18 December 2017

Catching Up With: Adamo’s ‘Becoming Santa Claus’

Foreground: Rivera, Boehler, Blalock; background: Plitmann, a bit of Jameson, Burdette.

It’s usually the case that new operas require a second hearing from me: I can’t absorb all the music at once, and sometimes I can’t even be sure what I think of a work overall. This was especially true of David T. Little’s Dog Days, which I admired extravagantly and yet didn’t fully appreciate until I’d heard it several times. (Who knows? Maybe I still don’t fully appreciate it. I’d better keep listening to find out!)

As I’ve written here, I required a few hearings of Mark Adamo’s first opera, Little Women, before I could separate what Mark actually wrote from what I expected. Unpredictability is an asset, and who knows whether I could have enjoyed so many performances — and a recording — of this opera over the years, if it actually had been the sound I originally anticipated? Mark is smarter about these things than I could ever be.

A company in Texas, Houston Grand Opera, produced the first performances of Little Women, and I first saw it not in the opera house but in a New York City hotel room, where the company had arranged a special screening of the video, for those critics and writers unable to watch the television premiere. Somewhat similarly, another company in Texas, The Dallas Opera, produced another premiere of an opera by Mark Adamo, Becoming Santa Claus, and I first saw that at a special screening of a live performance that was simulcast in New York. Now a DVD of Becoming Santa Claus has been released, and I’ll have the opportunity to hear it and see it often — and I expect that I’ll want to. (I’ll also want to see a live performance in a theater one of these days. Opera companies, take note.)

Jonathan Blalock as Claus.

From the start of the overture, Mark makes clear that, while this is a “family opera” (as marketers like to call them), he refuses to talk down to child audiences. This is sophisticated musical writing, intriguingly scored — and in that respect it’s no different from Mark’s other work. He never lets the listener grow complacent; he always has a surprise up his sleeve. Consider the Toy Sequence in Scene Two, where the Elves’ quartet “will extend as far outside traditional operatic technique as taste and [the singers’] ability will permit,” Mark advises, aiming to include “jazz improvisation, rap, and/or quasi-percussive choral utterance.” For all the score’s ambition, however, it remains accessible — something that became clearer to me the second time I heard it, at a private screening of the DVD in New York.

Becoming Santa Claus is, like Mark’s other operas, designed to permit extraordinary performances from its cast. It’s also great fun. That Toy Sequence features some of the worst, ugliest toys you’ve ever seen. (Think of the Misfit Toys in Rudolph, then imagine even more catastrophic failures.) The bridge between Scenes Two and Three is an orchestral interlude that features a hilarious computer-animated sequence — which also recalls the film sequence in Berg’s Lulu (not hilarious) in its innovation and placement. In the finale, a handbell chorus of children emerges from the audience, and as charming as the Sensurround jingling is on DVD, it must have been thrilling to experience in the house. (And it’s a great way to involve the community at large.)

Mark’s libretto isn’t entirely secular — he hasn’t scrubbed away “the reason for the season” as other origin stories, such as Rankin/Bass’ Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, do — and yet it treats religion lightly. More important are the relationships among the characters. The plot centers on Prince Claus, a spoiled brat whose parents, the King and Queen of frozen Nifland, have separated. Claus is looking forward to his thirteenth birthday — a celebration so lavish that the court servants, the Elves, haven’t had a day off in three years. But Claus’ uncles won’t be attending the party: a Donkey–Messenger announces that, instead, the three Kings are following a Star and will be giving presents to some other Child, who has just been born.

Declaring frankincense, gold, and myrrh to be unsuitable gifts for a baby, Claus decides to outdo his uncles, and instructs the Elves to make the best presents in the world, and lots of them. But then comes the question of how to deliver them. By the time Claus gets to the stable, Mother and Child have left already. Claus understands the difference between presents and presence, that it’s more important to be with someone than to give them fancy goods. He learns a lesson about himself, about family — and figures out what to do with all the presents that are piled up in his sleigh.

Who wouldn’t want a gigantic dancing Sham-Wow for Christmas?
Jameson, Plitmann, Burdette, Schauffer, and the toys.

For the world premiere, Emmanuel Villaume conducted with his customary deftness and attention to instrumental detail; I’ve admired his work many times, yet I think believe is the first time I’ve heard him in contemporary rep. And the company assembled a dream cast, with Jennifer Rivera as a delectably glamorous Queen Sophine; sonorous Matt Boehler as the Donkey–Messenger (with a secret); and an all-star assemblage of Elves: sky-high soprano Hila Plitmann (Yan), mezzo Lucy Schaufer (Ib), tenor Keith Jameson (Yab), and bass Kevin Burdette, having some fun after Dallas Opera’s previous world premiere, Jake Heggie’s Great Scott, just a few weeks before.* When you recall that some children in the audience probably never heard an opera before, you have to believe that surprise and delight ran rampant when the kids heard the range of things the human voice can do.

Jonathan Blalock stepped into the title role on short notice, yet it’s hard for a viewer to believe anyone else was ever considered. His clean, bright tenor voice displays an absolute command of the challenging score, he’s an affecting actor as always, and he looks gorgeous in Gary McGann’s costumes. You can be sure that dozens of little girls got crushes on him when they saw this opera.

McGann also designed the sets, with touches of Art Nouveau inspiration that recall (for this viewer, anyway) another Santa Claus origin story, the novel by L. Frank Baum. Sets and costumes are sumptuous, imaginative, and (like the rest of this opera) often great fun. (Those toys! Those dancing tables!) McGann’s work is one more reason to be grateful that this production was recorded on video, so that we can see not only how beautiful the designs are, but also how beautifully they functioned in the service of Paul Curran’s staging. Really, Curran couldn’t have done a better job of overseeing a production that shows off this opera to its best advantage; the physicality of the Elves and Queen Sophine, for example, is thoroughly thought out, and it shines brightly.

Need I point out that the DVD would make a great Christmas present?

Mark Adamo.

*NOTE: Mark has devised names for the Elves like the names of no elves you’ve heard before, as if they’re some extraterrestrial language.

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24 November 2017

Catching Up With: Jane Alexander

Never lovelier.

NOTE: This is the first of what I expect to be several essays on topics that I should have been writing about on a regular basis, over the past several months.

Writing Madeline Kahn’s biography gave me the opportunity to meet, speak, and/or correspond with a number of people whose work I already admired — as well as coming to admire many of Madeline’s other colleagues, with whose work I had been unfamiliar. In the former category are of course great comedians such as Mel Brooks, Robert Klein, and Lily Tomlin, but also some Great American Actors who worked with Madeline onstage. In the past several months, I’ve seen both Jane Alexander and Kevin Kline return to the boards, offering welcome reminders that, no matter how they excel onscreen, they’re authentic theater animals.

