Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Peeved

I'm one of those people who dislikes New Year's Eve. I can't say I hate it, I just don't get it. The holiday surrounds a completely arbitrary calendar change, set eons ago by who knows whom. But because the number of the year changes, somehow the day has developed into a moment in time where everybody is supposed to look back on the year and take stock of our accomplishments (and failures!) before looking ahead to another year.

New Year's Eve has always made me uncomfortable. As a kid, of course, you feel very left out of things; it is a distinctly adult holiday. (If a kid is ever likely to take stock of past accomplishments, it's going to happen at the end of the school year, not the calendar year.)

And as a young adult, my discomfort with the holiday grew to actual dislike. First and foremost, there's all that kissing business. You know, midnight arrives, the ball drops, everybody starts blowing those horns and throwing that confetti, then you have to find someone to kiss. What if you are single, as I always was, and didn't bring someone to the party, as I never did? There's that horrible awkwardness of standing around while all the couples kiss, then once they pry themselves apart, they realize that there are a few poor schnooks who haven't yet been kissed, and yada yada yada.

There was usually a big party during my college days, but I often missed it. In those years, a group of us traveled from LA to New York right after Christmas to spend a week seeing shows. (That's another blog altogether; during those trips, I saw many many Broadway shows, including the ORIGINAL casts of "Chicago" [Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach], "A Chorus Line,"[Donna McKecknie, Priscilla Lopez, Sammy Williams, Kay Cole, Baayork Lee, Wayne Cilento, Robert Lupone] "Ballroom" [Dorothy Loudon was wondrous], "Annie" [ditto], "Pacific Overtures," and so many others.) We were in New York at least twice for New Year's Eve, and the first year, we actually did the Times Square thing. This was years before the Disneyfication of the district, so we were crammed into the square with about a million other people, including bums, whores, crack heads, and crazy people. Happy New Year!

I remember that the second year we were in NY for the Big Night, we all looked at each other and went, uh-uh. Once you've done Times Square one time, that's enough, so we booked a big table at Joe Allen's and spent the evening there. The big thrill that year was at the table behind us, where Tommy Tune was hosting a bunch of friends, including Priscilla Lopez.

Hmm, I guess that was a pretty good New Year's Eve, but one of only a few.

Once I became a waiter, the pressure was off. If you worked in a fine foods establishment, or even a steak house, you could always count on working New Year's Eve. For most establishments, it's the second biggest dinner of the year. (What's the biggest? Here's a hint: it's in February.)

So, I spent many years working on the Big Party Night, and that suited me just fine. It was always a hectic shift, but a big money maker, and you never had to feel awkward at midnight. Your hands were always full of dirty dishes or cocktail glasses or somebody's change or something. Midnight would slip by unnoticed those nights.

I do remember one other really terrific New Year's Eve Party, which I threw. It was my dear Claudia's idea, and she co-hosted. At the time I was living in my family home in LA, a large 4 bedroom palace, and for reasons too boring to explain here, I was living there alone. It was a terrific house in which to have a party. I must have had a good time. Here are Claudia and Scott helping me celebrate; I'm obviously feeling no pain:

My dearest Jenny was there, too, with husband Frankie. She wasn't drinking that night, as she was about to give birth to one of the kids:

I think I spent most of the evening at the fridge, refilling my own champagne:

That's "Brady Bunch" star Eve Plumb on the left. We became friends after we were lepers together in "Jesus Christ Superstar"

I've missed a lot of recent New Year's Eves by, you know, nodding off. I just can't deal with trying to make it the biggest, wildest, most fun night of the year. Too much pressure! I'd rather let the New Year slip in unnoticed.

("pssssst! happy new year.")

Rolling in it

Today's mail brought my final paycheck for 2007. It was a residual for an episode of "The Wire." I laughed out loud, then started wondering if it was a harbinger of the new year...

I started 2007 unemployed, but was not worried in the least. I had just completed two gigs in late 2006, and had several projects already lined up for the new year. I spent a very busy spring doing two shows simultaneously, Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center, and Opus at the Washington Stage Guild. I had a ball.

The summer brought some stock, playing one of my dream roles, Harry MacAfee in "Bye Bye Birdie." The fall included a remount of "Opus" and my debut at Olney Theatre, in "Of Mice and Men."

I had a very good year.

But I had to laugh at today's residual check. It reminded me of a neighborhood bar in Studio City, CA, which I was told about recently (I never heard of it when I lived in LA). It's called Re$iduals, and is located close to Universal, Warner Bros, NBC, and other spots where actors occasionally make money. The "hook" at this bar was this: any actor who brought in a paycheck under a dollar received a free drink.

We work for poverty wages all the time in this business, but when I heard this, I rolled my eyes. A paycheck for under a buck?

