Saturday, November 30, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Working On Thanksgiving

I am not one to be overly bothered by Christmas Creep.  It's standard procedure these days, for retailers to set out their holiday wares around Halloween. 

Costco gets a pass from me. Though their decorations were for sale in August, they were among the few big box stores to
buck the trend and remain closed for Thanksgiving.
Long gone are the days when the day after Thanksgiving was the special day when decorations popped up all over the place.  My beloved Costco, in fact, sets out their first Christmas Decorations for sale in August (but in their defense, they do not actually decorate the store, they are simply selling balls, bangles, and wrapping paper).  None of it bothers me in the least.

But this year, everybody is rightly riled about the expansion of Black Friday into Thanksgiving Day. 
This scene was repeated all over the country this week, but with a twist.  In past years, foolish morons started lining up  for the Big Black Friday Specials on Thursday night.  This year, people actually pitched their tents outside big box stores Wednesday night.  That's right, they ignored any Thanksgiving celebration in order to camp outside stores all night Wednesday and all day Thursday, just so they could be the first in the door to snag a special (which we are being told really isn't one: an examination of all those incredible "doorbuster" prices reflects that those prices are exactly the same as they were last year). 
What began as a trickle of stores last year is now a flood;  retailers all over the place began their holiday sales Thursday night this week, some as early as 6 PM.  This bothers more than 60% of the population, according to a poll I read, but it doesn't stop the rest of the country from camping out all day on Thanksgiving to get those Big Deals.  This bothers me as much as the next guy, as the biggest offenders here are the big box stores which pay their workers minimum wage;  these employees live on the edge of poverty and cannot afford to refuse to work, even on the holiday.  And because these stores stayed open over 24 hours, you can bet absolutely everybody on the payroll was working at one time or another. 
This was my first job as a waiter, at JoJo's Burgers and Brew, a glorified coffee shop. (I'm in the lower right hand corner.)  The restaurant was open 24 hours a day, and I worked many holidays, including Thanksgiving. Even once I graduated to steak houses, I still worked holidays.
Amid the outcry regarding this atrocity, I have heard nary a peep about the other workers who have always worked Thanksgiving.  I waited tables 13 solid years in Los Angeles, and I worked each and every one of those Thanksgivings. 
At Reuben's Summerhouse in Woodland
Hills, CA, holiday work was a given.
Everyone on staff worked New Year's
Eve, it was the biggest dinner of the year.
Management had a heart; they offered the
staff a bit of a choice for the other hols.
We could choose to take either
Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas
Day, or New Year's Day off, and work
the other three. I worked every
Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and
New Year's Day.

I worked every one of those New Year's Eves too, as well as many Christmas Eves, New Year's Days, and even a few Christmas Days, not to mention every Easter and quite a few Fourths of July.  But here's the difference:  though I did not have much of a choice to work these holidays, I was at least rewarded with a bump in income.  Patrons who chose to go out to eat for Thanksgiving and other hols were in generous moods, ordering liberally and tipping accordingly.  So, the waiter's income did indeed go up during those shifts.
This dude became a media hero this week.  He's Tony Rohr, and he worked for Pizza Hut 10 years, from lowly beginnings as a cook to his present position as general manager of an Indiana outlet.  During that time, the chain remained closed only two days each year: Christmas and Thanksgiving.  Until this week, when the owner of Tony's unit ordered the restaurant to remain open.  Rohr refused to force his employees to work, and was fired.  The outcry went national, and the corporation intervened, "encouraging" the local franchise owner to reconsider.  He's been offered his job back.
The brouhaha regarding workers being forced to work on Thanksgiving brought up lots and lots of memories of my time as a waiter.  I loved the work, as it was fast-paced, stimulating to the mind, and best of all, when you left the restaurant at the end of the shift, you had money in your hand.  There was something quite satisfying about working your tail off all night, and leaving with the immediate results of all that labor.
This oddball musical was a hodgepodge of styles, with music written by five, count 'em five, composers, including Craig Carnelia, Mary Rogers, Stephen Schwartz, and (get this) James Taylor. Its original cast included Patti Lupone, Bob Gunton, Joe Montegna, and Lynn Thigpen, but those heavy hitters could not save it;  the show closed after only 36 performances.
This week's Dance Party comes from Working, a musical which has a bit of a cult following these days.  It was not a success in New York in 1978, and the creators have tinkered with it incessantly ever since. 
This PBS adaptation is available on DVD.

Actors love it, as the musical numbers are all little monologues (very few group numbers), and always  accompany spoken speeches as well. So despite its failure in New York, the show has had a lively life on college and high school stages. 

Eileen Brennan as the Millworker in Working.
 
The show is really just a loose conglomerate of working people, from all walks of life, telling their stories, and is based on Studs Turkel's book of interviews, which he called Working:People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.
This week's star informs us that "It's An Art," and I agree.  Waiting tables is exhausting work, both physically and mentally, but if my body could still do it, I'd still do it.
I wrote a bit about the musical version of Working years ago when Turkel died, and included one of my favorite songs from the musical, written by James Taylor and performed by singer Jennifer Warrens, but enacted by the late great Eileen Brennan.  That clip, as does the one below, comes from the PBS adaptation of Working, featuring a starry cast but in a truncated version.  Here we have Rita Moreno describing her life as (you guessed it) a waitress.  The song is written by Stephen Schwartz, who did a bit better with Godspell and Wicked and Pippin.  In honor of all those unsung workers who break their backs and flatten their feet waiting tables on holidays, Happy Dance Party:

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Abraham, Mabley, and John

This is not who they mean by "Abraham, Martin, and John."
I don't remember much about the day JFK was assassinated.  I was in the second grade, and I don't even remember the name of my teacher. 

I was so traumatized by the assassination, I had to put on my
Pierrot costume.
I seem to recall that, once the word came through that the president had been shot, we were dismissed from school.  What a difference 50 years make.  If a similar thing happened today, kids would certainly not be sent home;  instead, schools would go into Lockdown Mode, and NOBODY would be allowed to leave.  But back in that simpler time, we all went home and watched Walter Cronkite and Huntley & Brinkley give us the details of the moment which changed the world.
The Kennedy clan became an American royal family of sorts.  When Ted Kennedy died a few years ago, I wrote a bit about all the siblings, go here for that rundown.
There were lots of tributes and reminiscences this week, regarding that day of infamy 50 years ago, but none from these two ladies below.  JFK's history, as we now know it, is peppered with his relations with the opposite sex;  we can barely think of Kennedy without Jackie O coming to mind, or Marilyn Monroe, or one of Jack's sisters, or even Jack's mother, that Iron Butterfly Rose Kennedy.  But, because I have such a minimal recollection of that day 50 years ago, two ladies have become linked to JFK, in my own mind.  You won't hear any reminiscences from them today, as they are both dead.
Helen Wagner has popped up several times in these pages.  She is in the Guinness Book of World Records as having played a single character on TV longer than anyone else.  That role was matriarch Nancy Hughes on As The World Turns.  She spent 50 years on the soap, including the episode airing November 22, 1963.
You may never have heard of Helen Wagner nor watched a single episode of her soap As The World Turns, but it's still likely you caught a glimpse of her performance.  On November 22, 1963, CBS was the only network broadcasting a national feed at 1:30 PM, EST. 

Walter Cronkite brought us the news. CBS began four days of
non-stop coverage, unprecedented at the time.

Both NBC and ABC had turned that hour over to their affiliates to program, so the clip everyone sees, of the announcement of the assassination of the president, comes from CBS.  In it, Walter Cronkite breaks into "regularly scheduled programming" to report the shocking news.  That news clip is preserved in museums and other archives the world over;  the program Cronkite is interrupting is As The World Turns, and the actress on the screen at the time is Helen Wagner.
As The World Turns was presented live in those days, so when CBS News interrupted the program, the actors were not told.  They continued with the show, and did not learn of the assassination until they had concluded the episode.
Back in 1968, in response to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, a somber song called "Abraham, Martin, and John" became a hit for a number of artists.  Dion took the song to #4, and the tune was immediately covered by Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Harry Belafonte. 
Believe it or not, this is one of FIVE albums recorded by
Leonard Nimoy. He's one of a number of artists to release
versions of this week's Dance Party.

Andy Williams, who was a close friend of Bobby Kennedy and was actually in that Los Angeles hotel when RFK was shot, recorded his own version and sang it several times on his TV series. 
Dion's version was the biggest hit.

In 1971, an unusual remix hit the charts, which included actual sound bites from our murdered heroes.

There is another unlikely version of the song out there, recorded by another woman whom I now associate with the JFK assassination. 
Jackie "Moms" Mabley was a groundbreaking standup comic back in the day.  She was a superstar on the "Chitlin' Circuit," which showcased black entertainers who were barred from appearing in segregated venues.  She had an horrific childhood:  by the time she was 15, she had been raped twice and had given up the resulting children for adoption.  She left her hometown in North Carolina and joined a traveling vaudeville troop.  At the height of her career, she was making $10,000 a week headlining the Apollo Theater in Harlem. In another highly controversial move, she revealed her lesbianism at the age of 27.  It was 1924.
I first saw Moms Mabley on The Merv Griffin Show, though she made regular appearances on all the variety/talk shows of the 60s.  She developed a stage persona which never varied;  wearing a loose fitting house dress and knit hat, and never wearing her false teeth, she cut a rather bizarre figure.
This is Mike Douglas and Phyllis Newman cracking up at Moms.  Her stage material was strictly x-rated, so her act had to be cleaned up considerably for television, but she still got away with more than most comics.  Her harmless appearance allowed her to delve into issues of race which were usually not allowed on TV.
This week's Dance Party comes from one of her appearances on Merv Griffin's talk show (and is annoyingly marred by superimposed titles, I hope you can ignore them). 
Comics of color all point to Mabley as a great influence.
Whoopi Goldberg has produced a documentary on Moms.

She recorded "Abraham, Martin, and John" shortly after the original hit the streets, and her version climbed to #35 on the Billboard charts (in this clip, Merv Griffin mistakenly reports that the song went all the way to #2; it did not).  Moms is now in the record books due to that recording:  at age 75, she was (and remains) the oldest vocalist to crack Billboard's Pop 40.

Mabley's rendition has a lot of heart and soul, so to commemorate the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, here she is:

Friday, November 15, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Wooden Anniversary

After 5 years, there are now
(gulp) 254 Dance Parties
archived in these pages.
You mean I've been writing this segment five years, and all I get to call it is "wood"??? Five years should at least have some sort of stone attached to it, even if it's only granite.  Sheesh.  Yes, it's true, the Friday Dance Party turns five years old this week.  Oh, what poor Larry Dalke wrought, when he began playing with the idea on his own personal blog five years ago.  He dropped the idea, and his blog, soon afterward, and went on with his life, bless him.  But not me. 
Larry and our favorite leading lady.

I stole my friend's idea and turned it into this catch-all monstrosity of current events, obituaries, birthday celebrations, deathday celebrations, and other assorted rants and raves.  This week each year, I have to go back and point the finger at good ol' Larry, and blame him.

This 5th year's entrees are a bit different than the previous four, at least in number.  Though this segment is always clearly marked the Friday Dance Party, it has often appeared on other days.  Even worse, it has occasionally not appeared at all. 

It was not all fun and games at the Dance Party. When a verdict was handed down in the Steubenville rape case, I wrote about the culture of rape in our popular entertainment, such as in Carousel (above), and included Sophia Loren's burnished blowout from Man of La Mancha.
This fifth year, time seems to have slipped away from me a bit, and there were more than a few weeks which saw no Dance Party, on Friday or any other day of the week.  So, if you happen to count this year's Parties, don't be concerned, we did not lose 10 weeks this year.  There were in fact only 42 Dance Parties since this time last year.  So sue me.
"Easy Street" has appeared in 3
different versions on the Dance Party.
This year's rendition was plucked
from the feature film Annie.

Our most frequent star this year was Carol Burnett, who is having a bit of a resurgence lately.  She turned 80, an achievement itself, and also won the Mark Twain Award for Humor;  she appeared 3 times on the Dance Party.  Here she longs for Easy Street, which is usually a showstopping number from Annie, and here she is with her gal pal and mentor, Lucy.  And when Jim Nabors quietly married his longtime companion, confirming what everybody already knew, Jim's flame dame Carol popped up on his sitcom, Gomer Pyle.
Tying Carol Burnett's score on the Dance Party, we had yet another Triple Dipper this year. Neil Patrick Harris, who is always welcome in these pages, hosted the Tonys (with the most talked about award show opening of the year, the audience gave it a standing O) and also helped celebrate the birthday of Mad Men's Christina Hendricks (by bedding her in Company).  NPH also starred in one of the more uncomfortable of the clips this year;  the week the Sandy Hill massacre stunned us all, we were in no mood for musical clips, but the following week, this song from Sondheim's controversial Assassins was another reminder of the presence of violence in American lives.
Lucy's second Dance Party this year was from
the disastrous Mame, though her bosom buddy
 wasn't half bad.

Tim Curry was another repeat offender this year;  he co-starred with Burnett in the aforementioned clip from Annie (Bernadette Peters is in that one too), and on his birthday, his iconic performance as Frank N. Furter was examined. 
If I'm accused of supporting a Gay Agenda, I'm probably guilty, at least in these pages.  The 15th Anniversary of Matthew Shepherd's murder had to be commemorated (and who better to do so than that shirtless goofball Davey Wavey, above?).  On a brighter note, when the Supreme Court handed down some decisions which helped further marriage equality, a DC Gay Men's Choir celebrated with a number from Ragtime.  Oh, and when Victor Garber came out, everybody shrugged, which is definitely progress!
But back to birthdays. 
You can be dead and still have a birthday, so Fred Astaire
got a Dance Party and a drum solo.

Yes, I mentioned my own birthday this year, which was celebrated by Jennifer Holliday's memorable Tony appearance, but my favorite birthday this year would have to be Chita Rivera's;  she provided this explosive medley of a few of her dance hits.

The annual controversy over the Washington Redskins (specifically, the name, which many consider racist) inspired my recollection of appearing as a Native American in Li'l Abner.  Other current event-type entrees included a kerfuffle at the Helen Hayes Awards, which led to this clip from The Color Purple.  The announcement that Gigi is being revamped for a new generation inspired last week's clip from the original souffle.

Mary Shelley's birthday was celebrated this year, with a peek at her most monstrous creation, revived musically by Mel Brooks.  Mary's creation also popped up on Halloween, natch, in this tribute to the Bride of Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester.  I didn't spend too much time celebrating holidays this year, though we spent Christmas with James Taylor and Thanksgiving with Diana Krall.
Young Frankenstein, the musical.
Linda Ronstadt retired from singing and Elaine Stritch retired from acting, so attention had to be paid to both.  And when I finally slogged my way through the film version of Les Miz (it took me multiple tries), I was in the mood for something livelier, which Hugh Jackman graciously provided.
None of the actors from TV's Smash died (as far as I know), but the show itself suffered a slow and painful demise in its second season.  As a true theatre dog, I had to report my findings, and include dueling clips from the two stars of the show
But as usual, it was dead people who provided the most inspiration this year.  We had Broadway babes Jane Connell and Bonnie Franklin both pass away this year, as well as recording star Edie Gorme (whose Dance Party tribute actually included 3 short clips, so maybe that counts toward the weekly score card?).  Another songstress, Patti Page, was still alive when she recorded this version of her biggest hit, but you'd never know it, as it looks like she's sleepwalking. 
A couple of politicos died and provided Dance Parties.  Sen.
Daniel Inouye inspired Bette Midler to jump out of a
clamshell, and Maggie Thatcher's influence over the
plot of Billy Elliot caused this mad dance moment.

