Monday, May 20, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Mamed

It's been four years since Bea Arthur died, but she has resurfaced this week, or at least her image has.  Here's why:
Those puppies were added by some humor editor somewhere;  the original painting shows Arthur completely topless.  It's a little too unsettling for me to post here.  Bea herself was not unsettled by the thing, and has been quoted as suggesting that the painter may have been enamored of the feminist movement of the 70s, with which Arthur was sometimes equated, due to her performance as Maude.  But the painting was created without the aid of the subject;  Bea Arthur never sat for it.
The above portrait sold at auction last week, for 1.9 million dollars.  I've been a big fan of Arthur's since she burst on the national scene with her sitcom Maude, but I had never heard of this painting until last week's auction.  The artist is a man named John Currin, and he has a reputation for providing provocative work. 

Regular visitors to these pages know I have a great admiration for Bea Arthur, evidenced by my many mentions of her.  I wrote about her life and career when she died four years ago, and since then, she showed up in this Dance Party clip, opposite Rock Hudson.  When the Oscars rolled around, and our Bea was left out of the tribute to the stars who had died in 2009, I fired off this response, which includes one of my favorite Arthur clips.  And when I was celebrating my being cast as one of musical theater's most enduring "side-kicks," I had to include this clip of our gal's most famous musical moment. By coincidence or not, that song is this week's Dance Party as well, but in a very, very, VERY different way.
Bea Arthur as Vera Charles

The song is "Bosom Buddies," which Bea sang opposite Angela Lansbury in the original Broadway production of Mame
"Lucy. Mame." The publicity said
it all: an icon playing an icon. What
a lousy decision.

Bea recreated her award winning performance for the film version of the show, not that anybody really noticed.  When Mame the movie was released in 1974, the reviews were brutal, particularly for the leading lady, Lucille Ball.  This film flop version of a smash Broadway show is a classic example of how Hollywood can turn huge success into crushing failure.

Lucy spent her early years as a chorine, but
without much success. Go here for a look at how
she handled musical numbers back then.

Around 1970, when Mame's original Broadway production was winding down (after a substantial four year run), talk turned to a film version.  Warner Bros paid an almost unprecedented amount for the rights to put the musical on film (only My Fair Lady had cost more), and were smart to engage legendary director George Cukor.  Bette Davis was actively campaigning to play the show's drunken sidekick, Vera Charles, and it was suggested that Carol Burnett, at the time TV's reigning female clown, would be the perfect Gooch.  The studio made a disastrous error, though, in their decision to cast Lucy as Mame.  Ball was determined to invigorate her film career, as her third and last hit TV series, Here's Lucy, was drawing to a close;  she invested 5 million of her own dollars to help finance the project. 
The original musical Mame was not famous enough
to carry the film. She went on to become one of
the most beloved TV stars, earning 18 Emmy
nominations and three more Tony Awards.

Despite the fact that original Mame Angela Lansbury had already won two of her five Tony Awards, and had three Oscar nominations to boot, producers were not convinced her name could carry such a large budgeted film.  Lucy was chosen without regard to the fact that she could not carry a tune, and in her 60s, could not dance well either.  She was an international superstar, and the studio was convinced Mame would make a bundle.
1937's Stage Door featured three future Mames. Ann Miller (left) was a replacement Mame in the original company (a tap number was added for her). Ginger Rogers (center) opened the London company and ran it for over a year.  Lucille Ball (right) preserved the role on film (did I say she "preserved" it?  I should say she pickled it).

Before shooting was to begin, Ball broke her leg, and the decision was made to delay the picture for a year. 
Lucy looked great in her costumes.

The delay caused George Cukor to bow out, which proved to be catastrophic for Mame.  Cukor had shepherded My Fair Lady from stage to screen, creating a film which won the Best Picture Oscar and is now considered a classic (Cukor won for Best Director, too).  Original Broadway director Gene Saks was hired to replace him.  Paul Zindel, who had won the Pulitzer for his play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, was hired to provide the screenplay, though he had never written a musical.  Saks dismissed suggestions of Bette Davis in the role of Vera, and cast his wife, Bea Arthur, who had originated the role (and won the Tony for it).
Bea Arthur emerged from the Mame debacle relatively unscathed, though one critic pointed out that the role of Vera Charles could be played by a man...and that Arthur had played her as such. It was a tense shoot, as Lucy became disturbed that Bea's performance was more comedically satisfying than her own.  Though Ball had casting approval, Arthur was at the time a substantial star (Maude was the #2 rated sitcom, while Here's Lucy  languished at #15, the first time a Lucille Ball sitcom had fallen out of the top ten), so neither the studio nor Bea's husband the director would support replacing her.  In later years, Arthur regretted appearing in Mame, calling it a disaster and an embarrassment.
When production finally began, it was immediately apparent that Lucy could not sing the part. 
Composer Jerry Herman begged the studio to
reconsider the casting of Lucy, but he had sold
his rights.

Mame contains several songs which require a solid belt, and it also contains the most famous Jerry Herman ballad of all time.  Herman himself coached Lucy on her vocals, but to little avail.  They tried to salvage the score by pasting different takes of Ball's songs together, resulting in a disjointed and confusing soundtrack.

This is the cover for the original soundtrack recording of Mame. We have only two names on this cover:  Lucy, and the character she played.  Composer Jerry Herman threatened a lawsuit, and the studio scrambled to artificially stamp every copy with his name.  Subsequent release of this record on CD corrected that oversight.
Lucy had no luck getting rid of Bea Arthur, but Madeline Kahn was another matter. 
In 1973, Madeline Kahn's career was on the rise.  Her film debut in What's Up, Doc? had attracted major attention;  as she had Paper Moon already in the can, Mame was to be her third film; she was to play mousy Agnes Gooch. She clashed with Lucille Ball right away, and the rumors swirled that Lucy did not want anyone in her movie funnier than she. I'm not sure I completely agree with that assessment, since Ball had Vivian Vance at her side for years, and Viv got plenty of laughs. Instead, it may be that Lucy, already unsure of herself in this high-profile musical, could see that Kahn was going to swipe the film. It seems when superstars are feeling the most vulnerable, they act out the most. She orchestrated Madeline's dismissal;  the studio was forced to pay Kahn her full salary.  There are those who suspect Madeline manipulated the whole thing; realizing right away that the movie was going down the toilet, she forced her own firing, freeing her up for Blazing Saddles, which solidified her standing as a leading comic actress. Kahn received back-to-back Oscar nominations for Paper Moon and Blazing Saddles. Ball never made another film.
Original Gooch Jane Connell was hired to replace Madeline Kahn, despite the fact that, at age 49, she did not look young enough to give birth, which was the major plot point involving her role. 
I have great respect for Jane Connell, who spent her life on stage, in supporting roles (I wrote a little obit for her here).  But her work in Mame the movie does not quite click.
It's a shame that Mame is so unwatchable, as its film adaptation has one of the closest resemblances to the original stage play I've ever seen.  Screenwriter Zindel preserves the original structure, with only a few tweaks.  Only one song was deleted, "That's How Young I Feel;"  it was rightfully removed, as the whole point of the song showcased the age difference between Mame and the younger generation.  The producers were trying to hide Lucy's age, not celebrate it, so that number had to go (the fact that it's a big dance number also tagged it for the chopping block). 
True to form, Lucy contested the casting of Robert Preston as her husband Beau.  She felt this Broadway legend was too short, and even presented him with special shoes with lifts.  Bizarrely, Ball wanted
Rory Calhoun for the part.
One of the more notorious aspects of Mame the movie is the director's attempts to hide Ball's age by shooting her close-ups with a soft-focus lens. 
A major mistake was made by trying
to hide Lucy's age. She was always a
glamorous star, and someone said she
would have made a fine Mame, 15
years earlier.

The results are pretty jarring, and when critic Rex Reed snarked that they must have smeared grease on the lens to remove Lucy's wrinkles, the legend took hold and is still repeated today. 

To her credit, Lucille Ball apparently worked very hard to make the movie work. 
This sequence relied on Lucy's proven gift for physical comedy.  Unfortunately, Mame did not provide many such opportunities.
Even composer Jerry Herman, who hates the movie, reports that Ball was privately distraught that her singing did not satisfy (the fact that she worked so diligently to snag the part reflects that Hollywood egotism which is such a part of superstars: she knew the role had major singing and dancing requirements, and she also knew she was not qualified, but she still wanted it). 
With the possible exception of the title tune to Hello, Dolly, Mame contains Jerry Herman's most famous song.  "If He Walked Into My Life" is a soaring ballad full of love and regret.  It has been recorded many times, with Edie Gorme winning a Grammy for her rendition in 1967.  Lucy murders the song.

Mame cries out for one of those TV remakes.
Streisand had the rights for a while, and there
was talk of a Goldie Hawn/Cher pairing a
while back. I saw Christine Baranski do it
well a while ago. Herman has said he'd love
Catherine Zeta-Jones to play it.

There are several really horrendous clips out there of the various songs in Mame which were botched;  this is not one of them.  This week's Dance Party features what is probably the only song in the movie which is not cringe-worthy, perhaps because it does not require Lucy to belt or to balladize.  Instead, it's a comic number right up her alley;  it's one of the few moments in which Mame is allowed to camp a bit.  And that, ultimately, is what sank the movie. 
Where's that boy with the bugle? He
should have sounded Taps.

Ball's vocals could have been dubbed (Lisa Kirk, who dubbed Roz Russell in Gypsy, was reportedly considered), and her dancing was minimized (she was often lifted and carried by chorus boys).  And the few moments in which she was required to supply actual acting ability, I think she came through.  But just about everybody recognized this undeniable fact:  the role of Mame Dennis required an elegant sophisticate, and Lucille Ball was a clown.  There really was no hope.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Friday Dance Party: All Astaire

Time to return the Friday Dance Party to its original intent (at least for this week), that is, as a fun showcase for The Dance.  Who better to star than one of the premiere interpreters of American Popular Dance, someone who has appeared in this segment many times?  By no coincidence, today is Fred Astaire's 114th Birthday.  Doesn't he look great?
"Backwards, and in heels," Ginger Rogers matched Fred step for step.  She's his most famous dance partner (and that includes his own sister!).  The duo appeared in one of my favorite clips in this series, just because it features simplicity.  Go here for that dance number.
This was not by any means the only time the team of Fred and Ginger have hosted the Dance Party. 
The "Dance-Off" was a popular conceit, and perhaps it still is, considering all the competition on various dance shows these days.  Fred and Ginger competed in one.  I think they won it.
And not to wear out their welcome, Fred and Ginger appeared yet again in these pages:
Rogers was a last minute replacement for Judy Garland in this film (one of the many times Judy was fired for her unreliability), and it was to become the final Astaire/Rogers film.   Here is their clip.
Never let it be said that our Fred couldn't dance with absolutely anybody.  Apparently, he could.
French pixie Leslie Caron was paired with the MUCH older Astaire in Daddy Long Legs.  For some reason, nobody thought it was creepy.  Go here for that clip.
Rita Hayward was a great star of her time period, but she was not really known for her dance abilities.
When Hayward teamed with Astaire in these pages, it was really only because she slightly resembled my mother.  I wrote about that here, which includes the Fred/Rita dance clip.
Astaire was rarely (if ever) evenly matched with his partners, but he made them look good just the same.  When he was paired with Eleanor Powell, though, he did not have to downgrade his performance.  She was one of the great hoofers of history.
Powell could match Astaire tap for tap, as seen in this pairing.
One of my favorite Dance Party clips featuring Astaire actually puts him in the subordinate position. 
Betty Hutton was one of the great musical comedy stars of her time, though is largely forgotten today.  I love her, and she stars in this clip, with a surprise appearance by Astaire.  OK, I guess I ruined the surprise.
Well, because Astaire is turning 114 today, it's about time he got his own solo dance routine in these pages. 
Astaire was not particularly versatile as an actor,
but his light and breezy style was put to good
use in the 1960s spy series It Takes A Thief,
playing Robert Wagner's father.

The clip is from Damsel In Distress, which I must confess I have not seen.  I suppose all Astaire musicals are now considered classics, but this one seems to float under the radar a bit.  Fred's co-star was Joan Fontaine, and isn't it just like a producer to hire a star for a musical without first finding out if she can dance?  Fontaine couldn't, and our Fred attempted to replace her with Ruby Keeler.  Joan remained in the film, and director George Stevens did his best to hide her two left feet with camera trickery and, in one instance, a bunch of trees. 

A madcap romp through a funhouse, with costars Burns and
Allen, provides some comic relief.
The movie introduced several Gershwin songs which went on to become standards, such as "A Foggy Day (in London Town)" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It," but the film did not succeed.  Damsel in Distress was the first Astaire film to lose money, but it gives our hero a nice platform to finally strut his stuff solo. This clip, as so many of the numbers in the Astaire dance repertoire, was shot in a continuous take. Happy Birthday, Fred!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Theatre Droppings: Everything Has Its Season

Orion Griffiths is one of the sturdy gymnasts who handle the revival's heavy lifting.
Pippin was a substantial Broadway hit back in the 1970s, running almost 2,000 performances and winning 5 Tony Awards, so it's a bit surprising that the show has not been revived until now. 
John Rubinstein and Jill Clayburgh were oh, so
purposeful in the original production.
The cast recording reflects a sleepy
earnestness in their numbers.
The revival has changed ALL that.

Perhaps it's because the show is considered by many to be only a minor piece of art;  it is certainly dependant on a strong directorial concept in order to overcome its rather lackluster premise. 
This video of the Canadian production
 was stacked with stars, and preserves
Ben Vereen's Tony winning performance.

It's only my opinion, of course, but I think Pippin suffers from the same problem with which Candide is also afflicted.  Both shows contain musical scores which are admired more than the shows themselves (though there are many critics out there who dismiss Stephen Schwartz's music, no matter which show contains it).  Though I suppose Candide's score is more highly regarded, Pippin's music is more widely known, probably because every high school in the country has produced the thing. 
Michael Rupert handled Pippin in Los Angeles.

But the problem with both Pippin and Candide is the episodic nature of the story.  Both musicals feature a central character who is searching for an allusive, intangible abstraction.  In their quest to find the meaning of life, lots of incidents happen TO them, which makes these title characters more reactive than active.  Both Candide and Pippin eventually conclude that living a simple life is best.  Cue the snores.
This was the first Pippin I saw, when the national tour hit Los Angeles in the late 70s. I sat in the balcony, and watched as star Michael Rupert turned more and more of his attention to flirting with a redheaded guy in the front row.  It became downright comical. After the show, I bumped into my college chum Timmy.  A redhead who was seated in the front row.
Pippin has finally received a Broadway revival, and like its original production, the hand at the wheel is a sure one. 
The revival never stops.  No matter where you look or when, there is somebody hanging upside down or sliding down a pole or sailing through a hoop or juggling a fire baton or balancing another person on one hand. The motif works great.
Bob Fosse is credited with making Pippin a hit in the 70s, by masking its weaknesses with stylish staging. 
See what I mean? You have to look hard to
find our leading characters.

Boy, has current director Diane Paulus done the same, and more so!  She's placed the show in a circus atmosphere, and the show seldom rests.  I saw it last week, and there was so much acrobatic activity going on, I rarely knew where to look.  This concept works like gangbusters. 
Andrea Martin delivers the most surprising number in town.
At age 66, she belts her song while hanging upside down,
10 feet above the stage. It almost starts a riot.

But Paulus has improved the show itself, I think, by tweaking the ending a bit, and by some very smart casting. 
I've never seen a Pippin who outshines his Leading Player.
But this one does.

Matthew James Thomas, a Brit who was the alternate Peter Parker in the notorious Spiderman musical (which is still raking in cash), has done something no other Pippin I have ever seen has done:  he has brought the character out of the shadow of the flashier Leading Player. 
Ben Vereen set the precedent; Leading Players
are now expected to swipe the show.

Patina Miller, who made a splashy debut in the Sister Act musical a while back, is very capable and even charismatic as Ben Vereen's replacement. 

Husband and wife team Terrence Mann and Charlotte d"Amboise
play our king and queen. He is more charming than I've ever
seen him, and she tears up her big dance number.
Who knew the lackluster, straight-arrow, earnest role of Catherine was such a scream? Rachel Bay Jones gives goofy life to a role which has always put me to sleep in the past, and helps that pastoral stretch in Act II seem less long.
But a funny thing happens as the show progresses.  Thomas, as Pippin, grows in depth, while Miller's MC becomes downright brittle.  As the events unfold, we turn more and more of our attention away from the flashy narrator and toward our hero, which is as it should be (but rarely has been in the past). 

Director Paulus has done a swell job with her ensemble, mixing a few Fosse-style dancers with some gymnastically gifted acrobats. 
Charlotte d'Amboise (in the crown) has dance in her genes, and shows it. These fellows are the gypsies who fill out the ensemble dominated by the gymnasts.  But make no mistake: everybody does everything.  The gymnasts dance and the dancers flip.
Some of their tricks are downright astonishing.
These images are even more arresting
in motion.

I've heard that there are spectacular stunts happening in Spiderman the Musical, but those are accomplished with a series of wires and pulleys.  This gang sails through the air without such help, and without a net.  Whether or not this improves the show itself is up for debate, but it certainly makes this revival a stunner. 
He's a quintuple-threat: actor, singer, dancer, acrobat,
and even plays the guitar during one of the show's
few quiet moments. He's been overlooked by the
Tony nominators, who should be dropped into that
fire pit which closes the show.

When the show was done, I was convinced that Pippin, and in particular its titular star, would be honored at the Tonys.  Imagine my surprise to discover that, though Miller is nominated for her turn as the Leading Player, Matthew James Thomas has not been.  It's an egregious oversight, particularly when Miller's work is completely one-noted while Thomas has brought excitement and depth to the usually shallow Pippin. 
Someone should alert the Tony nominators that
Matthew James Thomas has broken the tradition
that the Leading Player steamroll Pippin. HIS is the
true star turn.

Ah well, at least both Andrea Martin and Terrence Mann have received nods, as has Diane Paulus for pulling the pieces of a fairly messy show together to make a fully enjoyable and coherent production. \

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Not Just Overnight

Christina Hendricks as June. Or is it
The arrival of new episodes of Mad Men has revived a problem I consistently have with cable series.  Generally, these programs have only about a dozen episodes per season.  Once they are broadcast (side question:  are cable shows actually broadcast, or are they instead... I don't know, cabled...?), the show disappears until the next season, usually about 10 months later. 
Christina Hendricks sails through the office with luxurious smoothness. She claims the formfitting wardrobe is responsible for her unmistakable movement.  As soon as she hit the airwaves, she was heralded as an example of the classic hourglass figure which disappeared with Twiggy, and never returned.
My addled, aging brain tends to forget the specifics of TV shows in that period of time, and the announcements of "Previously, on Breaking Bad..." really don't jog my memory enough.  What's a fellow to do?
I certainly remember this controversial episode from last season's Mad Men. An important client demands to sleep with office manager Joan. The agency is near collapse;  to save the day (and to become an actual partner in the firm), Joan prostitutes herself, a decision which I understand comes back to haunt her this year.
With Mad Men, I am currently taping the new season, but have not watched any of it. 
In reviewing early episodes, I am again
struck by the work of Hendricks and John
Slattery, who stand out in a great cast. I
wrote about it here, before the 2nd season

Instead, I am reviewing the full series, from its first season, and when I'm done, I'll launch seamlessly into the new episodes.  This routine works better sometimes than other times.  I did the same thing with Downton Abbey, and of course, was bombarded with spoilers as the new season was being shown.  So, by the grand finale, I already knew which major characters had died, and how.  Downton seems to have generated much more social media buzz than Mad Men this year, so I haven't seen any spoilers just yet.
Mad Men creators admit that Christina was completely different from their original concept of Joan. They immediately started writing the character for Hendricks, even including her unusual talent: the accordion.
I'm just finishing season one of Mad Men, and I am once again falling in love with the work of Christina Hendricks.  She turned 38 on Friday, and deserves to star in this week's Dance Party. 
The clip below is from a concert staging of the musical Company, which is filled with TV stars who don't really belong on the musical stage (Jon Cryer and Stephen Colbert, of all people, are also featured in this thing). 
This concert staging of Company, backed by the NY Philharmonic, was first broadcast to theatres.  It has since been made available on DVD.
But we forgive a lot when Sondheim is involved, and this particular production was led by Neil Patrick Harris, who can do no wrong in these pages.  The song below is one of the more well-known of the tunes from Company, though you'll never hear a recording star cover it. 
Company's Bobby has a one-night stand with stewardess
April.  Or is it June?

It's a perfect example of the way Sondheim's songs tell complete stories;  like so many other of his compositions, it resembles a one-act play more than a showstopping standard.  And while it's unlikely this tune will ever turn up on a pop star's latest offering, it surely shows up in musical theatre performance classes, as it offers the performers a great opportunity to display both acting and vocal talents.  Christina Hendricks's vocal talents are not particularly strong here, but she gets points for effort.  Happy Birthday!