing more than a good meal and stimulating conversation.

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08 December 2014

‘Peter Pan Live!’: I’d Like to Clap Louder Next Time

Wire we here? Williams as Peter.

The latest in NBC’s live broadcasts of classic Broadway musicals, Peter Pan Live! has generated a plentiful amount of criticism. Most of it — for the good and for the bad — has betrayed a curious lack of understanding of what this particular show represents (to say nothing of its history), why these broadcasts are worthwhile, and why it’s incumbent upon us (or anyway, those among us who can keep a civil tongue in our virtual heads) to say both what we did and did not approve. After all, the generally negative reactions to Carrie Underwood’s acting performance in last year’s The Sound of Music Live must have informed this year’s casting of a young woman who actually could handle the acting demands of a different role created by Mary Martin.

These broadcasts are valuable, and I’d like to see them continued, for at least a couple of reasons. First is that, while the view they provide of an actual Broadway show is distorted (unlike the Mary Martin telecasts of Peter Pan, which were essentially the original musical with cameras where the audience used to be), they are reaching people whose opportunities to see the real thing are limited. Mary Martin’s Peter Pan was the first Broadway show my mother ever saw; the telecast was the first Broadway show I ever saw. Granted, Broadway has changed a lot since the 1950s and 1960s. But this much hasn’t changed: very, very few shows ever were so perfect that they were immune to criticism. People used to carp, and they still do. (Now we have the Internet to help us do it more widely.) But there’s always the chance — and, in the case of Peter Pan, this is especially true of young people like my mother and, later, like me — that a spark will catch, and that lasting impressions will be formed about a great American art form.

Mary Martin’s TV performance benefited from her having played the role onstage first.

Opinions do vary, but Peter Pan Live! improved greatly on Sound of Music’s foundation. Neither show is easy to stage, one requiring aerial acrobatics and the other requiring a balance between I-hurt-my-finger cutesy kids and singing nuns. Oh, and the Anschluss, too. SOM has superior music, but Pan is, or ought to be, simpler to get right. In both productions, Christian Borle proved himself an invaluable player, and this year, inheriting the show-saving duties of SOM’s Laura Benanti, we had Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling, who elicited my strongest emotional responses. The expression on O’Hara’s face when the kids came home? Worth the preceding three hours. Both of course are experienced stage actors with professional Broadway musical credits.

In Mary Martin’s time, TV still turned to the stars of New York theater to boost ratings. Nowadays Broadway is more likely to turn to TV or movie stars to boost ticket sales, and a lamentable number of Americans outside New York don’t know who O’Hara and Borle are. So we arrive at Christopher Walken as Captain Hook. He may not have brought as many eyeballs to the TV set as Carrie Underwood did last year, but he generated a great deal of anticipation, as we all reminded ourselves that, yes, he’s a dancer, too. In the event, he did bring exactly what was expected of him: an eccentric performance that nobody but Christopher Walken could deliver. He’s Christopher Walken. This is what he does. It’s his brand. And remember, he’s 71 years old. You were expecting him to play Hook, or sing and dance, the way Nick Jonas would?

Presumably for Walken, the producers removed “Mysterious Lady” and beefed up Hook’s role with additional musical material from Jule Styne’s trunk, with fresh lyrics by Amanda Green, my friend and the daughter of one of the original lyricists, Adolph Green. The new songs had character and, if less operetta-ish than Hook’s other numbers, seemed close enough kin to the songs that traditionally belong in Pan. But they did prolong the evening and throw off dramatic pacing — a problem. (And speaking of pacing, does anybody else remember the good old days, when advertisers reduced the number of commercials they ran during extra-special, “event” programs like this one?)

All singin’! All dancin’! All Walken!

Watching the show, it was clear that director Rob Ashford had instructed all the actors, including Walken, to work small for the TV cameras. Since none of them (unlike Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard) had ever played these roles before an audience, we lost much of the show’s theatricality and the potential for larger-than-life personalities that win us over. With that context in mind, Allison Williams’ background as a TV, not a theater, actor didn’t matter so much, and mostly she did a terrific job: she’s got a lovely voice, she’s certainly attractive, and she dug deeper into the character than Mary Martin did (or needed to). Taylor Louderman as Wendy and the little boys playing Michael and John were charming and unaffected. Alanna Saunders as Tiger Lily provided fierce dignity that suited the character’s revised personality.

Ultimately, what didn’t work stemmed from a series of miscalculations. James M. Barrie derived the source play from playtime — that is, from observing and participating in the games and from listening to the stories of his young friends, the Llewellyn Davies brothers. Sure, there’s a lot of English pantomime tradition involved, too, but everything theatrically distinctive about Peter Pan derives from children’s games of “let’s pretend”: magical powers, pirates and swordfights, Indians and pow wows, playing house and obliging the only girl to play mother — and above all, flying. Not all that different from the games that kids still play today, in those rare moments when they’re on the playground or in the yard, instead of Krazy Glued to some screen. The intensity of a child’s belief in “let’s pretend” facilitates belief: that that a woman in tights is a ten-year-old boy, that a pinpoint spotlight is a fairy, and that clapping will save that fairy’s life.

When you believe in Peter Pan, you look beyond, and at best you don’t even see the wires that hold the actors aloft. (Only when I grew up did I notice Mary Martin’s wires.) Peter and the Darlings are dancing on air, doing what every child dreams of. Ashford’s decision to make the set environmental — with décor everywhere the actors turned — constrained the joyous soaring swoops of previous Pans across the proscenium and TV screen. Williams and the kids twirled in close quarters instead, and (if comments on the Internet are any indication) viewers focused on the wires, not even on the miniature London below them or on the lavishly colored island ahead. They barely took notice of the flight itself.

