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December 29, 2006

TT: The middle of the journey

I return to business as usual in this week's Wall Street Journal, reviewing the second part of Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia and the Broadway transfer of Spring Awakening:

Here's a how-de-do: "The Coast of Utopia," Tom Stoppard's triptych of heavyweight history plays about the 19th-century Russian revolutionaries who struck the match that set the modern world on fire, has become fashionable Manhattan's must-see show. The second installment, "Shipwreck," is now alternating in repertory with "Voyage" at Lincoln Center ("Salvage" opens Feb. 15). These plays are the inverse of light entertainment: they're long, structurally complex and bristling with ideas. Yet the combined weekly box-office gross for "The Coast of Utopia" is right up there alongside "Jersey Boys" and "The Lion King." As the saying goes, there's no accounting for taste--not even the good kind.

If anything I just said causes you to suspect that "The Coast of Utopia" is the theatrical equivalent of "A Brief History of Time," that least read of best sellers, let me correct this misapprehension at once: "Voyage" and "Shipwreck" are pure theater, fueled by ideas but propelled by the combined force of high drama and resplendent language. Even if you know nothing of the historical figures on whom Mr. Stoppard's characters are based, you'll be pulled irresistibly into the maelstrom of their crowded lives--and riveted by the tale of how their idealism bore bitter fruit....

"Spring Awakening," the trendiest show of the 2006-07 season, has transferred to Broadway from the Atlantic Theater, slightly revised but otherwise intact. Most of my critical colleagues shrieked with joy when it opened, but I didn't agree with them in June and don't after a second viewing: I still think this glammed-up rock 'n' roll version of Frank Wedekind's once-shocking 1891 play about puberty in Wilhelmine Germany is all wrapping and no present....

No free link, so get thee to a newsstand and buy a copy of this morning's paper, or go thee hence to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you then-and-there access to my review, plus the rest of the Journal's weekend arts report, which is (A) extensive and (B) not for rich people only. (If you're already a subscriber, the column is here.)

Posted December 29, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Since certainty is unattainable, entertainment value is the only justification for conversation."

Tom Stoppard, Undiscovered Country

Posted December 29, 12:00 PM

December 28, 2006

TT: Family album

One of my mother's most treasured heirlooms is a copy of the second edition of Our Baby's First Seven Years, the "baby book" in which she set down the particulars of my early childhood. I flipped through its yellowed pages yesterday, and as I set out on the longish three-leg trip (two hours by land, two at the airport in St. Louis, three in the sky) from Smalltown, U.S.A., back to New York City, it occurs to me that you might be amused by some of what I found there.

The book itself, which is still in print, is a period piece of no small cultural interest. Originally published in 1928 by the Mothers' Aid of the Chicago Lying-In Hospital, it's a sober-sided volume that has been drastically revised several times since the second edition of 1941, whose foreword contains the kind of language no longer spoken in polite company:

A baby's book should contain a great deal more than a mere record of worldly events affecting the new candidate for citizenship. It should have all the delicate and lovely sentiments attached to the birth and beginnings of life of the new individual, but it should include more than this. It should be a record showing the gradual physical and spiritual development of the body and soul....

A record of all the phenomena which transpire during these years will have a value that grows with time, and increases greatly with the number of babies upon whom such observations are made. For example, a study of 1000 baby books such as this, carefully filled out, will give valuable information in every department of medicine, will guide the teacher, the physical culturists, the eugenist, and the statesman, in their broad efforts to improve the race, as well as the physician in the treatment of the individual case.

Fortunately, my mother never got around to turning her copy of Our Baby's First Seven Years over to her friendly neighborhood eugenist. Instead, she kept it for me, having filled it to the brim with photographs, relics, and unscientific data inscribed in her neat, round hand.

The first item is a picture of me taken at ten-fifteen on the evening of February 6, 1956, thirty minutes after I was born. I weighed eight pounds and one-and-a-half ounces, and had the same broad nose and full lips that are my most prominent features a half-century later. My period of gestation was "uneventful," my birth "normal," my behavior "quiet." A bill taped into the book reveals that Southeast Missouri Hospital of Cape Girardeau charged my parents $134.27 ($926.20 in today's dollars) for the privilege of bringing me into the world.

"Beginning at nine months," my mother wrote a few pages later, "he adores television commercials. Will not move or take his eyes from the screen." At eleven months I could stand up, and on January 18, 1957, I took my first unaided steps. A year and three days after that I spoke my first complete sentence: "Give me some milk, please." On the next page, my mother made the following note: "By two years old Terry could say anything." Later on she recorded an anecdote reminiscent of a scene from Our Town:

Terry was saying his prayers in Nov. 1959. He said, "And God bless Terry Teachout, 308 Powers St., Smalltown, Mo." I said, "Why do you say all that, Terry?" He said, "I just thought God ought to have my address, too."

I liked music, too: not only could I sing such simple ditties as "Camptown Races," "Jesus Loves Me," and "Jingle Bells," but my parents had given me a small record player of my own. Then as now, I made the most of it:

Terry listens with concentration to all "serious" music, claps and laughs to gay music. Would listen to records for hours....Listens for an hour or so after nap every day at his insistence of "I'll hear records, please."

The printed word followed shortly thereafter. I taught myself to read at three, and within a year I could read "almost anything, all childrens' books, signs, even newspapers with the exception of difficult proper names." I was tested upon entering the first grade and was found to be "reading on sixth grade level."

At this point the entries start to dry up, for my brother was born in 1960 and my parents would be increasingly preoccupied with him. The last handwritten entry in the book is a notation on the "Second Grade" page: "I think Terry did far better socially this year."

That was the year when John Kennedy was assassinated and the Beatles came to the United States, the earliest events of which I have clear and extensive first-hand memories untainted by retrospective family anecdotage. Before then I can recall only isolated flashes and fragments. Starting in 1963, the veil of unknowing was lifted, and the task of preserving the story of my life passed from my mother to me.

Posted December 28, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

BROADWAY:
- Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
- A Chorus Line* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
- Company* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter and situations, reviewed here)
- The Drowsy Chaperone (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
- The Vertical Hour* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Apr. 1)
- Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too intellectually complex to be suitable for children of any age, reviewed here, extended through May 12)

OFF BROADWAY:
- The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
- Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
- Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Jan. 28)
- The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Feb. 10)

CLOSING SOON:
- Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here, closes Jan. 14)

CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:
- Antigone (play, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Saturday)
- The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Sunday)

Posted December 28, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Age is a very high price to pay for maturity."

Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Posted December 28, 12:00 PM

December 27, 2006

TT: Shame, R.I.P.

I've been rereading my mother's battered copy of Advise and Consent, Allen Drury's 1959 novel about a Senate confirmation hearing and its aftermath. I regret to say that I was more than a little bit snarky about Drury in an essay about Washington novels that I wrote for the New York Times Book Review back in 1995. The occasion for the piece was his last novel, A Thing of State, which wasn't very good:

Mr. Drury is still up to his familiar tricks: bad guys in the Middle East, bad guys in the White House, bad guys in the Washington press corps (the only thing Mr. Drury hates more than a wimpy politician is a liberal columnist), all simmering gently in a rich stew of adjectives.

That essay riled Drury so much that he sent me a sharply worded letter. It embarrasses me in retrospect, though not because I now believe Advise and Consent to be an unheralded masterpiece. It is, in fact, a quintessential example of the plot-heavy blockbuster novel, massively eventful and heavily laden with characters wearing primary-color hats. So far as I know, next to nobody under the age of fifty has even heard of the book, which has been out of print for years.

On the other hand, just about everyone older than that is likely either to have read Advise and Consent (it was on the best-seller lists for nearly two years) or seen Otto Preminger's 1962 film version. As Peggy Noonan wrote in What I Saw at the Revolution, her 1990 memoir of the Reagan years, all the baby boomers in the Reagan White House "had read Advise and Consent and at least one other of Allen Drury's wonderful old novels about Washington. We had read them in the Sixties, when we were young, and they were part of the reason we were here."

I, too, read Advise and Consent when I was young, and find myself returning to it every few years, not because it's a great novel, or even a good one, but because it is a hugely entertaining good-bad book that fills me with nostalgia. (Nor am I unique in this regard, as you can see by going here.) I looked up my old essay on Drury and the Washington novel the other day, and found in it an explanation of why this should be so:

Unlike his more recent predecessors, Allen Drury was not a novelist de metier: he started out as a Washington correspondent. And "Advise and Consent," the story of a confirmation fight that leads to the suicide of a senator, the resignation of a majority leader and the death of a President, is very much a reporter's novel, full of the inside skinny. Some of Mr. Drury's senators drink too much and sleep around; some remain in loveless marriages to further their political careers; one, a promising young Mormon from Utah, has a homosexual past. (Tony Kushner, call your office.) Like all clubmen, they mostly like one another and mostly get along, and not infrequently strike private deals that have nothing to do with party politics.

If all this sounds old hat, bear in mind that Mr. Drury was writing long before Politics as Life Style became an obsession of American journalists. When he came along, nobody was covering Washington politicians as personalities, at least not with anything remotely approaching candor. C-Span and the Style section of The Washington Post were far in the future. Yet the appetite for personality journalism about politicians had already been created by radio and television: all that remained was to feed it. Mr. Drury did so with a vengeance, and thereby became rich, famous, and the proud owner of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

"Advise and Consent" also sold because, like all big-selling novels, it told its readers what they wanted to hear. In 1959, Americans were digging fallout shelters and watching Nikita Khrushchev cavort menacingly on TV. They saw the Soviet Union as a concrete threat to their continued existence, and wanted desperately to believe that American politicians, whatever their differences, were collectively up to the task of keeping the Russians on ice. The containment of the Soviet Union is the only ideological issue at stake in "Advise and Consent": every character is defined by whether or not he is soft on Communism. And though there are villains in Mr. Drury's Washington, never is it suggested for a moment that every politician is a liar and a thief. In fact, nearly all of his characters seek earnestly to do the right thing: "Just when things seem at their most cynical, something comes along that appeals to idealism and fair play, and the forces of deceit go down before it like tenpins."

These sentiments were decidedly in vogue in 1959. Never was public faith in government's capacity to do good as unswerving as in the ask-not-what era, in which the man who won World War II was succeeded by Mr. PT-109....

Ah, youth!

I should add, however, that something else has changed since 1959. Advise and Consent hinges on the suicide of a married senator whose wartime affair with a serviceman is about to be revealed by a political columnist. It isn't generally known, but this plot element was loosely based on the real-life story of Lester C. Hunt, a Democratic senator from Wyoming who shot himself in his Capitol office in 1954.

Here's what happened, according to Hunt's Wikipedia entry:

Hunt was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948, taking office on January 3, 1949. During his tenure in the Senate, Hunt became a bitter enemy of Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, and his criticism of McCarthy's anticommunist tactics marked him as a prime target in the 1954 election.

Leading up to the 1954 election, Republicans held a Senate majority of one vote, and pressured Hunt to resign from the Senate. Republican Senator Styles Bridges warned Hunt that unless he withdrew, Wyoming voters would find out about the arrest of Hunt's twenty-year-old son for soliciting prostitution from a male undercover police officer in Lafayette Square in July 1953. After some vacillation, Hunt announced that he would not seek reelection on June 8, 1954. Eleven days later, he shot himself in his Senate office.

One significant detail is missing from this dry account: Hunt's son was president of the student body of the Episcopal Theological School of Cambridge. That would have upped the humiliation ante considerably in 1954--but what about now? Can you seriously imagine a senator, or any other public figure, commiting suicide under similar circumstances today? In fact, let's take it one step further: can you think of any secret so shameful that a contemporary public figure would rather die than face the consequences of its becoming known? I can't.

Interestingly--if not incidentally--Allen Drury was both a staunch conservative and a lifelong bachelor. So far as I know, he never had anything to say for public consumption on the radical change in American mores that took place between the publication of Advise and Consent and his death in 1998 at the age of eighty. Given the fact that he portrayed Brigham Anderson, the senator who commits suicide in Advise and Consent, as a man of high integrity, I'd venture to guess that his views might have been worth hearing.

I offer in evidence a passage in which Senator Anderson reflects on his marital difficulties:

Searching his heart and mind with complete and unsparing honesty about it now, he knew with absolute certainty that the situation they were in could have happened, and indeed did happen, to many and many a marriage; it had nothing to do with ghosts from the past, though he never denied their importance to his life. He was a good father a good if temporarily troubled husband, a good servant, a good Senator, and a good man; and central to all this, in a way he understood thoroughly in his own nature, was the episode in Honolulu....

For all its pain, and for all that it was not exactly the sort of thing you would want to discuss in Salt Lake City, he did not regret that it had happened. There were things he had to find out about himself; the war, as it did for so many, furnished the crucible, and in it that episode had probably been the single most illuminating episode of all. He could not honestly say he was sorry; his only sorrow was that fate had ended it so hurtfully for them both instead of allowing the war to send them apart again as calmly and simply and inevitably as it had brought them together.

Again, I'm not going to try to tell you that Advise and Consent is any better than it is--but in how many best-selling American novels of the Fifties can you find a passage remotely like that? No doubt somebody will get around to writing a dissertation on it one of these days....

Posted December 27, 12:10 PM

TT: Almanac

"It's no trick loving somebody at their best. Love is loving them at their worst."

Tom Stoppard, The Real Thing

Posted December 27, 12:00 PM

December 26, 2006

TT: Crossroads

I lost my mother in Wal-Mart last Friday. This sounds less like a true-life event than the first line of the sort of song you might hear on the radio in Smalltown, U.S.A., but it really happened. I dropped her off at the entrance, and as she closed the car door she said, "I'll meet you inside." No sooner had I driven off to find a parking place than it struck me that she hadn't said where she'd meet me. Since the Smalltown Wal-Mart is roughly the size of a football field or two, I realized that I had a problem on my hands.

I started pushing my way through the hordes of shoppers, searching for a septuagenarian with a shopping cart. I ran into three people who knew me, but none of them had seen my mother. After spending ten minutes vainly wandering up and down the aisles, I gave up, went to the service desk, and had her paged. "EVELYN TEACHOUT, PLEASE MEET YOUR SON AT THE FITTING ROOMS," the pretty young woman at the counter said into a microphone, her soft voice electronically inflated into a Paul Bunyan-like bellow.

My mother showed up a few minutes later, pushing a cart full of presents and wondering what all the fuss was about. I reminded her of the last time I'd had her paged. It was during a childhood trip to the SEMO District Fair in Cape Girardeau, where I somehow managed to slip away from my parents and strike out on my own. Within minutes I knew I'd made a big mistake, and a sympathetic passer-by escorted me to the security desk, where I identified myself and asked for help. That was more than forty years ago, but my mother still tells the tale with the utmost relish at family gatherings. Now I've got one to tell on her.

After I collected my wandering parent, we headed over to the grocery department to pick up a few staples. Suddenly I heard my cell phone ringing. It was my agent, calling from New York to inquire about the progress of our current project.

"Do you know where I am?" I asked him. "I'm standing with my mother in the mayonnaise section of the Smalltown Wal-Mart."

"Uh, that's nice," he replied warily.

I rarely have occasion to take long-distance calls while shopping in Smalltown, and this one reminded me of the feeling of disorientation that comes over me whenever I uproot myself from my hectic life in New York to spend a few days visiting my family. I felt much the same way on Christmas morning as I read this e-mail from a Manhattan friend:

new york is 1963 quiet. traffic is very light, sidewalks walkable and restaurants have a certain solitude. their muffled sound reminded me of the automats of the 1960s, when eating spaces were filled only with the low buzz of conversation and clinking plates rather than blaring iPod mixes and the crush of bellowing suburban laughter. no wonder people could think back then. new york just feels less bombarded by everything this past week, the pace cut in half. stood at a red light and watched a woman across the street buy a christmas tree at about 10 p.m. and wondered why and how presents could get under there in time. or perhaps it was a jaded soul who finally broke down after hearing bing, dino or ella in barnes & noble. it was a relatively small one, slightly larger than she was, and she had to put it down once mid broadway while crossing to re-adjust the weight. almost as if the tree was giving her a hard time for her delay.

I've lived in New York for twenty years, but I've only spent a single Christmas there. One year when I was working at the Daily News, I drew the short straw and had to put out the Christmas and New Year's Day editorial pages, meaning that I couldn't make it home for the holidays. (I went to New York City Ballet's Nutcracker instead.) Otherwise, I've always gone home to Smalltown, and been glad to do so.

Alas, the boisterous Christmas-eve parties of my mother's extended family are no more, for three of her five siblings have died and most of my cousins moved away from this part of the country long ago. Now my brother, his wife, their daughter, and her boyfriend come to my mother's house on Christmas morning to eat brunch and open presents. It's not nearly so noisy a celebration, but it's still a good one.

I haven't been keeping up with events in the outside world, but I do know that James Brown and Daniel Pinkham died. I can't claim to have been saddened by Brown's passing--he was never a favorite of mine--though it didn't escape my notice that he died of congestive heart failure, the same disease that struck me down last year. Pinkham's music, on the other hand, has always given me great pleasure, especially the Christmas Cantata he composed in 1957. I sang in a performance of that elegant little piece back when I was in college, half a lifetime ago, and I'm listening to it as I write these words on Christmas night, seated at a rickety card table set up in the bedroom in which I slept as a boy.

I sat in this same room a year ago and reflected on the illness that days before had come close to taking my life:

I already knew one thing that was at least as important: whatever the verdict, I wasn't going to give up without a fight. I have music to hear, plays to review, paintings to see, etchings to buy and treasure, a book to finish writing, a blog to keep, dozens of friends who claim quite convincingly to love me, and many, many memories, a few dark and desperate, far more full of light.

I lived instead of dying, and now I'm back home again, remembering Christmases past and giving humble thanks for the myriad blessings whose sum is my existence. Some are as deceptively small as a ten-minute cantata, others as unimaginably vast as the Missouri sky, but all are subsumed in the haunting words of Alexander Herzen that I quoted the other day: "Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have." If Herzen was right, then I am the richest of men.

UPDATE: Here's a sweet little tribute to Daniel Pinkham from a bass trombonist who has played his Christmas Cantata dozens of times and has yet to grow tired of it.

Posted December 26, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is."

Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

Posted December 26, 12:00 PM

December 25, 2006

TT: Almanac

"There are many things I know which are not verifiable but nobody can tell me I don't know them."

Tom Stoppard, Jumpers

Posted December 25, 12:00 PM

December 22, 2006

TT: Through for the night

One of the minor ironies of my job is that in order to take time off, I have to see shows in advance and stockpile columns to be published in my absence, meaning that I usually end up spending good-sized chunks of my holidays recovering from the spasms of overwork that make them possible. In the five days preceding my trip from New York to Smalltown, U.S.A., for instance, I saw four shows, filed three Wall Street Journal columns and a Commentary essay, and caught a cold. On Wednesday I went to bed at two and arose at five-thirty, and by three o'clock that afternoon I was knocking on my mother's back door halfway across the country, suitcase in hand. I slept for ten hours that night and took a two-hour nap the following day, after which I felt like myself again, more or less.

