Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday Dance Party: Tune Up

This week's Dance Party celebrates the gent who would probably be known as the preeminent song-and-dance man of his generation, if that term still held any meaning, eminent or otherwise.  He came of age, professionally, during the 60s and 70s, and though he is admired for his performance abilities, it is his innovative work as a director/choreographer which really put him on the map.
I love a spiral staircase.

In the early and mid-60s, Tommy Tune was just your average chorus boy, if your average chorus boy hovered around 6'7.  He had already appeared in several forgettable musicals of the period, and was a featured dancer on Dean Martin's variety show among others, when his career path altered. 

Michael Bennett
His friend and mentor Michael Bennett was summoned to save the musical Seesaw, which was in dire trouble out of town.  Bennett took Tommy with him, placed him in a supporting role, and allowed him to choreograph his own number.  "It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish" turned into a showstopper;  Tune won the first of his nine Tony awards, and his career as a choreographer was launched. 
Michael Bennett's career was launched by dancing his own showstopping numbers in Subways Are For Sleeping and
Here's Love. He passed it forward to Tune in Seesaw, allowing him to create his own choreography for his big number. Tommy stopped the show and won the Tony.
Tune is responsible for a string of eclectic musical hits, including Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Nine, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, Will Rogers Follies, Grand Hotel, and My One and Only (he cast himself as the leading man in the last one, opposite Twiggy; he won a performance Tony plus an award for his choreography). 
With Twiggy in My One and Only.

Our hero was the first person to win Tony awards in four different categories (that feat has since been repeated by Harvey Fierstein), and he still holds the distinction of being the only person to win back-to-back Tonys as director and choreographer.

Tune's film career was limited (Hello, Dolly and The Boyfriend), which partially explains the fact that he is not better known nationally. 
Tommy teaches Streisand (in the purple) the joys of "Dancing,"
 in Hello, Dolly

As Albert in Birdie
But I've been aware of this gentle giant for decades, ever since I saw him in the national tour of My One and Only (Twiggy had been replaced by Sandy Duncan in that one).  Years later, Tommy appeared in a major revival of Bye, Bye, Birdie, which toured the country for a while, aiming for New York. I saw that production as well, and he was as charming as ever, but his costar, Ann Reinking, was a real mess.  The tour folded before reaching New York, as did subsequent new musicals Busker Alley and Dr. Doolittle
Michael Jeter brought down the house at the Tonys, winning
for Grand Hotel.

His work has been showcased in these pages before:  the showstopper from Grand Hotel, delivered by the dynamic Michael Jeter, appears here, and a slap-happy tambourine number from Will Rogers' Follies showed up here.  Both clips are terrific and worth a look.

Tommy has spent the last decade or so showcasing his tap talents in a concert act, as well as running an art gallery in Manhattan which, coincidentally, sells his own work.  He's lately been workshopping a disco musical, all about the notorious Studio 54, but the piece does not seem to be gaining much traction. It seems unlikely that another musical under his guidance will reach Broadway again, which is a shame to me, I'm such a fan.

Site of a memorable New Years Eve.
I still remember fondly the New Year's Eve in New York when a group of college friends and I were visiting New York.  We decided, rather than suffer the crowd in Times Square (we had done that the year before, and once is really enough of that), we would celebrate the evening in that most theatrical of watering holes, Joe Allen.  Seated at the large circular table next to ours was a boisterous group who could only have been theatre people.  Leading the party was Priscilla Lopez, from the original A Chorus Line, and Tommy Tune.
A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine,
Tommy's riotous "double feature." Priscilla Lopez is
masquerading as Harpo Marx.
I'm not the starstruck teen who was thrilled to once sit next to an idol, but I was still excited to shake Tommy Tune's hand a few years ago, when he was in DC receiving an honorary Helen Hayes award.  I still have that hand.  He turns 73 next week, enjoy this tribute.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Different Direction

I haven't done much socializing in New York yet, but coincidentally, the folks I have spent a bit of time with, all come from my school days.  In the past few weeks, I've reconnected with old friends from high school, from college, and from grad school.
Chris hasn't changed much since her days
behind the wheel of her Studebaker.

The most astonishing reunion was with my high school comrade Chrissy, whom I had not seen in over 30 years.  Back at Kennedy High in Granada Hills, CA, she was part of the theater crowd (I only spent one year there, so everybody I knew was in the theater crowd), and we reconnected a while ago through Facebook. 
Chrissy as a sassy French maid,
that's me with the cane, as The Miser.

Back in the day, she was a diminutive lass, with a little girl voice which served her well in the shows we produced (if there was a young girl in the show, we were set with Chris).  She lives in LA, after spending lots of time living all over the world, and she traveled with her husband to Manhattan for a few days.  We had a terrific reunion over lunch, and she reminded me of the old Studebaker she drove while in high school.  The sight of this teeny tiny gal peering over the steering wheel of that boxy sedan was hilarious.  

Spending time with this old friend reminded me of that year I spent at Kennedy High, when I had such a bang-up time in the theater department;  it was that year which put me on the path I still follow. (I wrote a bit about that here.)

Monica as the wife of the Emperor
who was hoodwinked about his clothes.
Recently, I also reconnected with Monica, a gal whom I knew while in graduate school.  She was an undergrad while I was in the MFA program at USC, and we did 3 or 4 shows together back then.  Granted, we did not interact much onstage, as my recollection is, our characters rarely if ever appeared together.  I'm sure my Dogberry never met her Hero in Much Ado, and in our Measure for Measure, my Pompey the Tapster never ran into her Juliet the Pregnant Girlfriend. 

Monica attended my annual party celebrating
the anniversary of Stonewall.
But the kids' shows we did together were great fun, and she was always a welcome presence at the parties I hosted back then.  Monica's another one I lost touch with until Facebook entered all our lives;  she has recently transplanted to New York with her husband, and continues to act. 

Another kids' show, Monica as a disgruntled rat.
We had a great catch-up lunch, and I was reminded how much I liked her 18 years ago.  (Monica is documenting her life in New York on a very well-written, fun blog which is worth checking out.)

In between those encounters, I spent a fun evening with a college chum. 

Greg is on the far right, in CSUN's
Guys and Dolls.
I must have been a senior at Cal State Northridge when Greg was a freshman, but we knew each other back then, as everyone did who was in the theatre department. 

We lost touch for a long while, but in recent years, reconnected.  Greg has been a Manhattan local, off and on, for a couple of decades, and is in the midst of an eclectic career in playwrighting, stage management, and in the classroom.  He was very excited to learn of my good fortune in snagging an apartment at Manhattan Plaza. 

I've always been directionally challenged, no more so
than when looking out my own window.
Other than my sister, he is the only person to actually see the apartment, and he delivered some unexpected news.  I've been telling anyone who asks (and a lot of New York actors ask) that my swell apartment faces north.  After his arrival, it only took Greg a few minutes of confused examination out my window to alert me that I was flat wrong.  Contrary to what I've been telling people since Halloween, my apartment actually faces east.

I've always been lousy with directions, and this proves the point.  I wonder if my error in direction has bigger meaning.  I've landed in New York (albeit part time) through a series of flukes and luck.  While here, I'm floundering around a bit, like I've been tossed into the deep end of the pool unexpectedly. 

It's not like I'm drowning; at my age, I know how to swim.  But I'm still bewildered by the significance of landing here at this stage of my life, rather than when I was a young pup; I'm not sure what it all means.  I'll be needing my New York friends like Greg to point me in the right direction, since I'm likely to be facing the wrong one.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Auditionary Antics

I am finally spending substantive time at the New York Branch. The past month or so, it's been a week in NY, a week in DC, and so forth, as both cities are in the midst of lots of Auditionary Activity.
DC theatres plan ahead. Many are holding
auditions for shows beginning rehearsal
more than a year from now.
In DC, local theaters are auditioning for their upcoming season, waaaaaaaay too early, as everyone agrees. There is an audition on next week's schedule, I kid you not, for a show which does not begin rehearsal for 14 months! In New York, meanwhile, this is the time of Summer Stock auditions.