Lost Boys, lost opportunities.

Thus the decision to cast grown men (or nearly so) as the Lost Boys proved fatal. Sure, it was easier to choreograph their numbers, because their bodies are mature and they’ve had years of training. And cute and/or hunky chorus boys have their appeal. But gay men and straight women are only part of the target audience here. Eye candy and fancier dancing came at the expense of Peter Pan’s most potent magic: in every good incarnation, from Maud Adams to Cathy Rigby, the play has always made children think, “What fun! I want to play like that! I want to fly! This magic can be mine.”* Jerome Robbins, who first staged this musical Pan, understood that casting young children as the Lost Boys was vitally necessary. Most of us knew in our hearts that we’d never be Peter. But we’d willingly settle for being Tootles.

Peter Pan contains some pretty serious themes. Reconciling the Scary Father with the Good Father (a message muddled in this production, where Borle’s Mr. Darling turned into Smee instead of Hook). The perils of young love, and the paradigm of sensible girls who fall for irresponsible boys. The moment when a woman lets go of her first love, and steps aside for a new generation to discover love. While we may not understand these things at first, they stick with us into adulthood. But if you can’t deliver the magic, you can’t deliver the message.

This isn’t to say that Peter Pan Live! lacked magic entirely, and in that sense, the most important review came from little Iain, the six-year-old Internet sensation. He wore Peter Pan pajamas and stayed up past his bedtime to watch. He liked the show. He clapped. He believed. And that’s what matters.

Again, that’s why it’s important that television keep attempting these live broadcasts — and that they keep trying to do them better. The place to start isn’t hedging your bets with stunt casting or ever-fancier sets or vast blankets of advance publicity, and it’s probably not in #savetinkerbell. The place to start is in believing in the worth of the individual show and in the power of the Broadway musical itself.

*NOTE: Rewriting the lyrics to “Ugg-a-wugg” may make it easier for children of Native American descent to enjoy the exuberantly playful spirit of that number. Why exclude them even a little from the pleasures other children have found in this show? Amanda did a terrific job.

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07 December 2014

Progress Report 23: Realities

This is no dream! This is really happening!
The physical, book-shaped object,
photographed by Jeffrey Kahn.

Just in time for Christmas shopping, it’s — a Mothers Day gift! Though Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life won’t be released until May, the book is now listed in the catalogue for the University Press of Mississippi, which I hope all independent brick-and-mortar bookstores will scrutinize closely. Being the Music is also available now for pre-order (at a highly attractive discount price) on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble sites. To my gratified surprise, the first week on Amazon we ranked among the Top Five theater biographies, presumably alongside such august tomes as John Lahr’s new biography of Tennessee Williams. I promise not to take it personally if you decide to wait a bit to pre-order, to drive up the ranking when we’re closer to the release date.

Being the Music in the University Press
of Mississippi catalogue.

Given Madeline’s often difficult relationship with her mother, I advise you to reflect a bit before you offer Being the Music as a gift to your own mother. Is she likely to read into the book some unintended messages about your relationship? Will she identify more closely with parent or with child in this story? Is she a Madeline Kahn fan to begin with? Does she have a crush on Gene Wilder, or is she more the type who fancies Kevin Kline? These are serious questions.

Write out your answers on a slip of paper and contemplate them, weighing the pros and cons. Then go ahead and buy the book. Thank you. (And seriously, it’s at the top of my mom’s wish list. So, really, you can’t go wrong.)

Being the Music has now been typeset, and a few select individuals received copies of the bound galley proofs. This means that the book is now a tangible physical object that casts shadows. To make the moment even sweeter, I can’t help noticing that it is also book-shaped. Somehow I always believed that this day would come, and yet now, after six and a half years, I want to pinch myself. After all, I didn’t get my own copy of the bound proofs. But Madeline’s brother — her de facto archivist — did, and he sent me the picture that’s posted here. He’s a very honest fellow. So it must be real.

Barnes & Noble’s page for Being the Music.

The curious thing is that, now that I’ve proofread the typeset pages, I’ll never again change a word of this book. I’ve lived in dread that new information would come in at the last minute — and of course it has, because why would the final phases of the process be any different from all the phases that came before? But from this point forward, I’ll have to report my findings here, and not between the covers of Being the Music.

Madeline died 15 years ago December 3. She worked with everybody from Leonard Bernstein to the Muppets, and she touched many lives, very much including my own. I tried not to make a big deal about the anniversary — didn’t mention it on The Authorized Biography of Madeline Kahn page on Facebook, for example — because for the most part, my purpose is to celebrate her life, not her death.

For the most part. But not entirely.

Amazon’s page for Being the Music.

Because I do have another purpose. Especially after writing this book, I’m angry that I never got the chance to meet Madeline. Angry that she never got the chance to know how many people loved her, though she’d never met them. Angry that we’ll never get the chance to see what she’d have been doing when she was 72 years old. Angry that the disease that killed her is still taking its toll, and that there’s still so little we can do.

That’s why it’s important to do what we can do, and to support the organization that Madeline herself endorsed, the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. If you’ve got the inclination and the budget, in this season of giving, then I hope you’ll remember the OCRF.

The book is real at last. But the cause is more important.

A copy of the program from Madeline’s memorial.

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