Sondheim

In 1966, ABC decided to try to change its image. It had a reputation for dumb shows with scantily-clad women and car chases. Someone at the network decided they were going to prove they could do quality, too. Thus was born a weekly series called ABC Stage ’67. Its first broadcast was a film version of a John le Carré story, Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn starring James Mason. Later high points included A Christmas Memory adapted from a Truman Capote story starring Geraldine Page (it became a perennial) and Sam Peckinpah’s adaptation of Katharine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine starring Jason Robards, Olivia de Havilland and Theodore Bikel.

Stage ’67 attempted some musicals, too, including efforts by Bock and Harnick, Comden, Green and Styne, and Bacharach and David. None of these was up to the best of their creators’ work. But one of the musicals was a preview of some terrific coming attractions.

On Wednesday, November 16, 1966, I was sixteen years old, sitting in my bedroom in Evanston, Illinois, watching the new episode of Stage ’67 on my portable color TV set. Anthony Perkins played a poet who sang about withdrawing from the real world to live in a department store. He would hide by day, and have the store as his private domain by night. (Except it turned out not to be his private domain.) Based on a short story by John Collier, Evening Primrose featured a script by James Goldman and a score by someone whose name was familiar to me as the lyricist of West Side Story and Gypsy. (I didn’t know A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. My parents didn’t take me to that, probably because they didn’t want to have to explain to me what a courtesan was.)
The opening song for the poet was, “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here.” Four bars in, I remember vividly that my skin started to tingle. This felt new. The person who wrote this – a guy named Stephen Sondheim – was someone I was determined to follow.

In 1967, I moved to New York to attend NYU. Also, when I turned 18, I was invited by Lehman Engel to join his BMI Musical Theater Workshop as a composer-lyricist. (Yes, I used to write music. Quite a lot of it, actually. Till I realized many people did it better.) In 1971, I also was invited to join a songwriting class that Paul Simon ran at NYU.
Though my home was in musical theater, Paul Simon and Laura Nyro were my pop songwriting gods, and I was thrilled to be in Simon’s class. But it was apparent he didn’t share my enthusiasm for musical theater. I asked him what his problem with the form was. “Well, they’re talking, they’re talking, they’re talking. Then they’re singing.” “So?” I said. And he said, “So where does the music come from?” And I replied it was a formal convention, like, ya know, poetry in some of Shakespeare’s plays. “No,” he said, “if I ever write a musical, there will be a big radio onstage, and whenever it’s time to sing, they’ll turn on the radio.” I decided not to pursue the subject.

Then came the news that Company was going to open on Broadway. This was going to be the first thing from that composer-lyricist of Evening Primrose since the broadcast that had so excited me. I heard rumor that Company, which featured a book by George Furth and direction by Hal Prince, was going to revolutionize musical theater. I told Simon that there might be something in the show that would expand his thoughts on musicals. I was the theater critic for the NYU paper and I had a pair of press sets for the second night. I asked Simon if he wanted to join me. He said yes.

And he stood me up. There was an empty seat on the aisle next to me through a show that more than lived up to its advance report. I had never seen a musical that had moved and challenged me so. At the next class, I asked Simon what had happened. He shrugged, “Something came up.” I told him I thought he had missed something important. The idea didn’t seem to bother him. (In 2010, the New York Times Book Review asked Simon to write a review of Sondheim’s book, Finishing the Hat. Presumably he had made Company’s acquaintance in the meantime.)

Some years later, Simon did indeed attempt a musical. In 1998, a show for which he wrote the score, The Capeman, opened on Broadway. My wife asked, “What are you looking for?” “The radio,” I said, and I told her about the conversation. But there was no radio on the stage. “Ah,” I said to her, “He’s learned something.” And fifteen minutes later, I had to add, “But not enough.” Simon was and is a musical genius, but he hadn’t realized what so many of us find out the hard way when we write musicals: if your show is built on a central character, that character shouldn’t be passive. They should be a pile-driver willing to do almost anything to achieve their desire. Simon could have learned from Pseudolus, Mama Rose, Sweeney, Desiree, Fosca and all those seekers in Into the Woods.

Anyway, back to Company … In Lehman Engel’s musical theater class, we knew this was the revolution. A show that took place in an instant in the mind of its leading character and was framed as an argument within himself as to the pros and cons of living a life committed to another person. Maybe the closest thing to this had been the circus sequence in Lady in the Dark, but that had been one sequence, and Company sustained a whole evening, sometimes (as in the case of his three old girlfriends) having people sing together who don’t even know each other. If Company’s immediate antecedent, Cabaret, had been a war between a revue (the Kit Kat songs) and a conventional book musical, Company figured out a way to blend the two aspects of Cabaret into one. The next Sondheim-Prince show, Follies (with a book by James Goldman), would again marry the revue format with characterizations of psychological depth. We in Lehman Engel’s class saw things we could borrow, adapt and, yes, steal. One of my classmates in the workshop was Edward Kleban, who, as lyricist of A Chorus Line, decided much of what would be sung and why in a show whose shape was a surreal audition. Donna McKechnie, who was in both Company and A Chorus Line, told me that, as A Chorus Line was being developed, the innovations of Company constantly served as an inspiration and a challenge for its creators.

I don’t remember the exact date (1971 or ’72) or the specifics, but I do remember that somebody organized a panel in a private dining room in the Sardi’s building at which musical theater writers were scheduled to speak. Sondheim was going to be one of them. I got myself into the room on some pretext. After the panel, I approached him and asked, “Whatever happened to Evening Primrose?” He gave me a startled look and said, “You can’t remember that.” And I started to sing, “Take Me to the World.” He said, “What’s your address?” I gave it to him and, within a week, an acetate of the score of Evening Primrose arrived in the mail. (If you don’t know what an acetate is, that’s why Google was invented. This was before any of the songs from Primrose had been rediscovered in retrospectives.)

I was beginning to stick my toe into the theater world as opportunities arose. I was commissioned to create a one-act musical for a radio project, and so I wrote the music and libretto (there was very little dialogue) of a half-hour piece based on an American folk tale called Wicked John and the Devil, a story about how a blacksmith gets so mean that, when he dies, the devil, to avoid competition, refuses to allow him into Hell. Instead, the devil passes a burning coal out to John and says, “Here, old man, you go start a Hell of your own.” An opportunity came to put the piece up on a bill in New York with pieces by other people. It was being presented in an off-off-Broadway theater on West 51st Street, and I was playing the piano. As one performance was about to begin, I looked into the audience and saw Sondheim. He had opened a pad.

The show over, he signaled me. “Let’s grab a bite.” We went to the Haymarket, a modest restaurant on Eighth Avenue, and he took out the pad and proceeded to ask me questions. Sometimes I answered the questions confidently, and sometimes I hedged. He pressed me when I hedged. He himself didn’t make a single critical statement, but, through the Socratic method, made me face where the show’s weaknesses were. (I remember he confessed that the subject matter – folk and fairy tales and such – generally wasn’t something he took to. I thought of that when I saw Into the Woods and guessed that James Lapine had figured out a way to make him care.)

And then came talk. He mentioned that some critics had kept telling him that writing memorable tunes was not something he had a gift for, so the fact that, after hearing the song once (plus a reprise) in 1966, I could sing “Take Me to the World” to him that day in Sardi’s had made him happy.

And he talked about Jule Styne and Gypsy. He said that Styne had next to no ego about his music. If Styne did a setting of a lyric that Sondheim wasn’t thrilled about, Styne would say, “It’s gone,” and he’d write something else. “The score,” Sondheim said, “is made up of the tunes I said yes to.” He recognized a lot of the tunes he rejected in later Styne shows.

One morning, he said, he got a call from a friend who said, “I’m enjoying the cast album.” Sondheim replied, “What are you talking about? We haven’t released the cast album yet.” “Oh yeah?” said the friend, and put a needle down on a record. Through the telephone, Sondheim heard the melody of “You’ll Never Get Away From Me.” It was a tune from the album of a 1957 TV musical called The Ruggles of Red Gap for which Styne had composed the music. The lyric began, “I’m in pursuit of happiness / Cuz the Constitution says / I’m entitled to.” Sondheim confessed to being a little pissed about that.

I had been hired by Otis L. Guernsey, Jr. to keep an eye on off-off-Broadway for the Best Plays annual, and, in 1973, in a theater above a shoe store on the upper west side, I saw a play that overwhelmed me called The Hot L Baltimore. It led to my interviewing Lanford Wilson for Newsday. Lanford and I became friends. Also that season, Sondheim’s newest score was heard in A Little Night Music (book by Hugh Wheeler, direction again by Prince). I learned that Sondheim and Wilson had never met. I also learned that they were coming on the same night to off-off-Broadway to see Terrence McNally’s Whiskey, a show for which I had been drafted to play organ. (I don’t claim to play organ competently, but they had no money to hire anybody competent. They had no money at all. They got what they didn’t pay for.) I suggested the three of us go out for a drink after.

It was an intoxicating evening for a theater-mad 23-year-old. I was sitting in Joe Allen’s at the same table with the composer-lyricist of my favorite musical of the year and the writer of my favorite play of the year. I had the fantasy that they would hit it off and collaborate on a new great American musical. They did indeed get along, but as far as I know, neither entertained the idea of a collaboration. (Lanford was also jazzed from the evening, though. Afterward, he and I walked down to our apartments in Greenwich Village. He talked about writing the libretto for an opera version of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke for composer Lee Hoiby, and he sang chunks of the score on the street. A greatly gifted writer, his talents did not extend to singing.)

Sondheim and I were both members of the Council of the Dramatists Guild (he was a very good president of the Guild for several years), and that gave us the excuse to work together a little and meet at Guild events. At one Guild party, I saw him and Edward Albee chatting in a corner, and I wondered if they were comparing horrific mothers.

I never entered the circle of friends that were invited to the dinners and the parties and such. But, as email entered our lives, we started a correspondence mostly centering on arcane film and TV tastes. A few examples:

I was a fan of the 2007 Danish suspense series, The Killing, that at the time was not available in the States. He heard that I had figured out a way to get my hands on it. An email: “All right, Sweet, what can I swap you for it?” I mentioned the BBC broadcast of the Donmar Warehouse production of Company. A messenger dropped off and picked up discs we had burned for each other. This was the beginning of a series of swaps and follow-up email discussions. I mentioned I had just seen and was knocked out by Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point, and he wrote, “Well, I guess I have to let you into the club.” It turned out it was one of his favorite lesser-known movies. In the old days of VHS machines, he had recorded it off the air and had made a small mission of sharing it with those he thought would appreciate it.

When Pacific Overtures was produced at CSC, he wanted my take. I told him that the show had a special hold on me because I’m fascinated by stories about relationships made and destroyed by history. This turned out to be a theme he was especially interested in, and he shot off a list of films on the subject for me to watch, and he followed up regularly to check on what progress I was making.

More recently, I saw a film written and produced by my friend Howard Reich called For the Left Hand about a man named Norman Malone who, when he was ten, had been so viciously attacked by his father that his right hand was useless. Malone’s passion for music was such that he was determined to make a career in it despite his situation. He became an inspirational choir director in a Chicago public school. And he sought out material written for pianists who played only with the left hand. It turned out that an Austrian pianist named Paul Wittgenstein had lost the use of his right hand in WWI and had commissioned a piano concerto for the left hand from Maurice Ravel. Malone practiced the Ravel obsessively for years. The documentary climaxes with Malone, at age 79, making his concert debut playing it with a Connecticut orchestra. As I watched the movie, I thought, hmm, 1) vicious parent, 2) inspirational teacher and 3) Maurice Ravel. Who does this remind me of?

Sondheim’s mother was notoriously monstrous (she once told him she regretted giving birth to him). He spent much of his life celebrating and supporting inspirational teachers and was one himself. And he loved Ravel. So I dropped him a line. A quick response. Yes, he wanted to see the film very much. Did I know he had written his thesis about Ravel? And was there any way I could get a copy to him as his streaming wasn’t working so he couldn’t watch it via the PBS service. I contacted Howard Reich, and Howard burned a disc and sent it to him a couple of weeks ago. I was waiting to hear Sondheim’s thoughts on the film. I don’t know if he got around to seeing it.

A few years after Mike Nichols died, a book comprised of his friends’ stories about him was published called Life Isn’t Everything. (It serves as a happy supplement to Mark Harris’s excellent biography.) I hope someone emulates Life Isn’t Everything and puts out a volume of Sondheim stories. There must be thousands of good ones.

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Review: “Morning’s at Seven”

Paul Osborn’s Morning’s at Seven (playing at St. Clement’s) is the most James Thurberish play I know and it isn’t by Thurber. Some people are charmed by Thurber. Some are immune. (Some have no idea who he was.) I am charmed.  It’s an ensemble piece in which all of the parts are rewarding to play, and they are played by an ensemble that includes more than a few stars who know how to support each other (Lindsay Crouse, Dan Lauria, Alma Cuervo, John Rubinstein and Tony Roberts among them). I think the accomplishment of creating so many characters whom we get to know and follow has been underestimated by some of the current critics. As a playwright, I know how damn hard it is to put that many distinct people on the stage and keep them all alive.

This strikes me as a comedy of scale. By that I mean that the controversies and issues in the characters’ lives are mostly small by the audience’s standards, but because the characters’ lives themselves are small, what we might see as molehills loom to them like mountains. I don’t want to spoil surprises in the story, but I find it hilarious that the resolution of the plot ends up hinging on how much it would cost to install an extra bathroom. From this one factor, a series of decisions are triggered that restore peace to this little enclave.

If this sounds whimsical, I suppose it is. And if your taste doesn’t run to whimsey, maybe the play isn’t for you. But there is a toughness under the surface which suggests that (despite the old saying) for some, the unexamined life is a blessing, because sometimes, if you examine yours too rigorously, you discover what is lacking.  And that you can’t do a fucking thing about it.

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Review: “The Visitor”

For about the first half of its 90-minute running time, The Visitor, the new musical playing at the Public Theater based on Tom McCarthy’s 2007 film, works very nicely indeed. Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey’s script effectively translates McCarthy’s screenplay to the stage with understated encounters and the songs Yorkey (as lyricist) wrote with composer Tom Kitt are smartly-targeted. When I saw it, I was drawn to the characters and their unusual dynamic and felt I was in confident hands for the evening. And then, halfway through, for me the show got lost.

Walter, a depressed economics professor who has not recovered from the death of his classical pianist wife, has been hiding at a Connecticut college teaching the same stuff he’s taught endlessly for years, a kind of living death. Forced because of campus politics to attend a conference in Manhattan, he goes to the apartment in which he and his wife used to live (and he still owns) and finds a man and a woman – illegal immigrants – living there under the impression they have legitimately sublet the place. They’ve been ripped off by a crook, of course, but something about them makes Walter go from trying to expel them to inviting them to remain as his guests. The man, Tarek, is a musician who plays a drum based in middle eastern rhythms, and he begins to teach Walter how to cut loose on the drum himself. And his guests begin to introduce him to communities of immigrants he had barely noticed and never encountered or engaged before. And then Tarek gets arrested and the government starts the machinery to deport him.

And that’s when the show goes wrong. The story stops moving forward because Walter, for all of his desire to help Tarek, finds that he has no power to do anything. Without the ability to change Tarek’s situation, the show has largely run out of dramatic options to explore.  Even the arrival of Tarek’s mother can’t help much because all he can do is acknowledge to her his inability to do much of anything except say things he hopes will be of comfort.

So, without much action to depict, the rest of the playing time is mostly filled by having its characters sing songs either about their pasts or about what they feel now.

I’m going to repeat something I’ve written before: I find that the audience generally has limited patience with characters talking about their pasts. We go to the theater to see what choices characters are going to make. As long as choice is alive onstage, we are engaged. But extended passages in the past tense tend to lose us. No choices can be made in the past. The choices of the past have already been made so, usually, there is little if any tension or suspense in the presentation of stuff that has happened. (The exception is when our new awareness of the past causes us to reevaluate the characters and their options in the present.) So the songs in which the characters in The Visitor describe their pasts in detail bog the show down.

Similarly, musical theater songs tend to work best not when people are explaining how they feel but when they are dealing with something that causes us in the audience to figure out how they must feel. In My Fair Lady, Liza doesn’t sing, “Dancing with him I knew that I was falling in love” (which would be disastrous).  She sings, “I’ll never know what made it so exciting/Why all at once my heart took flight.” And the audience goes, “Uh, we have a theory.” Prompting the audience to theorize about the characters’ emotions is what keep us invested in the show. If the emotions are explained, we in the audience become passive, uninvolved.

The Visitor builds to Walter’s big song of rage about how horrible the indifference to the suffering of others is. Where have “the better angels of our nature” gone? David Hyde Pierce sings the song with admirable passion and gets a hand, but the song–explaining his feelings and expressing his outrage–doesn’t work. At the end of the film, when Walter takes to playing the drums in the subway, we understand the fury of his playing is motivated by his rage as to what has happened to his friends and his inability to help them. The drum speaks what he cannot say. In the musical, he has spent a fair amount of time trying to say or sing it, so the final moment of his playing the drum is robbed of its meaning and power.

A number of people commenting on the show have criticized it because they have said it adheres to the “white savior” trope which many find noxious. I think this misapprehends the show. Part of the point of The Visitor is that, for all of his desire to help, Walter is incapable of actually doing anything. He is not a white savior for he is, in fact, unable to save anybody. Yes, he is able to hire an immigration attorney, but the lawyer turns out to be of no assistance at all. What the action of the story teaches Walter is that, faced with the callousness of the US government policy on undocumented aliens in this country, his privilege is of no consequence.

I value the first half of the show and am sorry the gifted writers and director Daniel Sullivan did not lick the second half.  I do think it is fixable, but my thoughts on how to approach the problems don’t belong here.  If you see me in a diner, I’ll be glad to discuss them over a cup of coffee.

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Fairycakes, Thoughts of a Colored Man, Chicken and Biscuits

It could be that, after months of having to watch actors in two dimensions on screens, I am so grateful to be in the company of life-sized human beings that I’m in a glass half-full mode. I have seen a few plays recently that I think fall short, but I was grateful for them because of performances I would not have wanted to miss.

A lot of the press has noted that Douglas Carter Beane’s Fairycakes bears more than a passing resemblance to the Sondheim-Lapine musical, Into the Woods. Both mash up fairy tales, though Beane adds A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the mix. I miss the aspect of Midsummer that I have always found most intriguing: during the night, three distinct communities that ordinarily have nothing to do with each other – the aristocrats, the fairy world and the rude mechanicals – interact with each other intimately. By eliminating Midsummer’s aristocrats and rude mechanicals, much of the point of the play seems to me to be gone. (Beane might well say that, by adding Elizabeth I and a wood-carver into the mix, other communities are represented, though, in my opinion, not to similar effect.) The plot is wispy to the point of evaporation. Mostly Beane seems to be looking to have easy fun with anachronisms and topical jokes coming out of the mouths of classic characters. Jay Ward’s “Fractured Fairytale” cartoons used to accomplish much the same thing, and they ran under six minutes.

But. Jackie Hoffman. Julie Halston. Ann Harada. Kristolyn Lloyd. There is enough meat on Beane’s spare ribs for each of these performers to make meals of. Jackie Hoffman standing flat-footed in a tutu taking a stab at magical gestures (when she’d just as soon stab an olive with a toothpick) is enough to put me away for minutes. Julie Halston’s joy in being fully present lifts my heart. (Sometimes watching her react to others is more interesting than what she is reacting to.) Ann Harada has a matter-of-fact wryness and a commendable willingness to be a good sport. And Kristolyn Lloyd sings so beautifully that one can almost miss how cheerfully she subverts the conventions of leading lady tropes. When the material itself isn’t engaging, Gregory Gale’s costumes reward detailed examination, including the various ways he has supplied much of the cast with wings. Beane has written better plays. I trust he will write better plays in the future. If this evening feels like minor work from him, I was happy to have the company he assembled.

Douglas Lyons’s Chicken and Biscuits promises a couple of hours of family bickering culminating in a group hug. And that’s pretty much what it delivers. The patriarch, a minister, has died, and family members gather for the memorial presided over by the son-in-law who is taking over his post. Some unsurprising secrets come out, and there is the usual quota of low-grade insult humor familiar from decades of watching sitcoms. Again, for me, the pleasure was in watching performers make the most out of material that didn’t challenge them much. Norm Lewis radiates ease as the new minister. Ebony Marshall-Oliver and Cleo King spar as battling sisters in rhythms so familiar that you have to resist the impulse to sing along. With fresh memories of watching Michael Urie in Gogol and Fierstein, it’s a little disappointing to see him hemmed in by the conventions of the gay Jewish boyfriend, but he’ll be back in something more satisfying soon, and in the meantime he lands some solid laughs. A search engine informs me that it was Muriel Spark who wrote the line (for her sniffy character Miss Jean Brodie), “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.” Well, for those who like watching archetypes of Black comedy tag familiar bases, the evening will be enjoyable. The audience I was with made clear they were having a very good time indeed.

The audience at Keenan Scott II’s Thoughts of a Colored Man was also enthusiastic, often breaking into applause in reaction to specific lines or at the end of passages. I share their enthusiasm for the cast and about three-quarters of the text. The play depicts one day in the lives of seven Black men in a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Scott is at his best when being specific – either in monologues or in ensemble scenes set in a barbershop. He has a talent for illuminating the individual perspectives and philosophies of characters he intends to reflect a range of experiences. I had problems with him identifying them not with concrete names but with qualities – Lust, Wisdom, Depression, Love, etc. These characters are too rich to be labeled so reductively. Rather than letting the audience respond to the best of his material with our own feelings and theories, Scott insists on explicitly articulating the themes he wants to make sure we’ve apprehended. I think he should have trusted us more. I hope in his future plays he will ditch the overt editorializing and allow his gifts as a dramatist full expression. Even so, Thoughts of a Colored Man is more stimulating than Fairycakes and Chickens and Biscuits. Like them, it offers a platform for a company of gifted performers, but the best of it reaches for and frequently achieves more.

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What I’m Trying to Do Here

For something like thirty years, I had the luxury of writing a column for Dramatics, a magazine put out by the Educational Theater Association. The primary audience was high school kids enrolled in drama programs. It was a terrific gig. I generally wrote six pieces a year, so, unlike other critics, I wasn’t under pressure to cover everything. I was spared the obligation to pan shows that other critics had already dealt with (though, occasionally, I was able to speak up for work I thought had been misunderstood or treated unfairly). I focused on what I thought might be most useful for teenagers interested in what was going on in the theater but not living within easy reach of New York or Chicago. My editors gave me free rein to write about what excited or challenged me.

And then covid hit. Dramatics is in the process of transforming into something else and I can only assume that someone thought, “Gee, if he’s been writing for us for thirty years, doesn’t that make him kind of old to be writing for a young audience?” I got a note thanking me for my years of service and that the new editors were going to rethink the coverage.

To which I can only respond, yeah, I see their point.

Except, I keep going to theater and I keep having thoughts I want to share about what I see. And I believe the fact that I have been going to (and making) theater for more than fifty years makes it possible for me to discuss current work within a useful awareness of work and artists that laid the foundations of what we’re seeing today. So here I am at “Making the Scene.”

Also, I also read constantly and watch a lot on various screens, large and small, and what I read and watch enters into a dialogue with what I see onstage, so I allow myself the license to discuss non-theatrical works. It’s all story-telling.

I’m pleased if you find this blog useful or stimulating (or annoying in a good way). Please drop a line if you want to add a thought or discuss something. I enjoy conversation as much as story-telling.

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“Deep in My Heart”–Stanley Donen and Sigmund Romberg

Some years ago, I was at a memorial for a friend who had appeared at the Compass in Chicago. I saw a man standing to the side looking a bit perturbed. Elaine May was attending the memorial and, putting two and two together, I realized who he must be and took a stab at why he might be perturbed. So I went over and said, “I enjoyed the interview with you on TCM, Mr. Donen.” He gave me a look that I interpreted as “Finally!” The folks in the room were largely from the world of improv and, though I assume most of them would have recognized his name, his wasn’t a face that a lot of people would know.

Anyway, I told him (truthfully) that he had made some of my favorite films (Singin’ in the Rain, Charade, Bedazzled, Two for the Road), and he allowed as how this gratified him.

I can’t say that Deep in My Heart (1954) would be on my list, but doing a little reading about him I’m guessing it was pretty far down on his list, too.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t aspects that I enjoyed, particularly a series of musical numbers with guest stars.

Gene Kelly and his brother Fred do a razz-ma-tazz song called “I Love to Go Swimmin’ with Wimmen” which makes no sense, but is notable because it’s the only footage we have of them dancing together. The two of them were big deals in dance circles as kids in Pittsburgh, and then Gene’s career took off. Fred chose not to follow his brother to Hollywood (though Gene would sometimes consult him when he choreographed) but mostly worked behind the scenes in nightclubs and television and coached young hopefuls (including a kid named John Travolta). Fred also was once spirited into Buckingham Palace where he taught princesses Elizabeth and Margaret a routine with which they surprised their family. According to his New York Times obit, when there was a royal screening of An American in Paris, the thing that most excited Elizabeth when she met Gene was that he was Fred’s brother.

Anne Miller has a flashy number (of course she does) and Cyd Charisse and James Mitchell dance a sinuous duet to the music from The Desert Song. The choreography for the film’s numbers are credited to Eugene Loring, who also choreographed Billy the Kid, a ballet for which Aaron Copland wrote a memorable score.

The music in Deep in My Heart is pretty far from Copland – Sigmund Romberg. The film is ostensibly a biography of Romberg, though Jose Ferrer doesn’t look much like photos I’ve seen of the operetta composer. One hopes that Romberg was unlike Ferrer in other respects because Ferrer plays him as someone who is almost relentlessly obnoxious. (The script by Leonard Spigelgass is no help.) Ferrer gets to sing and dance a little, and he’s not bad. His best number is a duet with Rosemary Clooney (to whom he was married at the time) called “Mr. and Mrs.”  Perhaps the most horrifying thing in the film is an extended number in which Romberg is auditioning a musical he’s writing for Al Jolson which includes a song called “Fat Fat Fatima” and features a depiction of Arabs which has him slapping mud on his face à la Jolson in blackface. At one point, Romberg stops the routine and quickly does a summary of the story so far, a bit which strongly resembles “Betrayed,” the number Mel Brooks wrote for Max Bialystock in The Producers.  (Not that I would dream of suggesting that Brooks ever borrows from anyone else.)

I’m trying to think if I’ve ever seen a film biography (as opposed to a documentary) of a composer–popular or classical–which wasn’t wildly inaccurate and utter hooey. Any suggestions, anybody?

There’s a short scene toward the end of the film featuring a young couple who get no billing in the credits. They are played by Russ Tamblyn and Susan Luckey. Tamblyn would have a breakthrough a few years later in Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Luckey would have her big gig as Zaneeta (“Ye Gods!”) Shinn in the film version of The Music Man.

OK, that checks off another Donen movie from the to-watch list. I can’t imagine watching it again.

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Thoughts Triggered by “Next Stop, Greenwich Village”

I’ve been working on a revised edition of Something Wonderful Right Away, my oral history of the founding and early days of Second City. It was originally published in 1978 and, inevitably, many of the people I interviewed for the book are no longer with us. (For that matter, the kid in his twenties who wrote the book is no longer with me.)

I have vivid memories of the circumstances of most of the conversations, though, and many of the voices are clear in my ear. Some of the people I talked to–Paul Sills, Mike Nichols, Barbara Harris, Del Close, Severn Darden, Avery Schreiber, Mark and Bobbi Gordon, and Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara–became friends and stayed in my life till they passed. Others I encountered only on the day I interviewed them for the book.

One I encountered only once was Paul Mazursky, whose connection to Second City was that he appeared in the cast that replaced the original cast after playing a pre-Broadway tryout in Los Angeles. Improvisation and the improvisational community stayed with him, though. As he told me, much of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice was based on improvisations he and co-writer Larry Tucker did over a tape recorder one weekend. (This is also why so many of the scenes in the film are two-handers.)

After the smash success of his directorial debut with Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, Mazursky faced the challenge of coming up with a follow-up project. So he made a film about the challenge of coming up with a follow-up project, Alex in Wonderland. Donald Sutherland plays Alex Morrison, Mazursky’s stand-in, and much of the action involves him trying to cope with sudden success. It has an effect on his marriage, of course. It also has an effect on his dealings with his mother.

Mazursky’s daughter Meg played Alex’s daughter. According to a book-length interview Mazursky did with Sam Wasson, Paul on Mazursky, the director considered hiring his mother Jean to play herself. Jean apparently didn’t work for the camera, so he had to look elsewhere for someone to play Mrs. Morrison. In a fit of inspiration, he cast Viola Spolin.

Viola Spolin, of course, was the inventor of theater games and pretty much the catalyst for the improvisational theater movement. (Her son, Paul Sills, co-created The Compass and Second City and the story theater format. A previously-unpublished conversation I had with her will appear in the new edition of Something Wonderful.) When she was young, Viola had ventured to New York in the hope of acting with the Group Theater. That hadn’t happened, so she returned to Chicago and started the work that helped transform American theater, film and television.

Apparently, Mazursky’s mom didn’t appreciate the film or Viola’s performance in it. She thought she deserved to be played by a star. Who the hell was this Viola dame? (Mazursky says his mother even threatened to sue him.)

I think Viola is very good in the film. I particularly enjoy a dream sequence set in a circus in which– dressed in a showgirl costume, wearing a tiara and riding a plumed white horse–she gives her son shit, saying Fellini calls her more than he does.

Mazursky depicted his mother again. This time, yes, he used a star. Shelley Winters. His mother was dead by then. If she hadn’t been, she probably would have threatened to sue him again. Though the portrait Winters offers is essentially sympathetic, one could see why the son Lenny Baker plays, Larry Lapinsky, would want to flee Brooklyn and his childhood apartment for Greenwich Village. She is loud, needy, intrusive, frequently embarrassing.

The film is Next Stop, Greenwich Village. Released in 1976, it is Mazursky’s account of what it was like for him as an aspiring young actor in the Village of the 1950s. It had particular resonance for me because, though I arrived in the Village in 1967, much of what he depicted (including many of the buildings) was still around me when I was getting started as an aspiring young writer.

I’m not going to venture into much analysis here. I gather my friend Michael Feingold, by coincidence, is working on his own piece about the film, and I expect to learn much from him (as I usually do from a Feingold piece). I just thought I’d pass along a few things I picked up in doing some background reading.

One is that the obnoxious wannabe writer Christopher Walken plays is based on Howard Sackler, who, though he was Mazursky’s friend, couldn’t resist hitting on the women Mazursky was dating. (Or is that because he was Mazursky’s friend?) Sackler went on to write a couple of early films for Stanley Kubrick, won a Pulitzer Prize for The Great White Hope, co-authored the screenplay for Peter Bogdanovich’s underestimated Saint Jack and was the originator of the famous monologue Robert Shaw gives on the boat in Jaws. (John Milius and Robert Shaw contributed, too, but Spielberg has confirmed that the idea for the speech was Sackler’s.) The fictionalized portrait of Sackler in the film is not complimentary, but Mazursky and Walken make him a compelling character.

I was also amused by a passage in which actors were comparing their teachers. There’s mention of Sandy and Lee. At one point, Larry refers to studying with Herbert. One of the others comments that Herbert talks a lot. I had to laugh. Here’s the story …

Herbert was Herbert Berghof, co-founder (with his wife Uta Hagen) of HB Studios. One day I got a call from him. Mike Nichols had been scheduled to give a seminar but had a conflict. Apparently Mike had suggested Herbert get me to fill in and do a session on the roots of improvisational theater. So I told Herbert that I would be honored. I arrived and Herbert got up to introduce me. And he never stopped. He lapsed into memories of European theater during the war and went on and on. The time ran out and I never said a word. Yes, Herbert talked a lot.

Mazursky would later cast Herbert as one of Art Carney’s left-wing Upper West Side friends in Harry and Tonto.

Also visible in the film (if you look quickly) are Bill Murray (with a mustache and one line) and John Ford Noonan, who was a popular off-off-Broadway playwright of the time.

Three women in the cast are particularly striking. For those who know Lois Smith only from her astonishing later work (hooray for her recent Tony Award!), she’s remarkable as a young woman who flirts with self-destruction. Dori Brenner is so moving as the most empathetic of the gang that I wanted to reach out more than 40 years later and congratulate her on her performance; I was saddened to learn that she died in 2000. (Michael Feingold tells me he had the pleasure of working with her in the Yale Cabaret.) And then there’s Ellen Greene, playing one of Mazursky’s signature complicated postwar women. Today, we know her mostly for her iconic performance as Audrey in the musical The Little Shop of Horrors, but her work in Greenwich Village attests to her considerable dramatic shops.

Next Stop, Greenwich Village is not perfect. There are some clumsy and obvious scenes, and, though Lenny Baker is charming as the young Mazursky, the film leaves the question of whether he has any talent as an actor very much open to question. I was intrigued by its resemblance to another Mazursky film, Moscow on the Hudson. In that, a Russian musician named Vladimir Ivanoff, visiting New York with a circus (another Mazursky circus reference), impulsively defects in Bloomingdale’s. He ends up making a new life in New York, surrounding himself with a new family of friends (mostly also immigrants to New York). It occurs to me that the Greenwich Village of the 1950s is almost as alien a land to young Larry Lapinski as the United States is to Vladimir.

By the way, I think Moscow on the Hudson (which features my favorite Robin Williams performance as Vlad) is one of Mazursky’s best. But then I think Mazursky was one of our most underrated directors.

OK, now I want to read what Michael Feingold has to say.

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Returning to the Scene

To be simultaneously separated by masks (I wear two) and joined in responding with laughter with hundreds of others is to experience the contradictions of going to the theater these days.  Of course, you can’t see the mouths, but maybe you see someone’s eyebrows dance or a tiny backward jerk of the head. 

In olden times, it was not unusual for me to see somewhere between 120 and 150 shows a year. The pandemic turned me (and countless others) into virtual audience. I wolfed down the streaming offerings from the National Theater, The Globe and Canada’s Stratford Festival and sought out TV and film versions of plays sitting in my DVD collection and on my hard drive that I had not gotten around to. Some of these videos filled in gaps in my background. (Stratford’s Coriolanus, directed by Robert LePage and the National’s Jane Eyre, Barbershop Chronicles and Cherry Orchard were particular treats.) Comedy didn’t play as well (except for the Bridge Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Nicholas Hytner, which was staged on platforms that moved about amid standing audiences surrounding them, also streamed by the National); I was startled to find myself laughing outloud alone. (I usually don’t do this unless I discover I’ve made a stupid mistake.)

Now I’m almost back to a familiar schedule of theater-going. The good news is that most of what I’m seeing is worth the effort.

I’ve already written about my admiration for Sanctuary City by Martyna Majok. The other play that excited me (which alas has ended its run), was Richard Nelson’s What Happened?

I have known Richard slightly since we had one-acts on the same bill at the Arena Stage in Washington in 1977. Mine was Porch, a small-scale, naturalistic drama set in a small town about a young woman who visits the father she’s had a rocky relationship with as he is about to go into the hospital for a chancy operation. The play was an attempt to relate their personal story to larger changes happening in society as young women were going to the city to reinvent themselves. Richard’s piece was a monologue called Scooping and it featured a young Jay O. Sanders as a reporter who was losing his grip on reality.

So, here we are, more than four decades later, and Richard has spent the last several years working with Jay again (and Jay’s brilliant wife Maryann Plunkett) on a cycle of plays about three families based in the small town of Rhinebeck. And he, too, has been relating his characters’ personal stories to larger changes happening in society. (And no, I am not suggesting that he has been remotely influenced by Porch.) Together, the Rhinebeck plays offer a remarkable record of what articulate white Americans discussed over their dinner tables from 2010 to today. Richard has been candid about his desire to avoid many of the conventions of traditional naturalistic drama. There were few raised voices and he generated little suspense as to what choices the characters would make. Mostly, the various families mused on what to make of where their personal ambitions and the changing social tides had landed them. Some playgoers missed those dramatic elements, but the best of the plays offered a rare sense of intimacy.

What Happened? is the twelfth of these plays, and it differs from the others in that it is not set in Rhinebeck but features members of the Michaels family in a town in France that is host to a modern dance center. The family used to be headed by Rose Michael, a prominent choreographer. She appeared in an earlier play, Conversations in Difficult Times, facing the end of her life. In this play, the characters are those she has left behind after succumbing to COVID – her daughter, the woman she married just before she died, her ex-husband and his second wife, and women who danced in her company. Covid looms in the background, but even as the response to the virus has divided the larger community, Rose’s death brings these people together.

The play awakens to particular life when Rose’s daughter, Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell), recreates dances her mother choreographed, including a piece she dances with her cousin May that is a comic take on the courtship of her parents. Rose is gone, but she lives again in Lucy’s dance. Indeed, the past relationship between Rose and her ex-husband, David (played by Jay), lives again as he watches the loving portrait of his younger self.

I have generally admired and learned from Richard’s work over the years. This is the first time it has nearly moved me to tears.

Incidentally, a choreographer friend of mine tells me that the play is extraordinarily accurate about the dance world and about key events and people to which the script refers. (The choreography is adapted from work by Dan Wagoner, and my friend says the show does the work honor.)

What else?

Starring Ruben Santiago-Hudson (who also wrote and directed), Lakawanna Blues is his solo evocation of growing up in a Black enclave in an upstate New York town in the 1950s. Moment to moment, the performance and the material are vivid and engaging, but there is a disturbing undercurrent to the evening. Though the presentation seems to suggest he intends this to be a sentimental look at the world in which his adopted mother, Nanny, served as heart and conscience, most of the stories he shares center on the abuse of women by their husbands and lovers; there are few positive images of people at work and play.  This is hardly the celebration of the resilience of community I think some audiences anticipate. Santiago-Hudson’s performance itself is joyous, offsetting the grimness of much of the narrative.

And then there’s a small new off-Broadway musical called A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet by Ben Fankhauser and Alex Wyse who also play fictional versions of themselves as a songwriting team who have been commissioned to write said jingle for the singer named in the title. The premise is pretty rickety and the script is filled with familiar humor about the perils of collaboration. The main reason to see the show is Bryonha Marie Parham. In 2017, Parham was featured in Prince of Broadway, a retrospective Hal Prince put together of his career directing musicals. Parham performed excerpts from Show Boat, Cabaret and She Loves Me, making such distinct and specific choices as Queenie, Sally Bowles and Amalia that she put me in mind of that great chameleon of Broadway, Donna Murphy. As Regina Comet, she plays a boisterous diva and confirms her star quality. I look forward to seeing her in hardier vehicles. A few of the songs in the score suggest that Fankhauser and Wyse have the potential to move on to more substantial work.

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Review: “Sanctuary City”

Movie trailers today mostly are constructed the same way – a line or two of characters yelling or a violent incident quick cuts to another violent incident or line or two of characters yelling. And accompanying each cut is a loud thudding or whomping sound designed to jolt the audience to attention. Using these noises for transition is a cheap, annoying device. It is all the more annoying in the theater.

The first 50 minutes or so Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City is made up of short scenes between the two leading characters. Frequently the exchanges last only a matter of seconds and then we are abruptly moved to another time, another scene, another mood. Each of these moves is punctuated with a dramatic change in lighting and movie-style audio punctuation. The lighting shifts work nicely. The thuds and whomps feel like overkill. Especially in the service of a play that doesn’t need artificial punctuation to jolt us to attention.

Two high school friends – a girl and a boy (we aren’t given full names; they’re listed as G and B in the program) – are in this country illegally. (We never learn what their home countries were.) Along with their mothers, both try to avoid attracting attention from authorities who could deport them. His mother decides to return home, leaving him to try to fend for himself earning lousy money under the table. She has a stroke of luck; her mother becomes a naturalized citizen and, because she is not yet eighteen, she is automatically naturalized as well. Because she is “legal,” she can begin to go to college on a scholarship. Though he, too, should go to college, his circumstances keep him trapped, continuing the crap job and avoiding deportation.

There’s another wrinkle. He’s gay and the play takes place years before naturalization through gay marriage in the US becomes possible. She can protect him from deportation by marrying him, but that means creating a fictional life that would have to bear up to investigation by suspicious authorities. (If caught, they could be jailed or fined.) And then there are other circumstances to consider …

I won’t say more about the plot. But the last chunk of the play switches gears from changing scenes every few seconds to a sustained, meaty confrontation in which the boy (played by Jasai Chase-Owens) and the girl (Sharlene Cruz) and a third character (Austin Smith) try to sort out their complicated relationship. Director Rebecca Frecknall has given the play a muscular staging, doing particularly subtle work in guiding Chase-Owens and Cruz through the years when the passing time changes their body language.

Everyday we seem to have fresh news about how federal and state laws are written to restrict the options of both citizens and non-citizens (options which may be further restricted because of race and class). Though it’s set more than a decade ago, Majok has written a potent and timely play about how these laws can play out in the lives of people invisible to much of society. Given the gifted cast and the virtuoso staging, I don’t think the thuds and whomps are necessary for the play’s impact, but I suggest the rewards of the evening are worth putting up with them.

A New York Theater Workshop production at the Lucille Lortel Theater.

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“People on Sunday”–a film of pre-Nazi Berlin

Have started reading Joseph McBride’s new book, Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge, which naturally led to my watching People on Sunday, a silent film co-directed by Robert Siodmak and Edgar Ulmer (with assists from Curt Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann and Wilder). The easy summary is that it’s mostly about four young people on a sunny day before the Nazis have taken over. It’s worth noting that that the Siodmaks, Ulmer, Wilder and Zinnemann were all Jewish and, having collaborated on this vision of a golden moment in Berlin, were soon to flee to America where they would all find employment (and make a number of classics) in Hollywood.

The heart of the film is a betrayal. A young man meets a young woman on the street and arranges a date with her in a park. She shows up with a blonde friend and he shows up with a friend as well. The young man shifts his attentions to the blonde friend, wanders off with her. Apparently, they have sex in the woods (this is implicit). The young woman suspects something has happened but doesn’t know what to do about it. The four get back to the city. The blonde friend is up for a repeat the following Sunday, but after the young man makes the date, his friend reminds him they have tickets for a soccer match at the same time as the date. Will the young man choose to keep the date or go to the soccer match? The film ends without an answer. But the fact that there is room to speculate says something about the fecklessness of youth, yes?

There is some disagreement about how much Wilder contributed to the script. God knows his later films are filled with betrayals.

Though the bulk of the attention is given to the four, the film also pays a good deal of attention to the activities of others in the park, so the four are seen within the context of the variety of ways Berliners diverted themselves.

I doubt you’re surprised when I say that I couldn’t help wondering about what became of these crowds of frolicking Berliners during the nightmare of the next 20 years. Who would collaborate with the Nazis, who would be persecuted, who would die in a rotten cause, who would die in a heroic cause, who would survive with honor, who with guilt?

Also, there is a lot of footage of the streets of Berlin, and photos of the town in 1945 attest to the likelihood that few of the blocks seen bustling with shoppers and strollers in the film still stood 15 years later. Watching the film with a knowledge of what was to come lends a poignance to the gaiety onscreen.

According to Wikipedia, the producers of Babylon Berlin ran the film for the company to give them a taste of the demolished world they were going to revive in the series.

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