Jane Alexander’s theater background helped me considerably the first time we spoke. When conducting a phone interview, I usually type while talking, transcribing the conversation immediately. Of all those interviews, only Jane Alexander did I trust to put on speaker phone: her diction is so flawless that, even over my crummy cell phone, every word rang clear. Over the course of her career, she’s performed in more than 100 plays (according to her bio in the playbill), so when I heard that she was rehearsing a new play at the Long Wharf in New Haven, I determined to go — little realizing that the play, Matthew Barber’s Fireflies — is set in South Texas, about 30 miles from my mother’s hometown.

I felt as if I were eavesdropping on the neighbors. Based on Annette Sanford’s novel Eleanor & Abel, Fireflies is a slight, sweet tale of a retired schoolteacher taking a late-in-life chance on love. The object of her affection is unlikely, and indeed she finds herself doing all sorts of things that don’t conform to her pre-existing patterns of behavior — even while she is true to herself, perhaps for the first time.

Kitchen-sink zaniness: Alexander and Ivey.

If the play struck me as having more resonance than it actually possesses or deserves, that may be because I saw it at a matinée, where, as the woman sitting next to me observed, I was probably the youngest person in the room. For the people around me, the play’s message — it’s never too late — was as meaningful as it was welcome. And as Jane Alexander flaunted her lustrous silver mane and her character repeatedly told us she’d begun using a new hair product that made her look so good, I contemplated my own grizzled locks and wondered where in the hell I could buy such a product. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

Fireflies called upon both the character and the actress who played her to take chances and to reach beyond our expectations. When discussing Madeline Kahn’s performance opposite her in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, Jane Alexander remarked to me that she’s better known as a serious dramatic actress than as a comedian. One can excuse the people who cast her: when an actress is capable of her kind of command and authority, why wouldn’t you take advantage of that? She’s done more than 100 plays, according to her program bio, so I can’t with any certainty claim that she’s never played scenes of such broad comedy. But I’ve never seen her do anything like what she did in Fireflies. I came to the Long Wharf expecting a reminder of her mastery of the stage, but what I got was a revelation.

At the very least, Fireflies represented a change of pace for her. With the incomparable Judith Ivey playing Eleanor’s neighbor and best friend, the play at times approached the style of a more realistic, grounded I Love Lucy — kitchen-sink zaniness, if you will. Yet stage director Gordon Edelstein also incorporated elements of fantasy (dinosaurs, planetariums) and maintained the play’s emotional foundations with great skill, and he knew how to make certain that every audience member walked out with the lasting image of Jane Alexander dancing in her nightgown. I’ve never seen her lovelier than she was here.

In the Long Wharf lobby, paperback copies of Alexander’s most recent book were on sale, and I bought one — having already shared my hardback copies with friends. Wild Things, Wild Places is unlike any actress’ memoir that came before it, an account of Alexander’s many trips around the world to conduct field research in conservation. She has been doing this without fanfare for more than 30 years. I confess that, when I first saw that she described herself as an “environmental activist,” I originally supposed that she’d signed a few petitions and attended a rally or two. I should have known better.

Of course Alexander engages — actively — in her environmental concerns, just as she committed, body and soul, to her political and arts activism by accepting the (phenomenally difficult) job of chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts during the Clinton administration, as well as by taking on roles in projects such as Testament and Playing for Time. Now I found herself wondering, when she imitated a dinosaur in Fireflies, which wilderness creatures inspired her performance.

The British make it so much easier than the Americans do to identify their Great Actors: the Queen has an honors list, after all, to recognize her subjects for their service to art and society. All we can do is remind one another that Jane Alexander is one of the greatest actors this country has ever produced.

It’s a lucky name for her: Alexander as Eleanor (Roosevelt), with Edward Herrmann as FDR.
This was my first glimpse of her, and I’ve admired her ever since.

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20 November 2017

Joyce Castle Toasts Bernstein, Janice Hall Forgoes Opera at Urban Stages

Lenny and Joyce during the first performance of Arias and Barcarolles.
With Michael Tilson Thomas also seated at the piano, and baritone John Brandstetter.

Joyce Castle captivated me from the minute we met, more than 30 years ago. Since then, I continually discover that she’s had that effect on other people, too, many of whom I admire in their own right. When I interviewed director Harold Prince, for example, we concluded our conversation with praise of Joyce — almost as if we were trying to one-up each other, or competing for the presidency of her fan club.

Leonard Bernstein thought highly of Joyce, too: at one rehearsal, the height-challenged composer was so delighted that he pulled up a chair and stood on it to kiss her. Joyce sang the first performance of his Arias and Barcarolles, and she won the hearts of New York audiences (and a Grammy Award) playing the Old Lady in his Candide at City Opera in the 1980s. Joyce has sung Bernstein’s music all over the world, easily embracing both his show tunes and his “classical” compositions. She’s got the musicianship — and, importantly, the sense of humor — to field anything Bernstein throws her way.

Bernstein’s centennial (officially in August 2018) is already being celebrated by orchestras and other musical groups around the country. When Urban Stages invited me to produce a show for its annual “Winter Rhythms” series, I thought it would be nice to stage a tribute now, before audiences are overloaded with his music. Naturally, I thought of Joyce. Would she be interested in making a “special guest star” appearance in a Bernstein tribute? “Why don’t I do the whole thing?” she replied.

And that is how Joyce Castle will be making her first New York appearance in more than six years, on December 16, at 7 pm, in LENNY! A Toast to Bernstein on the Eve of His Birthday. With her longtime collaborator Ted Taylor on piano, Joyce will share songs and stories, reminiscing about the composer — and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

A long way from Rovno Gubernia: Joyce as the Old Lady in São Paulo, with conductor Marin Alsop.

This year’s “Winter Rhythms” series features 22 shows in 12 days, to benefit Urban Stages’ remarkable educational and outreach programs. The series kicks off on December 12 with a tribute to composer and music director Barry Levitt, whose sudden death this fall hit the cabaret community hard: remembering him in song is the perfect celebration of a much-loved man. People are very excited about the tribute to Broadway book-writer Michael Stewart on December 18, featuring Chita Rivera, Jim Dale, and Charles Strouse. On December 21, there’s a concert performance of Stephen Cole and Matthew Martin Ward’s After the Fair, marking that show’s twentieth anniversary; and the series wraps up with a concert of Disney songs on December 23. Over the 12-day period, more than 100 artists will perform, a who’s who of New York’s musical scenes, and every year, producer Peter Napolitano makes sure there’s something for every musical taste. Click here for a complete listing and descriptions of all the shows.

Janice Hall draws on her own experiences from her operatic career.

