Without sequins

In today’s Wall Street Journal I review two Broadway shows, Sting’s The Last Ship and a revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Neither is up to scratch. Here’s an excerpt.

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tn-500_jm0318rthecastofthelastshipphotobyjoanmarcus.jpg.pagespeed.ce.GKpXtzcU6FWith “The Last Ship,” Sting becomes the latest sexagenarian rock star to try his hand at writing a Broadway musical—and the latest to blow it. Not that he didn’t have help galore from John Logan and Brian Yorkey, who have weighed him down with a stinker of a book. Nevertheless, his own mistakes merit careful consideration, if only in the hope of preventing other novices from galumphing down the same road to artistic ruin.

First, though, the book. As soon as the phrase “An industry dies” is uttered some 15 seconds into “The Last Ship,” you know everything that will happen for the next two-and-a-half hours: (A) Obsolescent factory (in this case, a shipyard) goes belly-up. (B) Angry workers join hands to reopen it, thereby (C) regaining their manhood. It is, in other words, the Universal British Plot, in this case meaning “Kinky Boots” minus sequins.

When you start out with clichés, you usually end up with them, and Messrs. Logan (“Red”) and Yorkey (“If/Then”) let ‘em fly throughout….

The anodyne pop-rock music of “The Last Ship,” which began life as an album-length song cycle, sounds like an anthology of B-sides—no, better make that C-sides. As for the lyrics, they are, predictably enough, dramatically inert: None of them tells you anything you don’t already know about the characters or the plot, meaning that this “ship” loses its momentum, goes dead in the water and starts to sink whenever anyone strikes up a tune….

The Roundabout Theatre Company is giving “The Real Thing,” Tom Stoppard’s stingingly truthful portrait of modern marriage and its discontents, its third Broadway outing in as many decades. That’s not too often, but only if the revivals are out of the ordinary, and Sam Gold’s lackluster staging fails to rise to the occasion.

Real-Thing-Broadway-Play-Group-Sales-Tickets-2-102214It happens that “The Real Thing” was done extraordinarily well at Chicago’s Writers’ Theatre in a standard-setting 2011 production directed by Michael Halberstam and starring Carrie Coon, with whom, thanks to “Gone Girl” and “The Leftovers,” the rest of America is now catching up. Maggie Gyllenhaal is playing the same role in New York—it is, surprisingly, her Broadway debut—but she doesn’t make anything like the same who-is-this-amazing-woman impression as did Ms. Coon. Also in the cast are Ewan McGregor (another Broadway debutant) and Cynthia Nixon, both of whom, like Ms. Gyllenhall, give performances that are forced and over-emphatic. Moreover, the overall pacing of the show is sluggish: “The Real Thing” demands a light, deceptively casual-sounding touch, and doesn’t get it.

Could it be that the production is getting in the way of the actors? Mr. Gold is an intelligent, imaginative interventionist who at his frequent best sheds sharp raking light on the plays that he stages. Here, though, his “innovations,” such as they are, have the meretricious smack of arbitrary cleverness…

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To read my review of The Last Ship, go here.

To read my review of The Real Thing, go here.

A scene from Writers’ Theatre’s 2011 revival of The Real Thing, starring Carrie Coon:

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Almanac: Aldous Huxley on aestheticism

INK BOTTLE“Where beauty is worshiped for beauty’s sake as a goddess, independent of and superior to morality and philosophy, the most horrible putrefaction is apt to set in. The lives of the aesthetes are the far from edifying commentary on the religion of beauty.”

Aldous Huxley, “The Substitutes for Religion”

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So you want to see a show?

Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, virtually all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
BxwClM8CIAA3kJLLove Letters (drama, PG-13, closes Feb. 1, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
This Is Our Youth (drama, PG-13, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)

The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

Indian Ink (drama, PG-13, closes Nov. 30, reviewed here)

American Buffalo (drama, PG-13, closes Nov. 8, reviewed here)

The Country House (drama, PG-13, closes Nov. 9, reviewed here)

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Snapshot: Flatt and Scruggs perform “Salty Dog Blues”

TV CAMERALester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys perform “Salty Dog Blues” on an undated telecast. The other members of the band are Paul Warren on fiddle, Josh Graves on dobro, Curly Seckler on mandolin, and Jake Turlock on bass:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Almanac: J.M. Barrie on charm

INK BOTTLE“If you have it, you don’t need to have anything else; and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t much matter what else you have. Some women, the few, have charm for all; and most have charm for one. But some have charm for none.”

J.M. Barrie, What Every Woman Knows

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Ten moments of pure musical joy

10. The moment toward the end of the overture to Gypsy when the first trumpet in the pit band starts screaming on the strip music. Everybody in the audience on opening night in 1959 must have known right then that the show was going to be a hit.

9. The finale of Ravel’s A Minor Trio. It always makes me think of fireworks in the sky.

PICT02858. The way Nancy LaMott sings the line “New Jersey gives us glue” on her record of Rhode Island Is Famous for You.

7. The chorus of The Weight. Enough said?

6. The coda of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture. When the violins take off, so do I.

5. The “piccolo solo” from Vladimir Horowitz’s piano transcription of Stars and Stripes Forever. Even if you only play a little bit of piano, you know this is the coolest thing in the world. And no, he didn’t overdub it. He didn’t have to.

4. From The Who Live at Leeds, the power chords at the end of Pete Townshend’s guitar solo on Shakin’ All Over.

3. Every second of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture, from start to finish.

2. Freddie Green’s rhythm-guitar strumming on the original Count Basie-Joe Williams cover version of Every Day I Have the Blues. If it doesn’t make you pat your foot, check to make sure you’ve got one.

And here’s my number-one moment of pure musical joy:

1. The end of the fugue that is the climax of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. When the brass comes in playing Purcell’s theme in major instead of minor, I always tear up.

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Lookback: on supplying (and declining to supply) dust-jacket blurbs

LOOKBACKFrom 2004:

Not that multiple requests for blurbs clutter my mailbox each morning, but I am asked to supply quotes fairly frequently, occasionally from friends and colleagues, more often from publicists and authors I don’t know. Every time I open such a letter, I remember the wise words of an editor of mine who once assured me in a moment of candor that blurbs don’t sell books. “You know who they’re really for?” she added. “Our own salespeople. We use blurbs to convince them that our books are worth selling.”

A sobering thought, that….

Read the whole thing here.

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Answer came there none

I’m in Waco, Texas, where I’ll be giving a lecture called “Ambassador Satch: Louis Armstrong, Jazz, and International Relations” tonight at Baylor University. On Saturday morning, by way of contrast, I gave a very different lecture called “Whit Stillman’s Secret” as part of “Faith and Film,” a “symposium on faith and culture” organized by Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning. (Baylor, a private Baptist university with well over 15,000 students, describes itself as “a preeminent research university that is unambiguously Christian,” and it takes every part of that description seriously.)

After spending nearly an hour fielding sharp, smart questions from the audience, I went to a screening and panel discussion of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, which I saw for the first time two months ago in the company of Mrs. T. It came out in 1989, by which time I’d grown to dislike most of Allen’s work intensely and so was no longer going out of my way to see his new films. I watched it two months ago because it happened to be on TV, and I was curious to find out whether I had done Allen an injustice, especially seeing as how the film is much admired by people whose judgment I take seriously.

ActAllenCrimesMisdemeanorsWhat struck me most forcibly about Crimes and Misdemeanors on first viewing was the way in which Allen portrays his own character’s relationship with his on-screen niece, a child who is dressed in the style of an adult and whom his character treats as an adult, to the point of making confessions to her about his love life that are—to put it very, very mildly—inappropriate. It would be an understatement to say that I didn’t find these scenes any more palatable in Waco. In fact, I went so far as to refer to the film as “an esoteric confession” in the post-screening discussion, a statement that no one in the room, not even Allen’s avowed admirers, made haste to criticize.

That said, I paid more attention the second time around to the main plot line of Crimes and Misdemeanors, whose protagonist is a well-to-do New York ophthalmologist (brilliantly played by Martin Landau) who has his mistress murdered when she threatens to break up his marriage by revealing their affair to his wife. The point of the film is that Landau’s character gets away with it, which proves to him that there is no God and that human life thus has no meaning beyond that with which human beings endow it by their freely chosen actions. Yes, it’s more complicated than that, but not much more, and while Allen portrays Landau’s moral struggles en route to this conclusion with impressive cinematic skill, the film’s jejune denouement put me in mind of a bright teenager who has just looked up the word “nihilism” in the encyclopedia and is eager to use it in a sentence.

B01vfEFCEAA9eyKIn the evening I saw Horton Foote’s Tender Mercies, which was shot not far from Waco in 1982 and was shown on Saturday at the First Baptist Church, an edifice at once grandiose and homey which was built in 1906 and whose sanctuary, where we saw the film, is big enough to seat three thousand people. After the screening, Bruce Beresford, the director, took questions from the audience, in the process proving himself to be both charming and (as befits an Aussie) thoroughly down to earth.

Tender Mercies is one of Foote’s supreme creative achievements, one of only two movies that I know—the other is Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me—that portray American small-town life with perfect honesty and complete sympathy. No small part of its excellence inheres in the way that he shows us the importance of the part played by religion in the daily lives of his three principal characters. This matters all the more because the subject of Tender Mercies is the regenerative power of love. Mac Sledge (played no less brilliantly by Robert Duvall) is a down-and-out country singer whose marriage and career have been destroyed by alcohol. He makes his way to a motel in rural Texas that is owned by Rosa Lee, a young widow whom he marries and whose steadfast love inspires him to stop drinking, accept his diminished lot, be baptized, and devote himself wholly to his new wife and her son.

Mac’s resolve is tested severely when he learns that his daughter, whom he has seen only once in the lean years since his divorce, has died in a car crash. After he returns from her funeral in Nashville, he makes the following speech to Rosa Lee:

I was almost killed once in a car accident. I was drunk and I ran off the side of the road and I turned over four times. They took me out of that car for dead, but I lived. And I prayed last night to know why I lived and she died, but I got no answer to my prayers. I still don’t know why she died and I lived. I don’t know the answer to nothing. Not a blessed thing. I don’t know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk and you took me in and pitied me and helped me to straighten out and married me. Why, why did this happen? Is there a reason that happened? And Sonny’s daddy died in the war. My daughter killed in an automobile accident. Why? You see, I don’t trust happiness. I never did, I never will.

tendermercies-regularfolkThis is a beautiful and powerful speech, especially as delivered by Duvall, but when parsed it hints rather more than casually at a view of the world not far removed from that of Crimes and Misdemeanors, which is that life is pandemonium. And the only “answer” given by Foote to Mac’s anguished question comes in the next and final scene, in which we watch him playing catch with his stepson while the boy’s mother looks on. Here again Foote appears to be in close concord with Allen in suggesting that the sole meaning of life accessible to human beings is that with which they themselves endow it by choosing to cleave to one another. Yet the denouement of Tender Mercies, unlike that of Crimes and Misdemeanors, is the furthest thing from jejune.

Why is this so? My own feeling, for what it’s worth, is that Crimes and Misdemeanors is too reductively explicit to support the weight of its parable-like moralizing, whereas Foote is content to let the viewer come to his own conclusions about the ambiguous last scene of Tender Mercies, which makes no assertions of any kind. Not so Allen’s film, whose last scene leaves us in no possible doubt (save in the minds of interpretation-happy academics) of what he takes to be its precise meaning, which he has since spelled out to interviewers on numerous occasions.

Whatever the reason, I found it both fascinating and profitable, not to mention enjoyable, to watch Crimes and Misdemeanors and Tender Mercies in a single day. I doubt I’ll ever bother to see Allen’s film again, though. I got it the first time, and it isn’t artful enough to repay repeated viewing. On the other hand, I’m sure I’ve seen Tender Mercies at least a half-dozen times, and I expect I’ll see it a half-dozen more times between now and…well, whatever. Unlike Crimes and Misdemeanors, Tender Mercies is a great work of art, which means, among other things, that it lets you make up your own mind about what it means. That’s one of the reasons why it can be seen with profit again and again: you may not come up with the same answer next time.

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The final scene of Crimes and Misdemeanors:

A scene from Tender Mercies:

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