Wednesday, June 29, 2011

From Teen To Dowager

I am hopelessly behind on the obits usually found in these pages, the line of decaying corpses wraps around the block, I'm afraid. Having just begun a new gig, I did not expect to find much free time in which to catch up, and that's just as well. I have heard from a number of readers that they quite enjoy my obits, which are often more of a tribute than an actual obituary. Other visitors to these pages, though, wonder why I spend any time at all writing about a polar bear who died at the Berlin Zoo.
But a death notice came to my attention today which I simply cannot ignore. She was one of the finest actresses I have ever come across, and I enjoyed her performances in various BBC adaptations so much, that I must put down my current script (sorry, Nerdies) and pay homage to this unforgettable dame.

Margaret Tyzack


Don't recognize her name? Don't recognize her face? I'm not surprised. Her career lasted more than 60 years, but she was never a household name, even when she was involved in international hits.

After the usual British training at RADA and the requisite years in repertory theaters, Tyzack made a big splash in the ground-breaking BBC adaptation of The Forsyte Saga, way back in 1967.

That 26-hour series, which was based on John Galsworthy's behemoth account of an upper-middle class (though decidedly non-aristocratic) English family at the turn of the 20th century, became an international sensation. During its initial run in Britain, churches were encouraged to adjust the time of their Sunday evening services in order to accommodate the viewing public. The series was broadcast in the states by the network which was to become PBS, though back then, it was known as "Educational Television," or NET. It was reported that, when the series was shown in Manhattan, there was a noticeable lowering of water levels immediately following each episode, as thousands of viewers flushed in unison. The Forsyte Saga was such a sensation in the US that NET was encouraged to create an entire weekly series devoted to British imports. Thus, The Forsyte Saga simultaneously led to the creation of Masterpiece Theatre and the invention of the miniseries.

Margaret Tyzack costarred in the series, playing Winifred, sister to the central character in the series, Soames Forsyte. She aged from an innocent teenaged girl to an elderly grande dame, and I was entranced with her work (even at my pre-teen age, I was attracted to strong acting talent). Tyzack appeared over and over on the various series which comprised Masterpiece Theatre, and I loved her in every one. The very first series which introduced Masterpiece Theatre was a costume drama called The First Churchills. The series starred Susan Hampshire, who had costarred with Tyzack on The Forsyte Saga, and had unexpectedly won the Best Actress Emmy for her performance. Hampshire and Tyzack were once again teamed in The First Churchills, and once again, our Margaret aged her character from naive teenager to imperious dowager (she played the historically accurate, and sexually ambivalent, Queen Anne). Hampshire once again snagged the Best Actress Emmy, and became known as queen of the miniseries, but I think Tyzack better deserves the moniker. Margaret probably gained her greatest notice for her performance in I, Claudius, another British miniseries broadcast on PBS. She played Antonia, daughter to Marc Antony and mother to the future Emperor Claudius (and guess what? She aged her character from naive teenager to imperious grande dame).

Take a look at this clip, in which she interacts with the great Derek Jacobi as the stuttering star, and a kid playing the young Caligula.

My favorite performance of Margaret Tyzack's was her barely remembered title role as Cousin Bette. It was yet another British miniseries shown on Masterpiece Theatre, and should not be confused with the abysmal film version starring Jessica Lange.
In this instance, Tyzack took a rare starring role, that of a poor spinster who has taken just about enough from her wealthy relatives. This adaptation of Balzac's dark comedy (very dark. VERY dark) provided our heroine with a the perfect role with which to display her sharp wit and ability to cut straight to the heart. This series was also an early showcase for a young Helen Mirren; the scenes between Mirren and Tyzack are absolutely delicious. Cousin Bette is available on DVD, and is worth your attention, believe me.

In addition to her various television appearances, Margaret conducted a very full stage career, I regret never having seen her perform live. She won the first of several Olivier awards in England in 1982, when she replaced an ailing Joan Plowright in a revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; a year later, she earned a Tony nomination for her appearance as the Countess in the RSC's visiting production of All's Well That Ends Well. A while later, she was at the center of a casting brouhaha which almost prevented her winning a Tony.