I’m especially looking forward to Janice Hall’s “The Opera Show with No Opera” on December 16 at 3 pm. I first saw Janice in an opera, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, opposite Joyce Castle herself, and it was Janice who ushered me into the cabaret community. For this show, Janice will tell the stories of great operas — using songs by everybody from Billy Joel to the Smashing Pumpkins. “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. Just like at the opera,” Janice promises. Peter Napolitano directs, and Matthew Martin Ward is music director.

If you want to see both Joyce’s and Janice’s shows (and you do), you can get a discount by clicking here.

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16 November 2017

Adès’ ‘Exterminating Angel’ at the Met

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21 October 2017

The Case for a Recording of ‘Paul’s Case’

The original cast of Paul’s Case, in Kevin Newbury’s staging, with Jonathan Blalock in foreground.

Some operas stay with you. Some performances never leave you.

I had never read Willa Cather’s short story “Paul’s Case” before I read about Gregory Spears and Kathryn Walat’s operatic adaptation. The story is remarkable, poignant, chock-full of secrets and whispers. At its center is Paul, a young man who resembles the tenor Jonathan Blalock in every detail, to such a degree that you wonder what sort of time machine Cather used to visit our era and to meet Jonathan. She gets him, down to his mysterious smile. It’s as if Jonathan springs to life on her page.

I’ve had this sensation before, when reading Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir and seeing the actor Gérard Philipe in the central character of Julien Sorel. It was almost like fan fiction, as if Stendhal admired Philipe so much that he wrote a part especially for him. (Stendhal wasn’t above that sort of thing, I hasten to add.) Then one day I went to the cinéma, and there was Gérard Philipe playing Julien Sorel. The universe aligned, somehow. It was always necessary for Philipe to play this character, and then he did.

Seeing the opera at its New York premiere, part of the Prototype Festival, in 2014, I discovered that the music for Paul’s Case suits Jonathan every bit as much as the character does. His clean, incisive tenor shines as the chamber ensemble slides and scurries around him. In The New Yorker, Alex Ross has written far more eloquently about this opera than I ever can, as is his wont, but allow me impertinently to vouch for him: He’s right. This is a gorgeous, important score.

In an ideal world, we’d have a video of Kevin Newbury’s haunting, poetic production, for Urban Arias, with the original cast. We don’t live in an ideal world, however, and now Urban Arias is coming to the end of a fund-raising drive to finance an audio recording.

Imagine if Maria Callas had never recorded Tosca, if Lauren Worsham had never recorded Dog Days. That’s how you’re going to feel if Jonathan Blalock never records Paul’s Case. This is a once-in-a-lifetime portrayal. Sure, Spears’ opera is so powerful that other tenors will want to sing the role, some day. But they will never be quite like Jonathan, never quite so right and natural and expressive. They may or may not have lived out parts of Paul’s story — Jonathan has. They may never be able to give full voice to this character and his music — Jonathan does. They may never know what Jonathan has done with the role — I do.

In a fund-raising drive like this one, every little bit helps. The campaign is coming to an end. If you can part with a little money, I hope you’ll do so. The link is here.

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12 May 2017

Anne with an Execution

Amybeth McNulty as Anne in the new series.

NOTE: Netflix and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation are producing a “new, darker take” on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved Anne of Green Gables. Called Anne with an E, the series premieres this week. As the success of Riverdale attests, “new, darker takes” are all the rage these days, and there’s really no reason not to push Anne Shirley even further toward the darkness.

We open with scenic vistas of Prince Edward Island. But the skies are ominous, wind tears through the trees, and we hear thunder and lightning in the near-distance.

MATTHEW CUTHBERT: (Voiceover) You stay away from that girl, if you know what’s good for you!

GILBERT BLYTHE: (Voiceover) But — but I don’t even like her! Everybody in Avonlea thinks there’s something wrong with her!

CUT TO: Interior, schoolroom. GILBERT pulls ANNE’s hair. She wheels on him and raises her slate to strike him.

MATTHEW: (Voiceover) You heard me. You just stay away from her!

CUT TO: GILBERT’S lifeless body on the schoolroom floor. Blood pools around his head. We hear a girl screaming.

“That Gilbert Blythe is the best-looking boy in town … or was.”

CUT TO: Interior, Avonlea Town Hall. TOWNSFOLK are arguing. A MOUNTIE enters.

COOPER: Sorry to trouble you folks. I’m Officer Dale Cooper of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I understand there’s a missing person.

CUT TO: ANNE and DIANA BARRY, exterior Green Gables.

DIANA: But Anne! No one has seen Gilbert Blythe since you hit him with your slate! Do you know anything about this?

Wordlessly, ANNE turns and faces the camera. Her hair is green.

CUT TO: Interior, Green Gables.

MARILLA CUTHBERT: Officer Cooper, my brooch has gone missing.

COOPER: Things in Avonlea aren’t as peaceful as they seem, eh?

CUT TO: Exterior, White Way of Delight, thunderstorm.

DIANA: Anne! Anne! Where are you going?

ANNE: I’m going to find Gilbert — dead or alive — if it’s the last thing I do!

The victim was found right about here, eh?

CUT TO: Interior, Avonlea Constable’s Office.

COOPER: Murder in Avonlea? I’m going to need another cup of that damned fine tea, Mrs. Lynde.

CUT TO: Exterior, Lake of the Shining Waters. Rain, heavy fog. ANNE and GILBERT are in a rowboat.

GILBERT: Anne, we’re sinking!

CUT TO: Interior, Green Gables.

COOPER: I take it you two aren’t married.

MATTHEW: (Looks meaningfully at MARILLA, then) We’re brother and sister, sir.

MARILLA: (Gazes inscrutably.)

CUT TO: Exterior, forest. Tight close-up on ANNE. She has seen something unspeakable.

ANNE: (Screams)


It begins….

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02 May 2017

Handling ‘Ariodante’ at Carnegie Hall

Joyce DiDonato at Carnegie Hall,
with Harry Bicket (seated at the harpsichord)
and members of the English Concert.

“You handle Handel like nobody handles Handel,” enthuses a fan upon meeting a famous conductor (Rex Harrison) in Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours, and it’s what I kept thinking throughout Joyce DiDonato’s performance in the title role of Handel’s Ariodante on Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall. Mind you, I’ve heard some extraordinarily good Handel singing in my day, but Joyce continues to surprise me, doing things that no one else does. When she sings Rossini, I can picture the composer strutting up and down the aisle at intermission, beaming and boasting, “Did you hear that? I wrote that!” When she sings Handel, I can picture the composer asking, “Hang on — did I write that?”

