Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Monday, March 30, 2009
Saturday, March 28, 2009
One year ago, I sadly reported a full quarter century without her.
A few months ago, when my mother would have turned 80 years old, I wrote about her music.
I wonder if I write too often about my mother?
Today is Mother's Day for me, as it is the 26th anniversary of her death. Sounds pretty gloomy, and it has its melancholy elements. But I know I'll spend most of the day remembering the good stuff. After 26 years, the very sharp pains of loss have dulled. I'll surely enjoy a large plate of what we call "Mama's Spaghetti", with homemade sauce which she occasionally served. The recipe is in her hand, and lives above my refrigerator. Naturally, I'll be dining on her china, given to her on her wedding to my father, way back when people did such things. The day will have some sadness, mixed with some regret, too, but that can't be helped. (And shouldn't be.)
If you still have your mother with you, don't wait 'till May 10, the official Mother's Day, to call. Give her a buzz today. You're very lucky.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Stephen Sondheim must be having a pretty good week. He had a birthday (79! wow) and the major revival of his first Broadway show, West Side Story, got a nice nod from the NY Times. It's being directed by the show's librettist Arthur Laurents (in his 90s! Double wow), who adjusted some of the dialogue to be spoken in Spanish. Well, it makes sense that the Puerto Ricans at the heart of the story would not be speaking English when they are alone together. That aspect of the revival is getting mixed comments, most of them agreeing in principle, but noting that theatre-goers not already familiar with the story may be a bit lost. Are you kidding me? Who doesn't know West Side Story??
I bet Sondheim is pleased that one of his songs, "I Feel Pretty," is now being sung totally in Spanish. Perhaps the translated lyrics do not commit the same sins which Sondheim believes the original words do; he's complained for years that the song's lyrics are too sophisticated for a character such as Maria (a girl right off the boat from Puerto Rico would not be using interior rhyme). Relax, Steve, nobody cares. Instead, revel in the knowledge that a piece written a whopping 50 years ago still holds some interest. That interest has been maintained, at least partially, due to the hugely successful film version from 1961. West Side Story the movie is still considered one of the finest film adaptations of a stage musical, and was nominated for 11 Oscars. It won all but one, losing Best Adapted Screenplay to that other tunefest, Judgement at Nuremberg.
WSS is one of those chestnuts which I thoroughly admire and yet never had a desire to perform. I appeared in an abridged, one-hour version in college, as a directing project for my friend Judy, but would never have landed a role in a professional production (I had dark hair, so I was cast as one of the Puerto Ricans, pretty laughable, as I am the whitest guy anybody ever met). I suppose I could play poor Glad Hands now, the adult schnook who arranges the dance at the gym which gets the love story going. In the film, John Astin took the role, and gave no evidence that he could play that lothario Gomez Addams a few years later. Honestly, I don't know how he was able to stand at the sidelines, listening to this dynamic music by Leonard Bernstein, and fight the urge to join in.
Anyway, in honor of Sondheim's birthday, and the current revival of his first hit, and because George Chakiris looks so suave in his lavender shirt, and because I couldn't find any dance numbers in Judgement at Nuremberg (even with Judy Garland in the cast) please enjoy the Dance at the Gym. Sock Hops at my high school never looked like this...
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Monday, March 23, 2009
Here's another tale that is old news, but worth repeating. Censorship remains alive and well in our nation's public schools. The rock musical Rent has been released for amateur production, and a school in California's Orange County (a region notorious for its right-wing attitudes) planned a production. The principal banned the show without reading the script, after having heard it deals with prostitution, homosexuality, and AIDS. She recently rescinded her ban, and the show will go on next month. Her about-face may have something to do with the lawsuit which the California ACLU slapped on the school and its officials. They are not concerned with the Rent production, per se, but with the rampant bullying of gay students. A female student involved in the Rent production received threats of death and rape, and the administration has done little to counter sexist and homophobic behaviour in the school. Security officers even cracked down on a grass-roots effort on the part of the students to signal their support of the Rent production by wearing rainbow-colored buttons; the buttons were confiscated. It was only after the ACLU filed suit in Superior Court that the production was reinstated.
No such luck for the school in Oregon which wanted to produce Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapine Agile. A petition with 137 names was presented to the school board, who then halted rehearsals for the show, which the petition complained had "adult content." What? Martin himself offered to fund the production off-campus because he wanted to keep the show from "acquiring a reputation it does not deserve.” I'll say. The play's concept is a meeting between Einstein, Picasso, and Elvis, in a Parisian bar; for the life of me, I cannot imagine what the hell problem the parents had with the thing.
And speaking of death, the theatre community continues to mourn Natasha Richardson. In Sunday's NY Times, Charles Isherwood writes admiringly of the special discipline of the stage actor, and cites the Redgraves as perfect examples of actors who always show up, and always do the work. He attributes such professionalism to the "dailyness" of stage acting, as opposed to the rather contrary, sloppy aspect of Hollywood fame.
It's a nice article, but I was much more moved when I read about last Thursday night. It was the night when all the lights on Broadway were dimmed for a minute, in tribute to their lost star. Broadway.com reported that, among the regular theatre-goers in Shubert Alley, there were some surprises. Members of Richardson's stage and real family had gathered to watch the tribute. Liam Neeson, who met and fell in love with Richardson while debuting on Broadway together in Anna Christie, was joined by Richardson’s sister, Joely, and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, as they stood outside the Booth Theatre to see the Broadway community dim its marquees for one minute, a traditional honor saved for stage greats. Seen comforting Neeson with hugs and condolences were friends Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, Ralph Fiennes (Richardson’s co-star in the movies Maid in Manhattan and The White Countess, and Neeson’s friend since the two co-starred in Schindler’s List), Laura Linney (who starred with Neeson in the 2002 Broadway revival of The Crucible), and Richardson's costars from the Cabaret revival, Ron Rifkin and John Benjamin Hickey. At 8pm, the lights of the theater district began to dim, theater by theater, and mourners, onlookers and passersby began to respectfully applaud, at times even shouting Richardson’s name.
As the lights returned, Neeson shielded his eyes with his cap, and ducked into a waiting car with his family.
That image makes me cry.
Friday, March 20, 2009
In the tour I saw, the Master of Ceremonies was played by an actor of whom I had never heard, but who has since made a terrific name for himself, Norbert Leo Butz. I could not take my eyes off this dynamic gent, but that is really not surprising. The Emcee in Cabaret is one of the all-time show-stealers, and I should know.
Cabaret has been near and dear to my heart and soul since the film came out in the early 70s. I was just a teen, but I still recall the impact of Joel Grey's performance. This was the first time I consciously thought to myself, "I want to play this role." The Emcee became the first role to be placed on "my list," even before I knew I was keeping one. Ask any stage actor, and he or she can tell you immediately what roles they are dying to play (or wish they had had the chance to play). For me, the Emcee topped that list.
I was so enamored of the Cabaret film, and the Emcee therein, that I performed a version of "Money, Money" with my friend Ada in my high school drama class (Ada recently reminded me that we used lip sync. yikes). This was the first of many times I performed some aspect of Cabaret. (This picture is proof of my obsession: My friend Donna agreed to accompany me to a Halloween party during this period, and as you can see, I went as the Emcee.)
The next time I played the Emcee, I actually got to sing some of his songs in my own voice. I have already written about my first encounters with my best buddy Judy, which resulted in my playing the Emcee in her abridged version of Cabaret. Judy deserves some credit here, not only for giving me the role, but for her idea to turn some of the Kit Kat Girls into men. Back in 1975, this was a pretty radical idea. Judy was ahead of her time; twenty years later, the Cabaret revival placed a man in the song "Two Ladies."
Well, Judy's one-hour version of the show had whetted my appetite. I was confident I could play the Emcee in a full length production, and Thespis, the world's first showstopper, seemed to smile down on me when, a year later, Cabaret was announced as part of the main stage season at my undergrad. After several auditions, there remained only three students up for the part. My buddy Cris (about whom I have already written) was (and still is) a phenomenal singer who acted. My acquaintance Billy was a dancer who acted. And I was an actor who moved well and carried a tune by selling the song. Guess who got the role?
It wasn't the first, nor last, time a director passed me over in favor of someone with better musical sounds. Cris was wonderful in the role, though I doubt I could recognize it then. My severe disappointment (and it was SEVERE. Cris was lucky I never caught him in a crosswalk while I was driving home) reinforced my determination to play the role, someplace, somehow, in a full production.
It was at least a decade after college before I got another swing at the plate. A theatre in Thousand Oaks, CA published a casting call, and though the venue was about an hour from my home, I drove out to the audition. Didn't know a soul, though in true theatrical fashion, I did bump into a kid with whom I had worked about six years earlier. I had the feeling that this may be my last chance to play this role I had coveted for decades, so I did my best to block out the other, better singers auditioning for this plumb assignment. At my first audition, I sang "Money, Money," because I knew it cold and it's an impressive patter song. Of course, it is not in the stage version. (Or rather, it wasn't at that time. The 1998 revival and others before it have since put the song, written for the movie, into the play.) I knew it was not in the play, but pretended ignorance when the director, a lunatic named Stuart, alerted me to the fact. It was enough to secure a callback, though, and a few days later, I made the schlep back out to Thousand Oaks to sing again. This time, the musical director had assigned "The Money Song" for the auditioners to sing; of course, it contains the highest note the Emcee sings in the entire show, which is surely the reason he chose it. Thanks a lot, Zach.
I did not know it at the time, but I was later told that my unexpected appearance at these auditions upset the tentative casting plans for the show. In a theatre group such as the Conejo Players, shows were picked with at least a general idea of who would be playing certain leading roles. Nothing was set in stone, but it was the expectation for this Cabaret that the musical director's wife would play Sally Bowles, and his mother would play Fraulein Schneider. (It is in fact what happened.) It was also the expectation that, unless somebody really fabulous crawled out of the woodwork, the musical director would be playing the Emcee himself.
I would never have known this little tidbit of info if the director had not let it slip a week or so after we began rehearsals. It was the night I was almost fired. We had spent the first week learning the music, and for me, that was a huge undertaking (including reprises, the Emcee sang a whopping seven numbers; the usual load for a leading man in shows of the period is four). I was learning all this music at the same time I was performing in another musical, so I was taking some care with my voice so as not to be hoarse during those performances. However, the director took this as vocal weakness, and so, one night after rehearsal, Zach the musical director pulled me aside to tell me, "Stuart wants to know if this is all I'm going to get out of you. Because if it is..." Note the dot dot dot, which clearly meant, "you're out."
The next day was a pretty terrible one for me, as I anticipated the night's sing-through. It was to be the first time the entire score was sung all the way through, and everyone would be in attendance. I was in no way prepared to give a performance after only a week's rehearsal, but I also knew that if this director saw anything less than a full-out performance, I was to be replaced.
That night, I blew out my voice giving this amateur director exactly what he wanted; while the other actors remained in their chairs in a circle when they politely sang, I leaped up, improvised dance steps, interacted with the chorus members, and generally sneered and cackled my way through the rehearsal. I beat the living crap out of the Emcee, but when I was done, I knew I had kept the job.
What's funny about this memory is, this gig didn't even pay anything. But I knew in my gut that it may be the last chance I would have to play this role (and it was.) Because of this director, I learned a pretty good lesson about how to fake a performance during a rehearsal, though I have thankfully not had to do it much. I hate the fact that my current show suffered a bit when I returned to it the following night. (Sorry about that, Rob and Joe and Judi and Steve, that final weekend of Robin Hood was not my best work...now you know why.)
I had a ball with Cabaret, once I realized that Stuart was not much of a director. I got to sing those wonderful songs, or rather, act them. I acted the dancing, too, and for putting me in high heels during the can-can number, Stuart, I dedicate this shot to you:
This whole jaunt down memory lane was triggered by my catching a few snippets of Natasha Richardson's performance as Sally Bowles. In honor of all us actors out here doing musical theatre, here is another clip of the late lamented, singing the title song the way it should be sung. Rest in Peace.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
She leaves behind two sons by her husband Liam Neeson, and of course, her extended family of Redgraves and Richardsons, probably comprising the most acclaimed theatrical dynasty of the late 20th century.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Never heard of him? Me neither, but he died the other day at the ripe old age of 92. He was a longtime screenwriter with two Oscar nominations to his credit, for movies of which I have also never heard: Take the High Ground and Bad Day at Black Rock. He was considered a terrific script doctor at MGM, and also wrote a bit for television. He attached his name to the 1950 script of Gun Crazy, the film noir classic which was actually written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, as a favor to their shared agent. In 1992, he officially requested that his name be removed from the film's credits and be replaced with its rightful author. His first novel ("Bowl of Cherries"), which he wrote in his late 80s, was an unexpected smash, and his second book is due out this fall.
So, Millard Kaufman seems to have been an upstanding gent and worthy of recognition, but you may wonder why he is receiving an obit in these pages. I do not, after all, write about everybody who dies, just about folks who hold some interest for me. (It is why I did not report on the death of radio pundit Paul Harvey, who died a few weeks ago. I'm sorry he's gone, of course, but am not all that interested in him or his work.)
Well, here's why. Back in 1949, Kaufman penned the script for a short animated film called Ragtime Bear, and included a character based on his near-sighted uncle. A year later, Kaufman wrote Punchy de Leon for the same character, and a star was officially born: