Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday Dance Party: Bianca Gets Wooed

Let's get back to actual dancing on the Friday Dance Party!  Who better to get us back in the swing than one of Hollywood's most famous hoofers?  Ann Miller has appeared before on the Dance Party, go here to see her hilarious (and as it turned out, trend-setting) commercial for soup.  This week, though, we get the full Miller treatment, complete with glamorous gams, unrelenting smile, and those feet that wouldn't quit.

Miller's hilarious parody of herself in this soup commercial was an early example of a film star appearing on-camera hawking a product.  Go here for the routine.

It's not by coincidence that this week's clip is from Kiss Me, Kate.  That film appeared only a few weeks ago in these pages, on the day I began rehearsal for a production of The Taming of the Shrew
As almost everyone knows, "Shrew", or rather, a musical production of it, forms the premise of "Kate."  And the two shows are practically twins, you can hardly tell them apart.  This scene is a prime example.  Cole Porter has lifted Shakespeare's text word-for-word, and other than setting it to music, has left the words of the immortal Bard alone. 
Lenny knows when to leave things alone. His
staging of this scene is a carbon copy of the film's.

Taking that cue, our director of Shrew, the lovely and talented Lenny Banovez, has staged the Bianca wooing scene exactly as in the musical.  I'm playing Gremio in our production, and here in the film, that character is the first of the suitors to sing (it's Bob Fosse playing the role, what a career he could have had...).

You can hardly tell this pic is NOT from our production, the similarities are so striking.
You can get more info on our production here.
Yes, I know I'm giving away a lot of the surprise of our Taming of the Shrew by revealing this clip.  Tonight is our opening night, and as I've only recently opened my New York Branch, I couldn't ask for a better way to make my NYC debut.  As I said, this is exactly how we are playing this scene:

Monday, May 21, 2012

Another Modest Suggestion

Over the years, I have run across many, many movies which were film versions of stage shows in which I have played.  Too many to count, actually;  though less frequently done today, stage plays used to be the primary source material for Hollywood.  And considering all the chestnuts I have appeared in onstage, including myriad musicals and sh*tloads of Shakespeare, it's just not a big deal to run across a film version of a stage show in which I have performed.  But last week, the opposite happened, for the very first time:  I attended a stage production of a film in which I appeared.
Our film can be streamed here. Physical copies of the movie can also be purchased here.  This is the actual DVD cover.  The tag line ("Should we, or should we not...kill the JEWS?") leaves no doubt about the theme of the movie. But it also eliminates an element of surprise in the film, and may even discourage viewers from ever watching it.
The film, and the play upon which it was based, is A Modest Suggestion.  I appeared in the indie film version of the piece several years ago, and described the whole experience in these pages (if interested, you should scroll down that page, then read up, to see the journal in correct chronology).  The film was a screen adaptation of a play which had never had a fully staged production.  Now it has, courtesy of New York's Apple Core Theatre Company.  And wouldn't you know, the show is being presented right across the street from my NY branch.

How could I resist attending?  I considered passing it by, only because I am deeply involved in rehearsing a production of Taming of the Shrew, and my free time has been swallowed up by the Learning of Lines and Other Homework. 
Here's a shameless plug for my current gig.  It has nothing to do with this blog entry, but go here anyway.
But I had an unexpected evening off last week, so I popped across 42nd Street to see A Modest Suggestion, the stage play.  It was an early preview, so the theatre, which was very small anyway, had only about 20 folks in attendance. 
In the stage version, these guys nailed every laugh.
Our guys nailed laughs too, I think.  Never having seen
our film with an audience, I can't be sure.

Comparisons are odious but inevitable, I tell myself as I write these words.  The stage play, by Ken Kaissar, was a hoot, and had more laugh-out-loud moments than the film, which had a screenplay by our director Arnon Shorr, in collaboration with the playwright. 
The film's director, Arnon (always with color coordinated jacket/yarmulke), watches the monitor during filming. He cared deeply about A Modest Suggestion; every shot was meticulously planned, every scene storyboarded.
The biggest difference between the play and film happened during the opening sequence, in which four no-named, mid-level executives gather in a corporate boardroom.  The main topic on "today's agenda" is revealed:  whether or not to kill the Jews.  In our film, this is the one and only topic of discussion by the four men. 
Our film had the luxury of doughnuts.  The stage play dispensed with them.  They did have a white eraser board, upon which the gent playing my character wrote catchwords.  I thought that was a great touch.
On stage, "killing the Jews" is the third topic of discussion, and for that reason, the play begins on a lighter note.  The first and second items which these four buffoons discuss were comically incongruous (one was about school lunches, the other was about airport security, both subjects ripe for ridicule).  Playwright Kaisser was pretty skillful when he planted these two topics of discussion, as they let the audience know that A Modest Suggestion was a comedy, and that laughter was welcome and expected.  The audience, then, was better prepared to accept the premise of the third, more incendiary topic of discussion, Hebrew Homicide.
The film's director Arnon had a singular theme which he wished to convey, and his screenplay featured no extraneous discussion of school lunch, travel security, or herring. Playwright Ken Kaissar apparently added those subjects to his current script, which, while off-topic, brought big laughs in the stage version, and alerted the audience that they were watching a comedy.
The rest of the stage play followed closely the screenplay (or vice-versa, I guess, since the play was written before the movie). Well, there was one other long sequence in the play, in which an Hassidic Jew is fed herring, which was marginally funny but majorly yucky, and I am glad we were not faced with that scene in our movie. 
On stage, herring is played for laughs.

In the theatre, the small audience laughed frequently, even as the situation became more dangerous.  The audience had been "taught," in those first minutes of the play, that the piece was a comedy, so they had no problem laughing throughout.  I am not sure our film accomplished the same thing.

On stage, a modern Jew is kidnapped and
quizzed about bacon and God.

A Modest Suggestion, the film, began and ended, as I said, with discussion about Jewish genocide.  It is clear, at least to me, that it's a dark comedy, and the cover of our DVD calls the film a satire.  Still, I can see the piece being misunderstood by some viewers.  While researching this entry, I came across a comment about the movie, posted by a couple of holocaust survivors. 
On film, our gang also kidnapped and quizzed a Jew.

They did not see the comedic elements at all, and even begged the film makers to remove the movie from circulation, fearing that it would validate anti-Semitic activity. (You can read those comments here.) That is only one opinion, but the fact that people could see the film and so misunderstand its intent is disconcerting.  We all thought we were making a satire about anti-Semitism, but apparently some people seeing the film are coming away with the opposite impression. 
Arnon directs myself and Mendy Pellin, playing our
Hassidic Jew. Perhaps Mendy is thankful the
"feeding of the herring" sequence
was not included in our film.

Having now seen the current stage play, I wonder if, had our screenplay included those silly discussions about school lunches and the TSA, before leaping into the darker topic of genocide, would the audience have been more welcome to the message?  I am certain, without a doubt, that our director's intent was to illustrate the ludicrousness of anti-Semitic feelings, but his film may have been just too dark for that point to be made clear.

The stage show Off-Broadway was clear, and the audience knew it.  I could see heads nodding in recognition, when a particular misunderstanding on the part of the gentiles was revealed.  (I may have enjoyed the stage show more than some others, particularly this online critic, who did not like it much).  I believe both the film and stage productions of A Modest Suggestion are works of art, but how effective are they in delivering their message?  That's up for more debate.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Dance Party: She Met Him Just In Time

When Merv Griffin died in 2007, I wrote a bit about what his talk show meant to me as I was growing up, and just becoming interested in show business.  I failed to mention, during that tribute/obit, the contribution this guy had to the longtime success of the show:
Mort Lindsey
He earned a PhD in Music Education from Columbia University, but this guy was no academic.  Lindsey was an integral part of the 25 year run of The Merv Griffin Show.  As the program's musical director, he arranged, conducted, and accompanied a huge variety of stars, in a huge variety of styles. 

These days, when a singer performs on a talk show, they almost always bring their own musical director, and often their own band, but during the Merv years between 1962 and 1986, musical stars depended on the house band to accompany their performances. 
Lindsey won an Emmy for his work as
musical director for Streisand's A Happening
in Central Park.

Mort was considered one of the very best, and could arrange champagne music for Lawrence Welk, Broadway showtunes for Ethel Merman, country sing-a-longs for Dolly Parton, and R&B songs for Freda Payne. 
Mort put Judy at ease, allowing her to give
dynamic concert performances.