Outside of sleeping, I haven't done much since I got here. My mother and I watched Cool Hand Luke and To Have and Have Not and took a drive around town to look at the Christmas lights. I check my e-mail from time to time, but it isn't easy to surf the Web with a dialup connection nowadays, so instead I've been watching The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, which is a bit like listening to a kindergarten teacher from an upper-middle-class suburb cheerily reading horror stories out loud to her class.

I've finished one of the books I brought with me to Smalltown, a dullish biography of Tom Stoppard, and now am trying to decide whether to read myself to sleep with Bleak House, Fathers and Sons, or Master and Commander. I need to make up my mind pretty soon, for it's drawing close to midnight and my eyelids are growing heavy. The only sounds I can hear are the soft whir of my iBook, the flickering whisper of rain on the rooftop, and an out-of-tune train whistle wailing in the distance. All my pieces are written, all my shows seen. For the moment, the rest of my life can take care of itself.

Posted December 22, 12:00 PM

TT: All the land's a stage

In place of the usual reviews, I've devoted this morning's Wall Street Journal drama column to a retrospective look at the best American theater of 2006:

One of the things I've learned about American theater since becoming the Journal's drama critic three years ago is that it stretches from sea to shining sea. Yes, Broadway is where the money is, but most of the best shows in America are to be found Off Broadway or out of town. I reviewed plays in 14 states and the District of Columbia during 2006, and saw good things nearly everywhere I went. For those who thrill to the inexplicable, irreplaceable magic of live theater, those are truly glad tidings.

Unadventurous playgoers who stick to the well-worn rut that runs between 42nd and 54th Streets in Manhattan have a way of forgetting that there is often (if not always) an inverse relationship between the artistic quality of a play and the size of its production budget. Among the most pleasing shows I saw in 2006, for instance, were four revivals, three Off Broadway and one in Chicago, produced by vest-pocket companies that between them didn't have a quarter to spare on frills or furbelows....

No free link, so to find out what they were, and much, much more, pick up a copy of the Friday paper. (Believe me, you can afford it.) Alternatively, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you immediate access to my review, plus the rest of the Journal's end-of-the-year wrapup of the cultural highlights of 2006. (If you're already a subscriber, the column is here.)

Posted December 22, 12:00 PM

TT: Composer in the background

The Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting Franz Waxman: Music for the Cinema, a month-long 21-film retrospective of the work of the man who scored Sunset Boulevard, Rebecca, The Bride of Frankenstein, and hundreds of other golden-age Hollywood films.

Though Waxman won two Oscars (for Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun) and is ranked at least as highly as Erich Wolfgang Korngold or Max Steiner by most film-music connoisseurs, his name is much less well known to the public at large. I decided to try to do something about that--as well as to draw attention to the MoMA series--by devoting my next "Sightings" column, to be published in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, to a discussion of Waxman's work.

If that piques your interest, pick up a copy of tomorrow's Journal, where you'll find my column in the "Pursuits" section.

Posted December 22, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"A dilettantism in nature is barren and unworthy. A fop of fields is no better than his brother on Broadway."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature"

Posted December 22, 12:00 PM

December 21, 2006

TT: So you want to see a show?

Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

BROADWAY:
- Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
- A Chorus Line* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
- Company* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter and situations, reviewed here)
- The Drowsy Chaperone (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
- The Vertical Hour* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Apr. 1)
- Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too intellectually complex to be suitable for children of any age, reviewed here, extended through May 12)

OFF BROADWAY:
- The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
- Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
- Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here, closes Jan. 14)
- Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, extended through Jan. 28)
- The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, extended through Feb. 10)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK:
- Antigone (play, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Dec. 30)
- The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Dec. 31)

Posted December 21, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen. On the farm the weather was the great fact, and men's affairs went on underneath it, as the streams creep under the ice. But in Black Hawk the scene of human life was spread out shrunken and pinched, frozen down to the bare stalk."

Willa Cather, My Ántonia

Posted December 21, 12:00 PM

December 20, 2006

TT: Almanac

"Traveling takes the ink out of one's pen as well as the cash out of one's purse."

Herman Melville, letter to Evert A. Duyckinck (Dec. 2, 1849)

Posted December 20, 12:00 PM

OGIC: Runaway career

It's exactly because Matt Zoller Seitz is such a generous critic that his censure can be a wholly devastating blow--far more devastating than that of his more glib counterparts. That generosity, combined with his intelligence and taste, make his work among the most compelling criticism being written about any art form right now. Reading Seitz's review of Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, posted at The House Next Door yesterday, it's tempting to call it something along the lines of a drubbing or a takedown, but the piece is really too fine an instrument, and animated by too much good will, to merit such blunt epithets. Seitz goes out of his way to try to understand Soderbergh's choices and aims. When he calls the movie "painful," it's not with a smirk but with something like genuine sorrow for a talent gone missing. Which is not to suggest that the piece doesn't have any bite to it. But even the sharp bits have a place in the greater attempt to understand what went wrong here:

With its glancing interest in individual vs. collective guilt and its contrast of faux-Old Hollywood gloss and '70s movie degradation, The Good German seems to want to say, "The language of old Hollywood movies was an outgrowth of bourgeois American morality and the profit motive-ergo, old movie style conceals mundane and unpleasant human truths while protecting the powerful and reproducing their ideology." But what comes out is more like, "Old Hollywood movies are full of shit. Now watch this crane shot!"

Actually, the latter sounds closer than the former to a movie I'd like to see, but never mind. Seitz goes on from here to make a great point that far transcends the subjects of The Good German the fall of Steven Soderbergh, calling attention to a whole

subcategory of critics' darling that's proliferated like toadstools in the past decade, comprised of movies that foreground their influences rather than digesting them and creating something fresh. The short list includes Boogie Nights, the Psycho remake, Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven, Road to Perdition, Roman Coppola's superb and rarely-seen CQ, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Schindler's List and pretty much any Soderbergh film that's either set in the past (Kafka) or derived from an older film or films (The Underneath, Ocean's 11 and 12, Solaris). If you're up on the director's references, these sorts of films tend to be superficially interesting even if they fail to engage your emotions (or don't try to). But through the years I've gotten to the point where it's no longer enough for a movie to amuse me with its academic density and self-awareness; I also want to be moved, or at least enthralled, and the likelihood of that happening decreases in proportion to a director's tendency to quote other films rather than fully transform them.

He cites The Limey as an example of a Soberbergh movie that's "both fun and deep." Notably, The Limey was heavily influenced by John Boorman's hallucinatory, spellbinding Point Blank--enough so to be considered an homage, really, but it certainly fully digested its major influence and wrought something new. I jumped off the Soderbergh bandwagon about an hour into Ocean's Eleven myself--a movie I came to as a true believer, convinced its director could do no wrong whether he was delivering something as emotionally potent and fresh-looking as The Limey or simply stylish genre fun. Fun might be the last thing I'd call Ocean's Eleven, and I still haven't quite gotten over the letdown.

Posted December 20, 11:58 AM

OGIC: You're going to need a bigger stocking

The other day Terry offered his short list of CDs for stockings. Here are a few more ideas for you from the world of print:

- Edward P. Jones, All Aunt Hagar's Children (Amistad). A patiently beautiful book of stories with the unmistakable air of permanence about them. It's not too much to say they awed me; five months later I think almost daily about the last paragraph of the last story. My book of the year, or perhaps the decade.

- Claire Messud, The Emperor's Children (Knopf). I devoured Messud's brilliantly observed, highly companionable book in one weekend during which all my plans to leave the couch came to naught. I did not feel guilty afterward. It is or isn't "about" 9/11, but among its many revelations it reminded me ten times more palpably than anything else has of what "normal" once felt like.

- Henry Green, Living; Loving; Party-Going (Penguin) and Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (New Directions). My current reading, Green throws you straightaway into the deep end of, for instance, the intricate little society of the domestic staff in an Irish castle (Loving). While you slowly sort out relationships and plots, the strange immediacy and piquancy of the language keeps you afloat, along with (and related to) his understated exaltation of everyday experience. A new sensation.

- Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement (Chicago). Because the whole thing won't fit in a stocking, silly! But seriously, if you're feeling generous, by all means buy the whole four-volume set and stick it under the tree. Powell's twelve-novel epic can prove addictive. A friend who's approaching the end of the third movement has determined to ration the remainder, clutching onto the vain hope that he can stretch out the experience indefinitely.

Nothing else I read (for the first time around) this year affected me like these four books.

Posted December 20, 2:37 AM

December 19, 2006

TT: Packing my bags

The other night I walked into the lobby of an off-Broadway theater and ran into a woman who said to me, "Are you Terry Teachout?" I reluctantly admitted that I was. "There's something I've got to know," she said. "Where's Smalltown?"

Of course it's no secret, or at least not much of one. Among other things, I've strewn my postings from Smalltown, U.S.A., with innumerable clues to the identity of the place where I grew up, and whose name I suppress not out of the urge to conceal but in the hope that doing so will make it easier for readers who come from similarly small towns of their own to identify with my memories of the one that I still think of as my home. It pleases me to write about Smalltown as if it were Anytown, or Everytown, but if you really want to know where it is, all you have to do is ask.

Should you ask me tomorrow, your answer will come via e-mail from the place itself. I'm hitting the road first thing Wednesday morning to spend eight happy days in the bosom of my family. I expect I'll be posting a lot less during that time (at least until my sniffles dry up), though I don't plan to shut down altogether. In any case, I have clothes to fold and presents to buy, so if you'll excuse me, I'll return to my chores.

See you around.

Posted December 19, 12:00 PM

TT: My favorite Christmas records

- Bethlehem Down (Peter Warlock, recorded by the King's Singers). Poor Peter Warlock, who put out the cat and turned on the gas at the end of a turbulent, too-short life, left behind a goodly number of modern Christmas carols, of which the modally flavored "Bethlehem Down," written in 1927, is the most frequently performed and (in my opinion) the prettiest. This performance is part of an unusually wide-ranging program of carols that also includes an exquisitely sung version of Praetorius's "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen," which might just be my all-time favorite traditional carol.

- Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Tchaikovsky-Shavers, recorded by the John Kirby Sextet). I have a sweet tooth for jazzed-up classics from the swing era, and this riffy, dapper version of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" charms my socks right off.

- A Ceremony of Carols (Benjamin Britten, recorded by Osian Ellis, Sir David Willcocks, and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge). If you've never heard it, order this CD right now.

- The Christmas Song (Mel Tormé and Bob Wells, recorded by the King Cole Trio). Every jazz musician's favorite Christmas song. Nat Cole recorded it three times, once without strings and twice in this simple, elegant arrangement, whose success persuaded Capitol Records that he had a future as a balladeer. The stereo remake is the one you hear on the radio, but it's the second 1946 version with strings that I like best, in part because you can hear Cole singing "reindeers" on the bridge, a charming little slip of the tongue that he fixed the next time around.

- The Difficult Season (Dave Frishberg, recorded by the composer). Leave it to Frishberg to remind us of what we all know but don't like to admit, which is that Christmas can be sad: The tinsel, the reindeer,/The chimney, the sleigh/Are the innocent dreams/Of an innocent day.

- The First Noël (traditional, recorded by Emmylou Harris). A down-home a cappella version, shimmeringly sung by Harris and Sharon and Cheryl White. It's from Light of the Stable, one of the few Christmas albums that's worth hearing from beginning to end--often.

- God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (traditional, recorded by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers). Of all the traditional English carols, this is the one I like best. This version is from Songs of Angels: Christmas Hymns and Carols, a 1994 CD in which Shaw revisited the much-loved a cappella arrangements he first recorded in 1946. The Christmas album to buy if you're only buying one.

- Good Morning Blues (Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, recorded by Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie and His Orchestra). Leadbelly made the first recording of this traditional blues, but it's Jimmy Rushing's 1938 version that gets played during the holidays: Santy Claus, Santy Claus, listen to my plea/Don't send me nuthin' for Christmas/But my baby back to me. Dig Basie's deep-dish piano solo.

- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, recorded by the Singers Unlimited). The most tenderly yearning of all pop songs about Christmas, originally written for Judy Garland to sing in Meet Me in St. Louis. Her youthful studio recording for Decca is a little masterpiece of unaffected sweetness, but permit me to direct you instead to Gene Puerling's iridescent a cappella arrangement. Bonnie Herman is the lead singer, and if her voice doesn't make you shiver, clean your ears. (Yes, I like Chrissie Hynde's version, too.)

- I Wonder as I Wander (Niles-Britten, recorded by Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson). This isn't really an Appalachian folksong, even though it sounds just like the real thing. Folklorist John Jacob Niles wrote it himself in 1933, later recording it to gloriously rough-hewn effect. My favorite version, though, is the one arranged by Benjamin Britten, in which the vocal verses are sung a cappella with the pianist supplying one-handed interludes between each stanza. There's nothing to it, really--nothing but magic. Britten and Peter Pears frequently performed it in concert, but they never got around to recording it, and it was only published posthumously. Until a live performance surfaces, Langridge's finely sung version will suffice.

- Laud to the Nativity (Ottorino Respighi, performed by Charles Bressler, Marie Gibson, Marilyn Horne, the Roger Wagner Chorale, Alfred Wallenstein, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic). Nobody knows this gorgeous piece, composed in 1930 by the man who brought you The Pines of Rome, to which it bears no resemblance whatsoever. When not setting off dynamite under orchestras, Respighi had a taste for faux-archaic harmonies, and Laud to the Nativity is a serene, mellifluously scored exercise in neoclassicism that deserves to be much better known. Perhaps the release of this great old recording (undoubtedly reissued on CD because of the presence of a very young Marilyn Horne) will help to make it so.

- Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, recorded by Woody Herman's First Herd). Totally hip. The arrangement is by Neal Hefti, the trumpet solo by Sonny Berman, the vocal by Herman. Here endeth the lesson, baby.

- Linus & Lucy (Vince Guaraldi, recorded by the Vince Guaraldi Trio). This is the bouncy uptempo number from A Charlie Brown Christmas that everybody remembers and loves, with good reason. Soundtrack jazz from the mid-Sixties tends to be embarrassingly lame, but Guaraldi knocked out the bull's-eye.

Over to Mr. Rifftides:

Maybe I love it because the music is so good, so fresh, that listening to it every year is a rediscovery. Maybe it's because when I hear it, I'm bewitched by the image from long ago of two little boys in their pajamas, transfixed as they watch Linus, Lucy, Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Maybe it's because I knew Guaraldi and in this music he captured his own child-like sense of wonder.

What he said.

- Nun wandre, Maria (Hugo Wolf, recorded by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore). From the Spanish Songbook, a haunting musical evocation of the journey of Mary and Joseph, whose steadfast love is symbolized by the gently spiraling triads in the piano part. Fischer-Dieskau could be over-fussy, but not here, and Moore provides immaculate support.

- O magnum mysterium (Tomás Luis de Victoria, recorded by Dennis Keene and Voices of Ascension). I've loved this austerely mystical motet ever since I first heard the Roger Wagner Chorale sing it three decades ago. That recording never made it to CD, but this one is a more than adequate substitute.

- O magnum mysterium (Morten Lauridsen, recorded by Stephen Layton and Polyphony). A modern classic by an extraordinarily gifted American composer whose work is known only to choral-music buffs. If you still think tonality is dead, listen to this glowing motet and marvel.

- Sleigh Ride (Leroy Anderson, recorded by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony). Anyone who doesn't like Anderson's witty orchestral miniatures is a churl, a spoilsport, and a clod. I still grin every time the trombones start blowing that boogie-woogie bass line under the trumpet solo!

- Swingin' Them Jingle Bells (James Pierpont, recorded by Fats Waller and His Rhythm). Stone guaranteed to blow your mind and adjust your attitude. We're talking major anarchy here.

- White Christmas (Irving Berlin, recorded by Charlie Parker). Written for Bing Crosby to sing in Holiday Inn. The recording I like best, by Joan Morris and William Bolcom, is out of print, so allow me to direct you instead to this aircheck of a Royal Roost broadcast from December 25, 1948. Kenny Dorham, Al Haig, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach back up the king of bebop, who tosses off the tune with a straight face, then burns his way through two solo choruses and a strategically placed quote from "Jingle Bells."

- Winter Wonderland (Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith, recorded by Johnny Mercer). My mother used to sing this song to me when I was a little boy. She hasn't recorded it yet, but Johnny Mercer's 1946 version, sweetly accompanied by Paul Weston and the Pied Pipers, is almost as good. Mercer was, of course, the greatest of all pop-song lyricists, but he was also a splendid singer, lazy and jazzy, and this performance sums him up neatly.

Posted December 19, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"The city is recruited from the country. In the year 1805, it is said, every legitimate monarch in Europe was imbecile. The city would have died out, rotted, and exploded, long ago, but that it was reinforced from the fields. It is only country which came to town day before yesterday, that is city and court today."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Manners"

Posted December 19, 12:00 PM

December 18, 2006

TT: Decongestant department

I'm not over my cold yet, but I'm somewhat better. As usual, though, I sound much worse than I feel, so if you're expecting me to call you today, don't.

See you Tuesday.

Posted December 18, 12:00 PM

TT: Stocking stuffers

A reader writes:

What would be your top three choices for classical CDs for Christmas? What would be your top three choices for jazz CDs?

That's the e-mail in its entirety. It's completely free-form--no specifications or limitations of any kind. In particular, my correspondent doesn't specify whether he has in mind newly released CDs, which makes his questions a bit trickier. Nevertheless, I'll assume, rightly or wrongly, that he's interested in recordings that first came to my attention, new or not, in 2006.

That said, here are my picks, with three pop albums thrown in for good measure.

CLASSICAL:
- Malcolm Arnold, Overtures, recorded by Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos)
- Alban Berg, Lyric Suite, recorded by the Juilliard String Quartet in 1959 (Testament)
- Paul Moravec, The Time Gallery, recorded by eighth blackbird (Naxos)

JAZZ:
- Bob Brookmeyer and the New Art Orchestra, Spirit Music (ArtistShare)
- Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, Out Louder (Indirecto)
- Deidre Rodman and Steve Swallow, Twin Falls (Sunnyside)

POP:
- Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac (Capitol)
- Mary Foster Conklin, Blues for Breakfast: Remembering Matt Dennis (Rhombus)
- Donald Fagen, Morph the Cat (Reprise)

If none of these CDs rings your bell, here are some others that also gave me great pleasure:

- Benjamin Britten, Orchestral Song Cycles, recorded by Ian Bostridge, Simon Rattle, and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI Classics)
- Hot Club of Detroit (Mack Avenue)
- Roger Kellaway Trio, Heroes (IPO)
- Nancy King, Live at Jazz Standard with Fred Hersch (MaxJazz)
- Erin McKeown, Sing You Sinners (Nettwerk)
- Nickel Creek, Reasons Why (The Very Best) (Sugar Hill)
- Madeleine Peyroux, Half the Perfect World (Rounder)
- Rachel Ries, For You Only (Waterbug)
- Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd (the original-cast album of the 2005 Broadway revival) (Nonesuch)
- Trio Beyond, Saudades (ECM)
- Fats Waller, If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It! (Bluebird/Legacy)
- Cy Walter, The Park Avenue Tatum (Shellwood)

Happy listening!

Posted December 18, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Every man is dangerous who only cares for one thing."