I am doing my best to make good use of my time in New York, by attending as many EPAs as possible. The EPA, for those of you mercifully out of the business, is the Equity Principle Audition. Such auditions are required of most theaters by the union, but they usually don't yield much. Oh, I suppose if a particular theatre is looking for an Asian dwarf who speaks Portuguese, and you happen to BE an Asian dwarf who speaks Portuguese, you might get lucky at one of these things. Still, I've been hitting these EPAs as often as possible, otherwise, what am I doing in New York? These things are called Cattle Calls for good reason, as they are always massively attended, even when the odds of snagging a job are so slim. 

NY Shakes performs at the Delacorte,
an amphitheatre in Central Park.
Last week, for example, I attended the call for the New York Shakespeare Festival, which is part of The Public Theatre, and used to be called simply "Joe Papp," after the guy who invented the place. They are famous for producing free Shakespeare in Central Park every summer, and their audition was hugely attended, even though they always cast their shows with named stars.
I nearly passed out from bovine breath
in this waiting area.
This particular audition sticks in my mind, as I was trapped in line for about half an hour between two guys who knew each other, and spent the entire time catching up. They both had bad breath. So here I was, stuck in line, as these guys excitedly talked over me, holding me hostage, as I attempted to dodge a hail of halitosis.

That same day, I attended an EPA at a well-regarded, but small, Off-Broadway house, for a Shaw piece which had a dynamite role for me. This one, of course, was also wildly over-attended, with the line of hopeful actors snaking down two flights of stairs and spilling into the lobby of the theatre.
Irish Repertory Theatre
These auditions can get pretty chaotic, and do not lend themselves to an actor's best work, but whatta ya gonna do?  This one, at least, was being viewed by the director of the play, and the artistic director of the theatre.  Usually, these EPAs are attended by a lowly administrative intern.
There is a rather new program happening in New York these days, called the Agent Access Audition. AEA invites agents to attend an evening audition, where they see about 50 people during a three hour session. 
Yet another waiting area at Equity.
I have no idea if this kind of thing ever garners any response, but I attended one last week, as an alternate.  Yes, even these things are over-attended in New York, and all the audition slots were full, so I spent about two and a half hours in the waiting room, hoping that actors who had lined up at the crack of dawn to snag an audition appointment would, 14 hours later, be too pooped to return to the Equity building to attend.  Sixteen such actors did just that, so I was eventually ushered in to meet the two agents who were graciously dignifying us with their presence.

I call this my Senior Discount Headshot.
One remained silent throughout, but the younger one offered some brusque (but good) advice for me. (And she liked the bearded headshot, which remains, for me, only temporary).

Sadly, she lost interest in me when she discovered that I do not have a "reel," which is a 2 minute compilation of all my film appearances.
My quickie scene in Pecker belongs
on my "reel", as it was included in
the film's trailer.
I've known for years that I need to put together such a thing, but have always put it off, perhaps that is the Next Big Thing on my To-Do List.

This is only a sampling of the audition experiences I've been having the last month or so.  My most promising NY audition was for a showcase production of Hamlet.  Showcase productions are those in which union actors are allowed to participate for free (under certain guidelines).
This one went swimmingly, and the callback was even better. I slayed them, they were putty in my hands. I was rewarded with a request from the producers that they be allowed to keep me in their files for future projects.