Lindsey knew how to put the biggest musical stars at ease, and he was in demand as a free-lance musical director, in addition to his work with Merv Griffin.  Pat Boone, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Barbra Streisand, and Liza Minnelli all used him on various television and concert endeavors. 
Not only did Mort Lindsey work with Barbra Streisand, he also worked with Jim Bailey impersonating Barbra Streisand.
But it was his association with Judy Garland for which he is most admired.  In 1961, Garland's career had stalled, as a result of her lack of reliability caused by her substance abuse.  Her handlers were sending her out on the road in a concert tour, in an effort to jumpstart her career.  Lindsey was considered a studio musician at the time, and was hired simply to "pull the orchestra into shape," as he later described. 
Judy at Carnegie Hall

Unexpectedly, Judy showed up to an orchestra rehearsal, and was impressed enough with Lindsey's work that he was hired to music direct the full tour.  The climax of the tour was Garland's celebrated debut at Carnegie Hall, an evening which is considered one of the great show business comebacks.

Mort Lindsey was to be Garland's musical director for the rest of her career.  He became an intimate friend and collaborator, and even co-wrote (with Johnny Mercer) the song "Lorna," in honor of Judy's daughter. 
Bugs Bunny's Chuck Jones
broke his Warner Bros contract
to direct this stylish film. Mort
arranged the Harold Arlen score.

He arranged the music on her one and only animated film, Gay Purr-ee, and when she moved to television for her own variety series, she took him with her.  It is from that series that this week's Dance Party is plucked. 
In 1968, Garland gave one of her final TV appearances on Merv Griffin's show. She was wracked with fright, but was persuaded by the fact that her longtime collaborator Mort Lindsey was leading the band.
While I knew Mort Lindsey solely from his work with Merv Griffin, he will forever be remembered as the man who helped Judy Garland revive her concert career.  The clip below comes from her variety show (if you are interested, a previous Dance Party comes from the series as well).  Mort, of course, is at the piano, and Judy's ease with him is palpable.  He died last week at the age of 89.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Waiver Games, Part III: Nick's Pacific Street Saloon

(third in a series regarding my history with Waiver Theatre in Los Angeles. Go here for part I and here for part II...)
I had a good time appearing in my third Waiver Theater Production, but I may have been the only one.  At this time I was still working full time at Lockheed, and was hating every minute of it.  I was always in need of something creative to do outside those lousy office hours.  Once Poof! closed, my best friend Judy Welden came to the rescue, with her first foray into the Waiver Wars.

I wrote about Judy several years ago, and I am pleased to say that she remains my dearest friend to this day. 
Judy's environmental production of
this classic caused a sensation at CSUN.
Actors climbed the walls and
 swung through the air on ropes.
The audience loved it.
The faculty hated it.

She directed me many times during our tenure at Cal State Northridge, both on- and off-campus;  she remains, by far, the director with whom I have worked the most.  We forged a bond which was based on personal and creative intimacy, a bond which continues to deepen today, decades after we first met.
Judy first directed me as the Emcee in Cabaret.
Judy always fearlessly wanted to stretch her creative muscles, so after we graduated from CSUN, she began looking for opportunities to direct in the Real World. 
Our Armenian-centric production of Bye Bye Birdie
featured future soap star Robert Newman (in my lap).

She was raised in the Armenian Church (though I don't think they actually call it that), and one of their branches was located in Hollywood.  High above the sanctuary, for some reason which escapes me now, the church had turned a third floor room into an actual theater.  They had purchased comfy chairs from a movie house, and installed them in a big room, effectively turning the place into a proscenium theater.  Judy, as one of their own, got a great deal on the rental of this theater, and set about preparing her Waiver Theater debut.

She chose to direct William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, a sprawling bit of modern theater which fit right into her creative aesthetic. Judy was (and is) a great believer in placing her productions in environmental settings.  
I appeared in Judy's first MFA thesis
project at the University of Utah:
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.

She had little interest in staging shows on the traditional proscenium stage, which she felt had a tendency to create a separation between the audience and performer.  She preferred her audience to become part of the environment of the play, so she turned the Upstairs Theatre (as it was called) into the saloon in which The Time Of Your Life takes place.  She hung curtains to block off the stationary seating already installed in the theater, turning the space into a true Black Box.  Our playing space was transformed into a slightly seedy bar, with lots of tables and chairs scattered about, where the audience members were to sit.  Judy's audience, back then, didn't just watch the action from a distance, they were seated right in the middle of things.  This was a dangerous but exciting approach to the play. 
James Cagney appeared in the film version of The Time of Your Life. No, that is not Madeline Kahn opposite him, though it surely looks like her.
Judy is a great proponent (and teacher) of the American style of acting, with the Moment-To-Moment interaction between her actors being highly important. 
Our program appeared on every
table like a restaurant's menu.

The cast of The Time of Your Life was huge, prohibitive by today's standards, but since the Waiver Code did not require payment to the actor, such considerations became unimportant.  Instead, Judy concentrated on casting her show with the best actors she could find.  Naturally, she raided the alumni list of the CSUN Theatre Department; many of the roles were filled with our college chums. 
Jenny's performance as Kitty was a highlight.

The leading lady, in fact, was our best gal pal Jenny (I wrote about her a long while ago), who gave a critically lauded performance as the psychologically wounded hooker Kitty.  One of the most dependable actors to come out of our generation at CSUN, Art Riddle, played the pivotal role of Joe. 
Art Riddle co-directed me in my first college
show. Years later, we spent time at Nick's Saloon.

Many more supporting roles were filled with our theatrical buddies, but several prominent roles were to be filled by other members of the L.A. Theatrical Community.  I have put those words in caps to emphasize the inherent dichotomy of those words.  The Theatrical Community of Actors in L.A. consisted almost exclusively of people who were interested in film and television work.  They may have had stage chops, but the focus of their career was to be noticed by Hollywood. 
Jessica Peterson played a socialite who
wandered into the bar, and was horrified.

Judy held open auditions for the available roles in The Time of Your Life, and received an onslaught of actors eager to appear on stage, in order to be seen by casters in the film industry.  Hey, there's nothing wrong with that, I'm just pointing out that Judy and several of her cast members had different goals in mind in presenting The Time of Your Life.  Judy's goal was to produce a memorable piece of theatrical artistry.  Their goal was to snag a TV or film contract.

Those of us who had known and worked with Judy previously had a lovely time with the show, but several Actors At Large did not gel with her way of working. 
Jimmy Williams

Particularly, the gent playing the bartender, who was wonderfully engaging on stage, was a major pain in the ass.  He dismissed Judy's concept of the play;  they were often at odds during rehearsal.  This guy's name was Jimmy Williams, so I'll call him that. 
Our college buddy Jann played
a barfly.

Jimmy's dissatisfaction with Judy's direction came to a head when he learned that the show would not have a curtain call.  Judy has always had an uncomfortable relationship with the moment when her actors come back onstage to receive applause.  In later years she came to terms with the fact that audiences want to applaud the work the actors have done, but back in those early days, she was likely to forgo the moment. 
Ed Blackoff, one of the Hollywood Gang,
played Kit Carson. He's had a lively career in
slasher films.

As for The Time of Your Life, she felt the play's conclusion lost much of its impact if the actors came back onstage to take bows.  She was not prepared for the adverse reaction of that decision by Jimmy and his other Hollywood Actors.  They, of course, wanted to come back out onstage to receive joyous applause from their friends, who were likely to be the only people to attend this show. 
Our setup was not very different from this one.
To understand what happened next, it's necessary to envision the theater's setup.  There was only one way to enter and exit the space, through a large set of double doors.  The audience filed in through these doors, and the actors made all their entrances and exits from these doors as well.  They served as the entrance to Nick's Pacific Street Saloon.  I liked this arrangement, as it meant the audience entered the same front door as the characters who were frequenting this bar.  But once the final lights came down on the play, the actors all left the stage through this entrance.  In Judy's concept, the lights came back up, and the audience was left with itself, alone, in the environment.

Jimmy lead an ad-hoc revolt among his Hollywood Peeps, and as soon as the lights came back up, after the final blackout of the play, he charged back into the theatre.  He was followed, one by one, by his professional cronies.  The audience took this as a curtain call, though our director had decided against one.  Jimmy claimed he was just going out to greet his friends, though why he felt he must do so while they were still clapping, who knows?  So, our audiences were often confused as to why some of the actors came out for a curtain call, while others (like myself) did not.

The trouble with Jimmy's Gang notwithstanding, I enjoyed The Time of Your Life.  I played Harry, the young man who comes into the bar looking for a job as a comedian. 
Gene Kelly played my role in the original.

He has several big moments, including his "audition monologue," which proves he should stick to his bigger talent, the soft shoe.  This role was played, in the original Broadway production, by a very young Gene Kelly, before he became a film star, and I had the pleasure of improvising little dance routines which were scattered throughout the show.  Harry, once he entered the bar, continued to hang around, so I spent the majority of the show onstage. Much of that time, I did not have the audience's focus, so I spent a lot of time sitting at the various empty chairs in the saloon, often at tables occupied by actual audience members.  This was a case of "self-blocking."  It led to one of my favorite director's notes I have ever received.  After our final dress rehearsal, I received one hand-written note from director Judy: 

"I hope you know you won't be able to sit in some of the places you've been sitting in."

That's  good advice for life in general, isn't it?
Judy directed me (twice!) in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
It would be only a couple of years after The Time of Your Life that I again appeared in a Waiver production.  Judy was involved in this one also, though as a stage manager rather than director.  Come back for Part IV of my Waiver Games, in which I gain an acceptable Irish accent but embarrass my mother.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday Dance Party: Killing Me Softly With This Song

Ontkean went on to Twin Peaks, Hamlin to L.A. Law. Jackson, late of Charlie's Angels, went on to Scarecrow and Mrs. King.

A birthday and an award ceremony intersected, in my own peculiar mind, with the biggest news of the week, and the result is this week's Dance Party.  Be forewarned:  not only doesn't it dance, it barely moves.  But the number has some importance in my life, and it helped gay cinema a bit too.
With gay couplings in the news, thanks to the president's endorsement, I've been thinking of one of the first films I encountered which included such relationships. 

I had no idea who Harry Hamlin was when I first saw him in Making Love. Fourteen years later, I worked with him onstage at The Shakespeare Theatre Company.  I never told him the importance his film had in my life.
The theme song from Making Love was co-written by Burt Bacharach, who, along with his former partner Hal David, won this year's Gershwin Award, given by the Library of Congress.  Everybody knows the music of Bacharach & David, even if they don't know they do, as their tunes dominated the pop charts during most of the 1960s and 70s. 
Bacharach & David provided the soundtrack for a generation.
This week's Dance Party, though, was written in the early 80s, when the team had parted ways. 
Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer Sager won the
Oscar and Grammy for "Arthur's Theme."
"Making Love" was nominated for a Golden
Globe, but lost to "Up Where We Belong," from
An Officer And A Gentleman.

Here, Burt provided lyrics (he was usually a composer) in partnership with his squeeze at the time, Carol Bayer Sager.  The song was a fairly big hit for Roberta Flack (in fact, it marked her last appearance in the Top 40 to date), but has not retained the staying power of her other, bigger hits.
Roberta Flack had bigger hits, but
none affected me as much.

The song is the theme song from Making Love, which was released in 1982 and which some consider to be a landmark film.  I can't quite agree with that, but I will admit that it was a significant step in the evolution of the gay cinema. And it was certainly a landmark for me
The poster looks like Ingmar Bergman.
The actual film was more

I remember seeing the film in the theatre, with my friend Scott, and we were both greatly affected by seeing gay men on screen who were neither flamboyant nor freakish.  But the film is so friggin' earnest that it's a bit colorless.  This was one of the first attempts by a major studio to put gay subject matter in the neighborhood cineplex, and 20th Century Fox's timidity was showing. 
The screen lovers.

By today's standards, the film is completely inoffensive, but in 1982, Hollywood was scared.  The atrocious reaction which Al Pacino's film Cruising had aroused two years earlier made all the majors skittish about gay content, so Making Love is as inoffensive as possible.  A couple of scenes, for example, took place in gay bars, and I wondered at the time, where were the Bette Davis Drag Queens? 
1980's Cruising was a crushing indictment of the gay leather scene and garnered massive protests in the gay community.
Director Arthur Hiller did a bang-up job making the gay subculture in Making Love seem normal and non-threatening, and palatable for the public at large.  His film includes a comforting grandmotherly figure, over-played by Wendy Hiller, and the gay boys indulge in sports and BBQs, with nary a showtune in sight.
Kate Jackson and Michael Ontkean
previously played spouses in TV's
The Rookies.

Making Love was not a box office success, and its place in gay cinematic history is overshadowed by the next big Hollywood film to place homosexuality center stage, Longtime Companion.  
This early AIDS
film garnered Oscar love.  In
comparison, Making Love seems
like an episode of thirtysomething.

But when I see the film now, it still catches me in the throat.  The theme song is pretty languid and definitively soppy, but it reminds me of a pretty significant part of my youth.  I recognize the tortured leading character, played by Michael Ontkean, as well as the hedonist played by Harry Hamlin.  I was both of them.
Harry Hamlin was warned not to play gay, that it would halt his career before it really started. Four years later, he was the star of the hottest series on TV, and the most desired man in America.
I even recognize those streets in West Hollywood where some of the film takes place.  Mostly, though, I recognize the confusion of feelings, and the ashamed secrecy in which I lived much of my life during that period. 

President Obama's recognition of gay relationships, plus Burt Bacharach's Gershwin award (and the coincidence that Burt turns 84 Saturday), gives me the opportunity to share a song, and a film, which made an impact on my life.  It's a bit grainy, just like my memory: