Sunday, April 28, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Birth Of The Charwoman

The day Lucy died, Carol received delivery of a
flower bouquet for her birthday, from Lucy.
On the heels of a very busy week for your Dance Master (yours truly), let's enjoy a goofy little number from an old variety special.  Our stars share much in common, not the least of which is last Friday's date.  Carol Burnett turned a whopping 80 years old, and on the same date in 1989, Lucille Ball died at the age of 78.  If anybody was near a television any time during the 60s and 70s, they could not escape these two redheaded firecrackers. Would you want to?
Burnett and Ball are both considered trailblazers in the world of television.  Carol proved a woman was capable of headlining a weekly variety series. Lucy created a characterization so indelible, it could survive countless co-star and premise changes.
Carol broke some molds with her long-running variety show, as one of the first females to host one. 
Burnett's first Emmy in 1962. She has personally won 4.
Her variety show won 25.

She had lots of experience with the genre, having won an Emmy for her regular appearances on the Gary Moore Show, and another for her concert special at Carnegie Hall, opposite Julie Andrews. 
Ball's Emmy count also numbers 4.
Her various shows have won even more.

Lucy, meanwhile, was already a TV titan in the 60s, and continued to mine the comic potential of the character she had created in the 50s in I Love Lucy.  Her sitcom morphed several times, but always contained the same slapstick style which suited Ball best.  (Lucy, by the way, had her own Dance Party several years ago, a clip from her film career which preceded her TV stardom).
Lucy's third TV incarnation (or was it fourth?), Here's Lucy, again featured occasional appearances by Carol. The two stars traded guest shots on each other's shows throughout the years, a display of great friendship and generosity.  You cannot find two male stars of the period doing the same. 
The clip below has a bit of historical significance, particularly for Burnett.  Through much of the 60s, she headlined a series of variety specials, and was a regular guest star on the sitcoms of the period (including Lucy's, which at the time was called The Lucy Show.  She also appeared more than once on her pal  Jim Nabors's sitcom, a clip of which appeared on this Dance Party a while ago when Jim surprised nobody by marrying a man).  This special was called Carol +2, and costarred Lucy and Zero Mostel. 
The success of this special ignited talk of a weekly showcase for Burnett's talents.
The ratings for Carol +2 were particularly impressive, and Burnett's mentor Ball offered her a sitcom, to be produced by Desilu, the studio which Lucy had acquired after her divorce from Desi.  Carol was not interested in a sitcom situation, but soon landed in the genre which fit her talents best, vaudeville.
The Carol Burnett Show spoofed famous films, annoying commercials, and soap operas.  It was a true variety show; our gal sang, danced, took pratfalls, and ad libbed with the audience.  Happy 80th, Carol!
Enjoy this week's Dance Party, which is certainly not the best illustration of either woman's talents, but interestingly, it introduces one of Burnett's best loved characters, the charwoman.  Who knew she had a name?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Tell Us About It, Janet

Is it depressing to learn that Tim Curry is approaching 70?  Well, I guess we're ALL approaching 70, but Tim is pretty darn close, and got closer Friday, when he turned 67.
This guy's approaching 70 now? Time to do the Time Warp.
I can't claim that Tim Curry is a particular favorite of mine, but I surely admire his tenacity.  He's had a pretty long career on stage and on film, and has no intention of retiring any time soon. 
I imagine at some point in the future, the Tim Curry/Bernadette Peters/Carol Burnett version of "Easy Street" will show up on the Dance Party.  It's clearly a favorite show tune of mine, having appeared here with the great Dorothy Loudon, and here with the great Alan Cumming.  But the truth is, just about everything in this film version of Annie fails, including this number. So this version will have to wait.
Within the past year, Tim's become attached to a new Eric Idle musical called What About Dick, which had a highly publicized concert reading in Los Angeles.  Tim, of course, has history with Idle, as he headlined the original Broadway and London productions of Spamalot.

As Spamalot's King Arthur, Tim (center) earned a Tony nomination.  His costar Hank Azaria (far left) was also nominated; they both lost the award to Norbert Leo Butz in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  Always look on the bright side of life!

Curry's previous Broadway appearances include a fascinating one, at least to me.  The film version of Amadeus is a masterful example of stage-to-screen adaptation, and the performances in it can't be beat.  I simply cannot see anyone else but Tom Hulce in the role of Mozart, but astonishingly, Tim Curry originated the role on Broadway. 
Curry as Broadway's Amadeus, opposite Ian McKellan.
I'd give a lot to have seen that performance, which was nominated for a Tony (Tim lost the award to his costar Ian McKellan, playing Salieri.  In an instance of history repeating itself, when the film was released, Hulce playing Mozart lost his Oscar to the actor playing his Salieri, F. Murray Abraham).
When My Favorite Year became a musical,
Curry took Peter O'Toole's role, modeled
on Sid Caesar. Another Tony loss followed,
this one to Brent Carver in Kiss of the
Spider Woman.

But back to birthday boy Tim Curry.  He has apparently developed a bit of a following for his performance as Pennywise the Clown in the TV miniseries , Stephen King's It, a performance I did not see, as I can't stand horror films. 
Pennywise the Clown

But let's face it.  No matter the bulk of Tim Curry's work since then, he will always be inexorably connected to the Rocky Horror phenomenon. 
A more bizarre sex symbol cannot be
imagined, but Curry's Frank attracted
both men and women. Hide the children.

This bizarre mix of sci-fi, horror, and rock-and-roll was put on film in 1975, and was a resounding flop.  Then some young hotshot at Fox Studio suggested that the movie be released on college campuses, to be shown at midnight.  A cult classic was born. 
Recognize anyone? That's Patrick Stewart, before his Star Trek days, playing opposite Rocky Horror's original Magenta, Patricia Quinn. A few years after supplying those animated lips which open The Rocky Horror Picture Show, she made another splash on TV, as I, Claudius's villainous sister Livilla.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is unofficially acknowledged to hold the record for the longest running film ever, as it's still technically in its initial release to all the art houses which still hold midnight showings.
The original Roxy stage cast featured a Rocky (far left) who was more surfer dude than muscle boy, and a Brad (center, in a lab coat) who was more preppy than nerdy. It was the unexpected smash of the year in Los Angeles, and played to sell-out crowds for nine months.  The show finally closed, to release Tim Curry for the film version.
The participatory aspect of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a phenomenon of its own, and has been featured in pop culture for decades. 
Perks of Being a Wallflower, released just last year, has only the latest in a long line of sequences in various films and TV shows which featured a visit to a midnight showing of Rocky Horror.  The original Fame features such a sequence way back in 1980, and The Drew Carey Show devoted part of an episode to recreating the Time Warp dance number.  Glee devoted a full episode to Rocky Horror, with all the students taking roles in the cult hit.  They released a soundtrack of that particular episode, which debuted on the charts at #6.
But  Rocky Horror did not begin with the midnight showings of the film.  It began in London in 1973, in a tiny 60 seat upstairs theatre, and the cast included most of the actors who would recreate their performances for the film two years later. The offbeat show was a smash, and moved twice to larger theaters (actually, to converted movie houses) before closing after almost 3000 performances.  Tim Curry had long gone by then, as Hollywood beckoned. 
The Roxy was not a theatre, but a nightclub/concert
venue. For RH, tables were set up, and a ramp bisected
the audience, allowing actors to enter from the rear.

In 1974, The Rocky Horror Show, with Tim Curry as its secret weapon, traveled to Los Angeles for its American stage premiere at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, CA.  And I was there.
At Riverwood High in Atlanta, my buddy Donna, along with my buddy Robert and myself, were the three musketeers.  This picture was taken en route to a costume party;  two years later, I had moved to L.A., and Donna came for a visit.  When Cass Elliot died during her trip, we had to do something wild and rock-and-rollish to honor her offbeat life. We drove down to the Sunset Strip to see Hollywood's latest underground hit, a raw and raunchy Rocky Horror Show.
The Roxy Theatre really wasn't one.  A makeshift stage popped up at one end of the small room, and tables were set up for the audience to sit and drink.  There was no wing space, the actors made their entrances down a ramp which stretched from the back of the room to the stage.  We looked UP to see the action. 
When Trixie the Usherette appeared to announce
the "Science Fiction Double Feature," in clown
makeup and fishnets, I suspected this musical
was not going to resemble my recent high school
production of Hello, Dolly.

I had an immediate affection for the nerdy Narrator (who became the Criminologist in the film).  This was, in fact, the only actor in the piece I recognized, from his numerous TV appearances.  
Graham Jarvis narrated Rocky Horror at the
Roxy. He would later go on to play a leading
role in the soap spoof Mary Hartman,
Mary Hartman.

He was an absolute scream, and his performance placed the role of the Narrator on my Bucket List, before we even called it that.  Even at age 19, I knew that one day, I'd love to play it.  But even my affection for the dry delivery of a one-liner was overshadowed by the electric entrance of Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter.  That entrance, from the film version, is this week's Dance Party, and it's plenty powerful in the movie.  But it does not compare to the star's live entrance at the Roxy. 

Other than Curry, Meat Loaf was the only
Roxy cast member to recreate his role
for the film. And he played
only the suicidal Eddie; on stage, he
doubled as Dr. Scott. The moment in
Act II, when the proper professor strips
off his blanket to reveal fishnets and
heels, remains burned in my memory.

As I said, the stage was a makeshift one, so there was no elevator or wingspace or anything.  Instead, Curry made his entrance from behind the audience.  To the driving beat of his first number, he strode down the ramp, which was raised above eye level of the audience.  Tim must be 6'4" at least, and parading around in his garish high heels, he towered over the audience.  You didn't look at him, you looked UP at him.  And you couldn't look away.

Let's face it:  the climax of the play was meant to result in one.  This group grope sequence was the most sensual moment I have ever witnessed on stage.  It was powerfully provocative, and personally unsettling.  But I guess the overall message of The Rocky Horror Show is clear enough:  Don't dream it, be it.
Curry spent a lot of years running away from his phenomenal success in Rocky Horror, but, as stars who inadvertently create iconic characters usually do, he has reconciled himself to the fact that his participation in the cult classic will be the headline of his obituary.  No one needs to be told, I imagine, that the clip below features the very young Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, not that you pay much attention to them once Tim Curry explodes onto the screen.  So let's enjoy one of the most unusual star entrances in the history of musical film:

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Gamecock Diaries, Prologue: My Dinner With Jim

Longstreet Theatre at the University of South Carolina
A few months ago, I had the pleasure of spending an evening with my grad school professor and friend, Jim Patterson.  We've done a pretty good job of keeping in touch with each other since my graduation 16 years ago.  In the intervening years, he retired from his position at the University of South Carolina, and has spent his time traveling and writing theatre text books. 
Jim Patterson

He and his partner come to New York several times a year to see the new shows, and this time, they had made the trip from South Carolina specifically to see Streisand's Return To Brooklyn concert.  We had cocktails and dip at my New York Branch, then walked around the corner to Restaurant Row to one of their favorite NY eateries for a fine Italian meal.

It is always fun to spend time with Jim, as he is a stimulating conversationalist.  He holds a special place in my memory of my graduate school days, as he directed me many times during the period (three times on campus, and once soon after my graduation) and also served as the chair of my MFA Advisory Committee. 
Jim occupies his retirement years by
writing theatre text books.

This group of three faculty members was in charge of overseeing my progress toward my degree, meeting at least once a semester to examine my growth as an actor and theatrical scholar. 

Oddly, now that I think of it, I was in charge of choosing my own committee, which seems quite illogical.  Back then, first year MFA candidates arrived on campus and were immediately required to choose their three-member committee, though we knew absolutely nothing about any of the faculty members.  I think they've since changed that routine.  Ah, USC, how eccentrically you were run...!

I lucked out with my three advisers. 

Roseanna shared the other half of the duplex I rented while at
USC. She knew after 10 minutes that I would get along with
Jim Patterson.  She was correct.
I received sage advice about picking my committee from my next door neighbor in Columbia, who was herself in the third year of her MFA in costume design.  She suggested I choose one faculty member with whom I was currently in class, and one member who was in a different discipline. 
My movement teacher sat on
my committee too. She lived
up to her name: Melody.

That turned out to be great advice. I invited the head of the costume design department to join my committee, and she was delighted, as she rarely had the opportunity to sit on an actor's committee. 
Lisa welcomed the chance to advise one
of the program's acting candidates.

I also took my neighbor's advice regarding the chair of my committee;  she recommended Jim Patterson, recognizing that we both had similar tastes and should get on well.  She was absolutely right.  When I approached Jim, whom I had only just met, he immediately accepted.  At the same time, he was casting his upcoming production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and unbeknownst to me, he already had me in mind to play Algernon.

Jim's production of The Importance of Being Earnest
was the highlight of my first year at USC. More on
that experience later.

Wow, I am surprised that these memories are coming back so vividly.  My dinner with Jim must have unlocked them.  I'm now thinking that this post will be the first of a series (similar to one I wrote a while ago regarding my experience with Waiver Theatre in Los Angeles, you can reach that series of entries here).  I sometimes think I may be writing my memoirs, bit by bit and out of order, in these pages;  if that is so, then my time at the University of South Carolina must take a prominent place. 

I bet I'll have some time to regurgitate my memories from grad school in the next weeks, as it appears I'll be (ahem) between engagements for a while.  We'll call this Episode One of the series entitled My Gamecock Diaries.  Stay tuned for the next installment.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Would You Pull That Crap With Annette?

Annette Funicello's death this week, after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, should have inspired this week's Dance Party. 
Annette Funicello may be dead, but that does not give her
the right to star in this week's Dance Party.

But as I sat down to compose this entry, I realized that I had already written a piece on Annette and the Beach Party film genre, and really had nothing more to say.  Go here for that Dance Party, which I wrote in the dead of winter a few years ago, when everybody was dreaming of the beach.
I have resisted the temptation to present a musical number from Disney's Babes in Toyland.  You're welcome.
This week's Dance Party, then, is inspired by this great lady of the musical stage:
Margaret Thatcher
You didn't know the Iron Lady appeared in a musical?  Well, technically, she didn't, but her voice did.  And her presence is felt throughout one of the big musical hits of the 2000s:

To start at the very beginning (a very good place to start), in 1984 Thatcher began the process of disposing of state run mining interests, closing many mines and selling off many more to the private sector.  Mining unions called a strike, which caused massive unemployment and misery in England's mining towns. 
The right honourable MP from Hampstead and Kilburn, the artist formerly known as Glenda Jackson, went viral this week with her condemnation of Thatcherism, which crippled her districts and others in the 1980s.
Thatcher, being the epitome of a true conservative and thus not caring a bit about working class folk, stood her ground, eventually breaking the power of the labor unions and plunging her country into recession. 
She may have devastated large portions of her constituency, but she didn't stop there.  Her deregulation of the financial sector is a direct antecedent to the current economic crisis which has engulfed the globe.
No one can credibly deny that Thatcher created an economic crisis for the working class, but out of such misery, sometimes art is born. 
Lads don't do ballet. But this one did.

The film Billy Elliot depicts the effects of Thatcher's policy on a community in northern England. Released in 2000, the indie film became an unexpected international hit.  Several years later, the film's director and writer teamed up with Elton John, whose score to The Lion King convinced people that he was a composer of musicals.

Billy Elliot the musical was a big hit in London in 2005 (it's still running) and when it hit Broadway, it swept the Tony Awards. 
Billy Elliot made some Tony history in 2009.  Did the show win 10 awards, or 12? All three kids who alternated in the title role were jointly nominated and won (the conjoined twins from Side Show were similarly nominated in 1998, but they did not win).  This was not a tie vote;  technically, the three shared the Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, though this picture shows all three boys holding a trophy. I suppose it's the same as a full production team winning Best Musical, but it's the only instance where performers shared the Tony for a single performance.  Look for a repeat of this situation this year, when the gals who alternate as Broadway's newest diva, Matilda, are nominated.
Incidentally, Billy Elliot's score features a comic number called "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher," in which the desperately poor look hopefully for the day of the woman's death. 
This Act II opener caused some trouble this week for the London production of Billy Elliot. Thatcher's death forced a vote at the theatre:  did the audience want to hear this number, in which everyone longs for Maggie's death?
The creators have often been asked if the number would stay in the show on the day Thatcher dies.  "We'll sing it twice," one of the writers proclaimed.  Still, this week, the London production's cast actually took an audience poll to see if the viewers wished to see the number.  Only about 20% of the audience voted that the cast remove the song from the performance, so the number went on as usual.  Not even Death can stop a showstopper!

This week's clip comes from the show's presentation at the Tonys.  The number is simply called "Angry Dance," and it surely is one (the original film contains a similar sequence). 
Jamie Bell played Billy in the film. It's not easy for a bloke
to be tough with ballet slippers around his neck.

It's pretty unusual, in my experience, to see a dance number which expresses anger, as dance usually depicts a joyful emotion.  But this kid is certainly emoting all over the place. 
I have never seen this stage version.

You'll have to forgive the bumbling introduction which Elton John gives the piece;  clearly he's not used to performing in front of a live audience. 

And if you listen carefully, amidst the cacophony of the number, you'll hear the Iron Lady's voice.  So, enjoy this raucous number from Billy Elliot;  without Margaret Thatcher, we never would have seen it!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Here's To The Lady Who Lunched

This news may not have made the national headlines, or even the entertainment section.  But here at the NY Branch, this is big news.  All the local papers have mentioned it, and the Grey Lady Herself, the Times, was present Tuesday and filed a report.  

There are only five performances, though the Times suggests they are not really performances;  perhaps they should be called "evenings."  But on Opening Night, Liza was there with Tony Bennett.  So was Bernadette Peters and her Into The Woods creator James Lapine.  Even Tom Hanks spent his only night off from his own show to schlep up to the Upper East Side to pay tribute.  Here in New York, attention is definitely being paid:  Elaine Stritch is saying goodbye.
Though she claims she'll be back, it seems unlikely.  Stritch's cabaret career at the Cafe Carlyle is legendary.  She has lived upstairs from the club for over a decade, but has decided to move back to her hometown in suburban Detroit, to be near the family she left 70 years ago.
Aging's a bitch, no matter who you are, but when you are a stage performer, it's particularly grueling.  It's why Peter O'Toole retired not long ago (I wrote about that here), and why Dame Maggie Smith has lamented that, because of advancing age, she will never return to the stage.  At 88, Elaine Stritch is calling it quits. 
Stritch can get laughs anywhere, including in a trashcan.
Beckett's Endgame was never so funny.

Decades of diabetes and alcohol abuse have taken their toll, as well as the natural effects of growing old.  She's had several minor strokes and several physical falls, one of which broke her hip, requiring her to use a cane.  Her memory is so faulty, according to the Times critic, that her farewell cabaret is sadly uncomfortable.  She also admits to being back on the sauce, allowing herself one drink per day. At age 88 and in poor health, is anybody going to tell her no?
Elaine's final Broadway appearance was in 2010, replacing Angela Lansbury in the revival of A Little Night Music.  She freely admitted she was wrong for the part of the courtly courtesan, Madame Armfeldt.  Bernadette Peters, playing her daughter, was wrong too, but as both women are considered premiere interpreters of the work of Stephen Sondheim, the public responded, and the revival's life was extended.
Despite a career which is stunning in its longevity (she made her Broadway debut in the 40s), she is hardly a household name, and I doubt middle America could pick her out of a line-up. 
When Company took her to London, she met her
husband, and stayed. She did Neil Simon (The
Gingerbread Lady) and Tennessee Williams
(Small Craft Warnings), and spent four seasons
headlining the above Britcom, Two's Company.

But she's truly a theatrical icon.  It's hard to explain her appeal;  she may not be one of those "love her or hate her" types, but there are still lots of people who do not understand why she is so revered.  She took over for Uta Hagen in the original Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Woody Allen has made good use of her in several films.  Even David Letterman has used her, in a running gag about a horny housewife.  She will be remembered, most especially, for her musical performances, but even in her prime, her voice was more a bray than a belt.  And in recent years, her musical ear has become downright lousy.  Still, she's sometimes called "Broadway's last First Lady," mostly due to her musical resume. 
Stritch and Bea Arthur appeared together in an early TV program, but a bit of a rivalry sprang up decades later.  Elaine tells the story of losing the role of Dorothy on The Golden Girls due to an unfortunate ad-lib.  Arthur, whose one-woman show landed on Broadway simultaneously with Stritch's, assured her audience she would NOT be singing "I'm Still Here," a direct dig at Elaine, who was up the street bringing down the house with the number. Bea's show was nominated for the Tony, but she lost it to Elaine's.
She understudied Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam, and headlined the national tour. She has also toured in Mame and The King and I
As Joanne in Company.

Noel Coward placed her in a supporting role in Sail Away, then elevated her to the lead out of town.  Her performance in Company is considered one of the great performances in the history of the musical theatre.

Through most of her critically acclaimed Broadway career, the Tony Award remained elusive. 

Why do the wrong people travel?, Stritch wondered in Sail Away.
She was nominated twice for her musical work: she lost her award in Sail Away to both Anna Maria Alberghetti (Carnival) and Diahann Carroll (No Strings), as there was a tie that year, and she lost her award in Company to a tap-dancing Helen Gallagher (No, No, Nanette). 

The only time I saw Stritch live onstage was in A
Delicate Balance. She was spectacular.
She is also a strong dramatic actress, evidenced by her two Tony nods for straight plays:  she lost her award in Bus Stop to Una Merkel, whoever the hell that is, and her award for A Delicate Balance went to Zoe Caldwell's Maria Callas (Master Class).  She finally won the award for her autobiographical one-woman show At Liberty.
Elaine Stritch: At Liberty is available on DVD and is worth seeing.  She relates her journey as an artist and as a woman with surprising self-deprecation and candor. Her stories about Brando and Garland and Merman and others are riveting.
She did better with her television work, which has yielded seven Emmy nominations over the years, and three wins. 
Playing Alec Baldwin's mother
has earned her multiple Emmy nods, and one
win so far. Look for a final nomination for her
this year as well, for an episode in which she
comes out as a lesbian.

Her guest turn as a lawyer on Law and Order in 1993 earned her a trophy (she beat out, among others, another Broadway oldster, Gwen Verdon, who was nominated for an episode of Homicide), and she was repeatedly nominated for her recurring role as Alec Baldwin's mother in 30 Rock (she won in 2007).  Her third and most meaningful Emmy win was for the HBO presentation of the show for which she won her lone Tony, Elaine Stritch At Liberty.  It is fitting, then, as we say goodbye to a true theatrical treasure, that this week's Dance Party comes from that acclaimed one-woman show.
All of New York is hurrying to the Carlyle this week, for Elaine's swan song.
Stritch has probably three signature songs from various times in her musical theatre career.  The 11:00 number in Coward's Sail Away, "Why Do The Wrong People Travel?" is surely one.  The second is most definitely the song for which Elaine will be most remembered, Company's "The Ladies Who Lunch." 
As the acerbic, chain smoking, martini swilling Joanne, Stritch cemented her reputation as a performer who takes no prisoners.  In Company, after a failed attempt to seduce leading man Dean Jones, she raised her glass to toast the Ladies Who Lunch, introducing one of the masterpieces of musical theatre. 
But there is a third song which became closely associated with Stritch in her later career.  In 1985, our gal participated in an all-star concert staging of Follies, and stopped the show with her rendition of this number.  There is a clip of that performance out there, but I prefer the one below. 
The man's shirt over black tights was a
signature look for Stritch through the years.

This week's Dance Party is from At Liberty, and features our Elaine at her best: honest, rueful, and endearing.  Yes, Elaine Stritch can be endearing.  I imagine this week's farewell "evenings" at the Carlyle are pretty endearing, too;  how could they not be?  A great theatrical performer is bringing her career to an end. But like everything else she's done in her life, she's doing it on her terms.  Everybody rise.