Even in the hands of some very fine singers, Handel’s emotional and psychological palette used to seem simple to me. Arias expressed one of a very few emotions: joy, anger (usually vengeful), sorrow, determination, love. Somehow Joyce has located psychological depths that, as I say, the composer himself may not have suspected; but she presents them so persuasively that I wind up believing Handel is on a par with Shakespeare, Wagner, and Verdi, a master of theatrical arts to give voice to the soul. Who knew the old boy had it in him?

I can only begin to understand how Joyce does this. For starters, in her arias she doesn’t merely ornament the vocal line. She deploys a variety of colors, and she makes uncanny use of her dynamic range. In piano and pianissimo passages, then, she evokes the thoughtfulness of the character, sometimes suggesting that the words she is singing are ones that her character can barely bring himself (Ariodante is a trouser role) to speak. She invites us to the innermost, most private domain of character.

Joyce recorded the opera with Il Complesso Barocco a few years ago.

Repetition is the foundation of Handel’s arias, in the da capo or “A-B-A” style prevalent in his day: in the first verse, the character makes a statement, repeating phrases several times; in the second verse, the character makes a contrasting statement, also repeating phrases; in the third verse, the character resumes the first verse, ornamenting the vocal line. What Joyce manages to do is not only stylish but thoughtful: it’s as if her characters are working out a problem, considering it from different perspectives, striving to explore and to understand the world around them.

Especially in the long aria “Scherza infida,” on Sunday Joyce outdid herself — and brought me to the brink of tears. No ornament seemed gratuitous or ostentatious, and yet no note, no gesture seemed calculated or effortful. And it all seemed fresh. Indeed, returning to the recordings she’s made of the aria, I found constant affirmation of her continuing exploration of this music, the new insights she’s gleaned, her unstoppable willingness to try new approaches.

Joyce was joined by a cast of excellent singers, including ripe-voiced Sonia Prina in the trouser role of the villainous Polinesso. Prina played her role to the hilt, until I wasn’t sure that certain vocal stunts were part of her technique (which is sometimes eccentric) or part of her deliciously juicy characterization. If she’d worn a mustache, I’m sure she would have twirled it, and it’s a tribute to her work that I came across one audience member at intermission who asked who the countertenor was.

Leading the English Concert from the harpsichord, conductor Harry Bicket tended to very speedy tempos that may have reduced the playing time (the concert lasted about four hours as it was) but did few of the singers any favors, especially in Act I. Still, soprano Christiane Karg made an affecting Ginevra, and sweet-voiced soprano Mary Bevan was a revelation as the gullible Dalinda. Rivaling Bevan for mellifluous tone was tenor David Portillo as Lurcanio, Dalinda’s intended. Fondly remembered for his Tonio in Fort Worth Opera’s Daughter of the Regiment four years ago, David is in exceptionally fine voice these days, as evidenced also in his recent run as Jaquino in Fidelio at the Met; this concert was his Carnegie Hall debut, and the audience cheered him.

The role of Odoardo may be small, even thankless, but it served to make me want to hear more from tenor Tyson Miller, who turned in a nicely rounded characterization and elegant singing. Baritone Matthew Brook made his role, the King of Scotland, seem far more important than I’d remembered it to be, and he invested himself wholly in acting the part — even when (as in the conclusion of his “sorrow” aria in Act II, which found him on his knees) he overdid it. His warm tone beautifully suited his paternal character. Really, in most respects this concert performance was ready for the stage, with the trouser ladies wearing trousers and each singer providing thoughtful characterization in gesture as well as voice.

I thoroughly enjoyed the work of the English Concert, notably Alberto Grazzi’s bassoon in “Scherza infida,” and Ursula Paludan Monberg and Martin Lawrence’s discreetly exultant horns; lutenist William Carter wielded a theorbo the size of that baby giraffe everyone’s talking about lately. The strings managed to be crisp, elegant, and supportive even when Bicket spurred them on to greater haste than I’d have liked. In all, it was an afternoon of memorably glorious music-making.

Post-performance: Backstage with Joyce and a friend.

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24 April 2017

Sympathy for the Diva, or Joan Crawford

Mildred Pierce: The key that unlocks Joan Crawford?

The writer Shaun Considine was a tremendous help to me while I researched Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life. Shaun conducted the two most important magazine interviews Madeline ever gave: her first in a national publication, After Dark, and her only public statement after her departure from On the Twentieth Century. He was a good if not always close friend to Madeline, too, and he generously shared with me his exhaustive notes from the interviews, unpublished photos of Madeline, and copious advice. As an additional, indirect way of thanking him, I bought a copy of his most famous book, Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, and found it so utterly engrossing that I bought James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce and devoured that, too.

Naturally, my thoughts turned to Shaun while I watched the first episode of Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette & Joan. So much of Murphy’s series seemed to come directly from the pages of Shaun’s book that I wondered whether Shaun was getting any money out of the project. Then another writer, Dan Callahan (who’s written incisive analyses of Bette & Joan for Nylon every week), broke the sad news that Shaun died shortly before my book came out. Now I know why Shaun stopped answering my e-mails, and why he couldn’t join us for the book party. Without knowing it, I’d lost a mentor.

Shaun Considine.

But the process that Shaun set in motion continued, as Jessica Lange’s performance enhanced my growing understanding and appreciation of Joan Crawford. I never expected to feel anything at all for her: she struck me as a good but not great actor, whose offscreen life didn’t interest me. I did (and still do) admire Bette Davis passionately, and even wrote a fan letter to her (and received a lovely reply), so there was never a question whose side I was on. Thanks to Shaun Considine and Jessica Lange, that’s changed.

Sarandon and Lange as Davis and Crawford.

Shaun suggests that Mildred Pierce is essential to understanding Joan Crawford: if an actor can be an auteur, then Crawford’s Mildred is an autobiographical portrait. Both the character and the actor were driven by ambition to rise above their lower-class origins. For Crawford, this ambition became an obsession. Born poor, abandoned by her father, unwanted by her mother, abused by her stepfather, Crawford endured a childhood like Charles Dickens’ telling of Cinderella. Young Joan was able to attend private boarding school only because she worked, scrubbing, washing, cooking for the other girls — so busy that she could seldom attend classes.

As an adult, Joan was proud of her willingness to work hard, and even she marveled that, rather than developing a horror of housework, she enthused in it. The rest of us may look at her neat-freak tendencies and see an obsessive-compulsive, and Joan admitted that she was a perfectionist: an impeccably clean home was part of her need for control over her environment and a symbol of her aspiration to something better.

As a showgirl and then as an actress, Crawford escaped poverty primarily through her good looks and sex appeal, her talent as an actor, and her growing skills as an actor. In these areas, too, she was a perfectionist, constantly striving to improve herself. Marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., marked the next crucial step in her evolution. Fairbanks was Hollywood royalty, highly educated and cultivated, and the stepson of Mary Pickford — who disapproved of the working-class Crawford. Joan set about compensating for her lack of formal education, reading widely, studying languages, etiquette, elocution, and (later) voice. Pickford grudgingly permitted her daughter-in-law to take a seat at the table, while Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford, once and for all.