G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Posted December 18, 12:00 PM

December 15, 2006

TT: Mammon à la Mamet

In today's Wall Street Journal I have high praise (mostly) for a zippy new adaptation of an Edwardian semi-classic, The Voysey Inheritance, and two revivals, Antigone and The Apple Tree. Reading from top to bottom:

In theater, the innocent-looking word "adaptation" can cover a multitude of approaches--or sins. David Mamet has adapted "The Voysey Inheritance" with respect and a sharp knife, skillfully trimming two hours out of the four-hour running time of Harley Granville Barker's engrossing but verbose 1905 play about a family of financiers with a scandalous secret. The result is a smart, exciting show that's short enough to get you to the train on time....

A century ago, Granville Barker was widely regarded as England's most forward-looking stage director. Judging by this tale of hypocrisy among the upper middle classes, he was also a top-notch playwright....

Jean Anouilh's oh-so-Parisian 1944 adaptation of "Antigone" is a cheval of a different color, a modern-dress rewrite of a Greek tragedy in which the plot was subtly altered to make discreet but definite reference to the Nazi occupation of Vichy France. You don't have to know that, though, to delight in the elegance and intelligence with which Anouilh put a still-fresh spin on Sophocles' timeless tale....

Anouilh's once-fashionable plays long ago vanished from Broadway, so I am happy to report that the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, one of Manhattan's most artistically ambitious new Off-Off Broadway companies, has given "Antigone" a revival of exceptionally high quality....

Rejoice greatly, musical-comedy fans: The Roundabout Theatre Company has revived "The Apple Tree" as a vehicle for Kristin Chenoweth, and she drives it up and down Broadway like a brand-new Beemer....

No free link (damn and blast!). Buy the paper--it's only a dollar. Or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my review, plus lots of other highly readable stuff. (If you're already a subscriber, the review is here.)

Posted December 15, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Stay out of the theatrical world, out of its petty interests, its inbreeding tendencies, its stifling atmosphere, its corroding influence. Once become 'theatricalized,' and you are lost, my friend; you are lost."

Minnie Maddern Fiske, quoted in Alexander Woollcott, Mrs. Fiske: Her Views on Actors, Acting and the Problems of Production

Posted December 15, 12:00 PM

TT: Irked to the max

I have awakened with a great big honking head cold. All superfluous communication with the outside world is suspended until further notice!

(Sniffle.)

Posted December 15, 6:20 AM

December 14, 2006

OGIC: Vita brevis

What's the bottom line on the new Thomas Harris novel, Hannibal Rising?

Readers who are expecting another Silence of the Lambs or Red Dragon are going to hurl this book across the room in anger.

That's all I needed to know. Thanks, Crime Fiction Dossier (via Jenny D.)!

Blast from the past: I reported on rereading Red Dragon and learning all manner of unexpected stuff here (some links have expired).

Posted December 14, 12:59 PM

TT: Kenny Davern, R.I.P.

Everybody I know who plays jazz for a living was sickened--no other word is strong enough--to learn of the death of Kenny Davern, who was struck down without warning on Tuesday by a heart attack. He was seventy-one, not so old for a jazzman, and not nearly old enough for so pungently individual a player.

The New York Times, which isn't always sound on such matters, gave Davern a good sendoff this morning, describing him as "a radically traditional jazz clarinetist and soprano saxophonist whose liquid tones linked him to the classical sound of New Orleans but who could also play free jazz." I'm told that he was, or could be, a difficult person, but his many friends are quick to add that he was worth the trouble, and then some.

Dan Morgenstern, who knew Davern for a half-century, called him "a master of his chosen art and craft" when he heard the bad news. You can see and hear his artistry by going here. If that clip piques your interest, I suggest you order what I gather was Davern's own favorite of the many albums on which he played, Dick Wellstood and His All-Star Orchestra Featuring Kenny Davern, recorded for Chiaroscuro in 1973. The title is a characteristically Wellstoodian joke, for the "orchestra" in question consisted solely and only of Davern on soprano saxophone and Wellstood on piano, both of whom were, as usual, in scorchingly fine form. The liner notes, unlikely as it may sound, are by William F. Buckley, Jr., and they end with this magisterial pronouncement about the All-Star Orchestra: "I hope you like it. If you don't, I'm sorry about that; sorry about you."

It is at times like these that I bless the name of Thomas Edison, and recall Shakespeare's words: Death makes no conquest of this conqueror,/For now he lives in fame though not in life. Thanks to the invention of the phonograph and its successor technologies, we no longer need settle for the fading memories of those lucky enough to have heard the great musicians of the past in person. We can hear them ourselves, and know that they were as good as their reputations (or not).

This unprecedented capacity to preserve the passing moment has been of special importance when it comes to an improvised music like jazz. As I wrote in Fi a number of years ago, "Without the phonograph, jazz might well have vanished into the humid night air of New Orleans, to be remembered only by those who first played and heard it; instead, it became America's principal contribution to twentieth-century music, known around the world." So, too, might Kenny Davern's playing have been forgotten. I'm glad we have it to comfort us today.

UPDATE: The London Independent ran an excellent Davern obit written by British jazz critic Steve Voce.

Posted December 14, 12:51 PM

TT: Running interference

I just got back from a musical performed in a very small off-Broadway theater. One of my fellow playgoers, an older man seated one row ahead of me, was drunk--very, very happily so. He talked through most of the songs, then clapped loudly (and prematurely) when they were over, whooping and hollering for good measure. On more than one occasion he sang along with the performers, some of whom who were no more than fifteen feet from his aisle seat.

He was, in short, a nuisance and an embarrassment, and a half-dozen of his neighbors tried without success to shut him up. So did the director of the show, an exceedingly nice woman who tiptoed down the aisle midway through the second act and shushed him, to no avail whatsoever.

Needless to say, I would have been delighted to do to this man what I was momentarily tempted to do to the talkative woman with whom I shared a tram at Storm King Art Center this summer. (Alas, I neglected to bring the necessary equipment to the theater.) Yet I found the haughty dudgeon of the playgoers who chatted about the poor fellow at intermission to be slightly out of keeping with his actual behavior. Of course he was being rude--spectacularly so--but there was something innocent about his rudeness, exasperating though it was, if only because he was so obviously enjoying the show. Once it became apparent that nothing short of a baseball bat would silence him, I gave in to the situation and decided not to let myself get bent out of shape by it. Nor did I.

On the way home I remembered a story told by Mel Tormé in It Wasn't All Velvet, his 1988 autobiography:

One night, as I crooned my little songs in the famous Sunset Strip supper club, who should walk in but John Wayne, well into his cups. Hosting a half-dozen equally inebriated cronies, he plunked down at a ringside table, and they proceeded to make my life miserable. Near the closing moments of my performance, I pleaded with the box-office giant, "Give me a break, John. After all, I don't talk through your movies." The Mocambo was an expensive watering hole, and, admire him or not, the audience was on my side. They applauded my entreaty. "I'd like to sing a fine Kurt Weill song from Knickerbocker Holiday," I announced. "Here's ‘September Song.'"

Wayne's voice boomed in that pause between announcement and musical introduction: "Oh, boy," he slurringly informed his party and the rest of the patrons, "he's gonna get me with this one!" There was a burst of laughter from the audience and one from me as well. I began to sing the tune, forcing myself to keep a straight face. On almost every line of the lyric, the hushed audience could hear huge stage whispers of "Shh-h-h-h" from the big fella, his forefinger vertically pressed to his lips--like a kid in school, exhorting his classmates to hush up and pay attention to the teacher.

I learned something that night. The Duke and his pals were totally unmalicious in their revelry. They came to the Mocambo to continue the good time that had evidently begun earlier in the evening. But the main point is: their noisy participation in that night's performance was not calculated; it was never meant to degrade or humiliate. On those singular evenings throughout the years when happy drunks have attended my shows, the memory of that John Wayne incident has helped me keep my cool.

I hope it also provides some retrospective consolation to any of the actors in tonight's performance who may happen to read this posting.

Posted December 14, 12:11 PM

TT: Whistling past the grave

The New York Times led off its annual list of notable classical recordings of the year with this determinedly optimistic passage:

The year brought more talk of doom and gloom for the classical recording industry, or at least its CD wing. Yet recordings continue to stream out from new sources as well as from major labels in retrenchment or recovery. And many of them are truly excellent.

That is not what I call encouraging, and neither is the list. Except for the reissues--which include such familiar, regularly recycled fare as Wanda Landowska's Bach recordings--I haven't heard anything on it. What's more, only one of the new recordings, a soon-to-be-released live performance by the late, lamented Lorraine Hunt Lieberson of her husband Peter's Neruda Songs, piqued my interest in the slightest. A Beethoven symphony cycle by Bernard Haitink? An original-instrument Eine kleine Nachtmusik? Krystian Zimerman's second recording of the Brahms D Minor Concerto? Still more John Adams and Philip Glass?

Don't get me wrong, please. I love classical music with all my heart and soul--but I have no love whatsoever for the current and final incarnation of the classical recording industry, which has been committing slow suicide for the past decade and more. As I wrote in "Life Without Records," the essay reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader in which I summed up the decline and fall of a great industry:

Now, after a quarter-century of Donnys and Barrys and Dannys and Zubies--of crossover and the Three Tenors and a hundred different recorded versions of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, each one duller than the last--the classical recording industry appears to be on its last legs. Nor will it die alone. Hard though it may be to imagine life without records and record stores, it is only a matter of time, and not much of it, before they disappear--and notwithstanding the myriad pleasures which the major labels have given us in the course of their century-long existence, it is at least possible that the 21st century will be better off without them.

To be sure, this prospect is understandably disturbing to many older musicians and music lovers, given the fact that the record album has played so pivotal a role in the culture of postwar music. Nor do I claim that life without records will necessarily be better--or worse. It will merely be different, just as the lives of actors were irrevocably changed by the invention of the motion-picture camera in ways that no one could possibly have foreseen in 1900. But one thing is already clear: unlike art museums and opera houses, records serve a purpose that technology has rendered obsolete.

I think of those words each time I walk past Tower Records' soon-to-be-shuttered Lincoln Center outlet. What will our lives be like without record stores? This is something I have written about, most recently in a "Sightings" column about the impending demise of Tower Records:

I've spent countless happy hours trolling the aisles of Tower Records in search of buried treasure. Yet when amazon.com and iTunes made it possible for me to buy any album I wanted without leaving my apartment, I didn't think twice about turning my back on Tower. As a wise old department-store owner once told Peter Drucker, "There is no customer loyalty that two cents off can't overcome."

Is the narrowly targeted buying-on-demand facilitated by online stores creating a world in which consumers are less likely to try new things? Perhaps--but the infinitely deep catalogs of these stores also make it possible for the curious listener to range farther afield than ever before. Only last week I saw the Signature Theatre Company's production of August Wilson's "Seven Guitars," in which a catchy tune called "Joe Louis Was a Fighting Man" is played between scenes. No sooner did I get home from the show than I went straight to iTunes, learned that the song was recorded by a gospel quartet called the Dixieaires and downloaded it to my iPod on the spot.

Yes, I miss the good old days of browsing, the same way I miss the big black manual typewriter that used to sit on my desk. Both had their advantages, just as online buying has its disadvantages. All blessings are mixed--but that doesn't make them any less blessed.

I got a lot of mail about that column, much of it frankly disapproving. So be it: there is plenty of room in the world for principled disagreement. But I don't think there can be any serious disagreement about the fact that the great cultural shift I predicted in "Life Without Records" (and on numerous prior occasions) is now taking place. For better and worse, the Age of the Album is over, and we must come to terms with its passing.

Posted December 14, 12:00 PM

TT: So you want to see a show?

Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

BROADWAY:
- Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
- A Chorus Line* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
- Company* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter and situations, reviewed here)
- The Drowsy Chaperone* (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
- The Vertical Hour* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Apr. 1)
- Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too intellectually complex to be suitable for children of any age, reviewed here, extended through May 12)

OFF BROADWAY:
- The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
- Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
- Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here, closes Jan. 14)
- Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, extended through Jan. 28)

CLOSING SUNDAY:
- Heartbreak House* (drama, G/PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON:
- The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Dec. 31)

Posted December 14, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"An audience is never wrong. An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark--that is critical genius."

Billy Wilder, interview, BBC2 (January 24, 1992)

Posted December 14, 12:00 PM

December 13, 2006

TT: Almanac

"Friendship demands a religious treatment. We talk of choosing our friends, but friends are self-elected. Reverence is a great part of it."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays, First Series

Posted December 13, 12:00 PM

OGIC: Fortune cookie

"You know the story of the African Queen? I turned down an invitation to direct it because I couldn't see any humor in the situation. It pleased me to see how they made it a comedy. There were some silly things in it, but it went. Whenever I hear a story my first thought is how to make it into a comedy, and I think of how to make it into a drama only as a last resort. Do you remember the story about the man who wanted to commit suicide and stayed on a window ledge--Fourteen Hours? They wanted me to do it, and I said no. 'Why not?' they asked me. 'It's a great story.' I told them I didn't like suicides, and I told my friend Henry Hathaway that I didn't like the film he had directed. The public didn't like it either, and Zanuck told me I had been right. I told Zanuck: 'I might have done it if it had been Cary Grant getting from the bedroom of a woman whose husband had come back unexpectedly and after he was found on the ledge he pretended he was contemplating suicide.' Zanuck asked me if I wanted to start on that one the next day."

Howard Hawks, Cahiers du Cinema interview, 1956

Posted December 13, 4:53 AM

OGIC: Strange days

On a bitterly cold night in Chicago, with traffic snarled up downtown and little reliable information emerging about a deadly office shooting that afternoon, could all but ten Chicagoans be forgiven for passing up the chance to see a sharp new print of Werner Herzog's legendary Aguirre, the Wrath of God on one of the biggest movie screens in the city?

Sure, I absolve them. But I wouldn't want to be one of them (though I very nearly was, begging tiredness at the end of a long work week until I came to my senses). And I'm still a little mystified that this event didn't draw better in a city where off-the-beaten-path moviegoing has never struck me as a lonely enterprise.

The main theater at the Music Box is cavernous (seating 750), so the small size of the audience on this evening felt especially pronounced. It was a clash of scales not quite on a par with the incongruity on display in the beautiful and famous opening shot of Aguirre, but weirdly akin. In that awesome shot, a tiny long line of conquistadors and slaves make their way down a steep path in the Andes Mountains. The faraway perspective and the gauzy cloud cover lend this first image a serenity that will prove very short-lived.

The camera soon draws in and the hushed grandeur of the long view gives way to the jostling and weight of armor, equipment, pack animals, and the breathtakingly impractical sedan chair in which the wife of one explorer and daughter of another--each dressed in full floor-length finery--take turns being carried down the mountain. In a way the initial shift of perspective already pronounces the exploring party's ill fate. As the Spanish descend from mountain to river basin, the camera from ethereal panorama to earthbound close-ups, Klaus Kinski's Lope de Aguirre is on the verge of descent into a megalomaniacal madness under whose effects he'll lead a branch of the main expedition down the Amazon to its doom.

This movie overwhelmed me. For one thing, all manner of estrangements converge in it: the viewer's dramatic historical displacement from the action, which takes place in 1560-61; the characters' similarly extreme geographical displacement in the Amazonian jungles; and, as their desperation and madness take hold, the increasingly hallucinatory quality of the experience represented. If the past is a foreign country, the plight of people living half a millennium ago as they try to fathom and tame an alien setting is doubly foreign and gripping.

Not that Herzog asks us to sympathize with the explorers--he's very particular on the point that they're motivated by the promise of conquest and wealth, and on the point of their cruelty in this pursuit. But even as the disasters multiply and bodies pile up (often seeming to have spontaneously sprouted an arrow that we didn't see coming and didn't see hit--the camerawork has an endearingly human, fallible character at these points, as if it's not quite able to keep up with developments on the raft and from time to time turns an instant too late in a direction where it's sensed something amiss or askew), some of the base intoxication of traversing an uncharted land stays in play. Even by the celebrated final scene of ruin--this film is bookended by justly famous shots whose visual power beggars description--that sense of awe persists and creates an identification between us and characters we may fear and despise.

At the end of Aguirre, when all of the worst has come to pass and Aguirre's hubris has been paid for by dozens of men and all that's left of ambition and wanderlust is a raft full of monkeys, there's a small part of me that's still in the grip of the opening shot--the pure wonder and beautiful incongruity and promise of it--and still wishes to be there, being amazed. (The more amazed if I try to put myself behind the eyes of someone who has not seen a hundred movies and a thousand pictures of the Amazon River and environs.) This gaping contradiction, I think, accounts for a great deal of the film's power. It's to some degree a contradiction between story and scene--sensually, the Peruvian landscape remains seductive to the very last gasp.

Beauty, wonder, dread, and yes, even its own wryly grim brand of humor: Aguirre is a thrilling thing. If you're in Chicago, you still have a couple of nights to catch it. In other cities, keep an eye on the art houses.

Posted December 13, 4:05 AM

OGIC: Notes after some Christmas shopping

Some largely unsuccessful Christmas shopping, as should soon become plain....

- Ah, the fine art of convincing yourself that someone on your list would like nothing more than to receive the very item that makes your own materialistic little heart skip a beat. This is all well and good if you come to your senses before presents are exchanged, keep the desired object for yourself (if I must), and venture out again in time to find something more apropos. Or if, like me and Terry, your target's taste and your own largely converge and you have a track record of successfully exchanging enthusiasms. If you could see at once all of the fabulous presents I've ever received from Terry, you would know in a flash who had given them. They positively shout Terry, and by now they whisper Laura too.

- A super-trivial matter, but I do not like movie editions of novels and avoid them whenever possible. I suppose they are good for book sales, and I suppose this is insupportable snobbish purism on my part, but a picture of Nicole Kidman on a book cover, for me, degrades the book's bookiness. It robs the object of its own integrity, turning it into an advertisement for a separate, and often unrelated and lesser, thing. Yes, I am someone who inordinately prizes books as objects, why do you ask? During the summer I caught the early trailers for the upcoming P.D. James-based Children of Men and picked up a copy in the nick of time--the new editions festooned with Clive Owen's lovely but transient mug apparently didn't hit stores until this month. (For the record, I liked what I read of the book, got off track with it, but plan to return to it following more pressing reading projects).

- Thanks to space constraints and uncertain dedication, I've never started a DVD library in earnest. But I had a blast last weekend at the local Tower Records going-out-of-business sale. The pickings were slim, but that only served to heighten the fun of painstakingly panning for DVD gold. (I spent all of my allotted time in the movie section, never getting around to scanning the CDs, which were even more deeply discounted.) My efforts didn't go unrewarded. I gave a happy start when the title of one of my favorite films, Kicking and Screaming, popped out, but of course, alas, it was not the twenty-something-slacker flick but the naught-something-soccer flick that was available. Silly, really, to think I'd find anything from the Criterion Collection here, but hope does spring recklessly. In the next row, however, a single copy of Mr. Jealousy, Noah Baumbach's follow-up feature to Kicking, as of yet unseen by me, surfaced as if in slight compensation for the false alarm. Don't worry--I don't expect it to be good or anything! But I doubt it's devoid of merit, either, and for only $6 I'll satisfy a longstanding curiosity. By the end of the hunt, I held five DVDs: Mr. Jealousy, the Robert Towne-directed Tequila Sunrise, John Sayles's Sunshine State, the 1969 Faulkner-based Reivers, and a favorite from last year, Red Eye. Could the demise of Tower Records mean the (modest, eclectic, uneven) beginning of the movie library I'd previously only desultorily contemplated? People on whose Christmas shopping lists I appear, take note!

