Sunday, June 30, 2013

Friday Dance Party: They Heard.

Once again, I have fallen behind on the Dance Parties, my attentions having been pulled elsewhere. 

I'll be spending the summer here.

But while I was sweating out on that slab of concrete in NYC's Riverside Park, getting my eyes (theatrically) gouged out, the week turned quite a corner for Marriage Equality and gay civil rights. 
I have issued several entries over the years to celebrate Gay Pride.  To read any or all of them, just put "Stonewall" in the search engine in the upper left corner of this page.
To add to the gaiety of the week, I'm composing this entry on Sunday, June 30, which, this year, is Gay Pride Day in New York City. 
Celebrations this week outside the Stonewall Inn.

ACTUAL Gay Pride Day is June 27, the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which also took place in NYC and is considered the birth of the modern gay rights movement.  But unless the 27th falls on a weekend, New York and all other American cities choose a different day for their municipal celebration.  As I've mentioned before, the big cities in close proximity to each other always spread out their Gay Pride Celebrations, taking advantage of all those 'mos with expendable income who wish to attend them all.  So, you will never find Gay Pride Day in DC or NY or Philadelphia or Boston to ever land on the same day. On the west coast, Gay Prides in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego will be similarly spread out(Gay Pride in South Carolina, where I spent two years in grad school, is in the fall, for some reason.)
Today's Stonewall Inn looks like any other club or bar, but 44 years ago, it was a hole-in-the-wall dive trying to escape attention in Greenwich Village.  The clientele consisted of drag queens, hustlers, and the men who were interested in them.  When the fateful police raid occurred, the night of Judy Garland's funeral, these queens had had enough.  The resulting riot launched the Gay Rights Movement as we know it today, and is celebrated every year in June.
Anyway, it's been a very gay week, so in honor of such, our Dance Party comes from a gay men's chorus. 
This magazine cover is destined to be a classic.
Despite efforts from Sesame Street to dissuade
everyone, their favorite "roommates," Bert and
Ernie, were claimed by the Gay Movement
long ago.

There are these kinds of choruses all over the place these days, this particular group seems a bit subdued, perhaps due to the auspiciousness of the situation (I know for a fact that this group puts on a fabulous series of concerts every year).  They are stationed outside the Supreme Court Building in DC, waiting, as were hundreds of others, for this week's historic decisions by the Nine Supremes. 

Ragtime's Coalhouse Walker never admits defeat.  In the show's
11:00 number, Stokes created an anthem for all
people searching for equal treatment.
The song can be considered a civil rights song, but it was not really written as such.  It comes from Ragtime, and was introduced to the world by Brian Stokes Mitchell in the original Broadway company.  The lyrics, in that case, reflected the African-American struggle, but it has been co-opted by other groups as a plea for equality for all.  And is there anything more beautiful than a male chorus singing acapella?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Catch Up Dance Party: Call Me Daddy

I've fallen a bit behind on the weekly Dance Parties lately, and here is the perfect opportunity to play a little catch up.  It's been an active week, with three happy occasions all worth celebration.
Last year, NPH picked up double Emmys,
including one for hosting the Tonys. Look
for him to repeat that win next year.

Of course, tomorrow is Fathers Day (is there an apostrophe needed there?  If so, where does it go?  Is it ONE father's day, ie: your own, or is it ALL fathers' day?  Grammar and punctuation used to be so easy...).  In honor of that hallowed day when we honor our paters, I'd love to post a clip of my own father singing a little dittie.  There are a couple of problems with that, but the biggest one is, I don't have such a clip.  Sorry, Dad.
Ah, if only I had picked up my video camera on this particular Christmas.  My father has always displayed an attraction to the ukulele;  I can recall receiving one of the small ones in my childhood.  I never had the patience to learn to play the thing, but Dear Ol' Dad never forgot how to strum a few chords and warble a tune or two.  It would be the perfect Dance Party clip, if it existed.
But we do have another father to celebrate, and by coincidence, it is also his 40th birthday today.  And as if that weren't enough, our Dad Of The Week is celebrating yet another stellar hosting job on the annual Tony Awards. 
In a tribute to last year's Best Musical, Once, Harris began his opening number small and acoustic. But that didn't last long. NPH makes regular appearances in these pages, including this rundown of his various award appearances, this discussion of the 2011 Tonys,, this clip of his appearance in Company, and this one of his appearance in Sweeney Todd.  Oh, and for good measure, Harris appeared in this clip from the ill-fated Broadway production of Assassins. Do you think this is overkill?
Yes, my secret best friend Neil Patrick Harris (NPH to his posse) has once again proven that he is his generation's best (and possibly only) true song-and-dance man.  Last Sunday, he continued his tradition of topping himself as the best Award Show Host in the business.  CBS surely thinks so, as he has already been tapped to host the Emmys this year as well.
In this hilarious sequence, NPH explains the joys of theatre to three Broadway stars who left the stage for the glories of television.  Laura Benanti was a supporting player on the Matthew Perry sitcom Go On, which was paired by NBC with Andrew Rennells's sitcom The New Normal.  Both were cancelled after one season.  Megan Hilty was a highlight of Smash, which barely survived into a second season before crashing and burning.  NPH, on the other hand, will complete his 9th season in the ensemble of How I Met Your Mother.
As most people know, NPH is in a long time relationship with David Burtka;  the two announced their engagement quite a while ago, but have yet to legally tie the knot. 
Harris is on the phone, while Burtka handles
the kids. This dynamic is about to change.
All Manhattan is abuzz with anticipation:
The family is moving to NYC
to allow Burtka to resume his theatrical

Perhaps their parenthood got in the way, as they are now raising a set of twins which they conceived via a surrogate.  So this weekend, let's celebrate our hero's birthday, his fatherhood, and his Tony triumph all at once.
How much fun must it be to have Neil Patrick Harris as a dad?

Naturally, we turn to the Tony Awards themselves for this special Dance Party.  For the first time in my memory, I watched the ceremony with others.  My best bud Judy was visiting my New York Branch, and we had a small chip-and-dip and chocolate-chip get-together, attended by our old college friend, Greg. 

The awards were great fun this year, as we had seen some of the contenders. 
Pippin is one of Judy's favorite musicals. I
wrote about seeing it here; we were thrilled
when it won the Tony.

And our hero provided several numbers from which to choose this special Dance Party.  But there can really be only one choice:  Harris's opening number, which, in addition to celebrating all of Broadway also paid tribute to the Tonys returning to the vast Radio City Music Hall, will win NPH his next Emmy Award.  It is the first time I can recall that an opening number received a standing ovation.  Happy Birthday, Happy Fathers Day, and Congratulations on your Tony performance, NPH!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Don't Just Lie There, Swim Something.

That Funny Lady Fannie Brice has a small but interesting connection to the star of this week's Dance Party:

Esther Williams
Everybody knows Williams died last week, and while I must admit to never being able to sit through one of her movies, she deserves some notice. 
"Beware. Curves ahead."

She is, or rather was, one of the last remaining stars of the Golden Age of MGM Musicals.  With the possible exception of skating star Sonja Henie, the stardom of Williams was the most oddball of all musical careers at the time.
Whether or not Esther invented synchronized swimming, she certainly brought it into the mainstream.
Esther maintained that she had really lived three full lives.  The first was as a competitive swimmer.  She was on her way to winning some medals at the 1940 Olympic Games in Helsinki when the outbreak of WWII forced the cancellation of the games. 

Esther's stardom proved to little girls that they could be athletes
and still remain feminine.
She instead went to work as a salesclerk at a Los Angeles department store.  While inventorying stock at I.Magnin, she was contacted to replace swimming star Eleanor Holm in the Billy Rose vaudeville-styled extravaganza Aquacade
Billy Rose's Aquacade was one of the impresario's huge entertainment spectacles.
Thus began her second life, as an entertainer.  Her participation in the Billy Rose show brought her to the attention of MGM, who signed her for a series of musicals built around her uncanny talent of swimming, and smiling open-mouthed, underwater, without air bubbles escaping.
That open-mouthed smile, underwater, was a little freaky.
In her later years, Williams admitted to being perplexed by her own popularity. 
Williams with two other MGM stars.

The absurdity of building lavish musicals around synchronized swimming (she is sometimes given credit for actually inventing it) was not lost on our gal, but she had an engaging personality which came through on camera, and her killer body dressed in skintight onesies didn't hurt at the box office. 
When Fernando Lamas asked Esther
to stay home with the kids, she did.

But by the time heartthrob Fernando Lamas proposed marriage, she was pretty much finished at the cineplex.  That third life of hers was spent as a stay-at-home wife to the famous Latin lover.
Latin film star Fernando Lamaz fathered this dude, but alas, our Esther was only his stepmother.  Lorenzo Lamas's mother was Arlene Dahl.
This week's Dance Party is a fun tribute which appeared on YouTube after Esther died.  It is a montage of some of her films, set to a song called, appropriately, "H2O."  The singer in question is even more appropriate:  the background song is sung by Jodi Benson, who voiced Disney's The Little Mermaid (Esther Williams was known as America's Mermaid). 

Oh, and here's a fun fact which slays me.  After husband Fernando Lamas died, Williams crept back into public life.  She lent her name to a line of swimwear and was a commentator for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.  But her most surprising act was one of refusal;  in 1972, she turned down the chance to revive her acting career in a big budget studio film which required a middle-aged woman who could swim.  Her role went elsewhere:

In the allstar disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure, Shelley Winters took the role turned down by Esther Williams, and won an Oscar nomination.

Oh, and how does Esther Williams connect with funny lady Fannie Brice?  Follow this if you can.  Impresario Billy Rose was married to Brice for a time, while sleeping with his swimming star Eleanor Holm.  Holm would later become his second wife, after his divorce from Brice.  Our Esther replaced Holm in Rose's big show.  And Fannie Brice famously described Esther thus: "Wet, she's a star.  Dry, she ain't." 
Eleanor Holm was the only swimming star to rival the celebrity of Esther Williams.  She was a real party girl.  On her way to compete in the 1936 Olympics in Germany, she champagned with Helen Hayes and won handily at craps on board her cruise ship.  Her drunken behavior was considered inappropriate, and she was banned from competing. But she latched onto producer Billy Rose, above, and together they lived a lavish lifestyle.  It was this relationship which inspired the quip which titles this piece.  In Funny Lady, Streisand's Fannie Brice surprises Holm and Rose in bed, to which she snaps, "Don't just lie there, swim something."
Nobody much liked the chemistry between Streisand and James Caan in Funny Lady.  But Esther Williams and Johnny Weismuller? Hubba hubba. Or rather; glub glub.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Lousy Street

I'm a little behind on the Dance Parties this month, with no excuse other than the fact that I simply have not sat down to do my research.  But I shall do my best to catch up, beginning with this week's entry, which actually references some events of LAST week.  It was good news/bad news for our stars.

There was good news for Carol Burnett, who has been chosen to receive the annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. 
Mark Twain Prize winner Jonathan Winters, under a Big W.

The award, given by the Kennedy Center, has been around for a while, and was originally created to honor folks who had contributed a lifetime of humor to the American landscape.  Sort of a Kennedy Center Honor for comics, the early recipients were indeed people who had spent full lives on the comedy frontier: Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Lorne Michaels, Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin, and the like. 
Ellen Degeneres is one of a handful of comics to receive the Mark Twain prize mid-career.  She is the reigning queen of daytime chat, and her earlier sitcom made history when both Ellen and the character she played came out.  Ellen Morgan announced her homosexuality over the paging system of the airport, and Ellen herself came out on the cover of Time magazine.  "The Puppy Episode" was the highest rated of the sitcom's run, and won two Emmys and the Peabody.
She saw it in the window and just had to have it.
If she never did anything else, Burnett's variety
show would qualify her for the Twain.

In recent years, however, the award has been given to younger performers who are arguably in the peak years of their careers;  Will Farrell, Ellen Degeneres, and Tina Fey have all received the prize.  Last week's announcement that Carol Burnett will be awarded returns the prize to its roots as a "lifetime achievement" recognition.
Carol Burnett is no stranger to the Dance Party.  Her performance on Gomer Pyle USMC, with her best gay boyfriend, appeared here, and only a few months ago, she shared an energetic number with her mentor, Lucille Ball.
This week's Dance Party features another star who did not have such a great week.  As everyone knows by now, Tim Curry recently suffered a major stroke.  We have been assured (by his agent, so who knows if it's true?) that he has already begun recovery, and is speaking.  It is to his agent's benefit to leave the impression that her client is still employable, so we can only hope her description was the truth.
They're ready for their close-up. Burnett as Nora Desmond and Curry as Frank-N-Furter are practically twins.
Curry appeared in his own Dance Party only a month or so ago, and as he is not one of my alltime favorites, it may seem odd that he returns to these pages so soon. 
Planet Shmanet, Janet, Curry could play more than a
sweet transvestite.

But I have a lot of respect for the man, and his health concerns are serious.  I covered his career and his most famous performance last month, you can read all about it here.  I have run across quite a few younger folks who are not familiar with his performance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, if you can believe it.  They know Tim from another high-profile role, and I'm not talking about that creepy clown.
Lots of younger folks grew up with the video of Annie, and recognize Curry from his performance as Rooster.
The film version of Annie had a lot going for it, not least of which was its allstar casting. 
I am not a big fan of Annie, so it's odd that this particular number from the show has popped up so often on my Dance Party.  "Easy Street" is a classic showstopper (or ought to be), with the above cast, headed by the Tony winning Dorothy Loudon, giving the definitive version.  They appeared in these pages here.
As opposed to the disastrous casting of another famous musical, Mame, about which I wrote last time, this stage-to-screen transfer seemed ontrack.  While I would very much have wished that original star Dorothy Loudon could have recreated her unforgettable stage performance (I wrote about seeing that here), I understand why Carol Burnett was chosen to replace her. 
This TV remake of Annie is more satisfying than the big screen version, and its "Easy Street" is dominated by Alan Cumming's quirky performance as Rooster.  You can see it here.
Burnett should have been a knockout in the role of the comically wicked Miss Hannigan, having cut her teeth in musical theatre, and having the star power to sell tickets.  The casting of Bernadette Peters, Ann Reinking, Geoffrey Holder, and our Tim Curry could not be faulted.  Even the small roles had some juice;  Edward Herrmann knew his role of FDR quite well, having earned two Emmy nods playing him in earlier projects.  Pamela Blair, the original "tits and ass" girl from A Chorus Line, played a maid, and game show host Peter Marshall was perfect casting as a smarmy radio show host. 
Annie is the show that will not die. The current
revival (its SECOND) features Jane Lynch as
Miss Hannigan. Look for a clip at next week's
Tony Awards.

The only major misfire seemed to be Albert Finney, whose previous experience with a musical was playing Scrooge.  Sadly, his Daddy Warbucks had more than a passing similarity to old Ebenezer. 

But Finney's miscasting aside, Annie the film musical seemed like a swell idea, except for one problem, and it was a big one:
John Huston earned an astonishing 15 Oscar nominations during his career as a director and screenwriter.  He won twice.  He is in the history books for this accomplishment:  in 1948, he directed his father, Walter Huston, to an Oscar for The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and almost 40 years later, he directed his daughter Angelica in her Oscar-winning turn in Prizzi's Honor.  Despite being part of the first family to win Oscars in three generations, he had no business attempting to direct a musical.
John Huston was coming to the end of a long and distinguished career as a film director, and occasional actor, but despite his reputation as one of Hollywood's finest directors, producer Ray Stark made a mistake giving him Annie
Why wasn't Carol Burnett funnier as Miss Hannigan?
Nobody knows.

He was in poor health, and was on oxygen throughout the shoot.  Despite 4 decades as a film director, he was not qualified to direct a musical, and this week's Dance Party proves the point.  The song, once again, is "Easy Street," and Huston made a major blunder with the number. 
Ann Reinking had the thankless role of
Grace Farrell. Her chemistry with Albert
Finney never materialized.

Initially, he saw the song as a great opportunity to "open up" the stage play, and he can be forgiven for considering it.  A song called "Easy Street" which takes place in an office seems at odds with itself.  Huston determined that the number should take place outside, and an entire depression-era NY street was constructed to do so. 
Peters, Curry, and Burnett had all
carried shows on their own.
Why didn't this work better?

The street was to be populated with all the usual suspects, plus carnival performers and all sorts of background actors.  In a word, the segment was HUGE.  They even shot the thing, and it was only after the final product was screened did Huston decide he had made a mistake in placing the song outside.  After principle photography was completed, they went back into the studio and filmed the version of the song which appears in the final film, and which is showcased below.  We can only take Huston's word that it is an improvement, but it is definitely the least satisfying rendition of this showstopper that I have seen.  But in honor of Tim Curry and Carol Burnett, it's this week's Dance Party!