Friday, August 31, 2012

Friday Dance Party: Moonstruck

It's been a week concerned with lunacy, in its original sense.  The first human to walk on the moon died, as everyone knows.  It's been so long since that first moon walk that I honestly cannot remember if I was watching it as it happened or not. 

Those first few moments of Neil Armstrong gently stepping where no man had stepped before are so ingrained in my memory, I'm not sure if they are the result of having seen the clip so often, or of having seen it happen live.  But it really doesn't matter. 

Armstrong has my respect for the fact that, after his career as an astronaut peaked, he retired to private living, becoming a teacher and lecturer, and declined to capitalize on his worldwide fame with lucrative endorsement deals and whatnot.  Anybody think that would happen today?

The moon is also on everyone's mind because today, Friday, is a full one.  The moon is my birthsign's guiding planet (yes, I know it's not a planet, but don't blame me). 
For a while, we Cancers were
known as Moonchildren. ugh.

I am usually not affected much by celestial occurrences, but every once in a while, when the Full Moon coincides with my exact birthday, look out.  I could tell some stories of one or two of those instances, where my hormones were racing and there was trouble afoot, but I'll leave that for my new segment, AAvist After Dark.
Designing Women devoted an episode to the Full Moon, during which Julia flashed the mayor at a fashion show, Suzanne misused a semi-automatic, Anthony starred in a play about Alcatraz, Charlene dabbled in subliminal messaging, and Mary Jo tailed her daughter on a date. Plus Noelle the Pig caught the flu. They were all arrested.
Anyway, today's lunar position is being called a Blue Moon, and while that is not strictly accurate, it has become one of those beliefs which everyone has had for so long that it's become accepted. 

But a Blue Moon, according to the strict astrological definition, is not the second full moon in a calendar month, a common conception.  The original Blue Moon only occurs when there are four full moons in a single "tropical" season (rather than the "calendar "season). 
When one of the three month (or so) periods between the various solstices (solti?) and equinoxes (equinoxen?) contains four full moons rather than the usual three, a Blue Moon occurs.  Today's full moon, though the second one in the month of August, does not meet that qualification.

Originally, a blue moon was named for the third moon appearing in a tropical season which will have four full moons. 
Mame's Vera Charles informed us that the man in the moon
is a lady.

A little confusing, but wait for it.  The tropical year, which astrologists prefer to use, contains four seasons with three full moons occurring in each.  In ye olden tymes, every full moon had a name, usually corresponding with a big event happening around the time.  So, we always had a Harvest Moon, a Lenten Moon, and a Moon both Before- and After- "Yule."  When, however, a fourth moon popped up in a season which only had three named moons in it, the extra moon was called Blue.  But making it more confusing, the Blue Moon is the third, not the fourth, of those moons, simply so that the regularly scheduled moons would still occur during their usual time frames.  Who wants a Harvest Moon happening in November, or the Moon Before Yule happening after Christmas?

This tome is still used to identify full moons.
But its definition of Blue Moon is ignored.

This understanding of the Blue Moon was in effect until the late 1930s, when some joker misinterpreted the Farmer's Almanac for 1937, and identified a Blue Moon as the second full moon in a calendar month.  That explanation spread like a house on fire, and these days, it is the one accepted by almost everybody.  I'll accept it too, of course, since that's what everybody believes, so it must be true. (The GOP has operated under that system for quite a while, and it seems to work for them.) The same phenomenon (of SO many people believing something wrong that it becomes accepted fact) happened at the turn of the millennium, when the whole planet celebrated the start of the new era a year early (the 21st century actually began January 1, 2001, NOT 2000).  But pointing out such errors brings condemnation;  one is considered, at best, a party-pooper, and at worst, a know-it-all. 

So, in honor of today's Full Moon, be it Blue or not, this week's Dance Party fittingly features that most famous titular tune.  Our star needs no introduction. 

The film is At The Circus, and his brother received his own dance party from this film a while back, singing what became one of his signature tunes (go here to see that one).  I have never seen At The Circus, so I don't know why Harpo is playing only for a black audience, but who cares?  It's nice to hear his expertise. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Friday Dance Party: Fair Weather Phenom

This week's Dance Party features one of our repeat offenders. 

Gene Kelly's birthday was yesterday, so it's only natural we revisit him.  If the clip below is not enough for you, enjoy his dance duet with Judy Garland in Summer Stock here, and his solo number with a newspaper from the same film here.  My favorite Kelly clip, though, was featured several years ago, and comes from a Julie Andrews TV special, rather than a film.

This week's clip is from one of Gene's lesser known works, It's Always Fair Weather.  The piece began its life in the minds of writer/lyricists Comden and Green, who were prepping it for Broadway as a sequel to their earlier smash, On The Town.  Kelly was only interested in it as a film, however, so MGM took over.  The studio brass balked at hiring On The Town's original co-stars Frank Sinatra (who had begun causing trouble on sets) and Jules Munshen (who by 1955 was considered a has-been). 
Gene's costars from On The Town did not make the cut.

Gene, who was to co-direct the film, chose hoofer Dan Dailey and dancer-choreographer Michael Kidd to costar, and the concept of a sequel was abandoned. 
Cyd Charisse was our leading lady.

The finished product is darker than most musicals of the time, and concerned three WWII buddies who meet ten years later and discover their dreams have not come true.  The film was not a success in its original release, but the clip below has become historical, as some claim it is Gene Kelly's last great dance solo captured on film.
This number with the trash can lids is also fairly well-known.
I'm not such an expert as to know if that claim is true, but Kelly surely proves himself adept on roller skates. 
Everyone agrees Xanadu was a sad ending to a
stellar film career.

So much so, that I wonder if anyone suggested he don skates for his final film appearance in Xanadu decades later.  Maybe that would have saved that dismal failure.  Happy Birthday, Gene!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sunday In The Park With George, Duke Of Clarence

Richard's brother is cuffed and clueless.
Two weekends ago, we opened Richard III in Riverside Park, and I officially made my Manhattan Debut.  Regular readers of these pages may recall that I made my official New York City Debut in the Spring, in Taming of the Shrew, about which I wrote here.

The Hudson Warehouse production of R3 (as we classically-trained aesthetes casually call the play) is performing outside.  We also rehearsed outside.  We even change our clothes outside.  I think my boxer-briefs are being discussed by the joggers who run by. 

Our stage is actually a cement terrace built as part of a monument to the armed forces;  our audience sits on the steps leading up to the statuary.  This may be the oddest place I have ever performed an actual play.

This previous Hudson Warehouse production gives a very good idea of what our performances look like.  Except that our audiences run the risk of being splattered with blood.
Well, I have performed in some odd places, it's true.  One year, I worked with a murder mystery troop in L.A., where we did environmentally specific shows. 
This murder mystery, from 1993, was performed in a burned
out WWII building.
That year, I did a show in a ladies' tea shop, and another in a railroad car.  But those are stories for another time.  For now, let me just say that performing on the steps of this monument in Riverside Park in NYC has its challenges.
Director Nicholas Martin-Smith gives notes to the cast, sprawled out on the steps of the monument.
The biggest challenge I have had with my current project is the heat.  From our first read-through until our Opening Night and beyond, we have conducted every rehearsal on the steps of this concrete monument.  Now, usually, actors are anxious to rehearse in the space where their show will actually be performed;  to be allowed to rehearse each and every day in the performance space is an unusual treat for a stage actor. 
Two goofballs are hired by Richard to off his brother.  That's me wandering around in the background in my undershirt.
In this case, however, I had some trouble.  July and August in NYC are similar to July and August in DC: hot and humid.  Despite having grown up in the Deep South, I have never acclimated to such a climate.  Our first week of rehearsal, out on the concrete monument, was pretty hellish for me.  I would begin my trek to rehearsal by walking two blocks to the subway, not a difficulty in and of itself. 
Director Nicholas found some shade.
And the train itself was not a difficulty either, as it is air conditioned.  But the subway platforms are not, and it takes only about 15 seconds of standing on one of those hellplanks to become drenched in your own sweat.  The train ride (and the changing of the trains, which requires another few minutes on another hellplank waiting and wetting) was never enough time to dry out.  Then there was the four block walk from the station to our venue, so by the time I arrived at our rehearsal, I was ready for a shower and some re-hydration. 
The Duke of Clarence needs a Gatorade.  Or a beer.
Of course, none were forthcoming, as we rehearsed outside, with no cover except the occasional shady tree.  So, from start to finish, this production has been rehearsed wet.
A sudden downpour affects the steps to the subway platform. You can only imagine the hot, sticky mess you become as you emerge from such a commute.
And another difficulty became apparent right away:  our performance venue was not built, in any way, shape, or form, to accommodate the art of the spoken word. 