Posted December 13, 3:04 AM

December 12, 2006

TT: A meme for musicians

David King and Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus are circulating a musician questionnaire whose results are being posted on their blog. If you're curious, go here and start scrolling down to see the replies, which are pouring in.

Needless to say, I'm strictly a recovering musician, but I found the questions (and answers) so fascinating that I decided to play as well.

* * *

Give us an example or two of an especially good or interesting:

Movie score. Chinatown, Election, Sunset Boulevard.

TV theme. The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Equalizer, Miami Vice. (I also love "Woke Up This Morning," the A3 song used as the theme to The Sopranos.)

Melody. Standards: "Autumn in New York," "The Bad and the Beautiful," "Lucky to Be Me," "One for My Baby." Classical: Bach's chorale prelude on "Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele" and the slow movement of the Ravel G Major Piano Concerto. (In reflecting on this question, I was struck by the fact that comparatively little of my favorite post-1960 pop music is strongly melodic, at least in the traditional sense.)

Harmonic language. Jazz: The music of Maria Schneider. Classical: Aaron Copland's middle-period music.

Rhythmic feel. Jazz: Johnny Hodges' "Squaty Roo" and the Bill Evans Trio circa 1962. Classical: The Rite of Spring. Pop: Booker T. and the MGs in a medium-tempo groove.

Hip-hop track. Neneh Cherry's "Manchild."

Classical piece. Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto and Benjamin Britten's Turn of the Screw.

Smash hit. The Beatles' "Revolution."

Jazz album. My Funny Valentine: Miles Davis in Concert, Jim Hall and Ron Carter's Alone Together, Pat Metheny's Bright Size Life, and From Austin High Comes Jazz (one of the first 78 albums, recorded in 1940 by Bud Freeman and His Famous Chicagoans, a band whose members also included Max Kaminsky, Pee Wee Russell, Jack Teagarden, and Dave Tough).

Non-American folkloric group. I almost never listen for pleasure to present-day "folkloric" music, be it American or otherwise. For the most part I prefer my music cooked, not raw.

Book on music. Paul Hindemith's A Composer's World.

Posted December 12, 12:00 PM

TT: Mailbox

- My Wall Street Journal column about the dance bust stirred up a fair amount of talk, most of it favorable and some of it from unexpected quarters. (Much to my surprise, for instance, the Little Professor commented on it at length.)

It also brought me an e-mail from a reader of "About Last Night" who showed the column to his cousin, who in turn wrote back as follows:

Thank you for forwarding this. Yes, he's quite right--lots of the companies I loved in my ballet-filled youth are gone, and all those little girls taking ballet class have grown up to raise daughters who take soccer and softball. I expect that the vast improvement in after-school options for strong, athletically inclined girls is actually all to the good; lots of talentless kids are no longer clumping around in leotards. But I do miss the exciting froth of new little companies putting on performances on a shoestring. In my Chicago years I (briefly) did fund-raising and audience development for the company which became the Chicago City Ballet, and I was so impressed by the determination of these young people who had so little common sense and so much passion for dance....

I love that last line. I'm not an idealist--life has made me fairly hard-headed--but I'm well aware that many, perhaps most of the great things that get done in this world, especially in the realm of art, are done by people with no common sense whatsoever. George Bernard Shaw described the Julius Caesar of his play Caesar and Cleopatra as "a man of great common sense and good taste--meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage."

Of course it's more complicated than that, but those who (like me) lack a poetic streak should always be wary of condescending to those who don't. If George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein had had any common sense, they wouldn't have founded New York City Ballet.

- A reader writes, apropos of this posting:

Your posting brought to mind a winter night in Minneapolis more than forty years ago. While most people like to just lie still and savor the mood afterwards, this girl often felt like dancing. I can still remember her dancing naked in the moonlight coming in through the picture window of my apartment. The music? Smetana's Moldau. So long ago, but so vivid!

Somehow that memory reminds me of this.

Posted December 12, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Going home must be like going to render an account."

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

Posted December 12, 12:00 PM

TT and OGIC: Terry's not sick! Terry's not sick!

Don't worry--Terry is not in the hospital again! His heart is in perfect condition.

We occasionally get e-mails asking why the chronological order of this blog's postings appears to have melted down, but the frequency of those e-mails has gone up sharply in the past couple of days, and here's the reason: what you're seeing, if you're seeing it, are last year's postings about Terry's illness.

So what's the problem? Whenever you visit the main page of "About Last Night," what you see are the last seven days' worth of postings, and nothing else.

If, however, you come to "About Last Night" via a link to a specific posting, the first thing you'll see on your screen is the posting in question. Above and below it are all of the other postings for that week, in reverse chronological order.

Clear so far? Hang on--this is where it gets tricky. Start scrolling down and you'll find all of the "About Last Night" postings for the same week last year, in reverse chronological order. Keep on scrolling down and you'll find all of the postings for the same week in preceding years...and on and on ad infinitum, or at least all the way back to 2003, when "About Last Night" was launched.

This is how "About Last Night"'s archives are set up, and it's been causing a good deal of understandable reader confusion in the past few days. If, for instance, somebody sent you a link to Monday's posting about Terry's Christmas tree, you would have seen, not far below it, Our Girl's posting from December of 2005 announcing that Terry was in the hospital. Result: alarms and confusions.

Alas, there's nothing we can do about this peculiarity--it's an immutable quirk of the software that generates our archives. So forgive us (and artsjournal.com) for giving you a scare, and please be assured that Terry is not--repeat, not--back in the hospital.

Posted December 12, 9:58 AM

December 11, 2006

TT: Winter of content

I helped decorate a Christmas tree up in Connecticut last Friday. It was traditional in every way, from the homely handmade star to the old-fashioned tinsel and fifty-year-old strands of colored lights that my hostess and I draped around its sweet-smelling branches. Even the music playing in the background, Johannes Somary's 1970 recording of Handel's Messiah, was conventional, if artily so.

It happens that I played bass for more than a few Messiahs in my college days, and before that I took part in decorating a dozen or so of my parents' Christmas trees. As any working musician can tell you, Messiah is more fun to hear (or sing) than it is to play, but trimming a tree is one of the most purely pleasurable activities known to man, especially when you are, like me, lucky enough to have had a more or less uncomplicatedly happy childhood.

Why, then, did I never get around to putting up a tree of my own after I left home? The answer, I suppose, is that since I made a point of coming back to Smalltown, U.S.A., for the holidays each year, I never found it necessary. What began as a convenience hardened into habit, and by the time I was forty the notion of buying and decorating a Christmas tree seemed to me senseless. No doubt that said more about the confusion of my private life than it did about any domestic urges I was sweeping under the rug, but whatever my deeper reasons might have been, the fact remains that the tree I trimmed last week is the first one I've had in thirty-two years.

To be sure, I can't claim to have been deprived, at least not by comparison with Louis Armstrong, who was born into a poverty so dire that he never had a Christmas tree of his own at any time during his New Orleans boyhood. Like most musicians, he spent his adult life living out of suitcases, and it was Lucille, his fourth wife, who bought and trimmed his very first tree, which she put up in a hotel room not long after they were married in 1943. He was so stunned by the gesture that he sat and gazed at the tree for a long time, and when he and Lucille moved on to the next gig, he insisted that they take it with them.

Yet I felt more or less the same way Armstrong did as I looked at the tree I had helped to decorate, thinking as I did so of the illness that struck me down last December. A year has gone by since the snowy morning when I called 911 and put myself in the hands of strangers, and since then I have been happier than at any other time in my adult life. Could it be that life--real life, not the unexamined kind--is like a roller-coaster ride in which happiness and fear are woven together in a twisty strand of feeling?

After the tree was trimmed and Handel's Messiah had run its jubilant course, I put on Lambert Orkis' recording of Franz Schubert's Impromptus, played on a Graf fortepiano made in Vienna in 1826, two years before the composer's death. Of all the great composers, Schubert is the one most in tune with life's melancholy. Surely the uneasy, unceasing fluctuations between major and minor that dapple his music are harbingers of the ultimate inevitability of sorrow--and mortality.

But even as Schubert reminds us of what must be, he hints at the prospect of joy, and it was joy with which my healthy heart overflowed as I gazed contentedly at my twinkling tree. In a matter of days it will be stripped of its ornaments and consigned to the trash, but until then it will glow brightly, reminding me of Christmases past, even as Schubert's music reminds us of the chubby, bespectacled man who once walked the streets of Vienna, haunted by the knowledge that he would likely die young. So he did--but his music is still with us, giving joy two centuries after the man who made it was laid in earth.

I've been much preoccupied of late with Alexander Herzen, the nineteenth-century Russian intellectual who is the principal character in The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard's trilogy of history plays, whose first installment I reviewed in The Wall Street Journal the other day. I haven't yet read the second or third installments--I want to see them first--but I'll be surprised if Stoppard doesn't find room in one of them for a remark Herzen made in his autobiography: "Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have."

I don't know whether Herzen was right, but I do know that art and happiness are at least as real as my Christmas tree. To be happy, not in memory but in the moment, is the shining star on the tree of life.

Goethe said it:

All theory, dear friend, is gray--
The golden tree of life is green.

Posted December 11, 12:00 PM

TT: Words to the wise

I rejoice to inform you that Julia Dollison is in town tonight for a one-night stand at the Jazz Standard, the best of all possible nightclubs. I've written about Julia more than once in this space, but if her name is new to you, go here to read my liner notes for her debut album, Observatory.

Two sets tonight, at 7:30 and 9:30. For more information, go here and scroll down. I'm going to try to get back from Connecticut for the second set, but it's a long trip, so if I don't make it in time, please show up in my place and cheer her on. Believe me, you won't be sorry.

Posted December 11, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Love, by reason of its passion, destroys the in-between which relates us to and separates us from others."

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Posted December 11, 12:00 PM

December 8, 2006

TT: Hootie hits the road

Anyone who played jazz in Kansas City in the Seventies ran into Jay McShann from time to time, and was invariably the better for it. A great, genial presence on the bandstand, he played no-nonsense piano and sang the blues in a slyly insinuating manner that never failed to give pleasure.

History mainly remembers McShann as the man who led the big band with which Charlie Parker made his first studio recordings back in 1941, but he and his group were far more than just a footnote to bebop. Their Decca recordings of "Hootie Blues," "Sepian Bounce," and "Swingmatism" (reissued a couple of years ago as part of Jumpin' the Blues, a budget-priced two-CD set from Proper Records) are as ear-catching now as they were six and a half decades ago--and not just because of Parker's solos, either.

After dropping out of sight for a long, dry spell, McShann resurfaced in 1969, subsequently recording an all-star comeback album called Last of the Blue Devils whose well-deserved success made him a fixture on the festival circuit. It was around then that I first heard him in person, marveling at the fact that he was still around, and still swinging. Those were the days when I'd just started playing bass professionally, and though I never got the chance to work with McShann, I was sinfully proud to be able to say that I was, like him, a Kansas City jazzman.

McShann died in a Kansas City hospital yesterday. He was ninety years old. The Kansas City Star's obituary is here, along with a package of related stories and video clips. It leaves out a few things, including the fact that Alvin Ailey made a dance in 1988, Opus McShann, set to several of McShann's recordings, but it gets the important stuff right, and it also includes a characteristic quote from the man himself, courtesy of the Associated Press obit:

You'd just have some people sitting around, and you'd hear some cat play, and somebody would say, "This cat, he sounds like he's from Kansas City." It was the Kansas City style. They knew it on the East Coast. They knew it on the West Coast. They knew it up north, and they knew it down south.

They still do.

UPDATE: The New York Times obituary is here. It's serviceable, though short. Nothing from the Washington Post, which surprises me--they tend to be quick on the uptake, but this time they dropped the ball. (The Post finally got in the game on Sunday.)

Posted December 08, 12:00 PM

TT: Gospel truth

I reviewed two shows this week, one terrific (Two Trains Running) and one so-so (High Fidelity). Here's the scoop, straight from this morning's Wall Street Journal:

Not long after launching this column, I coined the Drama Critic's Prayer: Dear God, if it can't be good, let it be short. In fact, today's playwrights are well aware of the shrunken attention spans of TV-conditioned playgoers, and so their plays are growing shorter by the season. I don't have a problem with that--I like artists who stick to the point, assuming they have one--but the Signature Theatre Company's revival of "Two Trains Running," August Wilson's 1990 play, is anything but boring even though it runs for three hours and ten minutes. If I hadn't checked, I would have taken for granted that it clocked in at two hours and change.

What makes "Two Trains Running" so engrossing? It's not the plot, because there isn't one. All Wilson does is put his characters in a rundown Pittsburgh diner and set them to mulling over past misfortunes and present frustrations, swapping stories in the time-honored manner of working-class people who can afford no amusement but conversation. The time is 1969, and political implications are scattered throughout this snapshot of a ghetto neighborhood gone to seed, but Wilson never forces them on you. Like all great artists, he trusts you to connect the dots....

Stephen Frears's film version of "High Fidelity" is on my Top Five list of good movies based on good books, in between "Strangers on a Train" and "Out of Sight." (I actually prefer it to Nick Hornby's novel.) The script is smart, the cast impeccable. What's not to like? Nothing--so why turn it into a musical? Alas, the producers of "High Fidelity" came to a different conclusion, and now seem likely to lose their shirts....

The unfamiliar faces taking up space on the stage of the Imperial Theatre are bland TV-type actors who mostly do their best to remind you of John Cusack, Jack Black, Tim Robbins, Todd Louiso and Lisa Bonet. And that's what's wrong with "High Fidelity": It's good enough to make you want to go home and watch the movie again--but no better.

As usual, no free link, so buy the paper and read the rest of my review, O.K.? Or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you abracadabra-type access to my review, among innumerable other good things, including Joe Morgenstern's super-smart film reviews. (If you're already a subscriber, the review is here.)

Posted December 08, 12:00 PM

TT: The artist next door

The occasion for my next "Sightings" column, to be published in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, is a new program recently announced by Carnegie Hall and the Juilliard School that will send young musical professionals into New York City's public schools to teach--and, hopefully, to inspire by example.

Aside from the intrinsic merits of the program, what interests me about it is the fact that it is designed to inject artists into the community, thus helping to break down the wall that separates them from the people they serve. How many practicing professional artists do you know? If you read "About Last Night," your answer is likely to be different from that of the average concertgoer. And why does that matter? To find out, pick up a copy of tomorrow's Journal, where you'll find my column in the "Pursuits" section.

Posted December 08, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

Q. You speak of your early plays as being poetic. What caused the change?

A. When I first started writing plays I couldn't write good dialogue because I didn't respect how black people talked. I thought that in order to make art out of their dialogue I had to change it, make it into something different. Once I learned to value and respect my characters, I could really hear them. I let them start talking. The important thing is not to censor them. What they are talking about may not seem to have anything to do with what you as a writer are writing about but it does. Let them talk and it will connect, because you as a writer will make it connect. The more my characters talk, the more I find out about them. So I encourage them. I tell them, "Tell me more." I just write it down and it starts to make connections.

August Wilson, interview, Paris Review (Winter 1999)

Posted December 08, 12:00 PM

December 7, 2006

TT: Turnabout

Time Out New York has just published a multi-part feature called "Critiquing the Critics" in which New York-based arts professionals (including publicists) were invited to grade the critics who cover them. The participants in the survey are identified by name, but their comments about specific critics are anonymous--with good reason, too, in more than a few cases.

This is, in theory, a nifty idea. I was going to comment on the methodology of the survey, which is (to put it mildly) problematic, but it seems that fellow blogger Apollinaire Scherr, the dance critic of Newsday, has already done it for me. As for the actual results, they're both interesting and on occasion highly suggestive. If you're curious, you can read what the panelists had to say about New York's drama critics, myself included, by going here.

I should add, by the way, that I don't quarrel with any of the specific comments that were made about me, which is--I suppose--a pleasant surprise.

Posted December 07, 12:06 PM

TT: So you want to see a show?

Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

BROADWAY:
- Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
- A Chorus Line* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
- Company (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter and situations, reviewed here)
- The Drowsy Chaperone* (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
- The Vertical Hour* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Apr. 1)
- Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too intellectually complex to be suitable for children of any age, reviewed here, closes Mar. 6)
- The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Dec. 31)

OFF BROADWAY:
- The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
- Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
- Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here, closes Jan. 14)

CLOSING SATURDAY:
- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (drama, R, adult subject matter and nudity, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK:
- Heartbreak House* (drama, G/PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Dec. 17)

Posted December 07, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"There is, indeed, an art to being an aware and responsive audience. In recent years, we have fallen into a simple-minded equation of 'participation' with overt activity. But one participates more meaningfully in really seeing one great work than in turning out a hundred mediocrities."

Thomas Albright, On Art and Artists

Posted December 07, 12:00 PM

TT: Ears on the prize

This year's Grammy nominations are even duller than usual, but there are some highlights among the dross. I was amazed and delighted, for instance, to see that Karrin Allyson's Footprints, Nancy King's Live at Jazz Standard with Fred Hersch, and Diana Krall's From This Moment On were all nominated as Best Jazz Vocal Album.

Here are some other noteworthy nominations:

- BEST COUNTRY INSTRUMENTAL PERFORMANCE: Chris Thile, "The Eleventh Reel," from How to Grow a Woman From the Ground (Sugar Hill)

- BEST JAZZ INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM, INDIVIDUAL OR GROUP: Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings, and John Scofield, Trio Beyond--Saudades (ECM)

- BEST LARGE JAZZ ENSEMBLE ALBUM: Bob Brookmeyer and the New Art Orchestra, Spirit Music (ArtistShare)

- BEST SOUTHERN, COUNTRY, OR BLUEGRASS GOSPEL ALBUM: Del McCoury Band, The Promised Land (McCoury Music)

- BEST CONTEMPORARY FOLK/AMERICANA ALBUM: Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac (Capitol)

- BEST MUSICAL SHOW ALBUM: The original-cast albums of The Drowsy Chaperone (Ghostlight) and the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd (Nonesuch)

- BEST ALBUM NOTES: Fats Waller, If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It! (Bluebird/Legacy, notes by Dan Morgenstern)

- BEST CLASSICAL VOCAL PERFORMANCE: Ian Bostridge, Britten Orchestral Song Cycles (EMI Classics)

Somehow I doubt that any of these folks will be seen on the Grammy telecast!

Speaking of niche marketing, I was fascinated to learn that in addition to such hair-splitting categories as Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and Best Surround Sound Album, there are now Grammies for the best albums in the following categories: Tropical Latin, Mexican/Mexican-American, Tejano, Norteño, Banda, Native American, Hawaiian, and Polka.

Posted December 07, 4:29 AM

OGIC: Chilling with Caroline Blackwood

New York Review Books, which is doing some of the most interesting publishing today, has launched a blog that should be worth keeping an eye on: A Different Stripe. As it happens, the last book I finished was an NYRB Classic and a curious specimen. Here's a review/reflection.

Caroline Blackwood's taut, efficient Great Granny Webster (1977) is a novel with a void and a chill at the center. Autobiographical to an unknown degree, it is narrated by the great-granddaughter of the title character. About the narrator's great-grandmother, grandmother, and aunt, we learn a great deal, none of it favorable. About the orphaned narrator herself we know little more than her appalled apprehension of her female forebears. The book is in some ways reminiscent of Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood--notably in the perspective it adopts of the preternaturally observant orphan imprisoned in a a secondhand family of unsympathetic relative strangers--but substitutes a vague air of disaffection for the young Mary's sense of persecution and injustice. Unlike McCarthy's book, it purports to be a novel, but reportedly lost the Booker Prize by the tiebreaking vote of Philip Larkin, who admired it but bestowed his favor elsewhere because he suspected Blackwood of having written nonfiction.

The novel doesn't so much unfold as unfurl, swish, swish, swish, in three rather static character studies followed by a brief coda that brings us graveside to descend into the vertiginous pitch-dark slapstick on which this odd reading experience ends. The first and dominant portrait is of Great Granny Webster herself, with whom the fourteen-year-old narrator is deposited to convalesce following an illness. In a great, grim house in a suburb of Brighton with a single servant, Great Granny Webster lives as a kind of carefully preserved monument to thrift and propriety, the embodied inverse of plenty and pleasure--"fiercely joyless," the narrator calls her.

And yet--is Great Granny really altogether without her charms, however unintentional?

...sometimes after meals had been served she would wait for the crippled figure of Richards to go limping out of the room, and she would suddenly start to make a few bleak and deadpan statements without appearing to expect any answer. I had the feeling that if I had not been with her, she would still have made the same remarks aloud to herself.

"Now-a-days," she would suddenly say, "people have been spoiled. They don't want to be servants any more. It's all the fault of the war. It's this last beastly war that has given them all such a taste for working in munitions."

She would take some saccharine from her silver sugar-bowl and drop it carefully into her tiny china coffee-cup and stir it slowly until it dissolved. She never took more than one frugal little tablet. She often told me she could not abide waste."

"I know exactly how to answer them, when now-a-days they ask me how I would like to be their servant!"

She would pause dramatically, like an actress who expects to be clapped for her line. Her pursed little discontented mouth would give a twitch, the only movement it seemed able to make that faintly resembled a smile.

"Poor silly things! I know exactly how to answer that! If I ever had to be their servant--I would only be the most excellent servant!"

Something in this, and in other details about the matriarch Webster, I found oddly disarming. And at the end of the narrator's eight-week stay at Hove, she startles the narrator at the train station by recalling her grandson, the narrator's father, dead in the war, with real emotion. The narrator's response: "Goodbye." She's fourteen, so this is understandable. What's less so is how untouched by this show of feeling her mature, retrospective account of her great-grandmother is--so invested is it in the picturesque extremity of the bleakness it paints.

In their own distinct ways, the portraits that follow--of the narrator's suicidal, fast-living aunt Lavinia and her unpicturesquely insane grandmother--are also sad descriptive tours de force. The sketch of the grandmother comes secondhand from the tales of an old school chum of the narrator's father. While we hear almost nothing of her mother, her father is the painfully missing piece whose absence exacerbates all of the characters' worst tendencies and miseries. He's doubly a cipher, not only absent but mysterious to the narrator--specifically in the attachment he demonstrated to Great Granny Webster, who, in the explanatory narrative the narrator would like us to believe, is the ultimate agent of all the dysfunction besetting the family.

She doesn't quite fit into that narrative, however, just as in the queasily comical horror of the final scene, she exceeds the space--in the ground and in the ceremony--allotted for her:

And then there seemed to be too much of Great Granny Webster to be emptied into the ground. There was something almost obscene in the sheer quantities in which she was emerging. I had expected that the clergyman would just take one handful of her ashes and throw them into the grave as a symbol. But instead he kept impatiently tipping the urn and his frozen face looked exasperated at the way that her white powdery substance would not stop flowing out.

Blackwood was a talent, no doubt, and Great Granny Webster is a bracing read in its chilly way: remorseless, fiendishly precise, generously larded with memorable scenes and characters, and frequently funny in an awful way (see especially the Lavinia chapter). The funeral scene on which it ends introduces into the mix lasting, intertwined notes of comedy and despair. By emphasizing the narrator's undying dread of the woman being put to rest it raises the possibility that what seems the book's cold climate belongs more precisely to the narrator.

Posted December 07, 3:41 AM

December 6, 2006

TT: Almanac

"The great man who can only be succeeded by a ‘lieutenant of Marines,' a chief clerk, or a tired servile hack, is not a necessity. But the leader who himself has strength and leaves behind strength--the truly ‘great man' and genuine ‘leader'--looks completely different and acts completely differently from the ‘great man' of popular myth. He does not lead by ‘charisma'--an abomination and phony, even when it is not a press agent's invention. The truly strong man leads by hard work and dedication. He does not centralize everything in his hands but builds a team. He dominates through integrity, not through manipulation. He is not clever, but simple and honest."

Peter F. Drucker, Adventures of a Bystander

Posted December 06, 12:00 PM

OGIC: Breakfast links

More blogging to come this evening, but for now here are some links to go with your cup of joe:

- I agree with Dan Green of the Reading Experience probably half the time, but I always read him. He can be counted on, for one thing, to seethe eloquently about what's wrong with academic literary studies, as in his post today:

What now passes for literary criticism in the learned journals does less than nothing to encourage active reading, much less rereading. It wades around in the shallow waters of ideology and second-hand social analysis, leaving serious readers of literature to swim for themselves.

- I know, I know--some of you don't want to hear about hockey! But far more estimable arts bloggers than your present interlocutor occasionally must need blog on such lesser matters. A new entry in the wide world of hockey blogs is A Theory of Ice. It's turned my head with consistently elegant writing, and is particularly good on the culture of the game and its followers, as here on physicality as a two-sided coin and here on fandom and love.

- Mr. Quiet Bubble wasn't bowled over by Borat. Can't say I was either, though I giggled plenty. The Saunders link is well worth following. Part of the reason it's been hard to blog lately is that so many of my recent literary and cinematic excursions have proven so blah. I crave a transformative art experience, but it turns out this doesn't happen on demand. I do have a new lead or two, though, about which more soon.

See you tonight!

Posted December 06, 11:25 AM

TT: Sorry about that

Yes, I'm in Connecticut, but something came up that I thought was worth sharing. The critics of the Chicago Tribune recently published a series of columns called "Critical Reversals" in which they confessed--sort of--to having changed their minds about pieces they'd written in the past. (For links to the individual columns, go here.)

Not surprisingly, these columns have provoked a certain amount of comment in the blogosphere, much of it skeptical. As for me, I have a personal interest in "Critical Reversals," for in 2002 I published a column in The Wall Street Journal called "The Contrite Critic" in which I discussed one of my own blunders:

The big news for balletomanes is the coming of the Mark Morris Dance Group to Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival. Tonight, the company will be giving the first of four performances of "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," Mr. Morris's evening-long stage version of the Handel oratorio. "L'Allegro" is one of the most important dances of the past quarter-century, so this week's performances are by definition a great occasion.

They will also be an occasion for me to eat crow, since I am, so far as I know, the only critic ever to have given "L'Allegro" a bad review. Seven years ago, I covered the Lincoln Center premiere for the New York Daily News, and I just didn't get it. I called "L'Allegro" "impressive in its seriousness, stunning in its inventiveness--and, ultimately, disappointing in its emotional flatness." I've written my share of wrongheaded reviews, but that's the one I regret most, because I was too dense to know a masterpiece when I saw it....

I mention this because it is a good thing for critics to abase themselves in public, even though we do it so rarely. I've changed my mind about art more than once, and I've learned that I not infrequently start by disliking something and end up liking it. Not always--sometimes I decide on closer acquaintance that a novel or painting isn't as good as I'd thought. More often, though, I realize that it was necessary for me to grow into a fuller understanding of a work of art to which my powers of comprehension were not at first equal....

The Journal posted a free link to this column, and you can still read the whole thing here. More recently, I revisited the subject here.

Posted December 06, 11:03 AM

OGIC: Fortune cookie

"Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone."

Henry Green, Pack My Bag

Posted December 06, 1:07 AM

December 5, 2006

TT: Man at work

I'm disappearing into the woods of Connecticut to spend the rest of the week working on various literary projects with long-term deadlines (i.e., they're not due this afternoon). Except for the daily almanac posting and the usual theater-related stuff, I won't be surfacing again until next Monday. Our Girl will take care of you until then.

Have fun while I'm gone!

Posted December 05, 12:00 PM

TT: Empty holes

Like most prolific authors of a certain age (i.e., middle), I've written dozens of uncollected essays, articles, and reviews that vanished into the Black Hole of Forgotten Journalism shortly after they saw print. The posting that follows is cobbled together from a couple of pieces I wrote back in the Nineties, neither of which made it into A Terry Teachout Reader. In the unlikely event that any of you read either one of them when they were originally published, pardon my redundancy. Otherwise, I hope you find this recycled version interesting.

* * *

The surprising thing about American movies is not that most of them are stupid, but that any of them are smart. This blinding flash of insight came to me a few years ago as I sat in my neighborhood movie house and watched a more than usually boneheaded reel of trailers advertising the summer's coming attractions. I wouldn't have willingly paid a quarter to see a single one of them, even with free popcorn thrown in. Of course they were dumb. They're supposed to be dumb, so as to attract the largest possible audience of paying dummies.

Just because I'm not a cynic doesn't make me an optimist, though. I know I'm betting against the house every time I walk into a theater. For this reason, I sometimes find myself temporarily disarmed by a movie that is smart on the surface; less often, a film may simulate smartness so effectively that I go home thinking it was good, and only later realize that I've been hornswoggled. Joel and Ethan Coen fall between these two stools. I've seen most all of the Coen brothers' movies, and in nearly every case I had the same sequence of mixed feelings, not after the fact but on the spot. First came a rush of something like relief, usually within the first minute or two: whatever else Blood Simple, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Fargo were, they weren't stupid. Thus reassured, I relaxed and started to enjoy myself--but then second thoughts started to creep in, not about how smart the Coens were, but about the ends to which their smartness was being put.

The movie that finally caused me to make up my mind about the Coen brothers was The Big Lebowski, in which they explicitly satirized the film noir conventions with which they played in Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing. In case you've forgotten, The Big Lebowski is the story of Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski, a former SDS member who spent his undergraduate days occupying administration buildings and smoking dope by the kilo (his sole achievement in life is to have helped write "the original Port Huron Statement--not the compromised second draft"), has renounced his dreams of revolution and retired to Los Angeles, the paradise of sloth and disillusion, where he draws unemployment, slurps down White Russians more or less continuously and hangs out at the neighborhood bowling alley with his foul-mouthed friends. But someone has been telling lies about the Dude, for one fine day a pair of hired thugs, mistaking him for a self-made millionaire of the same name, smash up his apartment and urinate on his rug. He thereupon seeks out "the big Lebowski" for a chat and promptly finds himself swept up in a kidnapping.

What follows is straight out of Raymond Chandler--the wheelchair-bound client, the blonde trophy wife, the sex-crazed daughter, the rich pornographer, the impossibly complex plot whose various elements never quite mesh--except that Philip Marlowe, the sardonic knight errant of The Big Sleep, has been replaced by the Dude, an unfailingly amiable slacker who reacts to the chaos swirling around him with a combination of befuddlement and good humor, pushing his remaining brain cells to the limit as he endeavors to puzzle out who did what to whom.

Like all of the Coens' movies, The Big Lebowski crackles with disdain for the irredeemable banality of American mass culture. Even Fargo, the first of their films to appeal to a popular audience--and the only one to suggest a certain grudging respect for the traditional values it portrays--took a decidedly dim view of life in small-town Minnesota. It's surely no coincidence that the Dude, who is alienated to the point of paralysis, is also the only person in The Big Lebowski for whom we are meant to feel anything more than amused scorn. Far more representative of the Coens' now-familiar stock company of blithering idiots is Walter Sobchak, the Dude's bowling partner, a pistol-packing Vietnam vet whose impenetrable stupidity is matched only by his unshakable conviction that he knows the one best way to do everything. Leave it to the Coens to make a joke out of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Scorn is the gunpowder of satire, and The Big Lebowski is so keenly observed that it's tempting to treat it as a serious critique of the moral emptiness of American life. It helps that there's so much to satirize in the apathetic lifestyles of such hapless members of the contemporary lumpenproletariat as Walter and the Dude, not to mention the latter-day cult of noir: both phenomena, after all, are expressions of the homegrown quasi-nihilism that is fully as intrinsic to the American national character as the Puritan work ethic which is its inversion.

But noir, for all its tiresome affectations, really does pose a challenging ethical question: how can a man conduct himself with honor in a radically corrupted society? This, needless to say, is the whole point of Chandler's novels, The Big Sleep very much included. Philip Marlowe may talk in wisecracks, but there is nothing frivolous about the way he struggles to preserve his integrity in the face of temptation. Nor are the unhappy children of the Sixties who inhabit The Big Lebowski wholly deserving of our contempt. Though they made desperate messes of their lives, their foolishness arose from genuine idealism, however misbegotten, and if they failed to appreciate the values of the society they proposed to dismantle in the name of peace, love, and understanding, it was in no small part because their parents, worn down by the Great Depression and World War II, proved unwilling to defend those values when push came once again to shove.

As for Joel and Ethan Coen, it turns out that they, too, are nihilists, albeit in the postmodern manner: believing in nothing, they find everything funny. This is why their movies so rarely engage the emotions, and thus lack the dangerous edge of real satire. Satire occurs when scorn is ignited by passion, a commodity rarely found in the work of the Coens, who prefer Gen-X cool to baby-boom angst. The last thing they'd want is to be caught feeling something intensely.

"He's a nihilist," Maude Lebowski says of one of the heavies in The Big Lebowski, to which the Dude cheerfully replies, "Oh, that must be exhausting." Indeed it is, and the Coens, like the Dude, are too tired to do anything but poke clever but ultimately pointless fun at the morally null world in which they live. True postmodernists, they look into the abyss and laugh.

Posted December 05, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Nihilism as a symptom that the losers have no more consolation: that they destroy in order to be destroyed, that without morality they no longer have any reason to 'resign themselves': that they put themselves on the level of the opposite principle and for their part also want power in that they compel the mighty to be their hangmen. This is the European form of Buddhism, renunciation, once all existence has lost its 'meaning.'"

Friedrich Nietzsche, unpublished note (June 10, 1887)

Posted December 05, 12:00 PM

December 4, 2006

TT: Not guilty

A reader writes, apropos of this posting:

Your iPod list and brief commentary brought to mind an interesting question. I notice you list "S.O.S." as a "guilty pleasure." It seems that whenever I encounter this phrase regarding a piece of music, it is always applied to rock and roll (by which I mean rock and roll in its broadest definition--the momentum-based forms of music that have dominated pop culture since 1955). My question is this: as far as you know, is there such a thing as a "guilty pleasure" in any other essentially populist musical genre? I've never once heard a jazz, country or blues record described thus. Same for show tunes or traditional Tin Pan Alley pop or any brand of folk or gospel. I'm interested because quite often when I see something described as a guilty pleasure, it's a record I like a lot ("S.O.S." included) and if there are some of them lying around in other forms I'd certainly like to get to know them!

This is a wonderful question, one that makes a point that had never previously occurred to me. The phrase "guilty pleasure," of course, is itself inherently problematic, because it implies that we ought to be hypocrites when it comes to our artistic responses. Kingsley Amis said the last word about this deeply wrongheaded attitude: "All amateurs must be philistines part of the time. Must be: a greater sin is to be coerced into showing respect when little or none is felt." The inverse is also true. I really do like "S.O.S.," which I believe to be a beautifully crafted pop single, so why should I feel guilty about it?

Generally speaking, though, I don't fall victim to either error, partly because I don't give a damn about received opinion and partly because it's unusual for me to like fundamentally dishonest art. It occurs to me that this might point in the direction of a working definition of bonafide "guilty pleasures" and our responses to them: guilty pleasures let us off too easy by pandering to our innate longing for unearned simplicity. They are the Krispy Kreme donuts of art.

Most commercial movies, for instance, are made on the assumption that audiences want to see moral struggle--but not too much of it. Much more often than not, we know as soon as the credits roll exactly what we're supposed to think the star ought to do (kiss the girl! give back the money!), and we spend the next hour and a half waiting for him to finally get around to doing it. When he does, we go home happy; if he doesn't, we go home feeling cheated, and tell all our friends to pick a different movie next weekend.

Smooth jazz, like minimalist music, works in something of the same way, but I don't know that I'd call either genre a guilty pleasure because I don't find either one pleasurable, any more than I find reality TV pleasurable. As for the pop and country music of my youth--the kind that used to be played on AM radio--I didn't like most of it back then and don't like it now, but I always made an exception for simple, well-crafted songs like "S.O.S." whose "catchiness" was a function of their musical integrity.

And are there guilty pleasures to be found in other musical genres? I'll end by handing out hostages to fortune: here are fifteen stylistically wide-ranging records of variously dubious artistic merits from which I nonetheless derive wholly guilt-free pleasure. Brace yourselves:

- George Strait, "All My Ex's Live in Texas"
- Henry Mancini, "Baby Elephant Walk"
- Kim Carnes, "Bette Davis Eyes"
- A Taste of Honey, "Boogie Oogie Oogie"
- The Carpenters, "Close to You"
- Rupert Holmes, "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)"
- Hal Kemp, "Got a Date With an Angel"
- Melissa Manchester, "Nice Girls"
- Al Dexter, "Pistol Packin' Mama"
- Hall & Oates, "Private Eyes"
- Young-Holt Unlimited, "Soulful Strut"
- Carmen Miranda, "South American Way"
- Vladimir Horowitz, "The Stars and Stripes Forever"
- Classics IV, "Stormy"
- Bing Crosby, "Sweet Leilani"

Make of that list what you will.

Posted December 04, 12:00 PM

TT: They've got a great big list

Speaking of lists, the cover story in the December issue of the Atlantic is a feature called "They Made America" for which ten "eminent historians" were invited to draw up lists of "the most influential figures in American history," which were then combined into a giant-sized über-list of America's Top One Hundred Influentials. Such lists are scarcely more than an intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) party game, but it's always fun to play, and if you go here you can see who made the cut.

Here are the artists:

16. Mark Twain
22. Walt Whitman
26. Walt Disney
33. Ralph Waldo Emerson
41. Harriet Beecher Stowe
49. Frederick Law Olmsted (he designed Central Park)
59. Louis Sullivan (he invented the skyscraper)
60. William Faulkner
65. Henry David Thoreau
66. Elvis Presley
76. Frank Lloyd Wright
79. Louis Armstrong
83. James Fenimore Cooper
85. Ernest Hemingway
92. John Steinbeck
95. Sam Goldwyn (I suppose you could call him an artist)
97. Stephen Foster
100. Herman Melville

Eighteen people, ten of them writers, including three bad novelists. No playwrights. No film or stage directors. No painters (unless you count Samuel F.B. Morse, No. 45 on the list). No sculptors. No choreographers. Only one songwriter, and no other composers of any kind. Do I detect the least little whiff of philistinism on the part of those eminent historians? At least Satchmo made the cut!