Eileen Brennan never slept through anything, and provided proof in this moment with Madeline Kahn and Cybill ShepherdGlee star Cory Monteith got a mention, as did Esther Williams (who turned down a role for which Shelley Winters then picked up an Oscar nod). TV legend Larry Hagman's tribute clip turned him into a supporting player; his mom, Mary Martin, hogged the spotlight. 


Speaking of Oscar nominations,
Charles Durning got one too,
for this moment from
 Best Little Whorehouse in
Texas.
 

The most hilariously telling Dance Party this year must be this one, posted when Pope Ratzinger abruptly retired.  He had hosted a team of muscular acrobats, who began their routine by slowly stripping off their shirts.  Now I understand why acrobats may wish to be shirtless while they fling each other in the air, but why they didn't simply ARRIVE shirtless, I don't know.  The striptease went viral, of course.  There was one other "What the Hell...??" moment this year, when I stumbled upon this music video from Sweden, with the cheesiest choreography you've ever seen.  At least the pope wasn't there.
My personal life provided a few hits this year.  

My own blindness (I wasn't wearing
my contacs) caused me to dash right
by Kelli O'Hara while I was playing
Gloucester in King Lear.

A lingering cold reminded me that Faith Prince also caught post-nasal drip, and a truly disastrous audition (really, the worst all year or perhaps of my life) had to be addressed, so I posted my audition song the way it was supposed to be performed (from Pirates of Penzance).

So there you have it, 42 Dance Parties comprising the fifth year of this silly little blog segment. If you are a crazy person with unlimited time to kill, you can access all 42 Dance Parties, in reverse chronological order, here. Actually, the count will be 43, as we must include a new clip for this week.  Keeping with tradition, the anniversary Dance Party really is dance, and really is performed by an amateur.  This is the kind of clip my buddy Larry had in mind when he invented the weekly Dance Party, so at least once a year, it must return to its roots.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Friday Dance Party: The Night They Invented Cradle Robbing

Look who raised her ugly mug last week!
Of course, that's the lovely and talented Leslie Caron as prostitute-in-training Gigi.  The 1958 film contains a respected score by Lerner and Leowe, who wrote it as one of only two they composed strictly for the movies (the other was The Little Prince in 1974).  But though our guys thought they were done with Gigi once the film was completed, they weren't, or at least, their score wasn't. 
Soap opera ingenue Karin Wolfe was chosen to
bring Gigi to Broadway in 1973. She should have
stayed on Days Of Our Lives.

Attempts to adapt the movie into a stage version didn't go so well the first time.  Back in 1973, a stage adaptation toured for a while before landing on Broadway for a rather inconsequential run (Agnes Moorehead, bless her, gave her final stage performance in it, before succumbing to cancer). 
Maria Karnalova and Alfred Drake, both Tony winners, could not save the stage version of Gigi.
But news was released last week that Gigi, like Cher, Madonna, and Vampira, is rising from the dead. 
Endora Plays Broadway: as Aunt Alicia, Agnes
Moorehead was the most recognizable name in
Broadway's Gigi. The exhaustive 6 month tour
which preceded the show's NY arrival did her
health no favors. She died during the run and was
replaced by Arlene Francis.

A reinvented version will open at the Kennedy Center in 2015 (they like to plan ahead), to be directed by DC's own Eric Schaeffer.  There will be a new book, apparently, but surely all your favorite tunes from the movie will be present.
Gigi the film won 9 Oscars, setting a record which lasted only a year, until Ben Hur rode up on his chariot and won 11. It's fascinating to note, though, that not a single one of those Oscars was for a performance.  In fact, no one in the cast even received a nomination! Here are Lesley Caron and Louis Jordan, of course, and that's Hermione Gingold on the right;  no, she's not wearing antlers, that's a chandelier.
Gigi the film is not one of my favorites, which is surprising, since it stars one of my Favorite Ladies of a Certain Age, Hermione Gingold, and has some fun performances by Maurice Chevalier and a young Eva Gabor.  I'm afraid, though, that the film adaptations of Lerner and Leowe musicals leave me cold. 
When you ask Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood
to sing, you deserve what you get. Paint Your
Wagon is considered one of the worst movie
musicals ever.

My Fair Lady is considered a classic musical film, but I find it a bit of a sludge to get through (that sucker is looooong), and the less said about Paint Your Wagon, the better.  When Brigadoon was adapted for the movies, it was reinvented as a dance show, to accommodate stars Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse.
Efforts to make Caron seem even more innocent, such as her childish sailor suit above, only increase the feeling that a grown, mature man has no business romancing a teenager. In this light, even Maurice Chevalier's big solo, "Thank Heaven For Little Girls," gives me the creeps.
But back to our gal pal Gigi.  Director Vincente Minnelli certainly delivered his usual high quality product, but I find the story just a little icky. 
Gigi was one of a number of "Francophilia" films of the 1950s.
And its old man / young girl romance was not new; I wrote
about that yucky theme in this Dance Party, again starring
Lesley Caron, this time paired with Fred Astaire.

It is, after all, about the training and coming of age of a hooker, however elegantly you style it.  And the romance which blossoms between the romantic leads adds to the ick factor;  there is a substantial age difference between the characters played by Louis Jordan and Lesley Caron, and my modern sensibility looks upon the relationship as a bit predatory. 
Aunt Alicia checks Gigi for pimples,
common in a teenager, but unacceptable
in a courtesan.

Still, everyone loves the music, and the original film broke the record for Oscar wins (9).
Gingold won the Golden Globe; she was the only
actor to win anything for the film.

When the new and improved stage version shows up year after next, you can bet the casting will be along very different lines. 
The stage Gigi was revived in 2008, in Regent's Open Air Theatre in the UK. That's Millicent Martin and Linda Thorson (remember Thorson? She was the poor woman who had to replace Diana Rigg in The Avengers).
A look back at the original Gigi reveals that none of the actors can claim to be fine singers. 

Gingold and Chevalier were well-known for their cabaret and
revue work, but they had "character voices" which one rarely
finds in professional musicals today. These two were to re-team
in the 1964 rom-com I'd Rather Be Rich.
The clip below illustrates that, while Gingold and Chevalier have very musical qualities, they cannot hold onto a note very long or very strongly.  Louis Jordan did only one other musical (Can-Can), and Caron was dubbed.  
Eric Schaeffer has developed a reputation as an interpreter of Sondheim's works; his Signature Theatre in suburban DC was practically built on its Sondheim productions, and it won the Regional Theatre Tony in 2009.  Eric has delivered several projects to Broadway, and now has an international reputation, but DC still claims him as their own. I know Eric only slightly, but have seen a buttload of his directorial work.  He put the great Christine Baranski in Mame, and effectively shrank Hello, Dolly! for a smaller cast.  His Million Dollar Quartet has companies running all over the place, and his commitment to the development of new musicals has a significant influence over the seasons produced at Signature.  Can he successfully adapt the sophisticated bon-bon Gigi for the stage?  Stay tuned.
Directors don't put up with hiring Actors for musicals these days, they want singers with chops, so the new Gigi cast will presumably be filled with Broadway-type belters. While we wait, enjoy this week's Dance Party, one of the memorable moments from 1958's Gigi. The song is well-known;  two old lovers are unexpectedly reunited.