In 1990, Maggie Smith and our Margaret starred together in a London production of Peter Schaeffer's new comedy, Lettice and Lovage. The show was a hit, and plans were made for a Broadway transfer. Actors Equity Association, which can withhold permission for foreign actors to perform on Broadway, granted immediate approval for Miss Smith, as she was an international star. But they balked at the suggestion that Margaret Tyzack should be allowed to make the transfer as well. Though she had already scored a Tony nomination, the union did not believe her presence (over that of an American actress) was necessary for the financial success of the show, so they refused permission for her to appear.
Maggie Smith became adamant: if her costar, with whom she felt she shared a rare chemistry, was not allowed to transfer to Broadway, she would withdraw her own services. I have a lot of respect for Dame Maggie for taking such a stand in honor of one of her, let's face it, supporting players. Equity relented, and both Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack recreated their roles on Broadway,. And BOTH won Tony awards. God, I love that story.

Margaret Tyzack continued to work right up until her death. She won another Olivier award only a few years ago, and recently, toured with her old Cousin Bette costar Helen Mirren, in Phaedra.
Earlier this year, Tyzack joined the long-running British primetime soap, Eastenders, a casting coup for the series which resulted in a long-term plotline being created for her character. In failing health, Miss Tyzack was forced to withdraw from the series a few weeks ago; on June 25th, she died.

I wish I could find more clips from her TV work, but below, please enjoy a scene from her Tony winning performance in Lettice and Lovage. It was presented at the Tony Awards, and I said earlier, both she and her costar, Dame Maggie Smith, won Tonys that evening.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Happy Dancing And A Nerd Note

The mood has improved quite a bit around here this week, and not all of it has to do with the Marriage Equality now achieved in one of the country's most populous states. Sure, I'm happy about the development, and I'm not the only one to recognize the significance of the vote happening so close to Gay Pride Day. I've written several times about the Gay Pride celebrations which happen all over the country these days, not all of them occurring during June, which is Gay Pride Month. But there certainly seems a nice symmetry to the historic vote in New York on Friday, since today marks the 42nd Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, commonly recognized as the official beginning of the modern gay rights movement.

Yeah, yeah, enough of that. I've had a busy week on my own, I'm sure you're dying to read all about it. I've been trying to get life in order before heading out to lovely Wayside Theatre ("the little theater with the big heart") for some summer stock fun. I've worked there a couple of times in the past, including a gig as Sancho Panza in Man of La Mancha, about which I wrote extensively at the time. Haven't been back in a few years, so I was pleased as punch when artistic director and Grand Pooh Bah Warner Crocker approached me last January, at our annual Equity auditions. He suggested I read a play called The Nerd. I had heard of it but had never seen the piece, so I ordered a copy online and read it within a week or so. It is one of the very few scripts I have ever read which caused me to laugh out loud, so I dropped Warner an email that I enjoyed the play and would be available for the summer run.

Many weeks passed, during which I was unexpectedly involved in Joe's Coat out at Olney Theatre (you remember that story, right?), but a month or so ago, I received word that I would in fact be returning to Wayside to play in The Nerd. I won't be playing the actual nerd, whatever you people think, but will be playing the dry theater critic who lives downstairs. Perfect casting, if you ask me.

I had assumed all along that the lovely and talented Warner would be directing the play, as he directs 99.99% of the shows at Wayside, but here's a funny story. Several weeks ago, I agreed to do one day's extra work (excuse me: "background work") for a film for HBO which had been shooting in the area. I dislike extra work (excuse me: "atmospheric artistry") with a vengeance, but I've been out of work since early April, so I bit the bullet and agreed to spend a very long day in a tent on the parking lot of a warehouse where a crucial scene of the film was being shot. It was an excruciatingly hot, humid, and dull day, but we went into overtime, which means the SAG (union) actors made some bucks.

During the hours and hours of waiting around in the hot tent, I recognized Bill Diggle across the way. I have only met Bill a few times, at auditions or, more frequently, at Opening Nights at Wayside (either his or mine). His head was buried in a script so I left him alone. He works all the time, though I try not to hold that against him too much. Anyway, I finally bumped into him an hour or so into the day. The encounter went something like this:

Me: "I didn't want to interrupt you while you were buried in your script. What are you working on? You work all the time so I hate you." (okay, that last sentence was only in my head)

Bill Diggle (BD): "I'm doing The Nerd."

Me: "Really? I'm getting ready to do The Nerd!"

BD (dryly): "I know. I'm directing you in it."

This was how I discovered that the guy I thought would be directing my show, wasn't. Not that it matters, I have a hunch the young and talented Bill Diggle will be a hoot to work with, and I've heard this arrangement will allow Warner to spend some time reorganizing Wayside's administration, insuring that the venerable theater moves well into its second half-century. Yes, The Nerd is part of Wayside Theatre's 50th Anniversary season, and I'm pretty pleased to be a part of that celebration.

So this week, I've been doing the Happy Dance. I'll be heading out to rural Virginia today, and we'll begin rehearsal tomorrow. I have a strong suspicion that I'll be issuing regular updates on our progress, as I did with Man of La Mancha. Stay tuned. And, if you are reading this on June 27, remember those brave men in heels who ignited the Stonewall Riots 42 years ago, and hug a homosexual.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Dance Party: The Wind That Swept Through Georgia

Gone With The Wind is one of my guilty favorites. Guilty, I suppose, because its depiction of happy Negroes working in the fields and waiting on the white folk with a song in their heart and a skip in their step, seems pretty insensitive, if not downright racist. And historically inaccurate, too. But GWTW has crossed my path several times this week, so it is only natural that the Dance Party be plucked from that masterful melodrama. We begin, as we so often do on Fridays, with a corpse:

Cammie King
Somehow I missed the news that this gal had died last September, but it's appropriate to pay tribute now. She had a long career as a publicist and a museum director, but she will forever be remembered for her performance in Gone With the Wind. She often joked that her career "peaked at 5," and she was right. Other than a voice-over role in Disney's Bambi, our Cammie is remembered solely as Miss Eugenia Victoria, otherwise known as Bonnie Blue Butler.

She snagged the role of the only child of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara over a hundred other girls, she later reported, but that cannot be verified. Apocryphal stories abound regarding the casting of this small but pivotal role: it's said that Shirley Temple was courted, but was too old by the time filming actually commenced (this story does not ring true to me, as Cammie King was paid a lousy $1000 for her participation, and Temple was the biggest star in Hollywood in 1939. Plus, the role has only a couple of short scenes, it seems doubtful Temple's handlers would ever consider such a part for their star). It's also said that a young and fairly unknown Elizabeth Taylor was up for the part, but she also outgrew the role during the long pre-production period. Whatever the real truth, Cammie King's death last year leaves us with only two surviving performers from GWTW: Ann Rutherford, who played the small role of Carreen O'Hara (youngest sister to Scarlett) and of course, Olivia DeHaviland, who retired to France decades ago and is still hanging on (she turns 95 next week).

I just went scouring through my bookcases, looking for my copy of Gone With the Wind, which I read twice as a teenager, and again in my 20s, but I guess I've lost it along the way. It was a real page turner, despite its gigantic length. It was a sensational success as soon as it was published, 75 years ago this year. There are great stories about its diminutive author, Margaret Mitchell, and her slapdash writing habits and lack of organizational skills. She was a newspaper reporter in the 30s, highly unusual for a female, and GWTW was her only work of fiction. She claimed she wrote the last chapter first, then wrote pieces of the story out of sequence, and turned them in to her publisher that way. Somebody did an heroic job of pulling the massively disorganized jumble of chapters into a coherent whole, but it was worth the effort. The book was a sensation, and cried out for a film version, even as turning such a sprawling behemoth into a 90 minute film seemed impossible. Turned out it was, as the final cut of the film runs 4 hours with a full intermission, and even then, major characters and plotlines from the novel were cut. Large flashback sequences involving Scarlett's parents were eliminated, as was the interesting but incidental examination of Rhett's family in Charleston. Did you know that Bonnie Blue Butler was not Scarlett's only child? Our author Margaret Mitchell gave our heroine a son with her first husband, and a daughter with her second. Both were jettisoned from the film, as were Ashley's second sister (the film suggests Ashley's only sibling to be the embittered old maid India Wilkes) and Archie, an itinerant Confederate soldier who becomes part of the post-war inhabitants of the plantation Tara.

