Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Verbal Tip

When I lived in Los Angeles, I worked for a long time as a waiter. Just about every actor in LA or NY does so. I actually liked it, so for more than 13 years, I served the public in the food service industry.

When the cheque was being prepared or presented, occasionally the customer would become very very effusive, complimenting my service, my attentiveness, my everything. Nine times out of ten, this customer, who had gone on and on about the great service, would tip less than 15 percent. I was not the only waiter in history to notice this phenomenon, which is known as the "verbal tip." Somehow, people think that if they compliment you enough, you won't care that you are being cheated.

I don't wait tables anymore, but I am still assaulted with the Verbal Tip.

A couple of weeks ago, I drove up to New York to attend an audition for a theatre in Vermont. This was not an open call, mind you, but an audition to which I had been invited. The reading went fairly well, I thought, and at the time, it looked like the Powers That Be agreed. "Very nice work this afternoon," proclaimed the show's director.

Translation: "You will not be hearing from us again." I had received a Verbal Tip.

This past week, I spent a couple of days auditioning for a show which, at least at first, I didn't really care about. I was invited to attend the audition by the theater's artistic director, with whom I had worked years ago at another venue. I have noticed another phenomenon in my career: even if I attend an audition for a show which does not matter much to me, if I end up with a callback and a discernible interest on the part of the Powers, I start to care about the show very much. This experience was more proof of the point. My initial audition was mediocre, in my mind, but it secured a callback the next day. This next audition included a dance call, which seemed to go fairly well for me, and a reading of a short scene, which impressed the director enough that he asked that I hang around to learn the character's big number.

So, this callback, for a kids' show about an hour in length, stretched to 3 full hours (not including the hour drive each way to get to this outlying theater) but I didn't care, I suddenly very much wanted to get the gig. I was the last actor to be released (the stage manager was even putting away the folding chairs while I waited for my final moment), and after my singing audition, the director thanked me profusely for driving out and spending the evening at the audition. "Thank you SOOO much for coming out," he effused, "We REALLY appreciate it!!"

Another Verbal Tip.
Now don't get me wrong, I appreciate being thanked at an audition. But when a director becomes OVERLY gracious, it is as good as saying, "I have already decided not to use you," which, frankly, I would prefer, as it is a more professional way of handling the rejection.
All in all, I'd rather forgo the Tip, and get the gig instead...

Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Make Your Own Kind of Music

The clip above is the theatrical trailer for a sweet little film from the mid-90s, Beautiful Thing. If you haven't seen it, it's worth a look. It's one of those coming-of-age stories which indie film makers do so well, and this is one of the decade's best. Glen Berry and Scott Neal play teenagers trying to discover themselves in a world (working-class London) which does not celebrate diversity.

Writer Jonathan Harvey, who penned both the screenplay and the original stage version, created some terrific characters in the piece, including an oddball dropout named Leah, who has a peculiar musical fascination.

Which is what reminded me of this movie today. The soundtrack is composed largely of Cass Elliot's hits, both as a solo artist and as lead vocalist for the Mamas and the Papas. Though she is well-regarded by pop music historians, by 1996, Elliot had been largely forgotten by the public, having died 20 years earlier. Jonathan Harvey remembered her well, though, and placed her music at the center of his play and film, reviving a bit of interest in this large lady with the large voice. I never stopped being her fan, and her own Dance Party clip is here, if you are interested (it's VERY bizarre).

The 36th anniversary of Cass Elliot's death was yesterday, so for this week's Dance Party, enjoy the final scene from Beautiful Thing. Our two heroes have finally recognized their sexuality, and decided to celebrate it, rather than hide it. This clip also includes the dynamic Linda Henry as Sandra, the single mother who comes to terms with this new kind of relationship. The three leads of the film all had substantial experience on British television, and in fact, Beautiful Thing was filmed as a TV movie, but it came out so well that it received an international theatrical release in 1996. And the tune, of course, is Cass Elliot's signature song. Happy Dance Party!

Monday, July 26, 2010

On The Fringe

The 5th Annual DC Fringe Festival concluded yesterday. God bless 'em for soldiering on during this heatwave. I only saw one entry this year, and as there were 132 total productions, I am in absolutely no position to think my opinions have any merit. But since when has that ever stopped me?