I'm not rolling my eyes anymore. The amount of my residual check for "The Wire" was 87 cents.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Dis'd by the Post

So, there are several lists of Theatre Favorites for 2007 out there, including a comprehensive look back by the three critics at the Citypaper.

The Post's is out, too, but not by any means comprehensive. Peter Marks contributed his favorite shows (he had only five, rather than a traditional ten), and his favorite performances. It's understandable he could only come up with five favorite shows, as he was only one third of the reviewing staff who handled this year's theatre pieces. Where are the lists of Nelson Pressley and Celia Wren?

I notice that ALL film reviewers at the Post contributed their top ten lists, even when they overlapped. There would be no such repetition with the three theatre critics, who all saw different shows.

It's understandable that Marks cannot get to all the shows in town, but why were all the shows covered by Pressley and Wren dismissed as too unimportant to be evaluated at year's end?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Blame it on the Name

I don't keep up with current pop culture too well. I couldn't pick Nicole Ritchie, Lindsay Lohan, or Britney Spears out of a line-up, even with such a large likelihood they'll be in one.

But I couldn't avoid the trumpet sounds, announcing another Hollywood marriage biting the dust. This time it's The Penns, Robin (Wright) and Sean.

I don't give a flip, except this piece of news proves yet again my thesis regarding Hollywood marriages. I've been mouthing off about it for years.

When two Hollywood types tie the knot, if the woman changes her name to the man's, the marriage is doomed.

It may take some time: the Penns were married almost 12 years and have two kids.

Or even a longer time: remember when Phylicia Rashad was Phylicia Ayers-Allen? She married that hotshot sports guy, then a couple of decades later dumped him. Maybe if she hadn't taken his name, they'd still be together.

I know, I know, lots of Hollywood marriages end up on the skids even without this Name Change Phenomenon, but just look at the ones which didn't: Joanne Woodward & Paul Newman, Richard Benjamin & Paula Prentiss, Steve Allen & Jayne Meadows, Alan Ludden & Betty White, Hume Cronyn & Jessica Tandy. Maybe those oldsters knew something: that when the lady changes her name, the match becomes unequal.

It just might be how Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon have never had a degree of separation.

It's just a thought. But one which may be catching on with today's crowd. Remember when Courtney Cox hooked up with one of those Arquettes? She changed her name for the last season of "Friends," and inflicted us with Courtney Cox Arquette.

She has since wised up. Perhaps she took note of her predecessors Farrah Fawcett Majors and Meredith Baxter Birney. She's back to Courtney Cox. At least now, her marriage stands a fighting chance.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Album Droppings: "One Offs"

One of my favorite British slang expressions is starting to catch on in this country. A "One Off" is a fluke, a one-time occurrence, and the term describes more than a few of my vinyl recordings. You may recall that I have given myself the outrageous task of converting my large LP collection to digital format (I had a welcome interruption with my trip to LA and various Christmas doings).

I have now, somewhat reluctantly, returned to the task at hand. I'm running across quite a few records which I purchased only because the name intrigued me. I listened to these gems exactly ONCE before relegating them to the pile, never to be played again.

They're One Offs, and for the most part, they deserve to be. Nobody has ever heard of these shows today.

Well, maybe a few people have heard of this one: "Boy Meets Boy" is exactly what it sounds like, a traditional musical comedy love story with the leading players all male. This show apparently had some life to it, as it had a London and New York production, as well as the LA production which was recorded. I suppose it may have been fun to see, but it's not all that entertaining to listen to, and even the liner notes confess that it was recorded "under difficult conditions by an inexperienced but enthusiastic cast." Maybe so, but we've had "La Cage" and "Falsettos" since this slight piece, set in the roaring 20s, made its debut, so the novelty of same-sex couples in a musical has worn off. And this score isn't getting any respect on EBay; the CD release is being offered for only 99 cents.

The liner notes for "In Gay Company" proclaim that this revue was a long-running hit in New York, LA, and DC, with accompanying press quotes to prove it. The cast includes one lone woman surrounded by a handful of gay boys, singing a bunch of songs about, well, being gay. Not very interesting. This recording preserves the cast which ran the show in LA, at the Backlot Theatre, which was actually a cabaret space perched behind the legendary Studio One disco back in the 70s and 80s. I remember seeing a very different revue there, starring two of my favorite Broadway Ladies, Nancy Dussault and Karen Morrow, belting out show tunes and having a ball. Now, that dynamic revue would be worth having...

In June, 1977, the citizens of Dade County in Florida, led by former Miss America and Orange Juice Queen Anita Bryant, voted to repeal local ordinances which guaranteed fair housing and employment for gays. The vote sent shock waves through the Gay Rights movement. A scarce two months later, the Callboard Theatre in West Hollywood presented their musical revue, "Joseph McCarthy is Alive and Living in Dade County." The recording includes several long sketches as well as some listenable songs, all by somebody named Ray Scantlin. The comedy, being topical, does not hold up well in retrospect, but it's kind of fun to hear such routines as "The Schtick Center for the Control of Effeminacy," and a game show which yanks people out of the closet called "Rat on a Fag." The liner notes hold up better, which contain fake quotes from Norman Mailer, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and Brenda the Queen of England.

You've never heard of anybody on any of these recordings except one: Amanda McBroom appears in the "Dade County" show, singing two songs which she did not write. That same summer of '77, she penned "The Rose" and was forever relieved from ever appearing in things like this again.

I'm sure I'll come across many more One Offs as I slog my way through my album collection, but here's one more that's not even a One Off. It's a None Off. I own a copy of the original cast album of William Finn's "In Trousers" which I never even opened. For 25 years or more, this record has been in my collection without my ever having unsealed the thing. I'm sure I know why. I bought the album, didn't have time to listen to it, then attended an LA production of the show. It's a one-act, lightweight piece, but has the distinction of being the first appearance of "Marvin," Finn's alter-ego who goes on to greater glory in "March of the Falsettos" and "Falsettoland." In this prequel (is it a prequel if the composer actually wrote it first?), Marvin struggles with his failing marriage and the realization that he'd rather be spending his time with a man.

Anyway, I caught the show in a bare-bones production in some basement theatre in LA, starring Bill Hutton (the original Broadway "Joseph" of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame), and I guess I was not all that impressed. Like I mentioned, I never even unsealed the album.

Kind of interesting to note that the first "In Trousers" starred a very young Chip Zien, who was so impressive in "Into the Woods" many years later. When the second and third Marvin stories finally hit Broadway in "Falsettos," Zien was no longer playing the protagonist but was instead playing Mendel the psychiatrist. Finn is nothing if not loyal to his friends. Alison Fraser appears on this early recording as Marvin's wife Trina, and she remained in the role through all subsequent versions of the trilogy.

I've just reread the above notes, and let's face it, this set of One Offs is, shall we delicately say, pretty fey. It reminds me of Oprah's oft-told story of watching TV as a child. Whenever a black performer showed up, she would jump up and down and shout "There's black people on TV! There's black people on TV!"

When I was browsing through record stores as a kid, and I ran across anything gay, I certainly didn't jump up and down and shout. I held my breath, and bought the thing.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas, Presently

So, a Christmas query: when you are alone at Christmas, when do you open your presents?

Now that sounds much more pathetic and lonely than it really is. I have a lovely holiday dinner to attend later in the day.

And I have often been home alone on December 25. For years, our family celebrated Christmas on the 26th or 27th, due to logistics of gathering various family members from around the country to Los Angeles.

But this year, the pater is out of the country for the hols (Feliz Navidad, Dad!), and the sisters are celebrating with their own broods.

So, my munchkin tree sits atop half a dozen or more wrapped gifts, all to me. When do I open them?

My family's rituals are so ingrained that I would never have considered doing so last night. It always astonished me when I learned that other families did their gift exchanging on Christmas Eve. What's left for the Big Day? Our family held to a strict rule of abstinence until Christmas morning. I'm sure countless other families handled things exactly this way: the kids (my sisters and myself) were forbidden to get out of bed until 8 AM, torturous waiting for an avaricious soul like me. I wanted my loot, and I wanted it NOW. A few minutes before 8, as we gathered in the hallway with unbridled anticipation (the waiting was KILLING us!!), the folks would slip into the den to turn on enough lights for the home movie camera to work.

Finally, the three of us were released, and we raced into the den to see what booty Santa had left. There may be one or two items which were too large to be wrapped (my folks were never foolish enough to try to wrap a wagon or a bicycle), but there were always many other gifts wrapped, sitting on the hearth alongside our stockings which were overflowing with smaller goodies. We tore into those presents like jackals stripping clean a corpse.

So, in just a few minutes, everything was done. For the Santa portion, that is. We still had buttloads of gifts under the tree in the living room, but once again, my parents recognized the agonizing joy of delay. We were forced to have breakfast first, before sitting down to see what was under the tree.

Agonizingly, Dad handed out the presents, one at a time, and we all had to sit around and watch other people open their gifts.

I now realize that this methodical approach was designed to hold onto those few precious minutes (or in our case, hours) of gift giving and receiving. Because let's face it, though there may be dinner later in the day, or a trip to visit Uncle Roy and Aunt Beulah, or whatever, once the presents are all unwrapped, Christmas is Done.

So, here I sit, Christmas music on the stereo, a virgin Mary (with salt of course) at my side, my tree twinkling away, and gifts ready to be opened. I have no one to prevent me from doing so, no reason in the world to wait.

Except, of course, one. As soon as I open those presents, Christmas is Over.

...maybe I'll wait a little while longer...

Friday, December 21, 2007

Sondheim on film

Those of us who are Sondheim fans are used to having our hopes dashed at regular intervals. We hope his newest, Bounce, takes New York by storm, but it never gets out of DC. We hope re-imaginings of Sweeney and Company run and run and run, but they don't. We hope revivals of Assassins and Pacific Overtures suddenly turn those cultish pieces into mainstream hits, but they can't.

And our hearts are broken at the lack of film versions of his great shows.

Sure, we have our videos of many of the greats, shot over several days in front of audiences. We love our Angela mugging delightfully through the Sweeney bloodshed. We love our Joanna stopping the show cold in those Woods, moments before her Baker's Wife gets stomped by the fairy tale giantess. We weep when our Bernadette reappears to George on that Sunday in the Park and urges him to Move On. And some of us (not me) even applaud when our fossilized Fosca finally beds the poor schnook she stalked, teaching us something (I don't know what) about Passion. (See, we even love debating our favorites vs our least.)

And we love our concert recordings, too. We love Broadway Baby Elaine Stritch halting an all-star Follies in its tracks, and we love Dorothy Loudon mixing "Losing My Mind" with "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," and bringing down Carnegie Hall.

But as for actual translations of the Sondheim canon onto real, honest to god FILM, which might be preserved at AFI or the Library of Congress or on Turner Classic Movies, well, we remain heartbroken.
We were robbed of a record of Merman's Mama Rose, reportedly one of THE iconic musical theatre performances EVER, by the box office power of Rosalind Russell. Gypsy flopped.

As for West Side Story, it was thankfully a hit, and preserved a lot of Jerome Robbins' stage choreography, but not even its librettist Arthur Laurents believed it was an effective translation to film. Ballet in the slums of New York? We love it onstage, but it makes us squeamish on screen.

And as for the shows for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics? Send in the clowns.

A Little Night Music might have had a chance, as it retained three original cast members from the Broadway run, plus added plum performers Diana Rigg and Leslie Ann Down, plus contained Sondheim's only cross-over hit song, but the film was sunk by the two people at its center. Elizabeth Taylor, at her breathiest and blowsiest, turned a role which should lilt into a performance that could only plod. And Hal Prince was an unwise choice to shoulder the burden of translating the piece into a movie; it was his film debut, and boy does it show.

And as for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, call Gusto the Body Snatcher. He needs to dispose of this corpse. The score is almost completely dismantled, leaving only a handful of songs. The wrong director (Richard Lester, who loved ACTION) made the wrong decision (to show Ancient Rome the way Ancient Rome really was, on a really really bad day), so this light farce was sunk by being surrounded by running sewers, filthy townspeople, livestock crapping, and the like. The beefing up of a supporting role (Marcus Lycus) to accommodate star Phil Silvers put the story off-kilter, so even the Broadway holdovers (Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford) were unable to generate excitement. And as somebody else said, any movie in which Buster Keaton is an embarrassment is, well, a piece of crap.

We Sondheim fans know all this. So the trepidation over the new Sweeney Todd film has been substantial.

I saw it today, and it's good. Very, very good.

Now before you get all Demon Barber on my ass, I'll stipulate that the vocals of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are not anything like the Broadway belts of Len Cariou, George Hearn, or Angela Lansbury. Why should they be? They are playing in a different medium, and the tone of the film is substantially different from the stage production. Most of the comedy is gone, but again, why not? The film is a thriller by any standards.

The score is left substantially intact. The few songs missing will never be missed, unless you're just being pissy about it. The vocal quality of the singing is thinner than we are used to, but Depp and Carter and Alan Rickman and most of the others do a dynamite job delivering this complicated score effectively.

Except (and this is a fairly big except): Jamie Campbell Bower, as leading man Anthony Hope, has an androgynous quality which is difficult to reconcile with his vocation as a sailor on the open seas. His slight frame would be swept off the poop deck by any gale force winds. And the thinness of his voice, as opposed to all the others, dissipates the effect of Sondheim's most gorgeous ballad, Johanna. While this haunting melody should soar, here it only floats.

But otherwise, this is a fine film. Purists are always impossible to please, but I encourage everybody to put away their DVD and Original Cast CDs, and take in the movie on its own. You'll get sucked in, you'll forget you know the story, and when Mrs. Lovett traps young, innocent Toby in the bake house, you'll cry out.
And even as you cringe at some of the gruesome images conjured in the film (and there are plenty, this is Tim Burton after all), you'll still utter a sigh of relief.

Sondheim has finally, nobly, been translated to film.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Family You Choose

I never need any reminder how lucky I have been with the family I chose.

My California Road Trip, which sometimes seemed more like a shlepp down Memory Lane, reminded me of the importance of family. I don't mean the family which shares my gene pool, I mean that handful of people who, for whatever reason, have stuck with me over the years.

In fact, I don't think it is the family I chose. It is the family that chose me.
I've been lucky to have recently reconnected with a few folks with whom I grew up in Atlanta, but as these relationships hibernated for several decades, they are somewhat new to me now. So, in my mind, my oldest continuous friend is, hands down, my Claudia.
I don't remember the exact moment we met, but I do remember the exact moment I first laid eyes on her. It was my first day of Play Production class at Kennedy High in 1973. I was already nervous about my new surroundings, so when the back door of the theatre burst open, it gave me a jolt. That was just the beginning. A large rotund Latina charged down the center aisle of the theatre, in pursuit of a lanky Samoan boy. This was Los Angeles, after all. The air was filled with a robust laughter which has not changed to this day. Claudia had made the kind of entrance that any actor would dream about. But instead of entering the stage, she entered my life.

My mother had just been diagnosed with the cancer which, ten years later, would take her life. I was not free to discuss this with anyone, but subconsciously, I was longing for someone to take a strong maternalistic interest in me. Claudia did exactly that, and over the years, she has remained resolute in her determination to make my life better.

We sailed through our college years, occasionally working together onstage, but more often, having real life. When my mother succumbed to breast cancer, Claud was one who went out of her way to be there for me. That aspect of her character, to always want to fix things for others, can sometimes be overpowering, but I wouldn't trade any aspect of her personality. When, decades after we left college and we were still best friends, I moved from LA to pursue my MFA, she decided it would not stand in the way of our relationship. She has visited me a dozen times, in South Carolina and in DC, and we remain the oldest and dearest of friends. She is my family.

Similar to my experience with Claudia, I don't remember the exact moment I met Scott, though I remember the exact moment I first saw him. During my undergraduate career, I had a hell of a time getting cast in the theatre department's plays, but Scott had no such trouble. His performances in "A Flea in her Ear" and "Lysistrata" are ingrained on my memory. Somewhere during those years, we met, possibly through his partner at the time, Ric. I can remember countless evenings spent in the shoddy apartment they shared in the middle of the Valley, screaming with laughter as they entertained. Ric and Scott eventually broke up, but I remained close friends with Scott. We worked together onstage exactly once, but the experience was so spectacular that we cannot help ourselves when we are together today, 25 years later. We just have to reminisce. Scott and I have a very similar comic sense, and our comic timing complements, rather than competes, with each other. It made "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" a pivotal moment in both our lives, and today, that complimentary humor makes our time together full of laughter and, more importantly, soul.

I eventually moved into that shoddy apartment mentioned above, around the time that Drew came into my life. All our lives, actually. The year I spent living with Scott was also the first year of their relationship, and though our first few meetings were rocky (Drew had some crazy notion that the Two Scotts were linked by something other than friendship), Drusis soon became a member of my family. I suppose he's the level-headed one of the couple, the one who gets the bills paid on time and arranges retirement investment. Yes, Scott and Drew have been together a whopping 25 years, and who among us can claim that?

My life would be far less rich if Drusis had not come into it.

It must have been my second year of undergrad when Judy slipped into my life, never to depart. She directed me (and a lot of other journeymen actors) in a couple of Shrunken Musicals, "Cabaret" and "West Side Story" (we did them each in under an hour). Every actor in the dept. scrambled to work with Judy, somehow knowing that her direction, though a student's, was superior to that of our faculty at the time. So, our rehearsals usually began at 11 PM, after everyone had completed their Main Stage shows or rehearsals. Judy and I had an immediate connection, but I suppose it was our landing in the same acting class which cemented our artistic bond. It's difficult to count the number of times Judy and I worked together over the years, it must number in the dozens. She afforded me many of My Firsts: My First Lead in a Musical ("Bye Bye Birdie," which included another first for me, My First Ballad!), My First Lead in a Shakespeare (" Twelfth Night," where I made my first entrance flying down from a hanging platform on a rope, swooping over the audience; we climbed the walls, turned the swordfights into food fights, and included the audience, seated all around on cushions, in the action. It was the most artistically satisfying production I did in college...the faculty hated it), My First Production in Hollywood ("The Time of Your Life"), my First Tap-Dancing Ego-Maniac ("George M"). She also gave me my First Out of Town Gig, when she invited me to appear in her first thesis project for her MFA in Directing at the University of Utah ("The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail").

Our artistic lives and our personal lives were lived together in those days, and Judy and I became inseparable buddies. She welcomed me into her extended family of Armenians, and she was the only one of my friends to know of my mother's battle with cancer.

Over the years we have occasionally lost touch for a while, but in our souls, we are always a part of each others' lives.

That's true of all my chosen family. One of the most special, most heartfelt memories I carry with me is the last birthday gathering we had in LA, the summer before I moved away. We gathered at my apartment nestled in the hills of Silverlake, shared a huge meal of our special treats, lounged on the deck which looked out onto the Hollywood sign, hooted with laughter as we reminisced, toasted each other, and caught up with each others' lives, as we had countless times before. Underneath it all, there was a poignancy which still catches my throat. We already knew that I was leaving in a month, moving east to attend graduate school, and though no one wanted to say it, we all knew that I would not be coming back. Not to live, anyway. Thankfully, I've been able to return several times over the intervening years, and when I do, we pick up as if we had never been apart.

Judy, Scott, Claudia, and Drusis. My family I chose.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Quit Dicking Around

Gotta raise another eyebrow at the Washington Post, that bastion of free-thinking. Their Theatre section is sending mixed messages to the Washington Shakespeare Company these days. Their rave review of WSC's "Kafka's Dick," running in rep at the scrappy company's warehouse in Arlington, contained everything but the title.

This internationally read, Pulitzer prize winning newspaper is a little too embarrassed to report the title of the show they are giving thumbs up to? A show which has a substantial pedigree, by renowned playwright Alan Bennett? Are things so bad these days that the Post's editorial staff has to be careful to be "family friendly," even when it means refusing to print the show's title in its own review? (This when that slang term is being bandied about on basic cable every night.)

Those delicate and demure arts critics did it again with today's Backstage column, in which Jane Horwitz interviews the show's director but still declines to name the play, citing it was "edited for publication here."

Not only a cowardly stance on the part of The Post (I guess they might get a letter! For printing the title of the play! Yikes!), but completely hypocritical. On the opposite page from the Backstage Column, the Post's Guide to the Lively Arts prominently displays the full title, "Kafka's Dick," in bold, capital letters. Of course, the Lively Arts listings are paid for by the theatres themselves, so there is some money involved.

The Washington Post believes this play so important that they went back and interviewed the director and actors for a follow-up piece. But they still maintain their "high standards" by refusing to print the name of the play.

Except when somebody pays them to.

Update as of 12/21:
In Friday's Guide to the Lively Arts, the WSC's ad, for which the theatre pays, has now been censored. It no longer displays the title "Kafka's Dick," but rather coyly, "Kafka's D**k." But the Smut-Snatchers at The Post have still overlooked their Weekend section, where the show remains correctly and completely titled in the Mini-Reviews section. It's even a critic's pick.

A censor's work is never done!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Can A Christmas Tree Have Bed Head?

There is plenty of room in my one bedroom condo. I just can't find any of it. I'm drowning in Christmas decorations, Christmas Cards, dirty laundry from 11 days in LA, and hundreds of vinyl records which sit on my file cabinet, taunting me, waiting to be converted to digital.

I do all this to myself. I've always been a sucker for Christmas decorations, though I have no sense of style or proportion. Any junky old thing with Santa or candy canes and out it comes, to be placed in a nook where nobody would ever see it anyway.

And about this tree. As referenced above, it has bed head. No matter which way I point the thing, one side of it looks smushed. And this year, it's really short. I've been downsizing my trees for two seasons now, which makes it so much easier to negotiate the two flights of stairs to my abode. But this year I was in a hurry to get the tree, and I just did not take enough time to examine it thoroughly. And though it was marked as a 5-6 footer, once the guy chopped off the bottom of the trunk, the thing shrank like 100% cotton.

Merry Christmas! I have a tree from Munchkinland.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Though I have made periodic trips back to LA over the past decade or so, I have not always been searching for ghosts. Those in my circle with whom I've kept in touch were the ones I spent time with, but a host of others were overlooked. This trip was different. A year of loss which began with my dear college (and waaaay beyond) chum Jenny, followed by the news of the death of my high school drama coach, gave this trip more significance to me. So, I made an effort this time to see some of those folks who were important to me back in The Day. I had lost touch with most of them years before moving from southern California, so some of these people had not been seen by my eyes in 20 or even 30 years.

What a treat it was to spend a long brunch with Kathy. Surely 20 years had passed since I had laid eyes on her, but during the high school years and beyond, she was a force in my life. One of the first kids to take me under her wing at Kennedy, she was a powerful presence in the bustling theatre dept there. She had a strong artistic sense, better than any of the rest of us, and in fact, she was the one who directed me in my first Shakespeare attempt, a Malvolio monologue. The intervening years have given her a son and a booming career in academia, where she is encouraging new generations of teens to find their special artistic voice. With my dearest Claud at our side, we gabbed for hours.

Three more ladies from that high school era popped up later in the week. Claudia arranged a surprise dinner for me at a local Italian joint, and we were joined by three gals I had not seen in roughly 30 years. Wow. We are all mid-life folks now, but more than vestiges of the old teen agers remain. Loretta (at left) is a stunning, statuesque blond whose exceptional appearance and talent gave her portrayal of Helen of Troy at Kennedy real truth. (Can you believe a high school did The Trojan Women? Joan Peterson was no slouch.)

Robin was another gal I remember vividly from that production from Troy, in which she played the doomed queen Hecuba. Robin remains special in my memory because she agreed to donate her time to appear in my directing project in college, a whacked out production of "The Bald Soprano." She reminded me over dinner that we narrowly avoided disaster during the show when another actor almost crushed her hand during the leap frog segment. I didn't even remember a leap frog segment! Boy, what I put those actors through. (Secretly, I admit now that having the four uptight characters of that Ionesco absurdist classic doing the leap frog is a spectacular idea. I wonder if I would come up with such stuff nowadays?)

Today, Robin's quirky wit remains intact, and she has emerged as a strong survivor of motherhood, cancer, and pilates.

Debi never met an experience she couldn't turn into a funny story. She remains the charming gal with the infectious laugh and, though it sounds cliche, a real zest for life. She was one of a handful of teen age girls who kidnapped me in my senior year, forcing me to breakfast at the Pancake House (or was it Denny's?), then dumping me at school to attend classes in my pajamas. I wonder what kids do to each other these days?

I reconnected with several of my undergraduate college folks as well.

Cris was present in my life from my first days at Cal State Northridge. He has a hilarious sense of humor and was a welcome aspect of any party or gathering. He could have me howling with laughter at a moment’s notice. We only worked together onstage once or twice, and I have long since forgiven him for snagging the Emcee in "Cabaret," one of my dream roles. (I later played it at Conejo Players, so all turned out well). Cris became a greater part of my artistic life when we both joined Bobbi Holtzman’s private acting workshop. (Bobbi had a huge influence on my artistic development, so large that I cannot describe it here. Perhaps another posting...). Since graduation, Cris has remained in the business, both as a performer and a writer, and he recently won an Emmy for his participation in a local PBS series.

Ronnie was responsible for my first professional gig, "Poof!" at the old Company Theatre in downtown LA. We worked together on various projects during our undergraduate years, including an updated version of "The Menaechmi," by Plautus, translated as "The Twins" and slanted toward children:

(That's Ronnie on the far left, myself on the far right)

Ronnie recently revealed that he caught my over-the-top performance as Mortimer, the Man Who Dies, in "The Fantasticks" at Valley College, while he was still in high school! Ronnie has also continued in the business, playing comic roles on stage, film and television. Remember the MAC vs PC commercial, with the PC who had a virus? That was Ronnie.

Valerie was responsible for gathering this group together for lunch this week. I have never really lost touch with Val, who took me under her wing at CSUN and always included me on social occasions. She introduced me to Sondheim, wrote the occasional song for me, and included me on a variety of yearly events. For years we had an annual Easter Brunch, but it was her Christmas Bash with a Twist which was the highlight of the season. Everyone brought gifts, which were passed out indiscriminately. After all the gifts were opened, each guest presented some kind of little performance piece which reflected the gift they brought. Then, everyone tried to guess who brought what.

Valerie also directed "Perfectly Frank," which became one of my all-time favorite performances. She is now known as "Madam V" at Louisville High in Woodland Hills, CA.

So, I reconnected with more than a half dozen souls from the distant past. I wonder if ghost hunting is always this much fun?

Monday, December 10, 2007

California Road Trip: Dinner and a Show

I lived in Los Angeles, off and on but mostly on, for 20 years before heading east to grad school. I've returned to the scene of all those crimes many times since leaving, but this has been the longest stretch between visits.

The problem seems to be that when I am out of work, I can't seem to justify to myself the expense of a vacation. And what if an audition pops up while I'm out of town? And when I AM working, well, there is no time to travel.

So, four years have slipped by.

I was lucky enough to snag a cheapo flight from National Airport to Burbank, rather than LAX, which is convenient to NOTHING except traffic getting to wherever you are going. I was UN-lucky enough, however, to be seated next to a gigantic woman in the middle seat who never relinquished the armrest. Not once, in five hours.

I picked up my bags from the baggage claim carousel, which is located OUTSIDE. Only in LA.

My hosts for my fortnight's stay are dear friends who kindly let me take over their guest bedroom and bath (Alternately known as "the west wing" and "Skipper's Guest Bedroom," after Barbie's little sister. Don't ask). I came and went as I pleased. I lined up some teaching at Notre Dame High School from my best friend Judy, who runs the theatre program there. Three days of my trip were spent running movement workshops for 40 energetic teen agers.

I also spent some time driving around the Valley, looking up some old haunts. Get a load of these swanky digs, where I worked several times during those formative years:
This is actually the Granada Hills Woman's Club, from which the Granada Theatre sprang, like snakes from Medusa.

This little hut housed some of my early and probably most eye-rolling performances. Sadly, my debut performance at Granada, as Motel the Tailor in "Fiddler on the Roof," seems to have gone undocumented (at least in photos; I write about the experience here). I admit I am most proud of my performance as Pseudolus in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum:

After "...Forum," I appeared as the neurotic drunk Dr. Einstein in "Arsenic and Old Lace:"

That's me overacting on the left. Note the hair, similar to Suzanne Pleshette on a bad day...

(I described my experiences in ...Forum and Arsenic here.)

I also attempted, and mostly failed, to play that tap-dancing ego-maniac "George M" during this period:

Ah, youth...

After a while, Granada Theatre gave up sharing their space with the Woman's Club, and moved into their own little theatre, where I appeared several more times. TWICE I played Prince John in original musical versions of Robin Hood:

I was also in an embarrassing original Christmas musical called "Winter's Magic." It was really just a cheap fund raiser for the theatre, which was always on the cusp of bankruptcy:

I'm sure the most fun I had during this period was as part of "Perfectly Frank," a musical revue of Frank Loesser's work:

The truth is, Granada was not an easy place to work, and I eventually outgrew the place. There was little chance of "being seen" by important industry people, and since I was waiting tables at the time, I usually lost money by being in the shows. And the pay? A single glass of wine after the show.

Still, I drove down to check out this second Granada space. I didn't take a picture. It's now a Korean grocery store.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Album Droppings: Duplicatus Interruptus, or, "What Were They Thinking??"

I have proudly been making headway with the outrageous task I have given myself: to convert my huge collection of vinyl recordings to digital format. I've made it through the "G's".

But my monumental task is being interrupted, for at least several weeks. Christmas is rearing its unforgiving head, and I've had to break in order to get my Christmas Cards out. Due to my upcoming trip to LA, from which I won't be returning until the middle of December, it was necessary to dispatch my cards this week. All 109 of them. Don't even ask.

So, music duplication has ceased. But not before I marveled at several albums which must be labelled "What Were They Thinking?"

I mentioned earlier "Doonesbury the musical." Why oh why would anyone think that the very topical, very current comic strip "Doonesbury" could be translated into a standard musical comedy? In spite of having in its cast Kate Burton (Richard's daughter, and a Tony nominee lately), Mark Linn-Baker (later on TV in "Perfect Strangers"), and Gary Beach (recently a Tony winner for "The Producers"), the show is a true disaster. The creators, which included Gary Trudeau himself, placed the music in the hands of Elizabeth Swados, who never met a melody she couldn't deconstruct. (Her big claim to fame was the fluke hit "Runaways," which I bet I'll have something to say about once I get to the R's. But we're still on the D's here...). Her atonal music sinks an already shaky concept, and "Doonesbury" failed to follow in the footsteps of other comics-to-musical hits such as "Annie," "L'il Abner", and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."

I've run across two more "What Were They Thinking?" musicals in my collection. I've already confessed to being a Hermione Gingold fan, so when I ran across an album with her name on the cover, I pounced. The show happened in the late 50s, and was called "First Impressions." It's the musical version of (are you ready for this?): "Pride and Prejudice." Yes, somebody thought Jane Austen's novel would make a good musical. They were wrong. Gingold played the mother, and two of the daughters were played by Phyllis Newman and Polly Bergen (who's currently chewing the scenery on "Desperate Housewives"). When, in the opening number, Gingold laments the fact that she has Five Daughters who need husbands, I was reminded of Tevye and his five daughters, all of whom are more interesting than this bunch.

Perhaps the weirdest of this set of musicals was scored by none other than Charles Strauss, who should have known better. Who in the world would have thought that "Flowers For Algernon" should be a musical? This is a real corker, with a pre-Phantom Michael Crawford fawning his way through the thing as the retarded Charlie who suddenly gets better, grows up, sleeps with his doctor, then regresses to his childish state. I kid you not, there is even a vaudeville-type number between Crawford (as Charlie) and Algernon. In case you've forgotten who Algernon is, get ready: he's a mouse.

Truth be told, there is one number in this stinker which deserved some life outside, maybe in cabaret acts, called "I Really Loved You." But the ballad is rendered unlistenable by the slurred delivery of Crawford.

Wow. And yet I press on, loading these losers onto my hard drive, then burning a homemade CD. Who's the real loser, I wonder?