The story of how this massive melodrama was turned into one of the most successful films in history, is told in a delightful little play currently making the rounds of regional theaters around the country. I caught Moonlight and Magnolias at Totem Pole Playhouse this week, yet another reason GWTW is the star of this week's Dance Party.

The play is a fun snapshot of the writing of the film, and takes a fictional look at a real occurrence. After three weeks of shooting, producer David O. Selznick shut down production (at a huge financial cost), fired director George Cukor, replacing him with Clark Gable's best buddy Victor (The Wizard of Oz) Fleming, and sent the script back to rewrite. Moonlight and Magnolias wonders what would happen if Selznick had locked his new director, his script doctor, and himself, into an office for a week, to rewrite the script. Totem Pole's production is a hoot; a harried secretary, a writer who has not read the book, and a major sprinkling of peanuts and bananas all add up to a very funny play. In between laughs, though, Moon & Mags touches upon a controversy which actually erupted when GWTW was first published (and the discussion continues to this day). Though it won the Pulitzer Prize, the novel is often pointed to as an example of revisionist, racist thinking. In the book, the slaves are quite happy with their station in life; Mitchell defended her story by pointing out that the black characters were the most honorable in the book. She is right, but she skates over the fact that slaves were often tortured, starved, and separated from their families. The slaves at Tara were happy darkies, content to serve their white masters. That assumption is a little difficult to swallow, as is the repulsively positive way in which Mitchell treats the KKK.

But Gone With the Wind remains a favorite of mine anyway. This week's Dance Party comes from the Atlanta Bazaar scene, in which an auction is held to raise money for the Confederate Army. Our heroine has been widowed, by her first husband whom she married on the rebound, so she is in public mourning. It's fun to watch the close-ups of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable as they dance; Gable was a pretty lousy dancer, which was just as well, as camera angles required that platforms were constructed for him and Leigh to stand upon during much of their dialogue. Unseen stage hands swayed the platforms to suggest that Rhett and Scarlet were sweeping across the dance floor while having their flirtatious conversation. In fact, for much of the time, they were standing still.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Attention Every Breeder, You're Invited To The Theater

All Hail Neil Patrick Harris! What a week he had. He had a birthday on Tuesday, turning 38, and two days earlier, he scored a personal and professional triumph at the Tony Awards. His hosting abilities have not been questioned since he first hosted the Tonys two years ago (a performance for which he won his only Emmy to date); he followed up that success by hosting the Emmy awards the same year, then headlining the opening number at the Oscars. But this year's Antoinette Perry Awards Show was surely the most entertaining in memory, due in large part to Harris's smooth, sly, and utterly disarming presence.

This week's Dance Party can star no one else. It is the opening number from the awards, and I have no doubt 99.99 % of the readers of these pages watched the number live on Sunday. But it's worth a second viewing, just to enjoy the confidence which Neil Patrick displays with professional nonchalance. He handles this highly energetic number with such aplomb, especially when compared to the performance of Daniel Radcliffe in the overly exposed "Brotherhood of Man" number from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

I know for a certainty that this song is not the only number in the show, but you might think otherwise, considering it is the only song which has made the rounds of the talk shows to promote the musical. I have seen Radcliffe gamely puffing his way through that choreography on David Letterman and the Today Show. Who knows, he may have performed it on Regis and Kelly and Martha Stewart Living too.

Well, Radcliffe is a real trouper. If you care to see that number as performed at the Tonys, go here. Pay particular attention at the 3:07 mark. Daniel is dancing on a table in the background, being tossed around by the chorus, and the focus of the number has shifted from the star to the ensemble. I love the fact that one of the chorus boys plants a big ol' wet kiss on Radcliffe's neck. I wonder if they will soon have an exciting announcement.

And wasn't Brooke Shields a big ol' mess? She totally blows her moment in this clip, an error she later blamed on the teleprompter. That's a TV star for you. How about actually LEARNING the two lines of lyrics you were appointed to sing? What would THAT be like?

Our hero NPH wasn't thrown a bit, and even counted down the intro for Bobby Cannavale, who exposed one of the big problems the shows' producers had this year: how to refer to the play The Motherfucker With The Hat on national television. He sang the whole title, which was of course bleeped, but subsequent mentions of the show became "The Mother With The Hat."

The Book Of Mormon's producers had a similar problem regarding their show. I've been listening to the original cast album this week, which has made a bit of history on its own. Amazon offered downloads of the complete album, including artwork and liner notes, for only $1.99; as a result, the cast album cracked the Billboard Top Ten, the first original cast album to do so since Hair in 1968. Anyway, the show's score is, to put it mildly, profane. They didn't have many choices from which to pick a song to showcase on the Tony telecast; they settled on "I Believe," one of the very few ballads in the show, but one which showcased star Andrew Rannells.

Allow me one more observation before this week's Dance Party takes over. I am not, believe me, someone who cares about fashion in the least. I don't give a flip who shines on the red carpet and who does not. But two Tony outfits cry out for comment. I can only assume that outfit Whoopie Goldberg was wearing had some kind of cultural significance which I could not discern; it reminded me of my Aunt Beulah's couch.

But worse, I found myself genuinely angry when Francis McDormand took the stage to receive her Tony award, dressing in a jeans jacket. It shows a lack of respect toward the community which granted her the stage's highest honor; frankly, she looked like she had just been arrested. Her mug shot belongs on the wall next to Mel Gibson's and Nick Nolte's.

Really, if you care so very little about the Tonys, just don't show up. But back to Neil Patrick Harris, who made this year's ceremony so memorable. He has starred in the Dance Party before, almost a year ago in fact, go here to take a peek. And enjoy this number once more!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Tell Me All Your Secrets (And I'll Tell You Most of Mine)

There have been several deaths recently from the music world, and regular visitors to these pages know the weekly Dance Party is often inspired by dead people. This week is no exception.

Andrew Gold

He was destined for a musical career, as he sprang from one of Hollywood's best known musical marriages. His father was composer Ernest Gold, who scored It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, On The Beach, and Exodus, for which he won the Oscar. His mother was (and is) Marni Nixon, who was, in the 50s, the Go-To Gal whenever a movie star was cast in a musical but could not hit the notes (we heard her cover for Natalie Wood in West Side Story, for Deborah Kerr in The King And I, and for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady). So it was no surprise that Andrew went into the family business, and he became well-known as a studio musician. He played various instruments on recordings by James Taylor, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Celine Dion, John Lennon, Carly Simon, Wynona Judd, Trisha Yearwood, The Eagles, Loudon Wainwright III, and Cher. His guitar work contributed to Linda Ronstadt's first hit album, "Heart Like A Wheel," and he played all the instruments behind Art Garfunkle's version of "I Only Have Eyes For You," which hit #1 in Britain.
He had some success as a solo performer as well, reaching #7 in 1977 with "Lonely Boy." That tune was later used as one of the background songs in Boogie Nights:

Gold's most recognizable work was re-recorded by Cynthia Fee when it was snagged as the theme song for a decidedly estrogentric sitcom of the 80s:

In 1992, he sang one of the greatest, but most overlooked, TV theme songs, which provides this week's Dance Party. Mad About You was the brain child of comedian Paul Reiser (who actually co-wrote the title number, and played piano on the recording). It concerned a young married couple negotiating the trials of marriage and career in New York. The show was one of the workhorses for NBC throughout the 90s, receiving lots of Emmy love for star Helen Hunt (who won four years in a row as Best Actress in a Comedy Series), as well as providing Guest Performance Awards to Carl Reiner, Carol Burnett, Mel Brooks (3 years running) and Cyndi Lauper (twice running). But Mad About You' s light touch with comedy was overshadowed by the gigantic gorilla which was Seinfeld, and is largely dismissed today. That's a shame, as it was, at least until that final season, a fine example of character-based comedic writing and performing.

And its theme song, "The Final Frontier," remains one of my favorites. Andrew Gold recorded the tune, which was used under the show's credits for several years, until jazz great Anita Baker recorded a new version. Click the link for this week's Dance Party, which has Gold performing the theme song from Mad About You at a live concert. He died this week at the age of 59.