First, the show I actually saw:

Super Claudio Bros., The All New Video Game Musical

Ducking copyright issues, the authors of this piece had no trouble equating their Claudio Brothers with their inspiration, the Super Mario Brothers. I am not, and never have been, a video game player (give me Family Feud any day), so there were moments in this new musical which went over my head. But most of the show was a hoot and a half, and this may have been the most polished, professional cast of any production of the Fringe (and I can say that, having seen 1/132s of the shows presented).

The cast included Signature Theatre favorites (so you know they sounded swell) Stephen Gregory Smith, Sam Ludwig, Harry Winter, and Chris Sizemore, and Lauren Williams and Matt Anderson made particularly good impressions. (Special shout-out to my buddy Gillian Shelly, whose work in the ensemble was comically and vocally stellar, and why wouldn't it be? She's my friend.) The surface plot, wrapped around the object of the video game, was merely the springboard for a neat study of sibling rivalry, with Ludwig's Luis, the stereotypical Second Son, struggling to achieve his own identity. The authors neatly mirrored that conflict with the two princesses involved.
Really, this show was delightful from start to finish, and will probably have a further life; in fact, I would have to say the star of this show was the producing team, which, in addition to hiring some of the best musical performers in town, provided a costume and prop budget which probably exceeded most other Fringe offerings.

I bet the authors learned a lot from this first full production of their baby. I hope one of their next steps is to better integrate the comedic moments which specifically allude to the original video game with the other moments which spring organically from the work they themselves created. As I said, I never played Super Mario Bros., but there were many folks sitting in my row at Studio Theatre who howled with recognition at points where I was frankly clueless. I think the authors should keep those moments, make no mistake, as they clearly gave the gamers in the audience great entertainment. But I hope there is a way to make those moments more accessible to audience members who never played the game.

As for the DC Fringe Festival itself, well, they should be applauded for their growth in the past five years, but with that growth comes bigger headaches. One of the pesky problems they have faced in the past was the fact that many of their performance venues had no, or very inadequate, air conditioning. The festival is held every year in July, one of the miserable months in DC, and that probably cannot be changed, as it's a moment in the city's theatrical calendar when many theaters are dark (and there's a reason for that: it's friggin' hot.) So the Fringe has access to a lot of performance spaces which are dormant during July, and in the past, some of those venues were unbearably hot for an audience.

In their publicity, the Fringers proudly trumpeted that this year, all their venues were air conditioned. That must have been a relative term, as I heard from many audience members that their enjoyment of performances in certain venues was marred by the stifling heat. Granted, we are in the midst of a particularly nasty summer, weather-wise, but this is an ongoing problem not unique to this year's hot spell. This may seem like a petty problem for a festival which expects its audiences to be ready for raw performances, but that should not include forcing viewers to sit in puddles of their own sweat.

The Fringe ended yesterday, and last night, Audience Awards were presented for various categories, a concept called the Pick of the Fringe. I don't have any problem with awards for actors or productions, in fact, I love them, but these awards are a bit peculiar. Over the past weekend, as the Fringe was winding down, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media buzzed with requests from Fringe participants to vote their show an award. Again, nothing really wrong with that, except for the fact that at no time did anyone ask that the voter actually see a show. These awards were compiled and calculated by an online site called TheaterMania, which merely required that each voter open a free account on their website in order to vote. Does this ring wrong to anybody else but me? All anyone needs to win one of these audience awards is a large number of friends and family who are willing to register with the website, and then vote. It does not seem to matter to the Fringe folks whether these voters ever saw even one show.

This may seem like a little thing, but my friend Rick Hammerly might disagree. Last year, his production won one of these awards, and that win helped solidify his decision to form a permanent theatre company. These awards, then, are gaining in importance, and should be treated with a bit more respect by their founders at the Fringe.

I have a suggestion to solve this problem, or at least alleviate it. Every audience member of every Fringe production is required to purchase a button (the reason for this is murky to me, but never mind) in addition to admission to the show. Why not have these buttons include some sort of code which could act as a password to the voting website, thus insuring that people who vote these awards have seen at least one of the productions in question?

Over at DC Theatre Scene, the region's premier online source for theatrical criticism and news, they hold their own Best of Fringe awards. They are calculated in exactly the same way, with no verification that the voter has seen anything at Fringe. When productions win these awards, what kind of artistic satisfaction can that bring?

Well, I am the only one who seems to have noticed this anomaly, so maybe the Fringe doesn't care about the integrity of their awards. Maybe DC Theatre Scene doesn't, either, but I bet they do. DCTS should be commended, as they are the only media outlet which reviewed all 132 productions presented at this year's Fringe. That is a phenomenal achievement, one which was apparently overlooked by the Fringe folks during their awards presentations last night. Shame on the Fringers for ignoring their biggest cheerleaders.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Daniel Schorr

He was one of the last surviving "Murrow's Boys," a select group of men who were personally recruited to CBS Radio by the legendary Edward R. Murrow, considered the father of broadcast journalism. Legend has it that Dan's news career began when he was 12 years old. The story goes that Schorr came upon a woman who had jumped, or fallen, from the roof of his own apartment building in the Bronx; after calling for help, he dropped a dime to the Bronx Home News. He earned five bucks for this very first scoop.

Two years after Murrow added Schorr to his news team, Dan was given the enviable task of opening the first CBS News bureau in Moscow. In 1957, he was the first American to interview Soviet Communist Party chief Nikita Khrushchev, an interview which was broadcast on Face the Nation. Dan left the Soviet Union for a time due to its strict censorship laws, and was denied a visa when he attempted to return. Nevertheless, he became an authority on the Cold War, and in 1962, delivered an in-depth report on everyday life behind the Iron Curtain.

Schorr was an adamant supporter of first amendment rights (which lead to an unlikely friendship with rocker Frank Zappa, of all people), and if he had been recently connected to the mainstream media, he would surely be labeled a left-winger. But in the 70s, a liberal bent toward freedom of the press was considered an asset, which helped Dan rise to the top of his profession. His relentless investigations into the suspected corruption of the Nixon White House lead to his being investigated by the FBI. When Nixon's infamous enemies list was made public during the Watergate hearings, Schorr scored a bit of a coup when he read the list aloud on live television, only to discover his own name at number 17 (two slots above Paul Newman!)

It was during this period in the early 70s that Dan won three Emmys, back to back, for outstanding achievement in news reporting. By 1976, he had drawn the criticism of his own network, CBS, when he leaked the contents of a confidential report detailing illegal activities performed by the FBI and CIA. He resigned from the network, but retained his reputation as a reporter scrupulously devoted to the truth. In 1979, he was hired by Ted Turner as the first on-air newsman for CNN; he ultimately clashed with his boss regarding Turner's crusade to censor violent movies, and in 1985, he moved to NPR, where his commentary as Senior News Analyst became an invaluable source of historical context. When he turned 90, NPR renamed a studio after him (by the way, did you know it's not National Public Radio anymore? Nope, it's now just NPR, like Kentucky Fried Chicken is now just KFC...but that's another posting).

I have to confess that, when Dan Schorr was in the height of his career, I lumped him in with all those other news hounds, but in recent years, I have greatly enjoyed tuning in to his weekly chat with Scott Simon every Saturday morning on Weekend Edition. He filed his last commentary only two weeks ago, and was as lucid as ever. He died today, only 5 weeks shy of his 94th birthday.

Friday Dance Party: "Mrs. Peel, We're Needed."

All hail Diana Rigg! She burst onto the international scene when she took over the female lead in the 60s British television series The Avengers, a show I remember quite fondly from my youth. It took the espionage genre popular during the Cold War, added a bit of SciFi and a lot of stylish humor, and created a hybrid all its own.

Rigg was not very happy doing the show, discovering after her first year that she was being paid less than the cameraman, but she stuck with the program for three seasons. Though the series had a life before and after her appearances, her years as the athletic, sensuous Mrs. Emma Peel are commonly considered the highlight of the series' run. She never quite escaped that early fame; only a few years ago, she poked a bit of fun at herself during a cameo appearance on Ricky Gervais's series Extras, when guest star Daniel Radcliffe asked if the now middle-aged Dame Diana still had that cat suit.

During the time The Avengers was broadcast on American television, I had no idea Rigg already had substantial classical theatre cred. In her early career, she was memorably paired with a very young Helen Mirren and a topless Judi Dench in the RSC's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and her extensive Shakespearean resume includes playing Regan to Laurence Olivier's King Lear, which would turn out to be his final Shakespearean role. Her stage work has included Stoppard, Coward, Brecht, Albee, Williams, and Euripides.

Diana won the Tony in 1995 for her Medea, and the Emmy in 1997 as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. She was damed in 1994. Bond buffs think her work in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service far outshines that of George Lazenby, who was playing 007 at the time, but my favorite film role of Diana's must be 1973's Theatre of Blood, a darkly comic, tongue-in-cheek movie which mixes theatrical grand guignol with Shakespeare (and gives Vincent Price one of his juiciest roles to boot).

(That's Diana in disguise, helping Vinnie whip up a meat pie with a particularly vengeful ingredient)

Rigg must have felt a particular satisfaction in appearing in Theatre of Blood, which concerns an actor taking gruesome but appropriate vengeance on the critics who savaged his work. Diana herself had been deeply humiliated by critic John Simon in 1971, when he described her nudity in Abelard and Heloise as being "built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses." She included that hideous stinger in her best-selling book No Turn Unstoned, a compilation of the worst reviews ever published about herself and her peers. (The book is painful and hilarious and a must-read for any actor.)

This week's Dance Party star does not consider herself much of a musical theatre performer, but her resume proves otherwise. There are people who still recall her guest appearance on the Christmas episode of the British variety show Morecambe and Wise in 1975, where she displayed hammy music hall skills.

Over the years, she has sung several of Stephen Sondheim's most memorable character songs. She was the only actor to emerge unscathed from the disastrous attempt to film A Little Night Music in 1977, in which she stole her scenes as Countess Charlotte, and warbled "Every Day a Little Death" opposite Lesley-Anne Down.

The London stage premiere of Follies, in which she played cynical socialite Phyllis, allowed her to belt "Could I Leave You?". It was in this production that she introduced a new Sondheim song written specifically for her. The recording of that number, "Ah, but Underneath," is the soundtrack for today's Dance Party clip, a montage of our star's film and television career. I'm not really sure why I became such an early fan of Rigg's back in the day, perhaps it was her easy repartee with the ultra-suave Patrick Macnee in The Avengers (I doubt it was that cat suit), but no matter. And I don't care what snarky John Simon thinks: Dame Diana has plenty of flying buttresses for me:

Dame Diana Rigg turned 72 years old this week.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Here's a guy whose reputation in the theatrical and film communities is probably unmatched, though folks outside those industries are unlikely to have heard of him:

John Willis


As long-time editor (over 45 years) of Theatre World, he amassed statistics, photographs, and production details for every Broadway and most Off-, Off-Off-, and regional theatre productions. The annual publication is routinely used as source material for anyone who has any kind of question regarding an American theatrical production or individual. He did the same for Screen World, covering just about every film which received distribution; he contributed to Dance World and Opera World as well. He was widely regarded as an expert historian in theatre and film, and is informally acknowledged to have attended more theatrical performances than anyone in history (during his tenure at Theatre World, he attended 7-9 performances per week, which amounted to over 20,000 shows in his career).

Willis curated the annual Theatre World Awards, created in 1945 to honor young performers making their New York stage debuts. Here's a shot of Willis, on the far right, standing behind Anthony Perkins, who won the award in 1955 for Tea and Sympathy, and Richard Benjamin, who won in 1967 for Star-Spangled Girl:

The first winners of this prestigious prize included Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, and Barbara Bel Geddes; other winners over the years included Warren Beatty, Jennifer Holliday, Liza Minnelli, Dustin Hoffman, Julie Harris, Kristin Chenoweth, Matthew Broderick, Meryl Streep, Lucie Arnaz, and John Leguizamo. Alan Arkin's 1963 win for Enter Laughing became especially poignant in 1991, when his son Adam won for I Hate Hamlet:

While editing his publications, John Willis supported himself with a 20-year career as an English teacher in the New York City School System. He won the Tony in 2001 for Excellence in Theatre, and was listed in "Who's Who" for decades. He died last month at the age of 93.

The same year Theater World premiered, 1945, a single picture was snapped which capsulized the excitement which accompanied the end of WWII.

Edith Shain


On August 14, 1945, Shain was working as a nurse in a New York hospital when Truman announced the end of WWII. Everyone in Manhattan headed to Times Square, and shortly after she spilled out of the subway, she was grabbed by an exuberant sailor and bent over into a passionate kiss. The photographer who took the shot, Alfred Eisenstaedt, reported that he spotted the young sailor running down the street, snagging any woman in sight for a celebratory smooch. Young, old, small, fat, he was grabbing every female within reach, and the photographer started snapping pictures. "V-J Day in Times Square" was published a week later in Life magazine, and became an iconic illustration of the spontaneous patriotism and joy which erupted at the end of the war.
Shain remained anonymous until the 1970s, when she finally wrote the photographer claiming to be the girl in the picture (there have been several other claimants over the years, and the identity of the sailor has never been settled). She became an activist for WWII veterans and an invited guest to ceremonies commemorating the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the war's end. She died last month at the age of 91.