The star who could not go to the supermarket without flawless makeup, hair, hat and gloves was a kind of female Jay Gatsby in Hollywood, self-created at great cost — and for Joan as for Gatsby, sex was one means to get ahead. She lost her Texas accent, she personified glamour, and she didn’t stop striving for more. Reading Shaun’s book, I got the sense of Crawford continually yearning for her own version of Gatsby’s green light, staring through the window at a life she wanted. Even at the end of her life, she spoke of getting a formal education, and it’s easy to believe she might crave respect from Bette Davis, whose gifts as an actor, as a fighter, and as an intellect the world seemed to accept without questioning.

By the time What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? began filming, both women had reached an age when Hollywood’s interest in them had waned. There was no Ryan Murphy building elaborate showcases for older actresses. Today Murphy wants to tell a story of Crawford’s looks versus Davis’ talent, and the manipulations of male-dominated Hollywood. There’s truth in this perspective, as far as it goes, and television necessarily requires simplification and condensation. But Shaun’s book makes clear that the reality was a good deal more complex, and arguably more illuminating about the very topics Murphy aimed to address.

Shaun goes so far as to question whether there really was a feud at all, whether it was cooked up by Davis and Crawford themselves to promote the movie. (The book’s title gives you a fair idea what his conclusion is, but he does raise the question.) Again, Murphy’s take is that others imposed the feud on the women, to manipulate the performances they gave and to promote the picture; soon enough, the feud was bitterly heartfelt and authentic. In the final episode, Susan Sarandon as Davis makes clear that the feud is responsible at least in part for the public’s interest in her and for the talk-show appearances that afforded her the largest audiences of her later career: she can’t afford to let it go.

What is an image when people no longer see it?
Lange as Crawford.
(In the background, the peerless Jackie Hoffman as Mamacita.)

At times, Murphy’s pretty-vs.-smart dynamic risked becoming as cartoonish as a catfight between Daphne and Velma from Scooby Doo. But Lange’s performance consistently rose above the hit-or-miss material in the scripts, it enhanced my sympathy for Crawford, and it made me want to revisit the Crawford pictures I’ve seen and seek out others I’ve thus far missed. I’ve also caught up with some of Lange’s work with Murphy in American Horror Story, at once over-the-top and subtle. What struck me here was her ability to ground in realism yet another character who is, in her way, supernatural. Her Crawford is the grandest of grandes dames, a movie star, and yet very human indeed.

What seemed clear as I read Shaun’s book was that Crawford realized too late that she was in over her head. Yes, she tried to assert herself over Davis — particularly during the lead-up to the 1963 Oscars — but she was no match for Davis. By then, it was too late to repair the damage Crawford had done, and her own later career represented a truly pathetic decline, making only a few terrible movies while descending into alcoholism, illness, and solitude. Listening to her audiobook, My Way of Life (which can be heard on YouTube), she blithely describes days spent reading scripts and fielding movie offers — when we know she was putting on a brave face.

She had just made her final feature film, TROG, which really is as bad as everyone says it is. Bette Davis may have become her own caricature, her mannerisms overwhelming her later performances. Joan Crawford never really got the chance to do that — Faye Dunaway did it for her, after Joan died.*

Some lucky ones among you may never have felt inadequate, may never have seen your inadequacies confirmed and shoved in your faces. I envy you. Joan Crawford — who spent so much of her life battling her inadequacies and the insecurities they generated — would envy you, too.

*NOTE: The great Joan Crawford caricaturist is of course Carol Burnett, whose loving spoofs amused Joan herself. “You put more production into that sketch than Jack Warner put into our entire picture,” Joan told Carol after seeing “Mildred Fierce.”

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16 April 2017

Interview: Lauren Worsham

The limitless Lauren Worsham.
Photos from laurenworsham.com.

It’s hard to imagine two works more dissimilar than Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland and David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s Dog Days, but on April 27, when Master Voices performs Toyland in concert at Carnegie Hall, one woman will connect the two. Soprano Lauren Worsham — whose shattering performances as Lisa in Dog Days rank among the finest I have ever seen — will take the ingénue role of Jane. She may not yet be the music-theater equivalent of Kevin Bacon, the necessary link to everything and everyone, but give her time.

Her limpid, vibrant voice commands attention, and she knows how to use it to project the kind of innocence that’s equally appropriate in Little’s Dystopia and Herbert’s Toyland. Already she’s excelled in operetta at New York City Opera and, on Broadway, in an acclaimed turn as Phoebe in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, warbling her heart out and picking up Drama Desk and Theatre World awards and a Tony nomination. She runs an opera company, the Coterie, and is the lead singer in Sky-Pony — a rock band — while also appearing in concert and in cabaret. To this observer, it seems there’s nothing that doesn’t interest her, and nothing she can’t do.

“I definitely try to do many things,” Worsham says, calling herself “a jack-of-all-trades and not necessarily a master of any of them.” (I beg to disagree.) “How did I get to the point where I can? I think it was more that I decided that I wanted to. I didn’t want to focus on one thing. As with most things in my life, my path found me.”

“Mirror, Mirror”: As Lisa in Dog Days.
One of the most astonishing performances I have ever witnessed.

Growing up in Austin, Texas, Worsham sang the music that was in the air around her, rock and blues, and her first voice teacher was a blues musician. She also sang in her high-school choir, and her interest in musical theater led her to audition for a college production of Candide. After graduation from Yale (cum laude, because of course) and a stint in the first national tour of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, she found herself playing Cunegonde again, this time in New York City Opera’s revival of Candide, in 2008.

Worsham had begun to broaden and deepen her understanding of opera, with which she’d been only somewhat familiar. But she says, “I love narrative and I love drama, and at that point opera wasn’t focusing on those things in the way that a college student would have been aware of.” In NYCO’s late, lamented VOX program for new work, Worsham met Little and Vavrek, who were about to change many people’s notions of narrative and drama in opera. “Dog Days is the greatest thing I’ve done, maybe the greatest thing I’ll ever do,” Worsham says — adding, “until the next time I work with David and Royce!”

For City Opera’s Candide, “They double-cast me with a more trained singer,” Worsham remembers. “They set me up with a voice teacher, and I credit her with helping me open up my classical voice.” This training strikes me as crucial to her multifaceted career: the desire to do many things and the talent to persuade people to allow you to do many things will take you only so far if you don’t have the technique to pull it off. (My hat is off to Worsham’s teacher, Virginia Grasso.)

In Gentleman’s Guide, with Jane O’Hare and Bryce Pinkham.

Worsham also respects “good vocal hygiene.” The main thing for me is not yelling in bars. [Presumably when she’s performing with Sky-Pony.] There’s a difference between doing something one night, or every night of the week. Everything requires a different kind of maintenance and paying attention to your body. I definitely learned that the hard way with Gentleman’s Guide.

“When I first started, I had a high, nasal speaking voice for Phoebe,” she continues. “For the first eight months, it was fine, but then it started to catch up with me. In the same way that if you woke up every morning and bend your knees, you’ll get more flexible, but if you sit at a desk all day, you’ll lose flexibility. Using that voice gave my larynx bad habits. I’d never done a show that many days a week for that long. There’s a difference between a long game and a short game.”

While Worsham’s rock voice doesn’t sound precisely like her operetta voice, it’s recognizably the same instrument, and just as irresistible. Her approach to any piece of music, she says, is rooted in character: “Different characters have different ways they carry their body and different ways they use their voice. Different songs have different characters and different textures. Sometimes it’s a choice: ‘This would sound good.’ When it comes to opera, that’s a matter of technique, but when it comes to something like pop music, a lot of the time for me it’s a matter of letting go, of trying to be ‘on the voice,’ just trying to tell the story.”

Rocking out with Sky-Pony.
Worsham’s husband, Kyle Jarrow, is also in the band.

Story-telling is always her principal concern, though “in opera I’m also focused on continuation of the voice and on technique.” Recalling her harrowing aria from Dog Days, she says, “In the same way that I think I wouldn’t be telling the story we’re trying to tell if I belted ‘Mirror, Mirror,’ singing pop songs with perfect technique and vowels wouldn’t tell the story that song wants to tell, in that sense.”

Master Voices likewise believes in “The Art of Musical Storytelling,” and Babes in Toyland has told many over the years. At the time of its premiere, in 1904, it was customary to change the materials in American operetta, to drop one number and add another, or to re-work a scene to suit a particular performer. As the two movie adaptations show, the material is highly flexible: there’s no Laurel and Hardy in Disney’s Toyland. But there’s not really an Ur-text, and Toyland hasn’t seen a major New York revival in generations. Master Voices artistic director Ted Sperling has prepared a score and, with Joe Keenan, cobbled together a script. “It’s hilarious,” Worsham says, comparing it to classic movie scripts. “Everyone seems to have some zingers … there’s no straight man.”

Sperling has assembled a spectacular cast for Toyland, led by another soprano who straddles both Broadway and opera, Kelli O’Hara. Jonathan Freeman adds another villain to his résumé (he’s played Aladdin’s Jafar in every medium you can name) with the role of Barnaby; and Jay Armstrong Johnson, a Broadway favorite who sang the title role in NYCO’s most recent revival of Candide, is Tom Tom, Jane’s love interest. And with the master clown Bill Irwin as the Toymaker and the irrepressible Christopher Fitzgerald as Alan, Jane’s brother, “I’ll be focusing on trying not to pee my pants with laughing,” Worsham says. “I’ve really got to be at the top of my game with those two.”

Is this the face that launched a thousand quips?
It will be on April 27.

The audience can expect “a lot of fun, more than anything. I’m looking forward to that,” Worsham says. “I think we need it. Gosh, reading the news every day, it seems as if a little escape is harder to get to these days.”

Master Voices presents Victor Herber’s Babes in Toyland in concert at Carnegie Hall, April 27 at 7:00 pm. For tickets and more information, click here.

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25 January 2017

Mary Tyler Moore

Lights out.

Mary Tyler Moore has died, and I am taking stock of her legacy. Two brilliant television shows, plus several not so brilliant (including New York News, her short-lived collaboration with Madeline Kahn). An unforgettable, Oscar-nominated performance in Ordinary People. An eternal role model for working women. And a role model for journalists, too.

She often played journalists — even in the TV movie First You Cry — and her influence extends indirectly to Ed Asner’s Lou Grant, Nancy Marchand’s Mrs. Pynchon, and other characters. America seemed to feel differently about journalism in those days. Woodward and Bernstein became national heroes during the run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Dan Rather became not just a reporter but a star. Mary Richards was cut from different cloth, and yet she was to me every bit as much an inspiration.

It can’t really be said that I ever met Mary Tyler Moore. I encountered her once, at the CBS studios on 57th Street. I was walking down a hallway, and as I approached the corner, I heard voices, talking about the Broadcast Center. “It’s an old dairy,” somebody was saying, and I piped up, “Actually, it was a milk-processing plant.” And I turned the corner, and there was Mary Tyler Moore, accompanied by some people from WCBS, the local station, who were giving her a little tour. I was too startled to say anything else, and we passed each other. End of story. Not a meeting to rival Grant and Lee at Appomattox, or Taylor and Burton on the banks of the Nile.

Yet just a glimpse of the woman who played Mary Richards in my own newsroom was intensely gratifying. It occurred to me that afternoon that, although most of us talked (endlessly) about Edward R. Murrow, we were not ever going to be Murrow, or anything like him. We weren’t going to be Eric Sevareid, either, or Walter Cronkite, and only one of us was ever going to be Dan Rather. The rest of us weren’t going to be heroic standard-bearers, or legends or stars. Few of us were going to set examples for the profession, or even break a story. We were mortals. We went to work, we did our paperwork and our petty daily grind, and we were anonymous. Just like Mary Richards.

Mary Richards, of course, had her moments of valor. She went to jail once for refusing to name a source. She coped with outsize personalities — the tyrannical Lou Grant, the idiotic Ted Baxter and even the prima donna Sue Ann Nivens — yet she never seemed to resent her colleagues for making her job more difficult. On the contrary, she loved them and looked forward to coming to work, to being with them.

The people I worked with at CBS held lofty ideals. That’s one reason we held Murrow in such high esteem. Journalism, even TV journalism, was important, a public service, a vocation bigger than any one person: Murrow taught us that, and we believed it passionately. But few of us ever had the opportunity to go to jail for what we believed in, the way Mary Richards did. Many of us grumbled about the outsize personality we had to work with: depending on the day, Dan could embody all the worst qualities of Lou, or Ted, or Sue Ann, or any combination of the three. But most of us admired the guy, and many of us felt affection for him, and quite a lot of us were proud to be working with him.

I went back to my office and wrote a radio piece for Dan, about how Mary Richards was not a bad role model, and that her small-scale, big-hearted professional ideals were ones real-life journalists could aspire to. I hoped we’d hear from Mary Tyler Moore after the piece was broadcast — she might even make a visit to our newsroom, just as Walter Cronkite once visited WJM. But that was the end of it.

And so she touched my life the way strangers sometimes do — and yet unlike anyone else. Then, now, and ever more, she pointed out a path that I follow, and she turned my world on with her smile.

NOTE: Portions of this essay were originally published on this blog in 2007.

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20 January 2017

Meryl Streep’s Hardcore Kitchen, or ‘It’s Complicated’

Empty nest: Meryl Streep contemplates the dining room, while her kitchen lurks in the background, like the shark in Jaws.

Hollywood has long presented audiences with all kinds of glamour to fuel escapist fantasy and aspirational dreams. We lose ourselves in the lives of better-looking, better-dressed people in lavish settings. But sometimes Hollywood gets carried away, and I found a prime example of excess in Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated, a film from 2009 which I watched recently because it was either that or Tank Girl. My roommate drives a hard bargain, though evidently he’s got a thing for blonde protagonists in improbable circumstances.

I’d seen a couple of Meyers’ other movies, and so I thought I was prepared for this one. Meyers would yet again cater to the fantasies and aspirations of women who may be over 35 and therefore who, as far as the rest of Hollywood is concerned, do not exist. I figured Nancy Meyers would yet again give us a heroine of a Certain Age who is prosperous and accomplished and sexually desirable to multiple men, and who makes good decisions after some missteps. People who have seen even more of Meyers’ movies warned me that there would also be really nice kitchens. It’s Complicated goes beyond mere fantasy, however, to the realm of pornography.

But it’s only her 397th glass today!
And it must be four o‘clock by now.

The first fantasy/aspiration I noticed was the wine. About three scenes in, I realized that people had been drinking wine ever since the movie started. Drinking wine is something that women like to do. I know this, and I sympathize — but as the movie continued, the wine kept flowing. Again and again, in scene after scene, we see wine and more wine. (Please note the Special Advisory at the end of this essay.)

I also noticed — and sympathized with — the representation of friendship among women as a sisterhood. This involves drinking wine, talking about sex, and Mary Kay Place. Well, who wouldn’t want Mary Kay Place for a friend? I’m not even a woman, and yet I know for a fact that I would enjoy talking about sex with Mary Kay Place over a bottle of wine. “Hey, Mary Kay Place, my close personal friend,” I’d say, “men are slobs, aren’t they?” And Mary Kay Place would say, “They sure are! This pinot grigio rocks. Let’s get some ice cream, change into our flannel pajamas, and binge-watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

That would be fun. Don’t try to deny it.

Rita Wilson overshares over wine,
while Meryl polishes off her 418th glass of the day.

There are two other gal pals, one of whom I don’t recognize and the other of whom is Rita Wilson, who comes on a little strong and isn’t as non-threatening as Mary Kay Place is. We might not ask Rita Wilson to stay up and watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman with us, though it might be fun to give her a little more wine and then watch Sleepless in Seattle, just to hear what she has to say about that tramp, Meg Ryan. Come on, Rita. Have another glass and tell us how you really feel.

Eventually Meyers gets around to addressing her principal theme, the Sexual Appeal of the Mature Woman — but that’s not where the pornography comes in. Sure, Meryl Streep plays the middle-aged mother of three children who is sought after by two men, one of whom happens to be her ex-husband. (It’s a sign of how far these actors have journeyed that, in this movie, Alec Baldwin is the funny one and Steve Martin is the serious one.) But the Meryl-Is-Sexy part of the movie is pretty realistic. Almost a documentary.

Meryl Streep complains a few times about how awful she looks, now that she’s middle-aged and has had three children, but she’s just fishing for compliments because she looks fabulous and everybody knows it. Baldwin and Martin crave her, but they don’t maul her, because this is a romantic comedy. Baldwin goes in for the side of her neck and the shoulders — you remember those, don’t you, from Sophie’s Choice and The French Lieutenant’s Woman? Of course you do. And they’re still gorgeous. They deserve their own Lifetime Achievement awards. One apiece. There are probably plastic surgeons in Hollywood right now, working hard to make other women’s necks and shoulders look as good as Meryl Streep’s neck and shoulders look.

Just watching you in the bathtub is erotically stimulating
and not at all creepy.

Meyers doesn’t show us any scenes in which Baldwin or Martin gives Streep a foot massage, but you can be pretty sure they’re in there somewhere, maybe in the DVD extras, because foot massages, like sensual shoulder-kissing and Mary Kay Place and a reliably constant supply of wine, are things that women want more of.

Also, and most importantly, both Baldwin and Martin actually talk to Meryl Streep, and Martin actually listens to her, and as I can attest from my own personal experience, this is something that women definitely want more of. Martin’s character likes French movies, which we find out because he listens when Meryl Streep tells him she used to live in Paris, so he invites her to a French film festival, even though presumably that means reading subtitles and staying awake or at least not snoring like a cement mixer through the whole movie — and at this point I’m thinking, “Yo, Nancy Meyers, are you sure this Steve Martin character is straight?” For a lot of straight men, just watching this movie would be a challenge.

We know things have gone to the next level,
because these two have switched to brandy.

Still, in a culture that so often addresses what men want — comic book characters, gun violence, car chases, explosions, women as objects who are under 35 and who don’t care whether you remember their birthdays — it’s nice to see a movie that caters to what women want, for a change. And again, this isn’t the pornographic part.

No, the pornography is in the kitchen.

You see, Meryl Streep — or Nancy Meyers, or both of them — is a kitchen size queen.

Is it just me, or is it hot in here?

When we first see Meryl Streep’s kitchen, she’s taking stock of her suddenly Empty Nest, after her three air-brushed, genetically engineered, fully sanitized J. Crew adult children leave home. The kitchen is very, very beautiful, and it is as if Meryl Streep steps into a magazine. It’s like the way she stepped into Travel + Leisure in Out of Africa, only here the magazine is Architectural Digest, which, as we know, is to kitchens what Playboy is to naked ladies. A scientifically calibrated amount of sunlight fills the spacious room, bedecked with just enough cute personal items to let you know that human beings sometimes venture into this kitchen. There’s music playing, so you can’t quite hear the kitchen screaming “Home! Warmth! Fulfillment!” at the top of its lungs.

However, as we will soon discover, this is not “the kitchen of my dreams,” which Meryl Streep has wanted for ten years. Reflect on that. Ten years. For ten years she has had to suffer with this kitchen, instead of reveling in the kitchen of her dreams. Ten years. With this kitchen.

As we gaze upon this kitchen, we also see at least one of every cooking utensil known. Meryl Streep probably owns the gadget I just saw at Williams-Sonoma the other day, which is specifically and exclusively designed to cut up cauliflower, because obviously paring knives are not good enough for serious cooks, even if you live in Manhattan and barely have storage space for a paring knife, much less a paring knife and a cauliflower gadget. If you were a serious cook, you would find the space and you would own that gadget. Maybe several of them, because who can ever cut enough cauliflower, and who can be bothered to follow methodically the helical growth of the florets with a cheap-ass pedestrian paring knife that came from goddam Target?

Meryl Streep’s character, we later discover, owns a bakery-restaurant-store sort of establishment, and she can tell at a glance when there’s too much powdered sugar on the pastry, so she is a serious cook.

At the kitchen island, which we shall dub “Madagascar.”

But she is also committed to family, which is why the island-slash-table in her eat-in kitchen is as big as a king-size bed. Her three children and her future son-in-law can glide as one from the J. Crew catalogue to gather around that table to share the gourmet-yet-cozy meal that Meryl Streep has lovingly prepared for them. Seriously, it probably takes Meryl Streep all afternoon just to set that table. She has to do yoga and weight training and stretching exercises just to pass around the wine. This may explain why her shoulders look so great.

Now, supposedly we’re in Santa Barbara, which isn’t Manhattan, so I’m not exactly startled by the fact that Meryl Streep’s kitchen is the size of my entire apartment. I mean, when your immaculately landscaped yard is the size of Central Park, that’s what you do, you have a big kitchen. No, the surprise is that Meryl Streep’s big kitchen isn’t big enough. I have been in Williams-Sonoma stores that were smaller than Meryl Streep’s kitchen. But it will not do.

We are in a bakery-restaurant-store slightly larger than a factory warehouse, but we should sit as close as possible, because I find you sexually desirable, you erotically empowered middle-aged woman, you.

Enter Steve Martin as the architect who designs the kitchen of her dreams. Before designing that kitchen, he actually reads her e-mails on the subject. Reading e-mails probably isn’t as sexy as listening, but it shows how sensitive Steve Martin is. He respects her dreams. He wants to know all about them. Once he fully understands her dreams, he will fulfill them. That is what sensitive men do.

Automatically, Meryl Streep knows that if she e-mails Steve Martin an invitation to Rita Wilson’s dinner party next Tuesday, Steve Martin is not the kind of man who is going to say, “Oh, I never saw that. I will be going out with the guys instead. Don’t wait up.” No, no, Steve Martin will say, “Oh, I read that as soon as you sent it. I already marked the date on my calendar. And I just bought a new blazer to wear that night, so that Rita Wilson will be reminded that I’m not one of the slobs like her husband, and besides, I always do my utmost to look good for you, particularly when it is, as Tuesday will be, precisely 147 days to your birthday. Shall I pour you some wine and rub your feet now?”

Yes, Meryl Streep knows exactly what kind of man Steve Martin is. And that’s how we know she isn’t going to end up with Alec Baldwin. Alec Baldwin spends most of his time showing us how much he wants incredible sex with the middle-aged mother of his children, but Meryl Streep isn’t going to settle for incredible sex with the father of her children. No. That is not good enough.

Neither is that kitchen.

I have included several pictures of Meryl Streep’s puny, limp, pathetic, unsatisfying kitchen, because really, there are no words.

That kitchen isn’t even the only kitchen Meryl Streep has at her disposal. Later in the movie, she takes Steve Martin to her bakery-restaurant-store, which is the size of a Wal-Mart, and sadly Nancy Meyers leaves out the part where they have to use a golf cart to get around. However, this may be where Nancy Meyers got the idea to have Anne Hathaway use a bicycle to get around her office in The Intern. (How zany, yet how practical!)

Once again Meryl Streep reminds us that she is a serious cook, by whipping up a spur-of-the-moment batch of chocolate croissants, even though it’s the middle of the night. (How madcap!) And Steve Martin again demonstrates his exceptional sensitivity by helping her in the kitchen — I repeat, helping her in the kitchen! We are not supposed to notice that Steve Martin bruises the dough, though he does, and consequently it will not flake properly when baked, and Nancy Meyers will have to throw it out after she’s finished the take. However, this is not a big deal, because this is Hollywood and wasting dough is routine there.

Also, you can tell we’re not supposed to notice, because obviously Meryl Streep would never favor a man who bruises her pâte feuilletée.

If he’s that much of an oaf, who knows what he would do to her shoulders!

We see yet again that Meryl Streep is a serious cook because she has her very own jardin potager the size of a soccer field, and of course she has a rumpled-yet-adorable straw hat to wear while she is picking picture-perfect tomatoes that are all exactly the same size, shape, and color, and that effortlessly line up in orderly rows when she places them in her basket, while you wonder whether that just happened by chance, or is Meryl Streep really a witch after all, or did Nancy Meyers hire a tomato wrangler for this movie?

And yet we know that Meryl Streep is an ordinary woman, an Everywoman, with whom we can identify and to whom we can relate, because her name is Jane — just plain Jane — and doesn’t every woman have a jardin potager the size of Nebraska and a light-filled kitchen the size of a shopping mall stocked with every item in the entire Williams-Sonoma catalogue and probably Pottery Barn, too, and an impeccably dressed ex-husband with great hair who is literally fainting from the desire to kiss her shoulders and (probably) rub her feet, and who (mostly) listens to her when she talks and who can’t stop praising her incredible sexual appeal, even when she is picking tomatoes in her jardin potager?

And yes, because she is a serious cook and used to live in France, she calls it a “jardin potager,” not a “kitchen garden.”

But Meryl Streep wants more, she deserves more, so she has to find another man who will kiss her shoulders and rub her feet and build her a kitchen the size of Alaska and listen to her when she talks, and who even reads her e-mails.

Because that kitchen is not big enough to satisfy a serious cook like Meryl Streep. Women should never have to settle, and what woman would settle for a kitchen like that? That kitchen is not the kitchen of Meryl Streep’s dreams. Women should fulfill their dreams and own their own businesses and have incredible sex and whip up chocolate croissants in the middle of the night and drink wine whenever they damn feel like it. Women should not only fulfill their own dreams, they should also fulfill Meryl Streep’s dreams, or hire Steve Martin to fulfill Meryl Streep’s dreams, and what woman would dream about a kitchen like that, anyway? Meryl Streep certainly would not dream about a kitchen that is merely spacious, inviting, well-appointed, and flawless.

Sadly, Nancy Meyers seems to have omitted the scene where Meryl Streep moans, “Build that kitchen! Build it! Build it bigger! Bigger! Bigger! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Maybe that scene, like the foot massage, is in the DVD extras. For mature audiences only.

I need more wine.

Because we are your friends, we are laughing with you when we laugh at your tiny kitchen.

SPECIAL ADVISORY: If you watch this movie, do not play the drinking game where you take a drink every time the actors take a drink. Trust me on this one. You may, however, try taking a drink in every scene where no wine is involved.

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