In New York, it's even hard to get a job for free.  I would have taken the gig, gladly, even as I roll my eyes at the whole concept of the showcase production.  I've heard that some of these things have such substantial budgets, they even hire casting directors.  They certainly hire designers, who don't work for free, and crew members, ditto, and spend money on rental space as well.  It's only the actor who is expected to donate his time and expertise, and is expected to be grateful for the opportunity.  I can't think of another professional who conducts his career in such a fashion.

Ah well, it's the New York way, I suppose.  I am lucky that I am able to remain part of the DC talent pool while this Manhattan Project unfolds.  As I said, it's audition time in DC as well, and I may have some promising news on that front in a few weeks.  Meanwhile, I remind myself, it's a fine life.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday Dance Party: I Danced With Somebody

You won't find an obit for Whitney Huston in these pages, you can certainly go elsewhere for that.  But her death this week caused some strong memories to surface for me, of a time in the 80s when her music received top play in the dance clubs, a time when I was still trying to figure out my life as a gay man. 
Those halcyon days of youth.

I spent more time than I should admit, carousing in those clubs, with Whitney and her contemporaries blaring in the background.  I lived in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles at the time, and there were several gay bars with dance floors in the area.  I usually spent my time there, but on occasion, I would drive "over the hill," as we called it (I imagine they still do), into Hollywood.  Or more accurately, West Hollywood, which hosted the really big nightclub scene.
Studio One was the big dance club at the time.

For the life of me, I don't recall in which of those clubs I met Rudy, but without a doubt, Whitney Huston was playing overhead.  Rudy was (ahem) several years younger than I, and was only recently transplanted to the U.S.  He had a pretty good grasp of English, considering he was from someplace in South America, but he was in dire need of someone to take care of him.  I took him home the night we met, and not in the way you think, you deviants. 
According to Facebook,
this is Rudy today.

His friends had left him behind, and I drove him back to the apartment he shared with another Latin friend. 

He was sleeping on the couch of the apartment, while his buddy and another roommate took the two bedrooms. 
Rudy's bedroom: the couch.
 I have no idea what is perched on my head.
I was just too precious to live.
This other roomie, the only American in the group, was a certifiable nutcase, and, I came to realize, had a huge infatuation with Rudy. 
Rudy became a bear.
I became a hermit.

Believe me, there were some pretty dramatic moments during the brief time Rudy and I had our fling.  One particularly scary night right out of Stephen King, this roommate got drunk and brandished a kitchen knife.  All this drama was unsettling to me, to say the least, but Rudy and I would never have lasted anyway.  The differences in our backgrounds were just too great, and I was still struggling with being completely open about my sexuality, so we didn't really stand a chance.

It's been many years since I thought about that torrid time of my life;  the various tributes to Whitney Huston which have been running all week brought it all back to me. 

Those tributes usually included snippets of her big hits, two of which provided the soundtrack to my fling with Rudy.  "I Want To Dance With Somebody" was probably her biggest dance hit, but it's the other song which takes me back to my clubbing days, and to my days with Rudy; it provides this week's Dance Party. 
Sharing white zin in Santa Barbara.
Yeah, I was that guy.
I am absolutely sure this was the song playing when we met, and is also the song to which we first danced.  When I hear it now, I realize how prescient the lyrics were;  I am taken back to Rudy, and to those young, sexually charged days of the 80s.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Friday Dance Party: Pink Stinks

This week's Dance Party is inspired, in part, by an interesting article from today's Washington Post. 

In the wake of the Komen public relations debacle, the writer examines the development of what might be called the "Pink Movement."  She wonders, with some justification, what benefit the fight against breast cancer gets from its adoption of the pleasantly soothing color pink.  Its non-threatening hue, which has become somewhat synonymous with breast cancer, may have done the fight a disservice. 

The color is demur, understated, and often sexy, and may have contributed to the disease becoming an accepted part of the modern landscape, rather than illustrating the harsh reality of the disease.

Having lost my mother to breast cancer many years ago, I'm not sure how I feel about this writer's comments, but I applaud the dialogue.  I do not, however, applaud the color itself.  I hate pink, always have.

But the color led me to the discovery of this week's clip.

Today's star is not well-known these days, and her appearances on screen were not very numerous.  But Kay Thompson was an influential presence behind the scenes during the heyday of the musical film. 

She was an expert musical arranger and vocal coach, and she became an important cog in the Arthur Freed Movie Making Machine, which churned out many of the classic MGM musicals;  most of the stars of the day benefited from Kay's guidance. 
Judy Garland in particular became a close friend, a relationship which extended to Liza as well.  In fact, it was Minnelli's concert devoted to her godmother Kay Thompson which brought her to my attention several years ago.

Kay is probably best remembered by the general public as the creator of the Eloise at the Plaza series of children's books. 
Thompson lived at the Plaza for a number of years, and it's suggested that her pint-sized heroine was partially inspired by Liza Minnelli's childhood antics. 

But not to worry, this week's Dance Party does not come from one of those stories.  Instead, it comes from the film musical Funny Face (that flick, BTW, furnished another clip a few months ago, and it's worth watching again, just to see Audrey Hepburn move in a manner I've never seen from that graceful star).  Thompson was making one of her occasional appearances in front of the camera, playing a fashion designer.  This song, all about my least favorite color, illustrates that pink has long been associated with the female of the species, meant to suggest a fashionable cheerfulness and acceptance;  it seems at odds with the movement which has adopted it as their defining motif.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

I Hit Hamlet

Nicol Williamson

He was part of the "Angry Young Men" generation of British actors, coming of age in the 1950s and 60s, bringing a grittier realism to their art than had their predecessors. 

In rehearsal for "Inadmissible Evidence."
During the tryout, Nicol dumped producer
David Merrick into a trash can.

Williamson, in fact, made his first splash in Inadmissible Evidence, written by John Osborne, who was considered the playwright who invented the Angry Young Man in his landmark drama Look Back in Anger.  But Nicol never became the international star that others of his generation did.  Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, and Richard Harris all drank and caroused their way to the top, earning critical laurels and eventual knighthoods.  Williamson drank and caroused himself into a reputation as a temperamental drama queen, raging against injustices done to him.

He had great success with Hamlet, Macbeth, and Sherlock Holmes (The Seven-Percent Solution), but he rarely escaped a project without causing trouble. 

As Henry VIII, he couldn't keep
his temper.

His onstage antics were legion, including a famous incident when, during the curtain call for his flop musical Rex, he slapped a chorus member whom he thought was drawing focus from his bow (I mentioned Rex several years ago, when digitizing my album collection).  His most notorious onstage incident was during the run of the Paul Rudnick comedy, I Hate Hamlet.

I saw the original production of this show, drawn there by the presence in the cast of the legendary Celeste Holm.  I was visiting New York on one of my numerous college tours, and snagged a ticket without knowing that, the night before, Nicol had caused a situation which is now infamous.  In the show, he was playing the ghost of John Barrymore, who has returned from the dead to guide a young actor in the playing of Hamlet.  Act one climaxes in a big sword fight between the two characters, and on this particular evening, Nicol changed the fight choreography and smacked his costar on the ass with his sword.  Evan Handler, playing the younger actor, halted the show, walked off the stage, and did not return.

Anyone who deals with fight choreography knows the necessity for accuracy.
One night, costar Evan Handler had had enough.
I did not see this particular performance.  I saw the next one.  The understudy had taken over, and Williamson was on his best behaviour. 

At the curtain call, the star took the young replacement by the hand, and asked the audience to give him a special round of applause for stepping into the role so quickly.  (The guy was not very good, as I recall, and the show ended up closing shortly after this mishap.  I wrote all about this when remembering my trip to New York in 1991).

Nicol Williamson died in December after a long bout with esophageal cancer, never having achieved the international acclaim he felt he deserved.  He was 75.