28 February 2015

Leonard Nimoy

“I have been and always shall be your friend.”

Growing up, my brother and I divided everything, much as Spain and Portugal once divided the globe between them. He got blue, I got red. He got Mickey Mouse, I got Donald Duck. And when we got older, he got Mr. Spock, I got Dr. McCoy. I’m not complaining: Donald and McCoy suited me. And yet since learning yesterday of the death of Leonard Nimoy, I’ve been on the brink of highly illogical tears.

Nimoy’s Spock was a grand creation, “the most human” soul in the universe, as Kirk once said, able to withstand the vagaries of scriptwriting and special effects, rising to the loftiest rank of popular culture. When I was a boy, I saw mostly Spock’s devotion to science — another of my brother’s territories — and his steely resistance to human emotion. I rather liked emotion, and I still do. So I wound up with McCoy.

Yet looking at Spock now, I see something else. Quite a number of people, including the President of the United States, talk about how Spock was different, an alien among earthlings on the Enterprise and a half-human among Vulcans. Yet Spock chose his sides: he held himself to the Vulcan standard. And he failed.

Spock’s failures were glorious to witness. Logic didn’t dictate that he snipe at McCoy, but wasn’t it fun when he did? When spores, or pon farr, or mind control, or some other force broke down his defenses, Spock fell in love or raging lust, he laughed and cried. Emotions were uncomfortable for him, and yet Nimoy made us see that Spock always felt them, that he had to work to keep them down, and that he was terribly lonely as a result.

Somehow he found friends who understood what he felt for them, who recognized what a tremendous gift Spock’s love must be. It took Dr. McCoy longer to realize this — we recall with fondness Bones’ “who, me?” reaction in “Amok Time,” when Spock invites him to be a best man at his wedding. Later, in Star Trek II and the most significant of all mind-melds, we also saw that, in the irascible old country doctor, Spock chose the right vessel for his “most human” soul.

Kirk knew from the beginning that Spock’s deepest feelings were reserved for him alone. It’s not terribly surprising that slash fiction as a genre developed from this relationship, a friendship so loving and so rare that some people can hardly understand it without sexualizing it somehow. That’s a shame.

Star Trek brought my brother and me together at an age when we shared less and less. It also brought us into a circle of friends — oddballs like us, too smart for our own good, too stubborn to fit in with other kids. For earlier viewers of the show, Star Trek presented a vision of a hopeful future, primarily because the Earth hadn’t been destroyed in a nuclear war, and because the bridge was peopled with a black woman, an Asian man, and a resolutely Soviet-style Russian.

For our little gang, though, I believe hope sprang from a different source: the idea that, some day in the future, we would be valued, not bullied, for our intelligence. We would find friends. We would explore the galaxy. We would live out our adventures — as a crew. Just the way we used to pile into a van to attend Star Trek conventions. Maybe we looked silly, but that was only the beginning of our voyages. We were certain of it.

My brother wanted to be so very much like Spock, and in failing, he has succeeded. He feels so deeply that nothing, not science, not logic, not any remedy at all can suppress his emotions — whether he shows them or not. Spock might not approve, but he’d understand.

I might have understood, too, a little sooner, if I’d taken the time to analyze my brother. But teenage boys are not tricorders. It took me years to see that Spock really does live in my brother. There’s beauty in that.

So I’m grieving today. For Spock and the actor who played him. For the boys we are no more, for the timeworn friendships we made and the vanished dreams we shared. For the sense that the future would always be infinite.

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17 February 2015

‘Fifty Shades’ May Lead to Unreasonable Expectations, Experts Say

Ceci n’est pas un ménage à trois.

Given Fifty Shades of Grey’s potent surge at the box office over the Valentine’s weekend, many experts now worry about the movie’s influence on younger audiences. Based on a best-selling series of novels by E.L. James, in turn inspired by Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight books, Fifty Shades depicts a dominant/submissive relationship between wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and naïve Anastasia “Ana” Steel (Dakota Johnson) that could lead to unreasonable expectations for viewers in their late teens and early 20s.

“Young people really don’t have the experience to process what they’re seeing,” said Dr. Ima Lippbiter, distinguished professor at Starfleet Christian Academy and author of The Pon Farr Diaries. “They don’t have the kinds of relationships with fan fiction to understand that what happens between Christian and Ana is very, very rare, starting with the fact that these characters are heterosexual.”

Edward and Bella, the Twilight characters on whom Christian and Ana are based, are also heterosexual, Lippbiter says, “and the result is that young people watching the films may try to duplicate these kinds of relationships in their own lives. I can’t underscore enough what a danger that is, and what kind of impact it can have on their reading habits of fan fiction.”

Where no man has gone before.

Lippbiter’s principal characters, Kirk and Spock of Star Trek, express their feelings for each other every seven years, when Spock is unable to find a female during his Vulcan mating period, or “pon farr.” “In other circumstances, Kirk and Spock may engage in heterosexual behavior, but that’s really not the norm in fan fiction,” observes Polly Grangerford-Wilks, a fan-fiction author specializing in “Huck/Jim” stories.

Elements of titillation and illicit love play an important role in fan fiction, Grangerford-Wilks says, which is why she finds Fifty Shades so troubling. “A man dominating a woman, you see that all the time in source fiction,” she says, “at least, in the source fiction that has any women characters at all. So where’s the drama? Where’s the taboo-breaking that’s at the heart of erotic fan fiction?”

Also, more paraffin, please.
(I found this picture with the writing already on it, honest.)

If E.L. James had written about a dom/sub relationship between characters based on Edward and Jacob, “that would be worth reading,” Arwen Meriadoc agrees. She bases her work on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and she believes she knows what women readers want. “I mean, if you had Edward stripping Jacob, tying him up, and dripping hot wax across his bare chest, for example, then slowly dripping the wax down the narrow, trembling valley between his clenched abdominal muscles, and then — I’m sorry, I forgot what I was saying.”

“We treat these books and movies as if they’re somehow okay for young people,” says Lippbiter, “as if they’re unlikely to have any effect on their attitudes — at home and for the rest of their lives. But what is the message young people are going to take away from Fifty Shades? If they expect all erotic fan fiction to be like this, they’ll be bitterly disillusioned.”

Lippbiter is now exploring Arthur/Bedivere fiction based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Grangerford-Wilks’ most recent Huck/Finn story, “Call Me Honey, and Pet Me,” is currently ranked at #135,930,0137 on Amazon. Meriadoc’s latest novel, My Precious: The Forbidden Passion of Frodo and Gollum, will be released next month. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, an Atticus/Scout story, is expected in July.

Is that a ring in its pocketses,
or is it just happy to see me?

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12 February 2015

Interview: Ryan Mercy & Christopher Barnes on Unauthorized! The Musical Parody

The (extremely) creative team: Barnes & Mercy

Watching That ’80s Time Travel Movie, the premiere production in the Unauthorized! Musical Parody series at New York’s People’s Improv Theater last fall, I’d never have guessed that the show had been written, cast, rehearsed and produced in barely one month — for one night only. From the polished young cast to the infectious score to the ingenious staging, I had every reason to believe I’d wandered into an Off-Broadway hit that had been running at least three months. Subsequent shows — Steel Petunias and Ghostcatchers, likewise written and produced in just a month each — confirmed my impression. Sure, you gotta get a gimmick, but this wasn’t mere gimmickry. Something special was going on here. Cheering audiences and a sold-out box office obviously agreed with me.

As of last Friday, the Unauthorized! shows have begun playing in repertory at the PIT, with new shows slated to enter the cycle over the next several months. Each will parody a beloved Hollywood movie, each will be assembled in about five weeks, most are expected to feature what’s become an ad-hoc rep company of actors, and all are written by composer Ryan Mercy and lyricist Christopher Barnes, who also directs, and produced by Ronny Pascale.

“We’re calling it musical-theater boot camp,” Mercy says, and Barnes agrees. “We just watched the Sondheim documentary [Six by Sondheim], and he said the way you learn is to write something, then put it up,” Barnes says. With other original material, they’d been through workshops; valuable though those experiences were, they culminated in readings, not fully staged productions. Lacking high-profile connections, Mercy and Barnes had begun to despair of ever getting their big break. Now they’re refining their artistic goals and discovering what does and doesn’t work for an audience.

Because that audience votes on the source material for the next show, Barnes compares the experience to TV’s Project Runway, “because these aren’t shows we would have wanted to write, and yet we’re finding our voices and finding our passion. It’s like, ‘Okay, show writers, this week you have to write Ghostbusters, make it work.’”

All-singing! All-dancing! All-time-traveling!
The cast of That ’80s Time Travel Movie

That said, the team hedges its bets a little by proposing movies they actually like for the audience to vote on. Their affection for the material shows. After That ’80s Time Travel Movie, Barnes remembers, “one compliment we got was that there was nothing mean about what we did. I think it’s because we love the movie. We try to basically take what we love about a movie and put it on the stage.”

Given the extraordinary proliferation of movie-based musicals on New York stages in recent years — when even documentaries like Grey Gardens and Hands on a Hardbody wind up (brilliantly) on Broadway — the practice Mercy and Barnes are getting at the PIT could come in handy, and it was Pascale who suggested they give movie parodies a try. “I don’t think we ever watch a movie without thinking, ‘Oh, that should be a musical,’” Barnes says, and Mercy adds, “I think a painter paints and we write musicals. We’re always thinking in the vocabulary of musical theater. It’s in our blood.”

Each show has posed its own challenges. That ’80s Time Travel Movie not only brings a DeLorean to the stage, it turns the car into a singing, dancing character. Ghostcatchers raised the thorny questions of how to spoof a spoof, and how to make a musical out of a story in which the characters don’t experience emotions “too strong to express in words,” Mercy says. “It was up to us to find moments where there was enough dramatic tension for a song to erupt.”

Steel Magnolias contains one obvious moment for a song: M’Lynn’s emotional breakdown at the funeral of her daughter, Shelby. The scene earned Sally Field an Oscar nomination, but the Unauthorized! team was “terrified that the audience wouldn’t go to that sad place after all that silliness,” Barnes says. They were prepared to cut the number if it didn’t work in performance. But on opening night, there was scarcely a dry eye in an audience that, seconds earlier, had been howling at the catty comedy and Southern-fried parody scenes.

“It’s surprising when people say, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see how you make fun of Sally Field in her breakdown.’ For us, that’s too easy,” Mercy says. “Why would we make fun of that? Why would we be negative about a scene in classic cinema? We want to put our own stamp on it. Without plagiarizing!”

Shelby, drink your juice!
The women of Steel Petunias

Revisiting their scripts in preparation for the repertory revivals, the authors are making improvements. Steel Petunias ran long, and “for the first run, we just threw everything to the wall to see what would stick,” Mercy admits. “We flailed a little bit to figure out song moments for that one, but now I’m very confident that every song in that show is necessary and a good choice.” “I do believe that anybody who saw the first two-and-a-half-hour show, if they were a Steel Magnolias fan, they got a good show,” Barnes says. “But now we’ve got it where anybody can enjoy it.”*

They’re learning that “What makes the show is what’s necessary,” not what they think audiences will expect from a popular film. “We try to basically take what we love about a movie and put it on the stage,” Barnes says, and that approach involves less outright mockery and more “heightening,” as he and Mercy call it. For example, when their Marty McFly realizes that his mother is coming on to him, he’s not merely freaked out, he nearly throws up, ulping steadily for an entire scene. Mercy’s music steers the audience to the right response to a given scene, too, whether it’s Doc Brown’s rap number or M’Lynn’s extended scena.

It helps to have talented actors to put across their material. Barnes and Mercy were bartenders at the PIT, not bigshots, yet when they posted the audition for That ’80s Time Travel Movie, they fielded what Barnes calls “an all-star cast, right from the start,” and many have returned for more than one show. Most have a background in improv and sketch comedy, which proves a boon in several ways. Since most cast members are working on multiple shows simultaneously, rehearsal time is limited and plenary attendance is rare. Quick wits can cover a flubbed line in ways the audience will never notice (one reason I could believe they’d been performing the play for months); and sketch actors can take a line of direction like “stand there,” and “make it look like it makes sense,” Barnes says, “which is crazy.”

The actors are “also calm in a way that’s really nice,” Mercy says. “We’re the ones who freak out about our timeline, and they’re so used to putting on a show in three days that they’re like, ‘Oh, relax, we’ve got plenty of time.’” Moreover, cast member Adrian Sexton marvels, “Everybody likes each other, everybody gets along.”

Let’s hope I’m not jinxing anything by publishing that. It’s a team of champions and I hate to single out anybody — but so far I’ve been especially impressed by the versatility shown in multiple roles by Sexton, Kathleen Armenti, Julie Feltman, Dana Shulman, Jane Kehoe, Brian Hansbury, Aubrey Kyburz, Daniel Yawitz, and Kevin Sean, all of whom seem capable of fielding anything Mercy and Barnes throw their way. Though Matt Rogers, Stephanie Holmes, Pat Swearingen, Rachel Scherer, Jeff Scherer, and Kevin McLean haven’t appeared in quite as many roles, I’ve also found much to admire in their performances.

They fear no ghosts. Not even ghosts of critics.
The cast of Ghostcatchers.

Partners outside as well as inside the theater, Mercy and Barnes have had to learn to collaborate with others and to delegate. “We are control freaks,” Mercy says, “but we’re also on an insanely tight schedule, so it’s hard to outsource.” When Julia Darden offered to build several of the puppets for Ghostcatchers, Barnes “was fully prepared mentally to have to redo those puppets the night before the show,” he says. “But she did it in time, and they looked amazing.” Having proved herself with Steel Petunias, Shongedzai Matangira is “pretty much our go-to costume person now,” and she’s also played a lead role in Ghostcatchers and taken on some publicity duties, as well.

Perhaps their most valued collaborator is Christine Pynn. “Her title is production manager,” Mercy explains. “But really what she does for us is make sure the tech aspects of the show run smoothly.” Despite the limited lighting options, “She can do some amazing stuff from that booth,” Barnes observes, and the actors adore her.

Oh, and about those puppets. They’re part of Barnes’ translations of the movies’ special effects to the stage, using tricks that he calls “cheesy” or “geeky-dorky” but that bespeak his background in magic and are often breathtaking in their imagination. The DeLorean is one example, and the flaming tracks it leaves behind are another. The beloved Slimer of Ghostbusters is here a glorious glob of a slob made out of insulation foam and green paint. Steel Magnolias may not have had special effects, but Steel Petunias does, most notably a 15-foot-tall devil made out of old scripts and packing tape. (See photo below.)

There’s method in that magic. “When we saw Xanadu on Broadway, it was fun,” Barnes says, and like the Unauthorized! shows, Xanadu parodied a movie. “But I thought, ‘Why did I pay Broadway prices and there’s no spectacle, no giant disco ball?’”

“I would say Chris is a new generation P.T. Barnum,” Mercy adds. “I think he’s a showman before anything else. That’s where the magic background plays into it. If we’re going to put you in a room for an hour and a half, we want to give you a show that’s something you’re going to talk about.”

To learn more about Unauthorized! and upcoming performances, check Facebook or Instagram. You can also see the PIT’s complete roster of performances by clicking here.

Satan in the Bible Belt:
A scene from Steel Petunias.

*NOTE: I’m not at all a Steel Magnolias fan, yet I found Steel Petunias perfectly entertaining the first time around — and I’m looking forward to the revival.

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Bob Simon

Strange are the ways of fate, or at least it seems that way when you look at the news these days. Just when everybody is getting excited (or nervous, or worried) about the rediscovery and promised publication of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman and the return of Atticus and Scout — just when the movie Selma reminds us how arduous was the struggle for civil rights — comes State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore to remind us how little progress some Alabamians have made since — well, ever, really.

And just when everybody is talking about Brian Williams’ exaggerated claims about his wartime reporting and their impact on his career, Bob Simon dies.

A longtime CBS News correspondent, Bob didn’t have to lie about the many times he risked his life to report the news — though really his only extended remarks on the subject are contained in Forty Days, his account of captivity in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the first Gulf War. In that case, he explained, capturing the story was his way of getting back at his captors. Beyond that, he didn’t go around trying to impress people.

He didn’t have to. He simply was impressive, just standing there. Easily one of the most cultivated and intelligent people ever to work for CBS News, Bob was “old school” in the best ways, as close to the second coming of Charles Collingwood as we’re likely to get. A fine writer, a tough questioner, an authentically courageous field reporter and a true scholar, and surely the only guy in the newsroom who loved French culture as much as I did. A kind of grace possessed him. You wanted to have dinner with him (something I did on occasion), just to hear what he had to say.

Hard to believe he was 73 — no matter how much experience he crammed into his life. Harder still to believe that, after so many more-perilous scrapes, from Vietnam to Nablus, something as mundane as a car crash could end that life.

It’s 15 years since I worked in television news, and I admit that I don’t watch much TV any more. Yet when I look, I don’t see the like of Bob Simon. I never did. And so, as we fret about the future of American journalism, we have one more thing to worry about. Bob Simon is gone, with no heir in sight.

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11 February 2015

Be Honest. You Really Need Madeline Kahn Valentine Cards, Don’t You?

Throughout her career as an actress, Madeline Kahn explored almost all the many facets of love. That’s one reason I’ve written her biography, Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life, coming May 1 from University Press of Mississippi (available for pre-order from Amazon and Barnes & Noble at an attractive discount price). And it’s also why we recall Madeline so fondly at this time of year, and why I spent, oh, painstaking hours to craft these Valentine’s, at least one of which is sure to be perfect for anybody on your list. Click to enlarge, and all that — and happy Valentine’s Day!

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10 February 2015

Brian Williams to Audition for ‘Daily Show’ Job

NEW YORK -- Ending three agonizing days of self-imposed exile, NBC News anchor Brian Williams this evening faced television cameras once again to answer questions about his veracity in reports about the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina.

“They were jokes, people,” Williams explained. “I’m a comedian, not a journalist. Give me a break.” He added that his wife finds his stories “very funny.”

Often praised by critics for his quick wit, Williams is expected to audition to replace Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s faux newscast, The Daily Show, receiving encouragement from Stewart himself.

“Put it all together, and nobody can match Brian’s kind of experience,” Stewart said. “He’d make a worthy successor.”

In addition to Williams’ self-aggrandizing anecdotes, claims that his daughter can sing and dance have been challenged widely.

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01 February 2015

Jane Austen’s Life of Peggy Lee

On simultaneously reading James Gavin’s Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.


It being agreed among the party, that no other occupation would compare with the pleasure of hearing Miss Lee sing, the carriages were called for, and set out from Hedgerowe House at seven o’clock, amidst great excitement of anticipation. Only Mr. Thompson dissented, for though he could not dispute Miss Lee’s excellence as a singer, “but however, should the present entertainment in any way resemble that of her Broadway show, Peg, then we must prepare ourselves for a considerable discouragement.”

The evening was fine, but the road to 28th Street was long, and the party had occasion to reflect upon Miss Lee’s peculiarities, and to wonder whether, this evening, she would rise from her chaise longue or remain there as she sang. “It is a most excellent quality in a lady,” declared Miss Wallace, “that she should never raise her voice; in that, I think, we may all look to Miss Lee for an example.”

Reports of Miss Lee’s health, having disturbed Mr. Bennett, however, he expressed the intention, to share with her the most excellent physic, which he had got in Palm Beach the previous spring, “for there is nothing, you may mark my words, that cannot be cured with physic and exercise, such as riding, if the mount be as sound as my good roan, that is the admiration of the county; and I have heard, that Miss Lee will never leave her room all day before sundown, if then. An excess of repose is unwise.”

“I am quite sure that Miss Lee must be in want of a husband,” said Lady Randall, “for she has only three thousand a year, and such is her character, that she must have a new gown, whenever she steps out; and though the colours never vary from white to peach to pink, she has by now a great quantity. For my part, I shall tell her that a muslin frock should be most becoming, and not at all dear, with only a turban and a few feathers, or a hat; for the number of gentlemen, possessing twenty thousand a year and inclined to seek her hand, cannot at this moment be plentiful, else she would be married already.” But Louisa declared Miss Lee’s prospects a subject worthy of no regard whatever, and returned to her tambour; and Lord Randall cared only whether Miss Lee would sing “Fever” again.

Mr. Dawson’s Ballroom had never looked so gay as it did this evening, they agreed upon entering it, its narrow grey walls presenting an aspect, that must provoke the admiration of anyone, whose opinions on music, or on the cut of another woman’s frock, are strong. Yet Mrs. Collins did, with a sigh, regret the Empire Room, where the party had met so many times in the past; and “she did not wonder that Miss Lee will not at any cost remove her sunglasses, for she cannot care at all for the view, when she looks out upon the present Ballroom and recalls the former Empire.”

A servant informing them, of there being no madeira, nor even any claret, at the ready, the party generally agreed upon gin and tonics, and for Miss Julia Bennett, a Harvey Wallbanger; and awaited Miss Lee’s arrival.

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