The Greek Theater of Dionysus, at the foot of the Acropolis, seated thousands more than our little space.  And the acoustics were better.
In lay terms, our acoustics are for shit. So, from our first rehearsal to our last, major concern was placed on vocal projection.  Frankly, I spent the first weeks of rehearsal feeling that I was simply shouting at the other actors.  (And they were shouting at me.)
Howling at the setting sun is a good way to warm up for the
shoutfest which is our show.

But about a week before we opened, a funny thing happened.  That shouting turned into actual communication.  I was actually talking to other actors, and listening to their responses.  At full volume, of course, but communication was taking place. Woo hoo!  Or rather, WOO HOO!

After weeks of rehearsing, communication actually started
to happen.

And now our run has begun, and so has the fun.  Performing this show is much easier than rehearsing it (that is not always the case).  I play"compact" roles.  The first is that of George, Duke of Clarence (hence the title of today's entry).  Clarence, as he is known in the play, is the middle brother of the Yorks, who, at this point in English history, have won the Wars of the Roses and gained the English throne. 
Eldest brother Edward's wheelchair is a dead giveaway:
he's not long for this world.

Elder brother is Edward IV, king at the start of the play, and younger brother is You Know Who. 
"What hump?" Our leading man, Vince Phillip, is giving a
bravura performance. (Or is that bravuro?)
My role, middle child Clarence, has some nice moments in the first half-hour or so of R3, including a semi-famous speech about a dream which, in our adaptation, has been cut to about 12 lines.  Still, it's a fun role to play, and I get a swell death scene involving blood and a cement wall.
No, it's not an interpretive dance. It's my death scene. The photo was snapped from the audience during performance, so forgive the fact that all the actors and even the audience are facing upstage.
A few minutes after Clarence meets his maker, I reappear onstage in the small role of the Mayor of London. 
This guy became a media star leading
up to the Olympics. 
He continues the tradition of comical
Mayors of London.
Nobody ever remembers this character, as he pops into only three scenes, and never has the focus.  But I'm told I am making this little part memorable, and the Mayor provides some of the very few laughs in this otherwise gruesome tragedy.

Hudson Warehouse, our producing organization, has been presenting free Shakespeare in Riverside Park for nine summers, and calls itself "the Other Shakespeare In The Park."  After our opening weekend, I have begun to see the attraction of appearing here. 
There is something a little mystical about performing
outside in the elements, something those
inventors of theatre, the Greeks, knew.

The acoustics are bad, the cement steps are hard, and the other park visitors often stroll right across our playing space in the middle of the action, but there does seem to be something special about performing on this terrace as the sun goes down.  Our show is performed by natural light, so once the sun sets, we are playing in the dark.  Luckily, the final few minutes of R3 take place in the darkness of battle, and even include a ghost sequence, so Mother Nature's lighting design helps rather than hurts.
The late afternoon sun spills visual treats onto our playing space.
And now that we are settling into our run, I'm allowing some of my anxiety to drift away.  With that release comes a wonderment.  As I stand at the top of the steps of this monument, ready to make my entrance with the other royals down the stairs, through the audience, and onto the playing space below, I've begun to marvel a bit. 
The sun sets on our playing space and, at the same time,
on the poor Duke of Clarence.

When I was a kid, growing up in Atlanta, I was fascinated by the theatre, but thought I would one day be a journalist or a lawyer or a teacher;  acting was never an option.  By the time I was in college in Los Angeles, I was sure I would remain in L.A., knocking around the film industry and paying my bills by waiting tables.  Years later, even while I was in grad school, earning my MFA in Acting, I could not imagine that I would one day be spending a month performing raw and rustic Shakespeare, in a park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, along the banks of the Hudson River, in that most theatrical of cities, New York, NY.  I wonder how all this happened?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Dance Party: We're Gonna Need A Bigger Rooftop

I don't know if it was invented by Animal Planet or Discovery or The Big Fish Channel, or what, but that annual celebration of underwater carnivores is upon us, Shark Week.  I don't see the attraction.  Americans have been fascinated by those creatures ever since somebody in Jaws mentioned they might need a bigger boat.

In honor of Shark Week, a big number from MY favorite Sharks, the ones who sing and dance. 
This is a shark week I can get behind.
The Puerto Rican gang from West Side Story does not get stage or screen time equal to the Jets, sorry to say, as I find them much more interesting than the white boys.  But when they do show up, andele!!  The gang appeared on the Dance Party once before, several years ago at the sockhop, so it's time to present the moment during which they really shine.
This sequence was shot on location in NYC, in the neighborhood which now houses Lincoln Center. A few naysayers dislike West Side Story, as they cannot accept ballet-dancing gang members. I can, and do.
Taken from the well-regarded film version of the show, "America" had a checkered history.  The original score reflects that it was meant to be sung only by the ladies, one group arguing with another.  That version is still occasionally used.  Film director Robert Wise and his associates recognized the limitations of that scenario, and included the gents in the number, turning it into the guys vs. the girls.  Seems obvious that it should always have been so, and it is that observation which has given way to a theatrical legend of sorts.
When "America" was first sung on Broadway, it was entirely female.  What an improvement was made with the addition of the men in the film, and subsequent stage productions.
It's now said that the authors meant for the song to be coed all along, even in the original Broadway version. 
Jerome Robbins rehearses the original.

There was a scheduling mixup (so goes the legend) the day the show's director/choreographer, Jerome Robbins, wanted to stage the number, and the boys were not called to rehearsal.  (Maybe stage management thought they were doing "I Feel Pretty" that day instead?)  In a fit of pique, Robbins blamed the actors, and removed them from the number, staging it only with the girls instead. 
George Chakiris in the chorus of White Christmas.

This tale is fun to think about, but even taking Robbins's notorious temper into account, it doesn't really ring true to me.  Such a huge adjustment (completely removing the men from the number) would surely have to be approved by the songwriters, Sondheim and Bernstein.  I think this lore has sprung up to justify the fact that, in the original, the writers simply didn't think to put the men in the number.

Anyway, the guys are there now, and most revivals, professional and amateur, play it that way. 
These Sharks clean up good,
especially when winning awards.

It certainly proved to be a showcase for the two leading Sharks, played by George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, as they both won Oscars for their efforts.  West Side Story, in fact, holds the record for winning the most Academy Awards of any film musical (10, out of 11 nominations.  Only the screen adaptation lost that night).  Chakiris and Moreno are undoubtedly the success stories of the film, as Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer are pretty dull as the romantic leads (and neither of them sang their own songs). 
Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene inspired West Side Story's big hit, "Tonight." Neither of these leading players could sing it.
In fact, when WSS made the leap from stage to screen, none of the four leading players who had created the roles went with it.  By the time the film was shooting, Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence were both around 30, and producers did not feel they could play teenagers on film convincingly.  I agree with them, but Chakiris and Moreno don't look like teenagers, either, but whatever. 
Chita Rivera's breakout role did not
lead to a film career. 
But she's done just fine.

I love Rita's work here, but still would have liked to have seen Chita Rivera's performance preserved on film (what a different trajectory her career would have taken, if Chita had been allowed to recreate her roles in WSS and Bye Bye Birdie for their respective films!). 
Moreno had a supporting lead
in The King And I. A Latina
playing Asian: non-traditional

But Moreno is far from a letdown, and would eventually become the first performer to win the Oscar, Tony, Grammy, and Emmy.  As for Chakiris, he had been connected to the stage version of WSS in London, where he had played Riff, the leader of the Jets.  In the years leading up to WSS, he had been knocking around Hollywood as a chorus boy.
George Chakiris was often in the chorus in films from the 50s, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

In honor of Shark Week, enjoy some rooftop dancing:

Friday, August 10, 2012

Friday Dance Party: We're Playing His Song

Lesley Gore's role as protegee to Batman's
Catwoman required a song. Hamlisch provided
"California Nights".
Everybody already knows this award-winning composer, arranger, and conductor died this week.

Marvin Hamlisch

Marvin's first stage gig was as accompanist/straight man
for Groucho's one-man show.

He seemed at home on the classical stage (he entered the Julliard school of music at the ripe age of 7) but made his lasting contributions in the world of pop, and of course, that monster contribution A Chorus Line
The night I saw A Chorus Line's original production on Broadway remains one of the most thrilling I've spent in the theatre.  A fuzzy but powerful clip from the night they swept the Tony Awards appeared on the Dance Party here.
He is one of fewer than a dozen people to win the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards, and his Pulitzer Prize (for A Chorus Line) partners him with Richard Rodgers as the only two people to win that quintet. 

Marvin's first pop hit, "Sunshine, Lollipops, and
Rainbows," provided Lesley Gore a song for the
bus ride to a Ski Party.

Hamlisch had a stage charisma which most composers do not share, though he was willing to fade into the background when necessary. 
This recording has become so iconically
connected to its singer, you can't really enjoy
anyone else's version. It's one of those songs
which immediately brings to mind
the original.

He conducted high-profile concerts and tours with the likes of Johnny Mathis and Linda Ronstadt;  his friendship with Barbra Streisand dated back to her Funny Girl days, when he was the rehearsal pianist for the Broadway production.  Decades later, she trusted him to conduct and arrange her hugely successful comeback tour, which broke records all over the country.  He rescued the legacy of little-known ragtime composer Scott Joplin by adapting his music to the score of The Sting, as a result of which that long-forgotten musician landed at the top of the Billboard charts (with "The Entertainer"). 
Marvin had a big night at the Oscars in 1973.

Marvin won an Oscar in that bargain, and the same night in 1973, became a triple winner when his work on the film The Way We Were was also recognized. 

Marvin adapted "Pachelbel's Canon"
for his hauntingly lonesome score
to Ordinary People.
His film scores include Ordinary People, Sophie's Choice, Three Men And A Baby, and The Swimmer, and he provided one of the smash hits to come out of the James Bond franchise when he co-wrote "Nobody Does It Better" for The Spy Who Loved Me. 
This smash was the first James Bond theme
song which differed from the actual film's title.
His writing partner on that hit was Carole Bayer Sager, with whom he had a long personal relationship.  It is that relationship which formed the inspiration for Hamlisch's other hit Broadway musical, They're Playing Our Song.
Original stars Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein attended the concert staging of They're Playing Our Song, starring Sutton Foster and Seth Rudetsky, in 2010. The show remains under most people's radar, though its small cast, minimal technical requirements, and accessible pop score would seem very desirable to regional musical theaters.
The show was Marvin's stage follow-up to the massive hit A Chorus Line, and concerned the ups-and-downs in the romance of a composer and lyricist. 
The score is filled with pop-sounding niceties, none very memorable but all quite presentable.  The presence onstage of "the voices," three men and three women expressing the characters' inner thoughts and acting as a Greek chorus of sorts, is the only thing keeping this little musical from being a two-person show. 
The Goodbye Girl provided another star turn for
another gent known primarily for comedy,
Martin Short. Despite Bernadette Peters in the cast,
the show had a very short life.

But the focus most assuredly is on the two leads (there are no big production numbers), and with a book by Neil Simon, the show had a lengthy run of over 1000 performances. 
A recent reunion of our stars. Marvin's pop
musical provided Robert Klein with a Tony nod, but
Lucie Arnaz was ignored for her Broadway debut.

It's original cast, seen in this week's Dance Party clip, included Robert Klein, who was primarily known at the time as a stand-up comic, and Lucie Arnaz, who was primarily known at the time as the daughter of famous people.  Klein was nominated for a Tony for this performance, Arnaz was not.  The clip, presented on the 1979 Tony Awards, is a bit blurry, but is a good reflection of the style of the show.  Before ever seeing clips of They're Playing Our Song (and I've NEVER seen a full production), I owned the Broadway Cast Album, and could swear Lucie was being dubbed by Helen Reddy, their sound is so similar. 
An attempt to turn the indie flick Smile into a musical

Marvin Hamlisch's score, by the way, must have been catnip to various producers and recording execs at the time, as there are cast albums from the London, Australian, and Argentinian productions available as well as the original.

Hamlisch had more than a few misfires on stage, including Jean Seberg, a musical about you know who, The Goodbye Girl, an adaptation of the hit film, and The Sweet Smell of Success, which provided John Lithgow a Tony in 2002 but which failed at the box office.  At the time of his death last week, his latest project was opening in Tennessee, a musical adaptation of The Nutty Professor, directed by the original film's star, Jerry Lewis. 
The Nutty Professor, the Musical, opened last week in Tennessee.  There was a strong review from the local paper, but Marvin Hamlisch's unexpected death puts the show's professional future in some doubt.
Despite his occasional failures, Marvin knew a little something about the musical theatre.  The marquee lights on Broadway would have been dimmed for him, as they were last week, even if his only contribution had been the landmark A Chorus Line. 
Marvin's determination that "What I Did
For Love" remain in A Chorus Line
was spot on.
The show's mastermind, Michael Bennett, always maintained that the soaring melody of Marvin's "At The Ballet" was the true soul of the musical.  When all the creative powers, including Bennett, wanted to cut the 11:00 number, Hamlisch stood his ground and the song stayed in the show.  "What I Did For Love" went on to become an anthem to the sacrifices made when following one's dream.

This week's Dance Party, the title song from They're Playing Our Song, does not carry such a universal message.  It's really about the egotism of the artist, which Hamlisch also knew a little something about.