Regular readers of these pages know my affection and respect for actors who spend their careers in support. Here are a couple we recently lost:

James Gammon


He was one of those craggy-faced character actors who worked all the time. His film debut, in 1967's Cool Hand Luke, began a long career in Hollywood; he made memorable impressions in Urban Cowboy, The Milagro Beanfield War, Leaving Normal, Ironweed, Silverado and Cold Mountain. He is particularly loved for a comic turn as the coach in Major League and its sequel.

His resume includes over 135 roles on TV, ranging from Gunsmoke to Grey's Anatomy, and he had recurring roles on The Waltons and Nash Bridges (though only nine years older, he played Don Johnson's father in the latter series).

Like so many other actors, his first love was the stage, and he founded the tiny (50 seats) Met Theatre in Los Angeles in the 70s; he opened the space with a trio of Inge plays, Bus Stop, Picnic and Dark at the Top of the Stairs, which attracted positive critical attention. Above all, his stage career was dominated by Sam Shepherd's work, with which he had continued success. He appeared in major productions of Curse of the Starving Class, A Lie of the Mind, Simpatico, and The Late Henry Moss, and won a Tony nomination for the Broadway production of Buried Child.

James Gammon died last week at the age of 70.

Vonetta McGee


In 1972, the New York Times called her “just possibly the most beautiful woman currently acting in movies.” Blacula, Hammer, and Shaft in Africa provided starring vehicles for her, and though she appeared with Sidney Poitier in The Lost Man and with Clint Eastwood in The Eiger Sanction, she was unable to parlay her earlier successes in the "blaxpoitation" genre of films into more mainstream fare. She had a recurring role on L.A.Law for a time, and played Carl Lumley's wife during the run of Cagney and Lacey (the two actors ultimately married). McGee died July 9 from cardiac arrest at the age of 65.

Because one of my best, oldest buddies in Los Angeles is a successful voice actor, I am always aware of the deaths of some of his peers. It may mean more work for him. The voice of this guy died last week:


Peter Fernandez


This guy deserves respect because he was responsible for a lot of the success of Speed Racer. He was an actor, making his Broadway debut at the age of 11, but had been writing for pulp magazines when a friend asked him to write dialogue for a Japanese cartoon series being imported for American television. That series was Astro Boy, which was followed by Gigantor. When Speed Racer came along, Fernandez was writing and dubbing these very Japanese characters into English. His rapid-fire dialogue on Speed Racer was necessary to fill the multi-syllabic mouth movements of the original language.

The series which Fernandez Americanized in the 1960s set the stage for the respect which Japanese anime now enjoys. He died last week at the age of 83.

A while ago, I mentioned the death of Jiminy Cricket's vocal interpreter, and now comes word that another Disney voice has been silenced. (That is, the original voice has been silenced. Disney replaced this gal years ago, with Jennifer Hale. )


Ilene Woods


Our future princess was only 18, and beginning a career as a singer, when a couple of friends asked her to sing a few songs for a demo. She complied, singing "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo," "So This Is Love," and "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes," accompanied by a lone piano. A few days later, Uncle Walt himself called and interviewed her on the phone. A few days after that, she was the voice of Cinderella, beating out over 300 other actors.

And here's a fun fact: Ilene's costar, at least musically, was future TV talk-show host Mike Douglas, who provided the singing voice for Cinderella's Prince:

The film was a last-ditch effort to erase the studio's debt, which in 1950 was considerable. Disney had not had a blockbuster hit since Snow White had shacked up with those seven little pervs in 1937. The film cost a whopping three million dollars, but Walt's gamble paid off, and with Cinderella's profits, he formed his own music publishing house, his own film distribution arm, entered into television production, and began building his personal dream, Disneyland.

As for Woods, she continued a singing career based on her Disney work, and appeared at the White House during the Truman years. In 1963, she married Tonight Show drummer Ed Shaughnessy, with whom she remained until her death on July 1 at the age of 81. She suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and was in a nursing home in California at the time of her death. Her husband reported that, though his wife had lost most of her memory, she seemed comforted whenever her nurses played her big Cinderella ballad: