Friday, October 31, 2008

Studs Terkel


"I came up the year the Titanic went down."

Radio host, black-listed activist, sometime actor, oral historian, and acclaimed author, Turkel won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Humanities Medal, and the National Medal of Arts, among countless other awards. A mainstay on Chicago radio, he found international fame with his oral histories, including The Good War, for which he won the Pulitzer in 1985. Earlier, his examination of the lives of ordinary working people became the source material for an under-appreciated, problematic, but highly personal musical called Working.

Being the musical theatre maniac that I am, it is that contribution for which I am most thankful. Sadly, the show derived from Terkel's book is a mish-mash of styles, with the music written by more than a half dozen composers, including Broadway Babies Mary Rodgers and Stephen Schwartz, pop superstar James Taylor, and cabaret stylist Craig Carnelia. Predictably, such an eclectic mix prevented a single style to emerge. The show wasn't helped much by the musical's text, which consisted of a series of monologues delivered by various working folks: a UPS man, a telephone operator, a newsboy, a teacher, a housewife, a maid, a waitress, a truck driver, well, you name it. Even illegal aliens and hookers showed up to tell their tales. It's little wonder that the show failed in its original production, but the musical continues to be presented on college campuses and in regional theatres. Currently, a revised version of the show is being prepared for the Old Globe in San Diego.

Clearly, Terkel's oral history still resonates. In his honor and in his memory, please enjoy the clip below, in which the heartbreaking Eileen Brennan is paired with the musical voice-over of Jennifer Warnes, to present one of the many moving moments in Working.

MILLWORKER, from Studs Terkel's "Working"

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Vet Who Did Not Vet

At the risk of overkill, I present another video swipe. It was never my intention for this blog to host Youtube retreads, but this one is really, really cute. Forgive me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sarah Shops, and escapes to Fake America

My friend Marni Penning continues to slay me with her video impersonations. Though I love 'em all, I hope they become obsolete after next week. It's being said, however, that Palin has left her maverick in the snow and gone rogue, in essence prepping for her own 2012 campaign. Well, I guess that'll mean Marni will be getting work out of this woman for years to come.

Check out the above video, and if you like it, double-click on the box and you'll be taken directly to Marni's Youtube page, where you can enjoy her other entries, in which Sarah deals with the debate, takes us on location in DC, and even talks trash in a hot tub (and don't miss the episode in the closet. It's a gem!)

[side note to Marni: Tina Fey has revealed that, after next week's election, she's "done" with playing Palin, she just has too much on her plate. Soooo, get your stuff to Lorne; it looks like they may be needing a Palin impersonator for some time to come!]

Monday, October 27, 2008

10 Years After Laramie

This month marks the tenth anniversary of several momentous moments. Ten years ago, I was in the midst of my first experience with touring. The Kennedy Center sent 9 actors and technicians across the country to bring enlightenment and theatrical goodies to the hinterlands, in Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I loved taking that tour, which brought me to places I would never have visited otherwise (North Dakota! Iowa! Green Bay!) It was a real actors' life, and I didn't mind that we traveled in a van rather than an airplane, and stayed at the Holiday Inn rather than the Ritz. We were a touring band of players, spreading the word.

As I look back on that period, I'm astonished that I did not know the world was changing dramatically while we were cris-crossing the nation. When your whole life is a van, a motel, and a theatre, it's easy to lose track of the outside world, even though you are in its midst. So, I completely missed the news that, in October of 1998, while we were entertaining kids from Maine to Minnesota, a young gay man in Wyoming had been lured from a small-town bar and brutally pistol-whipped about the head and body. He was then strapped to a fence in the middle of an icy field, and left to die. By a couple of "misunderstood" local boys.

The horrific murder of Matthew Shepard brought international attention to the ongoing homophobia of America, a place where all men were supposedly created equal. The event added new phrases to the national lexicon, such as "Hate Crime," and a year later, "Gay Panic," the deplorable defense strategy used by one of the monsters who perpetrated the crime.

Simultaneously with these events, the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York was prepping the world premiere of Terence McNally's Corpus Christi, an updated retelling of the Jesus story. In McNally's version, Jesus and his apostles were gay men. Word got out that the play included scenes in which the disciples engaged in orgiastic sex (untrue, there are no overtly sexual scenes in the play), and major protests were launched. The noise grew so loud that the Manhattan Theatre Club, which had previously hosted many premieres of McNally's plays, yanked the show from their season. An anti-censorship firestorm ensued, and the MTC was forced to reinstate the production, which went on amid clamorous protests from the Catholic church and others. Death threats were sent to the playwright, and when the play opened in London, a fatwa was issued against McNally by radical Muslims (why radical Muslims cared about a play which Christians believed defamed Jesus, remains a topic of debate, but McNally was warned not to travel to any Muslim state, as he would then be arrested and executed).

Audiences who braved the unruly mob outside the theatre in New York had to pass through metal detectors. To see an off-Broadway play. Welcome to America.

A revival of Corpus Christi is currently being staged in New York without protest. In Laramie, Wyoming, the fence to which Matthew Shepard was strapped for 18 hours is now gone.

Apparently the town which bred the monsters who murdered this defenseless boy has moved on. But I couldn't let this ten-year anniversary go by without notice.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Noble Beast

I heard a story once about a woman in Britain who was going blind. She went to the agency which trains seeing-eye dogs, and requested one who had flunked. "I'm not so very blind," she explained, "and I'm not so good at taking tests myself."

I admire that woman. She simply wanted someone to muddle along with her. I admire that dog, too. I bet they made a good pair.
Lately, I've been examining my own reluctance, throughout my adult life, to own a pet.

I've watched others in my life struggle with the declining health of their beloved pets, which is one reason I'm such a coward about owning one myself. I know, for all my surface impatience with animals, I have the capacity to fall in love with one. My sister Joan has three or four animals in her life at all times, and of course, she's fully aware that her life span will extend beyond theirs. It does not stop her from investing in those pets with full emotion, though she knows the pain which will come for her at the end of their lives. She's not a coward.

Heart ache is the worst pain in the world, for me. And I know I've tried to avoid it throughout my life, by refusing to let others in. There can't be real heart ache, you see, if you never give up your heart to others. And with a pet, you have to give up your heart. You just have to.

I'm thinking about this a lot lately, as several people in my life have been struggling recently with the loss of their pets. My sister lost her Golden a few years ago, Abby, a dog which I believe was her soul mate, if there can be such a thing among different species. More recently, another of her dogs, Murphy, was suddenly taken from her by a quick decline in health. Joan soldiers on, and still has four animals in her life.

My friends Scott and Drew recently experienced the loss of their beloved dog, who had been in their lives for many years. They freely claimed her their daughter, and transferred any innate parental feelings to her. Her life was checkered with substantial health issues, including what I think was a cancer scare years ago. After much soul-searching, Scott and Drew decided she should undergo treatment (I can't recall if it was chemo or radiation or both, but I imagine it was as toxic as such treatments are for humans). Afterward, they decided they would not force their daughter to undergo another such round, no matter what. Blessedly, though the dog was not predicted to live a long life, she ultimately did, despite her health issues. I should say, she not only lived a long life, she surely lived a happy one, with two doting parents treating her as their child. Of course, you can see the end of this story. This summer, her health issues took over, and my friends lost their loved one. The pain and sorrow they are currently feeling will eventually be tempered by time, but it will not go away. And right now, they are feeling a palpable, physical pain.

Is it any wonder I have always hesitated to go down that road?

You've heard of The Year From Hell? My friend Ann is actually living it. Her recent life has been so fraught with unbelievable sorrows that if you saw it onstage in a play, you would leave at intermission muttering, 'Who wrote this?" It's been a terrible time. This week, her beloved dog Sandy, about whom I wrote a few months ago during the worst period, had to be released from her pain. Ann has said that the final culprit was liver cancer, though I think Sandy suffered from diabetes, too.

The dog now has peace, but her survivors don't.

I had a dog as a kid, a mutt named Chris, given to me for Christmas one year, but he was really a family dog. We had many cats over the years, but my only other experience as a dog owner came as a surprise. My family had moved from Georgia to L.A. , and my mother came home from shopping one day with a hairy little creature in her arms. He was a silly little dog, a mixed-breed (I guess that's the upscale term for mutt) called a "Pommie-Poo." Boy, did he live up to those expectations. I carry the distinction of having named him Ashley (I've already confessed to being a Gone With the Wind kook), and the dog remained with our family for quite a while.

Ashley annoyed me a lot, with his constant (and I mean CONSTANT) insistence on fetching things. You could not speak to the dog without his grabbing a slimy old tennis ball, or a plastic bone, or a squeaky shoe, and bringing it to you, to be thrown in his direction. This dog was a maniac about it.

Another annoying habit Ashley had was to chase the water in the pool. This may be the oddest thing I've ever seen a canine do. Whenever we turned the faucet on, to refill the water in the swimming pool, the dog would race round and round and round the pool, barking like a banshee. This would continue until the pads on his feet started to bleed from the concrete.

I was never the primary caregiver of this dog, others in the family did that. Though my sister and father played with him often, Ashley was clearly my mother's dog, so when her health declined, his behavior quieted. During the last weeks of her life, which she spent upstairs attached to the oxygen machine, the dog did not see her much. Ashley was not allowed upstairs, and obeyed the rules as much as possible. Instead, he sat at the kitchen door, impatiently waiting for my mother to come downstairs. I recall a time or two, when my mother had a particularly bad mid-day nightmare or vision, and would cry out in her sleep. Ashley bolted through the den and up the stairs before anyone could stop him, to see what was wrong.

I didn't add it all up back then, but I now realize that my mother brought that dog home to help her get through the terrible cancer treatments she was undergoing. Ashley outlived my mother by several years, but after her death, he wasn't really the same.

As I said, I've lately been watching from the sidelines as so many of my friends and family have struggled with the death of their cherished pets. Ann and Scott and Drew and Joan are all suffering mightily with their loss, but I doubt any of them regret having shared their lives with their pets. As for me, I'm not experiencing those losses. Not getting those joys, either.

All those pets were so very different, as different as the personalities with whom they lived. But from where I sit, those animals shared something in common.

They were noble beasts.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

S' Newz occasional series mentioning current events which held my interest this week...

Everybody's weighed in on this grotesque development adding to the sewage of the presidential campaign. For those under a rock this week, a (white) college student claimed to have been robbed at her ATM, then subsequently beaten and mutilated when her attackers saw her McCain bumper sticker. Her story fell apart at once, when security cameras failed to find her at the scene, and forensics determined that her mutilation was inflicted with a butter knife, not a very effective weapon for threatening victims. This loser didn't even realize that the "B" she cut into her cheek was backward. Take a look at her, and you can tell she doesn't spend enough time in front of a mirror to know that she is looking at a reversed image:

I believe this story received national attention as well. When the Tysons Corner Mall sacked their long-time Santa (after 18 years!), the community decked the halls with boughs of emails. It was all a miscommunication, claimed the mall. The company which supplies the annual Santa (and other seasonal attractions) changed hands, took a look at the current Santa's contract, and dumped him (without notifying him, though he had a contract through 2012. This guy did not find out he had been fired until he called to ask when he should show up for work). They had no idea he was a local icon (or didn't care to find out. Christmas is business, after all.) After the mall received hundreds of emails, a petition, and threats of a boycott, they issued a statement in which they promised to find Santa a job. Someplace.

Hey, this guy has spent so many years in a mall, perhaps the RNC could hire him to help Sarah Palin shop for clothes which are not quite so expensive.

The big news in the theatrical world this week was the debunking of a rumor which has been circulating for a while. Everybody knows that Daniel (Harry Potter franchise) Radcliffe is currently doffing his clothes 8 times a week on Broadway in Equus. The show is such a hit that the producers are on the hunt for another box office draw to replace him when he moves on. Zac (High School Musical franchise) Efron has been pursued, or so the Internet buzz says. Not so, say his people (I wonder what it's like to have people?); no one has approached Efron. Jeez, does anyone care if this guy has the chops to handle such a role? Nope.

I myself shouldn't judge. I hesitate a bit to admit this, but I've never seen any of the High School Musical things. In my defense, I'm an old phart and have no interest in Disney's factory produced products. Hey, the writers haven't even bothered to name their project, they just call it by its genre: "high school musical."

But I have an even more shameful confession. I've never seen any of the Harry Potter things, either. Don't kill me. I have them all on my Netflix queue, I promise. But I've resisted them for the same simple reason that I avoided the books. I absolutely hate books which introduce their own language. You know, made up words. I don't like made up words. I like the words we already have.

For that same reason, I hated A Clockwork Orange, too. I don't want to learn all those new words just to read a book. But that gives me an idea. Zac Efron as Alex, in the remake of A Clockwork Orange. That I might want to see...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mr. Blackwell


He started out as an actor in the late 50s, and was the understudy for a Broadway play called Dead End. He played the role exactly once. Apparently, that was enough to convince him that he should change careers.

I'm missing the fashion gene myself, so I never saw the point of his annual Worst-Dressed List. But nobody could argue with him the year he placed singer Bjork on the list, after her hilarious gown worn on the Oscar broadcast:

Blackwell commented, "She sings in the dark, and dresses there, too."

Ellen DeGeneres did not land on his list when she spoofed the dress at the following Emmy awards.

Blackwell's role as purveyor of all that is fashionable has long since been obliterated by the catty red carpet dwellers of current award ceremonies. Nobody really cares when he slithers out of obscurity once a year to take aim at celebrities. I'm remembering Anthony's remarks about him on that Designing Women episode:

"Where does this guy get off calling Liz Taylor the worst dressed woman in the world? Hasn't this dude ever been to the bus station?"

Appropriately, Mr. Blackwell's first name was Dick.

Monday, October 20, 2008

My Mother's Music

My mother was a musical soul, having played the piano since she was a tot. Throughout my childhood, I recall flipping through her album collection. She was attracted to jazzy, upbeat tunes, and our records included Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66, and the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

But when she was in mellow moods, she preferred melodious male voices. We owned several albums by the likes of Andy Williams, Jack Jones, and other crooners of the 50s and 60s. (My father's taste mirrored hers, with favorites like Peggy Lee, Dusty Springfield, and Andy's homicidal wife, Claudine Longet).

A particular favorite of my mother's was a trio called The Lettermen, who gained some fame in the 60s and 70s, recording melodious covers of current popular songs. The album most embedded in my memory was a live recording of one of their concerts, filled with upbeat numbers sung in close harmony. The Lettermen closed this concert (I think they still close concerts this way) with an acappella song called "I Believe." We were not an overly-religious family, but I like to think that we were a spiritual one, though we did not show it often. This song reflects that spirituality, and was my mother's favorite song.

In the early pages of this blog, I wrote a letter to my mother, and followed it up with another a year later. Of course, those letters were mostly for me, as I try, a quarter of a century after the fact, to make sense of her death.

If my mother had lived, she would be turning 80 years old today. In her honor and in her memory, the entry below contains a short slide show of her younger years, and the years in which I remember her.

I Believe

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Edie Adams


Adams led a prolific and widely varied career on stage, screen, television, and the nightclub circuit. A graduate of Julliard's music department, she burst onto Broadway playing Rosalind Russell's sister in the musical Wonderful Town. Three years later, she brought comic strip character Daisy Mae to life in Li'l Abner, a role for which she won the Tony. By then she had met and married television pioneer Ernie Kovacs, and appeared frequently on his program.

Though she lost her role in the film version of Li'l Abner to Leslie Parrish (go here for that Dance Party!), she appeared in many other films of the 60s, including The Apartment, The Best Man, Lover Come Back, and Under the Yum Yum Tree.

In 1963, she held her own among what may be the largest gathering of first-class comics ever to appear in a single film, when she played a dentist's wife in Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Here is a still from that now iconic film, where she is surrounded by Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, and Peter Falk:

Adams may be best remembered as the voice, and body, for Muriel Cigars. Her glamorous image and knock-out figure did not hide the fact that she was a gifted mimic, and her trademark slogan, delivered as a salute to Mae West, became an American catchphrase for over 19 years:

"Pick One Up and Smoke it Sometime..."

It's been estimated that while Adams starred in their commercials, Muriel increased their sales ten-fold.

Adams endured more than her share of personal sorrow, as she lost her first husband (Kovacs) in a car accident in 1962. She was left with a staggering debt to the IRS, which she struggled to repay. Twenty years later, she lost her daughter Mia in another car accident.
Yesterday, she passed away from pneumonia and cancer.

Adams created a bit of television history in 1960, in a guest starring role which has since become quite famous. Along with her husband Kovacs, she appeared in the final episode of the I Love Lucy franchise (at this point it was called the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour). The Arnaz's marriage had crumbled, and divorce papers were filed at the completion of this episode. In it, Adams, accompanied by Vivian Vance on the piano, sang a simple, delicate rendition of an old standard.

It was said that the crew taping the episode was in tears.

That's All

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

New York State of Mind

As my period of unemployment has lengthened, I've cast my net wider, to include New York auditions. I spent three days last week negotiating the Big Apple, in order to attend a general audition and two callbacks.

I usually stay overnight with my sister in a commuter town called South Salem, NY, about a 45 minute train ride north of Manhattan. This time, however, that option was not open to me, so I booked a cheapo rate (thanks, Priceline) at a hotel in Connecticut. Why Connecticut, you may query? Well, I had received a callback for a production at the Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury, CT. I've auditioned a few times over the years at this small and homey theatre, and had in fact made the schlep up a few weeks earlier to attend the first call for their upcoming production of The Producers. It was a callback for this production which brought me back to the area.

I made the five hour drive easily, on Monday, and settled into the hotel. My callback was scheduled for Tuesday at noon. The theatre was located about 45 minutes by freeway from my digs. I arrived at the theatre about half an hour early, and was astonished at the number of parked cars outside. The parking lot, the street, even the construction site across the street, were packed. This was a dead give-away that Seven Angels had called back every actor in the tri-state area.

Not a good sign.

My heart sinking a bit, I found a spot under a tree, next to a ditch, and trudged across the street to the theatre. Since I had been there before, I was not surprised by the banner which hung above the front entrance, announcing that Seven Angels Theatre was also the Nunsense Museum. Yes, there is such a thing.

In honor of the series of musicals about tap-dancing nuns, the theatre had turned their lobby into a museum. (This is not quite as weird as it sounds; the artistic director of Seven Angels was an original cast member of those musicals, and had collected memorabilia along the way.)

I entered the lobby to find it absolutely packed with people. Well, not just people. Old people. Many, many old people. Most of them female, and all of them wearing tags which said, "Hello, my name is _______". It crossed my mind, just for a moment, that this version of The Producers was going to use actual senior citizens in its big production number featuring Little Old Ladies:

I dismissed that thought when I noticed that there was no sign-in table, no intern greeting actors, absolutely nothing to indicate that callbacks for the show were in progress. I had stumbled upon some kind of Senior Citizens' Fieldtrip to the Nunsense Museum. I went up to the box office and found a very helpful lady who looked at me blankly when I announced I was "here for the callbacks for The Producers."

Can you see this coming? The Box Office lady called the casting director's cellphone, and gained the information that callbacks were indeed being held. On 54th Street. In Manhattan.

This caster is a lovely lady named Renee, who has been kind to me since I first auditioned for her theatre five years ago, so she agreed to work me into the callbacks if I could get down to The City. I assured her I could, and hopped in the car. I estimated I could get to Manhattan in about an hour and a half, and while I dislike driving in New York City, I have done it often enough to be undaunted by the possibility. Still, when I passed a freeway sign announcing the exit for the train station, I made a snap decision to take the train into the city instead. I pulled into a municipal garage in Waterbury, parked the car, and dashed across the street to a train which was waiting at the station. I asked the porter if this train would take me to Manhattan?

She replied, rather dryly, "Eventually."

It was only in retrospect that I realized I should have listened more closely to her answer. The train did indeed deliver me to Grand Central Station, a whopping two and a half hours later. I had stepped onto a train which wandered all over Connecticut before depositing me in Bridgeport, after which my connecting train wandered all over New York. I didn't even get excited when we stopped in New Rochelle, and I realized this was the train Rob Petrie must have taken every day to get into the city to write for the Alan Brady Show.

I arrived at the audition site three hours late, but was greeted warmly by Renee, and I was soon ushered into the chamber. I sang my song, and was given two scenes to read (the same two I had read at the initial audition). Only a minute or so after I had stepped back into the hall to prep the sides, the choreographer popped her head out the door and said, "We're running so far behind, why don't you take those home and bring them with you at the dance call tomorrow."

Dance call?

Yep, I was being called back to dance the next day. This is rarely good news for me, for though I am not a bad dancer, I am not a quick learner and always fumble at such auditions. Never mind, I was glad not to have been eliminated at this point, so I agreed.

I dashed back to Grand Central in time to climb aboard the rush-hour return train. We repeated the wandering through New York, and I didn't even get excited when we passed through Brewster, and I realized this was the train which budding actress Ann Marie took when she moved to the city to become a star.

I was deposited in Bridgeport, CT, to change trains, but not before we passed through Tuckahoe, NY, when I have to confess, my mind wandered to the neighborhood in which my favorite limousine liberal used to live.

My connecting train in Bridgeport was undergoing mechanical difficulties, so I spent a full hour on the platform before finally making my connection. Another hour on the train, then another 45 minute drive back to the hotel, and I'd really had it with New York Auditions...

Except I had two more the next day.

Wednesday morning I checked out of the hotel and hit the road toward Manhattan. As I said, I have driven into The City often, and have found the best way to negotiate the traffic is to cross the George Washington Bridge and land on the upper west side. Often, I can find street parking there, but only if the timing is such that the crazy Alternate Side Of The Street Parking is causing the locals to rearrange their cars. Sadly, Wednesday is the one weekday which does not require one side of the street to be free for street cleaners, so nobody was moving their cars. I finally pulled into a garage and hopped on the subway to midtown.

My dance callback was not until 2, but I had decided, since I was already in the City, to attend the general audition for Opus, being produced at the Florida Studio Theatre. I had some success in Opus at the Washington Stage Guild a few years ago, and look forward to tackling that gem again. I arrived at the audition site just in time to snag the last available appointment for the day.

I had about two hours to kill before my appointment, and herein lies the problem I have always faced when attending a New York Auditions Tour: what to do with myself between auditions. I tend to want a quiet spot to sit, read, think, prep, snooze, whatever. No such place exists in Midtown Manhattan. The sidewalks were jammed with people (it was a matinee day for most of Broadway, and much of Off-Broadway, so there were even more pedestrians than usual, fighting for space), and the streets were clogged with trucks, buses, cabs, construction vehicles, etc etc etc, all making noise, spewing fumes, honking horns, and generally creating the kind of chaos which I really hate. It is impossible to find a quiet spot, even in a Starbucks or a restaurant or anywhere. I finally walked over to the Equity building to sit in their lounge area, but of course, auditions were ongoing there as well, and the place was full of actors jabbering about their lives.

As for my auditions themselves, well. The Opus general was simply presenting a monologue for a NY casting director who had very little interest in finding actors at this cattle call. If you aren't submitted by an agent in NY, you do not have much access to the really nice regional theatre gigs. Still, I was glad I took the time to do the thing. Afterward, I had another two hours to kill before the Seven Angels dance call.

Waiting around wears me out.

I needn't have worried about the dance audition. The choreographer in charge was a charming young gal who immediately separated the tap-dancers from the rest of us. Our routine was short and sweet and easy to learn and execute. I actually had a bit of fun. I was able to see, however, that neither the director nor the choreographer glanced in my direction, even once. I received further evidence that I was no longer on their short list for the show when I was released, without reading the sides they had given me to prepare the day before.

I returned to my car uptown, and whipped onto the New Jersey Turnpike just before rush hour, heading back to DC. It's a four hour drive, during which I had a long time to think about New York, and auditions, and how local actors manage the chaotic atmosphere which is inescapable in the city. These were not idle thoughts; the possibility of living in Manhattan myself has recently dropped into my lap. I'll discuss that possibility later, if the next several steps happen (steps which do not require action on my part), but I wonder if I have the deep-seated desire necessary to deal, every day, with the mania of Manhattan.

So far, I really DON'T heart New York...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"Perpetual Anticipation... good for the soul, but it's bad for the heart."

So goes Stephen Sondheim's recitative in his brilliant musical A Little Night Music. Just about everybody has been wondering when his 1973 masterpiece might appear again on Broadway. We've had revivals of his A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (twice), his Follies, Company, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and Sunday in the Park with George. Even more problematic pieces Assassins and Pacific Overtures have seen revivals. In past seasons, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close have both been mentioned as possibles to play Desiree, the aging actress at the center of the story. But so far, they have failed to send in the clowns. Roundabout Theatre Co. has just announced a single performance fundraiser for their theatre in January, 2009, a concert staging with the starriest cast imaginable. Notably, Christine Baranski will be playing the scene-stealing part of Charlotte , and Broadway Babies Victor Garber, Laura Benanti, and Marc Kudisch will also participate. The terrific Natasha Richardson, Tony-winner for the Cabaret revival a while back, will play Desiree, and in a fantastic casting coup, her mother, Madame Armfeldt, will be played by her mother, Vanessa Redgrave.

A Little Night Music was the first Sondheim musical I was exposed to, back when I was a teen-ager. My friend Valerie, who was and remains a Sondheim-aholic, introduced me to the cast album at a party way back when. (Yes, that was the kind of party I attended as a teen. Any wonder I turned out like this?) I was aware of West Side Story and Gypsy, of course, but this piece just blew me away. The first time I saw the show was in a major revival in Los Angeles. The attraction here was the casting of Glynis Johns, the original Desiree, in the role of her mother, Madame Armfeldt. The central role was to have been played by Lee Remick, who was tragically diagnosed with breast cancer before rehearsal started and was forced to withdraw from the production to begin chemo. She was replaced by one of the most boring actresses ever to grace stage or screen, Lois Nettleton. As a result, Johns, in a wheelchair but still riveting to watch, was the undisputed highlight of the show. I have seen only two other productions. I mentioned the revival at The Kennedy Center's Sondheim Festival a while back, in which Blair Brown had the lead, and of course, there is the notorious film flop, against which I have already railed.

What is it about Night Music which has caused it to be absent so long? Surely it's not the score, famously written as a series of waltzes, for it contains Sondheim's most famous tune, "Send in the Clowns." It also contains what is arguably the most exciting Act One finale in any musical of the 20th century, "Weekend in the Country."

I say arguably, because two other Sondheim Act One Finales might challenge that statement. Sunday in the Park's first act ends with "Sunday," in which our hero Georges Seurat constructs his most famous painting with the people he has been sketching throughout Act One. The song always makes me teary, as it reflects the artist's struggle to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

And then there's Gypsy, which features a shatteringly human reversal. On a lonely train platform in the middle of nowhere, with boyfriend Herbie and daughter Louise cowering in the background, the monstrous Mama Rose sings optimistically that "Everything's Coming up Roses." But the lyrics mask a dark desperation. We know we are not in for a happy ending.

Perhaps the planned benefit reading will convince someone that we need A Little Night Music.
If not Now, then Soon. Rather than Later.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Eileen Herlie


The New York soap world continues to lose long-time supporting players. On the heels of the death of Emmy winner Irene Dailey, comes the news that Eileen Herlie, who has played Myrtle Fargate on All My Children for over three decades, has died of pneumonia at the age of 90.

As with most soap stars of her generation, Herlie had a substantial stage career. Originally from Scotland, her London and Broadway credits include Shakespeare, contemporary works, and musicals. She was invited by Laurence Olivier to play his mother in his film version of Hamlet, though she was actually younger than Olivier at the time. A generation later, she repeated the role of Gertrude, this time opposite Richard Burton in his celebrated Broadway version. That production was also filmed. She played Irene Malloy opposite Ruth Gordon's Dolly Levi in Thorton Wilder's The Matchmaker, and she appeared in several musicals opposite substantial stars, such as Ray Bolger in All American and Jackie Gleason in Take Me Along. The latter production, a musical version of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness (if you can imagine such a thing), snagged Herlie a Tony nomination.

Hurlie joined the cast of All My Children in 1976, and received four Emmy nominations for her work. She remained with the show until her death this week.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Irene Dailey


Another of the many actors I admire because they spent their careers in support, Dailey was usually overshadowed by her older brother, Hollywood hoofer Dan Dailey. She worked steadily in regional theatre and in London before making her Broadway splash as the mother in the original production of The Subject Was Roses. She appeared onstage often throughout her career, including standing by, and eventually taking over, for Irene Worth in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers. Her final Broadway performance, in the mid-1990's, was opposite Frank Langella in The Father.

Like so many stage actors of the period, she found her day job in daytime. Dailey spent a year on The Edge of Night, playing murderous socialite Pamela Stuart. Subsequently, she landed the role which would keep her employed for 20 years, busybody Liz Mathews on Another World. In 1979, she won the Emmy for Best Leading Actress for the role, beating out, among other heavy-hitters, the late great Beverlee McKinsey, about whom I have already written.

Dailey passed away from colon cancer last week at the age of 88.