In addition to the main list, the magazine published five secondary rosters of influential architects, filmmakers, musicians, poets, and critics. David Thomson chose the filmmakers, and his picks, as always, were illuminating: D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and (here's the ringer) Andy Warhol.

I chose the musicians, and after a good deal of preliminary thought, I opted to play it down the ringerless center: Armstrong, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan.

This, incidentally, is the second such collective venture in which I have participated. Back in 1998 and 1999, Time ran a series of tributes to what it claimed were the one hundred most important people of the twentieth century, including twenty "artists and entertainers": Armstrong, Dylan, Lucille Ball, the Beatles, Marlon Brando, Coco Chanel, Charlie Chaplin, Le Corbusier, T.S. Eliot, Aretha Franklin, Martha Graham, Jim Henson, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bart Simpson, Frank Sinatra, Steven Spielberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Oprah Winfrey. I wrote the article on Graham, but not before begging the editors to choose George Balanchine instead. Alas, I couldn't change their minds, so I bit my tongue and did my duty.

Fortunately, I was allowed to make the final calls on three of the items included in the "Best of the Century" list that Time published on the last day of 1999. For what it's worth, I chose Balanchine's The Four Temperaments as best dance of the century (with Paul Taylor's Esplanade and Antony Tudor's Jardin aux lilas as runners-up), Britten's Peter Grimes as best opera (with Berg's Wozzeck and Puccini's Madama Butterfly as runners-up), and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms as best classical composition (with the Ravel String Quartet and Copland's Appalachian Spring as runners-up). I'd stand by those choices today, though I can easily imagine other, equally satisfactory rosters.

Like I said, it's only a game--but a good one.

Posted December 04, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless. It has nothing to do with melodrama--with wicked villains, persecuted maidens, avengers, sudden revelations, and eleventh-hour repentances. Death, in a melodrama, is really horrible because it is never inevitable. The dear old father might so easily have been saved; the honest young man might so easily have brought in the police five minutes earlier.

"In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone's destiny is known. That's because hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn't any hope. You're trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is to shout.

"Don't mistake me: I said 'shout': I did not say groan, whimper, complain. That, you cannot do. But you can shout aloud; you can get all those things said that you never thought you'd be able to say--or never even knew you had it in you to say."

Jean Anouilh, Antigone (trans. Lewis Galantiere)

Posted December 04, 12:00 PM

TT: Reprieve

New York City can be a vexing and unnerving place to live. Helicopters woke me at six-fifteen this morning, a bit earlier than my usual rise-shine-and-write time, and yesterday afternoon I shared a subway with a fellow who kept shouting "Kill 'em all! Kill 'em all!" as he walked briskly from one end of the car to the other and back again.

Be all this as it may, I'm in a thoroughly benign mood, for I just returned from a visit to my cardiologist, one year to the week after my busy life was interrupted by an unexpected ambulance ride to Lenox Hill Hospital. He tells me that my heart is now completely normal, with no irregularities of any kind. So long as I keep taking my medicine, eating right, and going to the gym, it'll stay that way.

It was snowing when I arrived at the doctor's office--but by the time I got back home, the sun was out. No fooling.

Posted December 04, 11:55 AM

December 1, 2006

TT: From sea to shining sea

I decided to see where "About Last Night" was being read before going to bed, and found these cities (among many others) glowing on our Site Meter map of the United States as of midnight:

- Allentown, Pennsylvania
- Alpharetta, Georgia
- Auburn, Maine
- Bend, Oregon
- Cherry Hill, New Jersey
- Cordova, Tennessee
- Hacienda Heights, California
- Hattiesburg, Mississippi
- Hines, Illinois
- San Marcos, Texas

Hello, everybody, and good night!

Posted December 01, 12:36 PM

TT: Broadway's big week

At last, a hat trick--I praise three new Broadway shows, John Doyle's revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company, Tom Stoppard's Voyage, and David Hare's The Vertical Hour, in this week's Wall Street Journal drama column:

In an act of recreative genius, Mr. Doyle has knocked the cobwebs off "Company" and turned it into an utterly contemporary chronicle of marriage and its discontents, one whose implications have never been more immediate.

Like Mr. Doyle's 2006 revival of "Sweeney Todd," this is a small-scale production in which the 14 members of the cast double as their own onstage orchestra, playing everything from piccolo to double bass. It's no stunt, either: By making their own music, the actors create an atmosphere at once intimate and intense, and Mary-Mitchell Campbell's astringent new orchestrations strip away all the tired pop-music clichés of Jonathan Tunick's original arrangements. Add in David Gallo's appropriately glossy lucite-and-lacquer unit set and Mr. Doyle's bracingly Brechtian "presentational" staging, in which the performers mostly play to the audience rather than to one another, and you get a show that looks and sounds less like a leave-'em-laughing Broadway musical than an avant-garde theater piece. No, this isn't your parents' "Company"--it's better....

Tom Stoppard might just be a great playwright, and "The Coast of Utopia," the trilogy of which "Voyage" is the first installment, may well prove to be a great work of art. That remains to be seen, at least by me, for I haven't yet been to "Shipwreck" and "Salvage," the second and third parts of "The Coast of Utopia" (they open on Dec. 21 and Feb. 15). I can already tell you, though, that "Voyage" is that rarest of theatrical experiences, a thrilling play that makes you think--hard.

Taken together, "Voyage," "Shipwreck" and "Salvage" constitute a grandiose meditation on the inscrutable workings of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The principal characters, Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup) and Alexander Herzen (Brían F. O'Byrne), were a group of passionately idealistic 19th-century Russian intellectuals who, in a supremely tragic act of historical irony, helped catapult their country out of one tyranny and into a worse one. In "Voyage" we see them as angry young men, at once besotted with art and philosophy and enraged by the rigid authoritarianism of life in Imperial Russia--and at play's end we watch in horrified awe as they turn fatefully from reflection to action....

Mr. Stoppard is an artist fascinated by political ideas. David Hare, on the other hand, is a political playwright with artistic instincts, and in "The Vertical Hour" he gives them the upper hand. The result is a show far more convincing than "Stuff Happens," Mr. Hare's illustrated lecture on the wickedness of the Bush administration, which played to whoops of self-satisfied delight at the Public Theater earlier this year. "The Vertical Hour" is about the Iraq war, too, but this time around Mr. Hare has gone to the trouble of embedding his opinions in a domestic drama of no small subtlety, and though his characters are symbols, they're also fully believable as human beings....

No free link, and I'm really sorry about that--it's been at least a month since I had anything good to say about theater in New York, and I'd like to get the word out. Fortunately, you can always buy a copy of Friday's Journal and look up my column in the "Weekend Journal" section, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my review, among countless other good things. (If you're already a subscriber, the review is here.)

Posted December 01, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"We must not dismiss a new poet because his poem is called ‘To a Skylark'; nor must we dismiss a humorist because his new farce is called ‘My Mother-in-Law.' He may really have splendid and inspiring things to say upon an eternal problem. The whole question is whether he has."

G.K. Chesterton, introduction to Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz

Posted December 01, 12:00 PM

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December 1, 2006

TT: Almanac

"We must not dismiss a new poet because his poem is called ‘To a Skylark'; nor must we dismiss a humorist because his new farce is called ‘My Mother-in-Law.' He may really have splendid and inspiring things to say upon an eternal problem. The whole question is whether he has."

G.K. Chesterton, introduction to Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz

TT: Broadway's big week

At last, a hat trick--I praise three new Broadway shows, John Doyle's revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company, Tom Stoppard's Voyage, and David Hare's The Vertical Hour, in this week's Wall Street Journal drama column:

In an act of recreative genius, Mr. Doyle has knocked the cobwebs off "Company" and turned it into an utterly contemporary chronicle of marriage and its discontents, one whose implications have never been more immediate.

Like Mr. Doyle's 2006 revival of "Sweeney Todd," this is a small-scale production in which the 14 members of the cast double as their own onstage orchestra, playing everything from piccolo to double bass. It's no stunt, either: By making their own music, the actors create an atmosphere at once intimate and intense, and Mary-Mitchell Campbell's astringent new orchestrations strip away all the tired pop-music clichés of Jonathan Tunick's original arrangements. Add in David Gallo's appropriately glossy lucite-and-lacquer unit set and Mr. Doyle's bracingly Brechtian "presentational" staging, in which the performers mostly play to the audience rather than to one another, and you get a show that looks and sounds less like a leave-'em-laughing Broadway musical than an avant-garde theater piece. No, this isn't your parents' "Company"--it's better....

Tom Stoppard might just be a great playwright, and "The Coast of Utopia," the trilogy of which "Voyage" is the first installment, may well prove to be a great work of art. That remains to be seen, at least by me, for I haven't yet been to "Shipwreck" and "Salvage," the second and third parts of "The Coast of Utopia" (they open on Dec. 21 and Feb. 15). I can already tell you, though, that "Voyage" is that rarest of theatrical experiences, a thrilling play that makes you think--hard.

Taken together, "Voyage," "Shipwreck" and "Salvage" constitute a grandiose meditation on the inscrutable workings of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The principal characters, Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup) and Alexander Herzen (Brían F. O'Byrne), were a group of passionately idealistic 19th-century Russian intellectuals who, in a supremely tragic act of historical irony, helped catapult their country out of one tyranny and into a worse one. In "Voyage" we see them as angry young men, at once besotted with art and philosophy and enraged by the rigid authoritarianism of life in Imperial Russia--and at play's end we watch in horrified awe as they turn fatefully from reflection to action....

Mr. Stoppard is an artist fascinated by political ideas. David Hare, on the other hand, is a political playwright with artistic instincts, and in "The Vertical Hour" he gives them the upper hand. The result is a show far more convincing than "Stuff Happens," Mr. Hare's illustrated lecture on the wickedness of the Bush administration, which played to whoops of self-satisfied delight at the Public Theater earlier this year. "The Vertical Hour" is about the Iraq war, too, but this time around Mr. Hare has gone to the trouble of embedding his opinions in a domestic drama of no small subtlety, and though his characters are symbols, they're also fully believable as human beings....

No free link, and I'm really sorry about that--it's been at least a month since I had anything good to say about theater in New York, and I'd like to get the word out. Fortunately, you can always buy a copy of Friday's Journal and look up my column in the "Weekend Journal" section, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my review, among countless other good things. (If you're already a subscriber, the review is here.)

TT: From sea to shining sea

I decided to see where "About Last Night" was being read before going to bed, and found these cities (among many others) glowing on our Site Meter map of the United States as of midnight:

- Allentown, Pennsylvania
- Alpharetta, Georgia
- Auburn, Maine
- Bend, Oregon
- Cherry Hill, New Jersey
- Cordova, Tennessee
- Hacienda Heights, California
- Hattiesburg, Mississippi
- Hines, Illinois
- San Marcos, Texas

Hello, everybody, and good night!

December 4, 2006

TT: Reprieve

New York City can be a vexing and unnerving place to live. Helicopters woke me at six-fifteen this morning, a bit earlier than my usual rise-shine-and-write time, and yesterday afternoon I shared a subway with a fellow who kept shouting "Kill 'em all! Kill 'em all!" as he walked briskly from one end of the car to the other and back again.

Be all this as it may, I'm in a thoroughly benign mood, for I just returned from a visit to my cardiologist, one year to the week after my busy life was interrupted by an unexpected ambulance ride to Lenox Hill Hospital. He tells me that my heart is now completely normal, with no irregularities of any kind. So long as I keep taking my medicine, eating right, and going to the gym, it'll stay that way.

It was snowing when I arrived at the doctor's office--but by the time I got back home, the sun was out. No fooling.

TT: Almanac

"Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless. It has nothing to do with melodrama--with wicked villains, persecuted maidens, avengers, sudden revelations, and eleventh-hour repentances. Death, in a melodrama, is really horrible because it is never inevitable. The dear old father might so easily have been saved; the honest young man might so easily have brought in the police five minutes earlier.

"In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone's destiny is known. That's because hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn't any hope. You're trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is to shout.

"Don't mistake me: I said 'shout': I did not say groan, whimper, complain. That, you cannot do. But you can shout aloud; you can get all those things said that you never thought you'd be able to say--or never even knew you had it in you to say."

Jean Anouilh, Antigone (trans. Lewis Galantiere)

TT: They've got a great big list

Speaking of lists, the cover story in the December issue of the Atlantic is a feature called "They Made America" for which ten "eminent historians" were invited to draw up lists of "the most influential figures in American history," which were then combined into a giant-sized über-list of America's Top One Hundred Influentials. Such lists are scarcely more than an intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) party game, but it's always fun to play, and if you go here you can see who made the cut.

Here are the artists:

16. Mark Twain
22. Walt Whitman
26. Walt Disney
33. Ralph Waldo Emerson
41. Harriet Beecher Stowe
49. Frederick Law Olmsted (he designed Central Park)
59. Louis Sullivan (he invented the skyscraper)
60. William Faulkner
65. Henry David Thoreau
66. Elvis Presley
76. Frank Lloyd Wright
79. Louis Armstrong
83. James Fenimore Cooper
85. Ernest Hemingway
92. John Steinbeck
95. Sam Goldwyn (I suppose you could call him an artist)
97. Stephen Foster
100. Herman Melville

Eighteen people, ten of them writers, including three bad novelists. No playwrights. No film or stage directors. No painters (unless you count Samuel F.B. Morse, No. 45 on the list). No sculptors. No choreographers. Only one songwriter, and no other composers of any kind. Do I detect the least little whiff of philistinism on the part of those eminent historians? At least Satchmo made the cut!

In addition to the main list, the magazine published five secondary rosters of influential architects, filmmakers, musicians, poets, and critics. David Thomson chose the filmmakers, and his picks, as always, were illuminating: D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and (here's the ringer) Andy Warhol.

I chose the musicians, and after a good deal of preliminary thought, I opted to play it down the ringerless center: Armstrong, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan.

This, incidentally, is the second such collective venture in which I have participated. Back in 1998 and 1999, Time ran a series of tributes to what it claimed were the one hundred most important people of the twentieth century, including twenty "artists and entertainers": Armstrong, Dylan, Lucille Ball, the Beatles, Marlon Brando, Coco Chanel, Charlie Chaplin, Le Corbusier, T.S. Eliot, Aretha Franklin, Martha Graham, Jim Henson, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bart Simpson, Frank Sinatra, Steven Spielberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Oprah Winfrey. I wrote the article on Graham, but not before begging the editors to choose George Balanchine instead. Alas, I couldn't change their minds, so I bit my tongue and did my duty.

Fortunately, I was allowed to make the final calls on three of the items included in the "Best of the Century" list that Time published on the last day of 1999. For what it's worth, I chose Balanchine's The Four Temperaments as best dance of the century (with Paul Taylor's Esplanade and Antony Tudor's Jardin aux lilas as runners-up), Britten's Peter Grimes as best opera (with Berg's Wozzeck and Puccini's Madama Butterfly as runners-up), and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms as best classical composition (with the Ravel String Quartet and Copland's Appalachian Spring as runners-up). I'd stand by those choices today, though I can easily imagine other, equally satisfactory rosters.

Like I said, it's only a game--but a good one.

TT: Not guilty

A reader writes, apropos of this posting:

Your iPod list and brief commentary brought to mind an interesting question. I notice you list "S.O.S." as a "guilty pleasure." It seems that whenever I encounter this phrase regarding a piece of music, it is always applied to rock and roll (by which I mean rock and roll in its broadest definition--the momentum-based forms of music that have dominated pop culture since 1955). My question is this: as far as you know, is there such a thing as a "guilty pleasure" in any other essentially populist musical genre? I've never once heard a jazz, country or blues record described thus. Same for show tunes or traditional Tin Pan Alley pop or any brand of folk or gospel. I'm interested because quite often when I see something described as a guilty pleasure, it's a record I like a lot ("S.O.S." included) and if there are some of them lying around in other forms I'd certainly like to get to know them!

This is a wonderful question, one that makes a point that had never previously occurred to me. The phrase "guilty pleasure," of course, is itself inherently problematic, because it implies that we ought to be hypocrites when it comes to our artistic responses. Kingsley Amis said the last word about this deeply wrongheaded attitude: "All amateurs must be philistines part of the time. Must be: a greater sin is to be coerced into showing respect when little or none is felt." The inverse is also true. I really do like "S.O.S.," which I believe to be a beautifully crafted pop single, so why should I feel guilty about it?

Generally speaking, though, I don't fall victim to either error, partly because I don't give a damn about received opinion and partly because it's unusual for me to like fundamentally dishonest art. It occurs to me that this might point in the direction of a working definition of bonafide "guilty pleasures" and our responses to them: guilty pleasures let us off too easy by pandering to our innate longing for unearned simplicity. They are the Krispy Kreme donuts of art.

Most commercial movies, for instance, are made on the assumption that audiences want to see moral struggle--but not too much of it. Much more often than not, we know as soon as the credits roll exactly what we're supposed to think the star ought to do (kiss the girl! give back the money!), and we spend the next hour and a half waiting for him to finally get around to doing it. When he does, we go home happy; if he doesn't, we go home feeling cheated, and tell all our friends to pick a different movie next weekend.

Smooth jazz, like minimalist music, works in something of the same way, but I don't know that I'd call either genre a guilty pleasure because I don't find either one pleasurable, any more than I find reality TV pleasurable. As for the pop and country music of my youth--the kind that used to be played on AM radio--I didn't like most of it back then and don't like it now, but I always made an exception for simple, well-crafted songs like "S.O.S." whose "catchiness" was a function of their musical integrity.

And are there guilty pleasures to be found in other musical genres? I'll end by handing out hostages to fortune: here are fifteen stylistically wide-ranging records of variously dubious artistic merits from which I nonetheless derive wholly guilt-free pleasure. Brace yourselves:

- George Strait, "All My Ex's Live in Texas"
- Henry Mancini, "Baby Elephant Walk"
- Kim Carnes, "Bette Davis Eyes"
- A Taste of Honey, "Boogie Oogie Oogie"
- The Carpenters, "Close to You"
- Rupert Holmes, "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)"
- Hal Kemp, "Got a Date With an Angel"
- Melissa Manchester, "Nice Girls"
- Al Dexter, "Pistol Packin' Mama"
- Hall & Oates, "Private Eyes"
- Young-Holt Unlimited, "Soulful Strut"
- Carmen Miranda, "South American Way"
- Vladimir Horowitz, "The Stars and Stripes Forever"
- Classics IV, "Stormy"
- Bing Crosby, "Sweet Leilani"

Make of that list what you will.

December 5, 2006

TT: Almanac

"Nihilism as a symptom that the losers have no more consolation: that they destroy in order to be destroyed, that without morality they no longer have any reason to 'resign themselves': that they put themselves on the level of the opposite principle and for their part also want power in that they compel the mighty to be their hangmen. This is the European form of Buddhism, renunciation, once all existence has lost its 'meaning.'"

Friedrich Nietzsche, unpublished note (June 10, 1887)

TT: Empty holes

Like most prolific authors of a certain age (i.e., middle), I've written dozens of uncollected essays, articles, and reviews that vanished into the Black Hole of Forgotten Journalism shortly after they saw print. The posting that follows is cobbled together from a couple of pieces I wrote back in the Nineties, neither of which made it into A Terry Teachout Reader. In the unlikely event that any of you read either one of them when they were originally published, pardon my redundancy. Otherwise, I hope you find this recycled version interesting.

* * *

The surprising thing about American movies is not that most of them are stupid, but that any of them are smart. This blinding flash of insight came to me a few years ago as I sat in my neighborhood movie house and watched a more than usually boneheaded reel of trailers advertising the summer's coming attractions. I wouldn't have willingly paid a quarter to see a single one of them, even with free popcorn thrown in. Of course they were dumb. They're supposed to be dumb, so as to attract the largest possible audience of paying dummies.

Just because I'm not a cynic doesn't make me an optimist, though. I know I'm betting against the house every time I walk into a theater. For this reason, I sometimes find myself temporarily disarmed by a movie that is smart on the surface; less often, a film may simulate smartness so effectively that I go home thinking it was good, and only later realize that I've been hornswoggled. Joel and Ethan Coen fall between these two stools. I've seen most all of the Coen brothers' movies, and in nearly every case I had the same sequence of mixed feelings, not after the fact but on the spot. First came a rush of something like relief, usually within the first minute or two: whatever else Blood Simple, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Fargo were, they weren't stupid. Thus reassured, I relaxed and started to enjoy myself--but then second thoughts started to creep in, not about how smart the Coens were, but about the ends to which their smartness was being put.

The movie that finally caused me to make up my mind about the Coen brothers was The Big Lebowski, in which they explicitly satirized the film noir conventions with which they played in Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing. In case you've forgotten, The Big Lebowski is the story of Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski, a former SDS member who spent his undergraduate days occupying administration buildings and smoking dope by the kilo (his sole achievement in life is to have helped write "the original Port Huron Statement--not the compromised second draft"), has renounced his dreams of revolution and retired to Los Angeles, the paradise of sloth and disillusion, where he draws unemployment, slurps down White Russians more or less continuously and hangs out at the neighborhood bowling alley with his foul-mouthed friends. But someone has been telling lies about the Dude, for one fine day a pair of hired thugs, mistaking him for a self-made millionaire of the same name, smash up his apartment and urinate on his rug. He thereupon seeks out "the big Lebowski" for a chat and promptly finds himself swept up in a kidnapping.

What follows is straight out of Raymond Chandler--the wheelchair-bound client, the blonde trophy wife, the sex-crazed daughter, the rich pornographer, the impossibly complex plot whose various elements never quite mesh--except that Philip Marlowe, the sardonic knight errant of The Big Sleep, has been replaced by the Dude, an unfailingly amiable slacker who reacts to the chaos swirling around him with a combination of befuddlement and good humor, pushing his remaining brain cells to the limit as he endeavors to puzzle out who did what to whom.

Like all of the Coens' movies, The Big Lebowski crackles with disdain for the irredeemable banality of American mass culture. Even Fargo, the first of their films to appeal to a popular audience--and the only one to suggest a certain grudging respect for the traditional values it portrays--took a decidedly dim view of life in small-town Minnesota. It's surely no coincidence that the Dude, who is alienated to the point of paralysis, is also the only person in The Big Lebowski for whom we are meant to feel anything more than amused scorn. Far more representative of the Coens' now-familiar stock company of blithering idiots is Walter Sobchak, the Dude's bowling partner, a pistol-packing Vietnam vet whose impenetrable stupidity is matched only by his unshakable conviction that he knows the one best way to do everything. Leave it to the Coens to make a joke out of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Scorn is the gunpowder of satire, and The Big Lebowski is so keenly observed that it's tempting to treat it as a serious critique of the moral emptiness of American life. It helps that there's so much to satirize in the apathetic lifestyles of such hapless members of the contemporary lumpenproletariat as Walter and the Dude, not to mention the latter-day cult of noir: both phenomena, after all, are expressions of the homegrown quasi-nihilism that is fully as intrinsic to the American national character as the Puritan work ethic which is its inversion.

But noir, for all its tiresome affectations, really does pose a challenging ethical question: how can a man conduct himself with honor in a radically corrupted society? This, needless to say, is the whole point of Chandler's novels, The Big Sleep very much included. Philip Marlowe may talk in wisecracks, but there is nothing frivolous about the way he struggles to preserve his integrity in the face of temptation. Nor are the unhappy children of the Sixties who inhabit The Big Lebowski wholly deserving of our contempt. Though they made desperate messes of their lives, their foolishness arose from genuine idealism, however misbegotten, and if they failed to appreciate the values of the society they proposed to dismantle in the name of peace, love, and understanding, it was in no small part because their parents, worn down by the Great Depression and World War II, proved unwilling to defend those values when push came once again to shove.

As for Joel and Ethan Coen, it turns out that they, too, are nihilists, albeit in the postmodern manner: believing in nothing, they find everything funny. This is why their movies so rarely engage the emotions, and thus lack the dangerous edge of real satire. Satire occurs when scorn is ignited by passion, a commodity rarely found in the work of the Coens, who prefer Gen-X cool to baby-boom angst. The last thing they'd want is to be caught feeling something intensely.

"He's a nihilist," Maude Lebowski says of one of the heavies in The Big Lebowski, to which the Dude cheerfully replies, "Oh, that must be exhausting." Indeed it is, and the Coens, like the Dude, are too tired to do anything but poke clever but ultimately pointless fun at the morally null world in which they live. True postmodernists, they look into the abyss and laugh.

TT: Man at work

I'm disappearing into the woods of Connecticut to spend the rest of the week working on various literary projects with long-term deadlines (i.e., they're not due this afternoon). Except for the daily almanac posting and the usual theater-related stuff, I won't be surfacing again until next Monday. Our Girl will take care of you until then.

Have fun while I'm gone!

December 6, 2006

OGIC: Fortune cookie

"Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone."

Henry Green, Pack My Bag

TT: Sorry about that

Yes, I'm in Connecticut, but something came up that I thought was worth sharing. The critics of the Chicago Tribune recently published a series of columns called "Critical Reversals" in which they confessed--sort of--to having changed their minds about pieces they'd written in the past. (For links to the individual columns, go here.)

Not surprisingly, these columns have provoked a certain amount of comment in the blogosphere, much of it skeptical. As for me, I have a personal interest in "Critical Reversals," for in 2002 I published a column in The Wall Street Journal called "The Contrite Critic" in which I discussed one of my own blunders:

The big news for balletomanes is the coming of the Mark Morris Dance Group to Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival. Tonight, the company will be giving the first of four performances of "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," Mr. Morris's evening-long stage version of the Handel oratorio. "L'Allegro" is one of the most important dances of the past quarter-century, so this week's performances are by definition a great occasion.

They will also be an occasion for me to eat crow, since I am, so far as I know, the only critic ever to have given "L'Allegro" a bad review. Seven years ago, I covered the Lincoln Center premiere for the New York Daily News, and I just didn't get it. I called "L'Allegro" "impressive in its seriousness, stunning in its inventiveness--and, ultimately, disappointing in its emotional flatness." I've written my share of wrongheaded reviews, but that's the one I regret most, because I was too dense to know a masterpiece when I saw it....

I mention this because it is a good thing for critics to abase themselves in public, even though we do it so rarely. I've changed my mind about art more than once, and I've learned that I not infrequently start by disliking something and end up liking it. Not always--sometimes I decide on closer acquaintance that a novel or painting isn't as good as I'd thought. More often, though, I realize that it was necessary for me to grow into a fuller understanding of a work of art to which my powers of comprehension were not at first equal....

The Journal posted a free link to this column, and you can still read the whole thing here. More recently, I revisited the subject here.

OGIC: Breakfast links

More blogging to come this evening, but for now here are some links to go with your cup of joe:

- I agree with Dan Green of the Reading Experience probably half the time, but I always read him. He can be counted on, for one thing, to seethe eloquently about what's wrong with academic literary studies, as in his post today:

What now passes for literary criticism in the learned journals does less than nothing to encourage active reading, much less rereading. It wades around in the shallow waters of ideology and second-hand social analysis, leaving serious readers of literature to swim for themselves.

- I know, I know--some of you don't want to hear about hockey! But far more estimable arts bloggers than your present interlocutor occasionally must need blog on such lesser matters. A new entry in the wide world of hockey blogs is A Theory of Ice. It's turned my head with consistently elegant writing, and is particularly good on the culture of the game and its followers, as here on physicality as a two-sided coin and here on fandom and love.

- Mr. Quiet Bubble wasn't bowled over by Borat. Can't say I was either, though I giggled plenty. The Saunders link is well worth following. Part of the reason it's been hard to blog lately is that so many of my recent literary and cinematic excursions have proven so blah. I crave a transformative art experience, but it turns out this doesn't happen on demand. I do have a new lead or two, though, about which more soon.

See you tonight!

TT: Almanac

"The great man who can only be succeeded by a ‘lieutenant of Marines,' a chief clerk, or a tired servile hack, is not a necessity. But the leader who himself has strength and leaves behind strength--the truly ‘great man' and genuine ‘leader'--looks completely different and acts completely differently from the ‘great man' of popular myth. He does not lead by ‘charisma'--an abomination and phony, even when it is not a press agent's invention. The truly strong man leads by hard work and dedication. He does not centralize everything in his hands but builds a team. He dominates through integrity, not through manipulation. He is not clever, but simple and honest."

Peter F. Drucker, Adventures of a Bystander

December 7, 2006

OGIC: Chilling with Caroline Blackwood

New York Review Books, which is doing some of the most interesting publishing today, has launched a blog that should be worth keeping an eye on: A Different Stripe. As it happens, the last book I finished was an NYRB Classic and a curious specimen. Here's a review/reflection.

Caroline Blackwood's taut, efficient Great Granny Webster (1977) is a novel with a void and a chill at the center. Autobiographical to an unknown degree, it is narrated by the great-granddaughter of the title character. About the narrator's great-grandmother, grandmother, and aunt, we learn a great deal, none of it favorable. About the orphaned narrator herself we know little more than her appalled apprehension of her female forebears. The book is in some ways reminiscent of Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood--notably in the perspective it adopts of the preternaturally observant orphan imprisoned in a a secondhand family of unsympathetic relative strangers--but substitutes a vague air of disaffection for the young Mary's sense of persecution and injustice. Unlike McCarthy's book, it purports to be a novel, but reportedly lost the Booker Prize by the tiebreaking vote of Philip Larkin, who admired it but bestowed his favor elsewhere because he suspected Blackwood of having written nonfiction.

The novel doesn't so much unfold as unfurl, swish, swish, swish, in three rather static character studies followed by a brief coda that brings us graveside to descend into the vertiginous pitch-dark slapstick on which this odd reading experience ends. The first and dominant portrait is of Great Granny Webster herself, with whom the fourteen-year-old narrator is deposited to convalesce following an illness. In a great, grim house in a suburb of Brighton with a single servant, Great Granny Webster lives as a kind of carefully preserved monument to thrift and propriety, the embodied inverse of plenty and pleasure--"fiercely joyless," the narrator calls her.

And yet--is Great Granny really altogether without her charms, however unintentional?

...sometimes after meals had been served she would wait for the crippled figure of Richards to go limping out of the room, and she would suddenly start to make a few bleak and deadpan statements without appearing to expect any answer. I had the feeling that if I had not been with her, she would still have made the same remarks aloud to herself.

"Now-a-days," she would suddenly say, "people have been spoiled. They don't want to be servants any more. It's all the fault of the war. It's this last beastly war that has given them all such a taste for working in munitions."

She would take some saccharine from her silver sugar-bowl and drop it carefully into her tiny china coffee-cup and stir it slowly until it dissolved. She never took more than one frugal little tablet. She often told me she could not abide waste."

"I know exactly how to answer them, when now-a-days they ask me how I would like to be their servant!"

She would pause dramatically, like an actress who expects to be clapped for her line. Her pursed little discontented mouth would give a twitch, the only movement it seemed able to make that faintly resembled a smile.

"Poor silly things! I know exactly how to answer that! If I ever had to be their servant--I would only be the most excellent servant!"

Something in this, and in other details about the matriarch Webster, I found oddly disarming. And at the end of the narrator's eight-week stay at Hove, she startles the narrator at the train station by recalling her grandson, the narrator's father, dead in the war, with real emotion. The narrator's response: "Goodbye." She's fourteen, so this is understandable. What's less so is how untouched by this show of feeling her mature, retrospective account of her great-grandmother is--so invested is it in the picturesque extremity of the bleakness it paints.

In their own distinct ways, the portraits that follow--of the narrator's suicidal, fast-living aunt Lavinia and her unpicturesquely insane grandmother--are also sad descriptive tours de force. The sketch of the grandmother comes secondhand from the tales of an old school chum of the narrator's father. While we hear almost nothing of her mother, her father is the painfully missing piece whose absence exacerbates all of the characters' worst tendencies and miseries. He's doubly a cipher, not only absent but mysterious to the narrator--specifically in the attachment he demonstrated to Great Granny Webster, who, in the explanatory narrative the narrator would like us to believe, is the ultimate agent of all the dysfunction besetting the family.

She doesn't quite fit into that narrative, however, just as in the queasily comical horror of the final scene, she exceeds the space--in the ground and in the ceremony--allotted for her:

And then there seemed to be too much of Great Granny Webster to be emptied into the ground. There was something almost obscene in the sheer quantities in which she was emerging. I had expected that the clergyman would just take one handful of her ashes and throw them into the grave as a symbol. But instead he kept impatiently tipping the urn and his frozen face looked exasperated at the way that her white powdery substance would not stop flowing out.

Blackwood was a talent, no doubt, and Great Granny Webster is a bracing read in its chilly way: remorseless, fiendishly precise, generously larded with memorable scenes and characters, and frequently funny in an awful way (see especially the Lavinia chapter). The funeral scene on which it ends introduces into the mix lasting, intertwined notes of comedy and despair. By emphasizing the narrator's undying dread of the woman being put to rest it raises the possibility that what seems the book's cold climate belongs more precisely to the narrator.

TT: Ears on the prize

This year's Grammy nominations are even duller than usual, but there are some highlights among the dross. I was amazed and delighted, for instance, to see that Karrin Allyson's Footprints, Nancy King's Live at Jazz Standard with Fred Hersch, and Diana Krall's From This Moment On were all nominated as Best Jazz Vocal Album.

Here are some other noteworthy nominations:

- BEST COUNTRY INSTRUMENTAL PERFORMANCE: Chris Thile, "The Eleventh Reel," from How to Grow a Woman From the Ground (Sugar Hill)

- BEST JAZZ INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM, INDIVIDUAL OR GROUP: Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings, and John Scofield, Trio Beyond--Saudades (ECM)

- BEST LARGE JAZZ ENSEMBLE ALBUM: Bob Brookmeyer and the New Art Orchestra, Spirit Music (ArtistShare)

- BEST SOUTHERN, COUNTRY, OR BLUEGRASS GOSPEL ALBUM: Del McCoury Band, The Promised Land (McCoury Music)

- BEST CONTEMPORARY FOLK/AMERICANA ALBUM: Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac (Capitol)

- BEST MUSICAL SHOW ALBUM: The original-cast albums of The Drowsy Chaperone (Ghostlight) and the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd (Nonesuch)

- BEST ALBUM NOTES: Fats Waller, If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It! (Bluebird/Legacy, notes by Dan Morgenstern)

- BEST CLASSICAL VOCAL PERFORMANCE: Ian Bostridge, Britten Orchestral Song Cycles (EMI Classics)

Somehow I doubt that any of these folks will be seen on the Grammy telecast!

Speaking of niche marketing, I was fascinated to learn that in addition to such hair-splitting categories as Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and Best Surround Sound Album, there are now Grammies for the best albums in the following categories: Tropical Latin, Mexican/Mexican-American, Tejano, Norteño, Banda, Native American, Hawaiian, and Polka.

TT: Almanac

"There is, indeed, an art to being an aware and responsive audience. In recent years, we have fallen into a simple-minded equation of 'participation' with overt activity. But one participates more meaningfully in really seeing one great work than in turning out a hundred mediocrities."

Thomas Albright, On Art and Artists

TT: So you want to see a show?

Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

BROADWAY:
- Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
- A Chorus Line* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
- Company (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter and situations, reviewed here)
- The Drowsy Chaperone* (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
- The Vertical Hour* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Apr. 1)
- Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too intellectually complex to be suitable for children of any age, reviewed here, closes Mar. 6)
- The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Dec. 31)

OFF BROADWAY:
- The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
- Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
- Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here, closes Jan. 14)

CLOSING SATURDAY:
- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (drama, R, adult subject matter and nudity, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK:
- Heartbreak House* (drama, G/PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Dec. 17)

TT: Turnabout

Time Out New York has just published a multi-part feature called "Critiquing the Critics" in which New York-based arts professionals (including publicists) were invited to grade the critics who cover them. The participants in the survey are identified by name, but their comments about specific critics are anonymous--with good reason, too, in more than a few cases.

This is, in theory, a nifty idea. I was going to comment on the methodology of the survey, which is (to put it mildly) problematic, but it seems that fellow blogger Apollinaire Scherr, the dance critic of Newsday, has already done it for me. As for the actual results, they're both interesting and on occasion highly suggestive. If you're curious, you can read what the panelists had to say about New York's drama critics, myself included, by going here.

I should add, by the way, that I don't quarrel with any of the specific comments that were made about me, which is--I suppose--a pleasant surprise.

December 8, 2006

TT: Almanac

Q. You speak of your early plays as being poetic. What caused the change?

A. When I first started writing plays I couldn't write good dialogue because I didn't respect how black people talked. I thought that in order to make art out of their dialogue I had to change it, make it into something different. Once I learned to value and respect my characters, I could really hear them. I let them start talking. The important thing is not to censor them. What they are talking about may not seem to have anything to do with what you as a writer are writing about but it does. Let them talk and it will connect, because you as a writer will make it connect. The more my characters talk, the more I find out about them. So I encourage them. I tell them, "Tell me more." I just write it down and it starts to make connections.

August Wilson, interview, Paris Review (Winter 1999)

TT: The artist next door

The occasion for my next "Sightings" column, to be published in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, is a new program recently announced by Carnegie Hall and the Juilliard School that will send young musical professionals into New York City's public schools to teach--and, hopefully, to inspire by example.

Aside from the intrinsic merits of the program, what interests me about it is the fact that it is designed to inject artists into the community, thus helping to break down the wall that separates them from the people they serve. How many practicing professional artists do you know? If you read "About Last Night," your answer is likely to be different from that of the average concertgoer. And why does that matter? To find out, pick up a copy of tomorrow's Journal, where you'll find my column in the "Pursuits" section.

TT: Gospel truth

I reviewed two shows this week, one terrific (Two Trains Running) and one so-so (High Fidelity). Here's the scoop, straight from this morning's Wall Street Journal:

Not long after launching this column, I coined the Drama Critic's Prayer: Dear God, if it can't be good, let it be short. In fact, today's playwrights are well aware of the shrunken attention spans of TV-conditioned playgoers, and so their plays are growing shorter by the season. I don't have a problem with that--I like artists who stick to the point, assuming they have one--but the Signature Theatre Company's revival of "Two Trains Running," August Wilson's 1990 play, is anything but boring even though it runs for three hours and ten minutes. If I hadn't checked, I would have taken for granted that it clocked in at two hours and change.

What makes "Two Trains Running" so engrossing? It's not the plot, because there isn't one. All Wilson does is put his characters in a rundown Pittsburgh diner and set them to mulling over past misfortunes and present frustrations, swapping stories in the time-honored manner of working-class people who can afford no amusement but conversation. The time is 1969, and political implications are scattered throughout this snapshot of a ghetto neighborhood gone to seed, but Wilson never forces them on you. Like all great artists, he trusts you to connect the dots....

Stephen Frears's film version of "High Fidelity" is on my Top Five list of good movies based on good books, in between "Strangers on a Train" and "Out of Sight." (I actually prefer it to Nick Hornby's novel.) The script is smart, the cast impeccable. What's not to like? Nothing--so why turn it into a musical? Alas, the producers of "High Fidelity" came to a different conclusion, and now seem likely to lose their shirts....

The unfamiliar faces taking up space on the stage of the Imperial Theatre are bland TV-type actors who mostly do their best to remind you of John Cusack, Jack Black, Tim Robbins, Todd Louiso and Lisa Bonet. And that's what's wrong with "High Fidelity": It's good enough to make you want to go home and watch the movie again--but no better.

As usual, no free link, so buy the paper and read the rest of my review, O.K.? Or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you abracadabra-type access to my review, among innumerable other good things, including Joe Morgenstern's super-smart film reviews. (If you're already a subscriber, the review is here.)

TT: Hootie hits the road

Anyone who played jazz in Kansas City in the Seventies ran into Jay McShann from time to time, and was invariably the better for it. A great, genial presence on the bandstand, he played no-nonsense piano and sang the blues in a slyly insinuating manner that never failed to give pleasure.

History mainly remembers McShann as the man who led the big band with which Charlie Parker made his first studio recordings back in 1941, but he and his group were far more than just a footnote to bebop. Their Decca recordings of "Hootie Blues," "Sepian Bounce," and "Swingmatism" (reissued a couple of years ago as part of Jumpin' the Blues, a budget-priced two-CD set from Proper Records) are as ear-catching now as they were six and a half decades ago--and not just because of Parker's solos, either.

After dropping out of sight for a long, dry spell, McShann resurfaced in 1969, subsequently recording an all-star comeback album called Last of the Blue Devils whose well-deserved success made him a fixture on the festival circuit. It was around then that I first heard him in person, marveling at the fact that he was still around, and still swinging. Those were the days when I'd just started playing bass professionally, and though I never got the chance to work with McShann, I was sinfully proud to be able to say that I was, like him, a Kansas City jazzman.

McShann died in a Kansas City hospital yesterday. He was ninety years old. The Kansas City Star's obituary is here, along with a package of related stories and video clips. It leaves out a few things, including the fact that Alvin Ailey made a dance in 1988, Opus McShann, set to several of McShann's recordings, but it gets the important stuff right, and it also includes a characteristic quote from the man himself, courtesy of the Associated Press obit:

You'd just have some people sitting around, and you'd hear some cat play, and somebody would say, "This cat, he sounds like he's from Kansas City." It was the Kansas City style. They knew it on the East Coast. They knew it on the West Coast. They knew it up north, and they knew it down south.

They still do.

UPDATE: The New York Times obituary is here. It's serviceable, though short. Nothing from the Washington Post, which surprises me--they tend to be quick on the uptake, but this time they dropped the ball. (The Post finally got in the game on Sunday.)

December 11, 2006

TT: Almanac

"Love, by reason of its passion, destroys the in-between which relates us to and separates us from others."

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

TT: Words to the wise

I rejoice to inform you that Julia Dollison is in town tonight for a one-night stand at the Jazz Standard, the best of all possible nightclubs. I've written about Julia more than once in this space, but if her name is new to you, go here to read my liner notes for her debut album, Observatory.

Two sets tonight, at 7:30 and 9:30. For more information, go here and scroll down. I'm going to try to get back from Connecticut for the second set, but it's a long trip, so if I don't make it in time, please show up in my place and cheer her on. Believe me, you won't be sorry.

TT: Winter of content

I helped decorate a Christmas tree up in Connecticut last Friday. It was traditional in every way, from the homely handmade star to the old-fashioned tinsel and fifty-year-old strands of colored lights that my hostess and I draped around its sweet-smelling branches. Even the music playing in the background, Johannes Somary's 1970 recording of Handel's Messiah, was conventional, if artily so.

It happens that I played bass for more than a few Messiahs in my college days, and before that I took part in decorating a dozen or so of my parents' Christmas trees. As any working musician can tell you, Messiah is more fun to hear (or sing) than it is to play, but trimming a tree is one of the most purely pleasurable activities known to man, especially when you are, like me, lucky enough to have had a more or less uncomplicatedly happy childhood.

Why, then, did I never get around to putting up a tree of my own after I left home? The answer, I suppose, is that since I made a point of coming back to Smalltown, U.S.A., for the holidays each year, I never found it necessary. What began as a convenience hardened into habit, and by the time I was forty the notion of buying and decorating a Christmas tree seemed to me senseless. No doubt that said more about the confusion of my private life than it did about any domestic urges I was sweeping under the rug, but whatever my deeper reasons might have been, the fact remains that the tree I trimmed last week is the first one I've had in thirty-two years.

To be sure, I can't claim to have been deprived, at least not by comparison with Louis Armstrong, who was born into a poverty so dire that he never had a Christmas tree of his own at any time during his New Orleans boyhood. Like most musicians, he spent his adult life living out of suitcases, and it was Lucille, his fourth wife, who bought and trimmed his very first tree, which she put up in a hotel room not long after they were married in 1943. He was so stunned by the gesture that he sat and gazed at the tree for a long time, and when he and Lucille moved on to the next gig, he insisted that they take it with them.

Yet I felt more or less the same way Armstrong did as I looked at the tree I had helped to decorate, thinking as I did so of the illness that struck me down last December. A year has gone by since the snowy morning when I called 911 and put myself in the hands of strangers, and since then I have been happier than at any other time in my adult life. Could it be that life--real life, not the unexamined kind--is like a roller-coaster ride in which happiness and fear are woven together in a twisty strand of feeling?

After the tree was trimmed and Handel's Messiah had run its jubilant course, I put on Lambert Orkis' recording of Franz Schubert's Impromptus, played on a Graf fortepiano made in Vienna in 1826, two years before the composer's death. Of all the great composers, Schubert is the one most in tune with life's melancholy. Surely the uneasy, unceasing fluctuations between major and minor that dapple his music are harbingers of the ultimate inevitability of sorrow--and mortality.

But even as Schubert reminds us of what must be, he hints at the prospect of joy, and it was joy with which my healthy heart overflowed as I gazed contentedly at my twinkling tree. In a matter of days it will be stripped of its ornaments and consigned to the trash, but until then it will glow brightly, reminding me of Christmases past, even as Schubert's music reminds us of the chubby, bespectacled man who once walked the streets of Vienna, haunted by the knowledge that he would likely die young. So he did--but his music is still with us, giving joy two centuries after the man who made it was laid in earth.

I've been much preoccupied of late with Alexander Herzen, the nineteenth-century Russian intellectual who is the principal character in The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard's trilogy of history plays, whose first installment I reviewed in The Wall Street Journal the other day. I haven't yet read the second or third installments--I want to see them first--but I'll be surprised if Stoppard doesn't find room in one of them for a remark Herzen made in his autobiography: "Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have."

I don't know whether Herzen was right, but I do know that art and happiness are at least as real as my Christmas tree. To be happy, not in memory but in the moment, is the shining star on the tree of life.

Goethe said it:

All theory, dear friend, is gray--
The golden tree of life is green.

December 12, 2006

TT and OGIC: Terry's not sick! Terry's not sick!

Don't worry--Terry is not in the hospital again! His heart is in perfect condition.

We occasionally get e-mails asking why the chronological order of this blog's postings appears to have melted down, but the frequency of those e-mails has gone up sharply in the past couple of days, and here's the reason: what you're seeing, if you're seeing it, are last year's postings about Terry's illness.

So what's the problem? Whenever you visit the main page of "About Last Night," what you see are the last seven days' worth of postings, and nothing else.

If, however, you come to "About Last Night" via a link to a specific posting, the first thing you'll see on your screen is the posting in question. Above and below it are all of the other postings for that week, in reverse chronological order.

Clear so far? Hang on--this is where it gets tricky. Start scrolling down and you'll find all of the "About Last Night" postings for the same week last year, in reverse chronological order. Keep on scrolling down and you'll find all of the postings for the same week in preceding years...and on and on ad infinitum, or at least all the way back to 2003, when "About Last Night" was launched.

This is how "About Last Night"'s archives are set up, and it's been causing a good deal of understandable reader confusion in the past few days. If, for instance, somebody sent you a link to Monday's posting about Terry's Christmas tree, you would have seen, not far below it, Our Girl's posting from December of 2005 announcing that Terry was in the hospital. Result: alarms and confusions.

Alas, there's nothing we can do about this peculiarity--it's an immutable quirk of the software that generates our archives. So forgive us (and artsjournal.com) for giving you a scare, and please be assured that Terry is not--repeat, not--back in the hospital.

TT: Almanac

"Going home must be like going to render an account."

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

TT: Mailbox

- My Wall Street Journal column about the dance bust stirred up a fair amount of talk, most of it favorable and some of it from unexpected quarters. (Much to my surprise, for instance, the Little Professor commented on it at length.)

It also brought me an e-mail from a reader of "About Last Night" who showed the column to his cousin, who in turn wrote back as follows:

Thank you for forwarding this. Yes, he's quite right--lots of the companies I loved in my ballet-filled youth are gone, and all those little girls taking ballet class have grown up to raise daughters who take soccer and softball. I expect that the vast improvement in after-school options for strong, athletically inclined girls is actually all to the good; lots of talentless kids are no longer clumping around in leotards. But I do miss the exciting froth of new little companies putting on performances on a shoestring. In my Chicago years I (briefly) did fund-raising and audience development for the company which became the Chicago City Ballet, and I was so impressed by the determination of these young people who had so little common sense and so much passion for dance....

I love that last line. I'm not an idealist--life has made me fairly hard-headed--but I'm well aware that many, perhaps most of the great things that get done in this world, especially in the realm of art, are done by people with no common sense whatsoever. George Bernard Shaw described the Julius Caesar of his play Caesar and Cleopatra as "a man of great common sense and good taste--meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage."

Of course it's more complicated than that, but those who (like me) lack a poetic streak should always be wary of condescending to those who don't. If George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein had had any common sense, they wouldn't have founded New York City Ballet.

- A reader writes, apropos of this posting:

Your posting brought to mind a winter night in Minneapolis more than forty years ago. While most people like to just lie still and savor the mood afterwards, this girl often felt like dancing. I can still remember her dancing naked in the moonlight coming in through the picture window of my apartment. The music? Smetana's Moldau. So long ago, but so vivid!

Somehow that memory reminds me of this.

TT: A meme for musicians

David King and Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus are circulating a musician questionnaire whose results are being posted on their blog. If you're curious, go here and start scrolling down to see the replies, which are pouring in.

Needless to say, I'm strictly a recovering musician, but I found the questions (and answers) so fascinating that I decided to play as well.

* * *

Give us an example or two of an especially good or interesting:

Movie score. Chinatown, Election, Sunset Boulevard.

TV theme. The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Equalizer, Miami Vice. (I also love "Woke Up This Morning," the A3 song used as the theme to The Sopranos.)

Melody. Standards: "Autumn in New York," "The Bad and the Beautiful," "Lucky to Be Me," "One for My Baby." Classical: Bach's chorale prelude on "Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele" and the slow movement of the Ravel G Major Piano Concerto. (In reflecting on this question, I was struck by the fact that comparatively little of my favorite post-1960 pop music is strongly melodic, at least in the traditional sense.)

Harmonic language. Jazz: The music of Maria Schneider. Classical: Aaron Copland's middle-period music.

Rhythmic feel. Jazz: Johnny Hodges' "Squaty Roo" and the Bill Evans Trio circa 1962. Classical: The Rite of Spring. Pop: Booker T. and the MGs in a medium-tempo groove.

Hip-hop track. Neneh Cherry's "Manchild."

Classical piece. Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto and Benjamin Britten's Turn of the Screw.

Smash hit. The Beatles' "Revolution."

Jazz album. My Funny Valentine: Miles Davis in Concert, Jim Hall and Ron Carter's Alone Together, Pat Metheny's Bright Size Life, and From Austin High Comes Jazz (one of the first 78 albums, recorded in 1940 by Bud Freeman and His Famous Chicagoans, a band whose members also included Max Kaminsky, Pee Wee Russell, Jack Teagarden, and Dave Tough).

Non-American folkloric group. I almost never listen for pleasure to present-day "folkloric" music, be it American or otherwise. For the most part I prefer my music cooked, not raw.

Book on music. Paul Hindemith's A Composer's World.

December 13, 2006

OGIC: Notes after some Christmas shopping

Some largely unsuccessful Christmas shopping, as should soon become plain....

- Ah, the fine art of convincing yourself that someone on your list would like nothing more than to receive the very item that makes your own materialistic little heart skip a beat. This is all well and good if you come to your senses before presents are exchanged, keep the desired object for yourself (if I must), and venture out again in time to find something more apropos. Or if, like me and Terry, your target's taste and your own largely converge and you have a track record of successfully exchanging enthusiasms. If you could see at once all of the fabulous presents I've ever received from Terry, you would know in a flash who had given them. They positively shout Terry, and by now they whisper Laura too.

- A super-trivial matter, but I do not like movie editions of novels and avoid them whenever possible. I suppose they are good for book sales, and I suppose this is insupportable snobbish purism on my part, but a picture of Nicole Kidman on a book cover, for me, degrades the book's bookiness. It robs the object of its own integrity, turning it into an advertisement for a separate, and often unrelated and lesser, thing. Yes, I am someone who inordinately prizes books as objects, why do you ask? During the summer I caught the early trailers for the upcoming P.D. James-based Children of Men and picked up a copy in the nick of time--the new editions festooned with Clive Owen's lovely but transient mug apparently didn't hit stores until this month. (For the record, I liked what I read of the book, got off track with it, but plan to return to it following more pressing reading projects).

- Thanks to space constraints and uncertain dedication, I've never started a DVD library in earnest. But I had a blast last weekend at the local Tower Records going-out-of-business sale. The pickings were slim, but that only served to heighten the fun of painstakingly panning for DVD gold. (I spent all of my allotted time in the movie section, never getting around to scanning the CDs, which were even more deeply discounted.) My efforts didn't go unrewarded. I gave a happy start when the title of one of my favorite films, Kicking and Screaming, popped out, but of course, alas, it was not the twenty-something-slacker flick but the naught-something-soccer flick that was available. Silly, really, to think I'd find anything from the Criterion Collection here, but hope does spring recklessly. In the next row, however, a single copy of Mr. Jealousy, Noah Baumbach's follow-up feature to Kicking, as of yet unseen by me, surfaced as if in slight compensation for the false alarm. Don't worry--I don't expect it to be good or anything! But I doubt it's devoid of merit, either, and for only $6 I'll satisfy a longstanding curiosity. By the end of the hunt, I held five DVDs: Mr. Jealousy, the Robert Towne-directed Tequila Sunrise, John Sayles's Sunshine State, the 1969 Faulkner-based Reivers, and a favorite from last year, Red Eye. Could the demise of Tower Records mean the (modest, eclectic, uneven) beginning of the movie library I'd previously only desultorily contemplated? People on whose Christmas shopping lists I appear, take note!

OGIC: Strange days

On a bitterly cold night in Chicago, with traffic snarled up downtown and little reliable information emerging about a deadly office shooting that afternoon, could all but ten Chicagoans be forgiven for passing up the chance to see a sharp new print of Werner Herzog's legendary Aguirre, the Wrath of God on one of the biggest movie screens in the city?

Sure, I absolve them. But I wouldn't want to be one of them (though I very nearly was, begging tiredness at the end of a long work week until I came to my senses). And I'm still a little mystified that this event didn't draw better in a city where off-the-beaten-path moviegoing has never struck me as a lonely enterprise.

The main theater at the Music Box is cavernous (seating 750), so the small size of the audience on this evening felt especially pronounced. It was a clash of scales not quite on a par with the incongruity on display in the beautiful and famous opening shot of Aguirre, but weirdly akin. In that awesome shot, a tiny long line of conquistadors and slaves make their way down a steep path in the Andes Mountains. The faraway perspective and the gauzy cloud cover lend this first image a serenity that will prove very short-lived.

The camera soon draws in and the hushed grandeur of the long view gives way to the jostling and weight of armor, equipment, pack animals, and the breathtakingly impractical sedan chair in which the wife of one explorer and daughter of another--each dressed in full floor-length finery--take turns being carried down the mountain. In a way the initial shift of perspective already pronounces the exploring party's ill fate. As the Spanish descend from mountain to river basin, the camera from ethereal panorama to earthbound close-ups, Klaus Kinski's Lope de Aguirre is on the verge of descent into a megalomaniacal madness under whose effects he'll lead a branch of the main expedition down the Amazon to its doom.

This movie overwhelmed me. For one thing, all manner of estrangements converge in it: the viewer's dramatic historical displacement from the action, which takes place in 1560-61; the characters' similarly extreme geographical displacement in the Amazonian jungles; and, as their desperation and madness take hold, the increasingly hallucinatory quality of the experience represented. If the past is a foreign country, the plight of people living half a millennium ago as they try to fathom and tame an alien setting is doubly foreign and gripping.

Not that Herzog asks us to sympathize with the explorers--he's very particular on the point that they're motivated by the promise of conquest and wealth, and on the point of their cruelty in this pursuit. But even as the disasters multiply and bodies pile up (often seeming to have spontaneously sprouted an arrow that we didn't see coming and didn't see hit--the camerawork has an endearingly human, fallible character at these points, as if it's not quite able to keep up with developments on the raft and from time to time turns an instant too late in a direction where it's sensed something amiss or askew), some of the base intoxication of traversing an uncharted land stays in play. Even by the celebrated final scene of ruin--this film is bookended by justly famous shots whose visual power beggars description--that sense of awe persists and creates an identification between us and characters we may fear and despise.

At the end of Aguirre, when all of the worst has come to pass and Aguirre's hubris has been paid for by dozens of men and all that's left of ambition and wanderlust is a raft full of monkeys, there's a small part of me that's still in the grip of the opening shot--the pure wonder and beautiful incongruity and promise of it--and still wishes to be there, being amazed. (The more amazed if I try to put myself behind the eyes of someone who has not seen a hundred movies and a thousand pictures of the Amazon River and environs.) This gaping contradiction, I think, accounts for a great deal of the film's power. It's to some degree a contradiction between story and scene--sensually, the Peruvian landscape remains seductive to the very last gasp.

Beauty, wonder, dread, and yes, even its own wryly grim brand of humor: Aguirre is a thrilling thing. If you're in Chicago, you still have a couple of nights to catch it. In other cities, keep an eye on the art houses.

OGIC: Fortune cookie

"You know the story of the African Queen? I turned down an invitation to direct it because I couldn't see any humor in the situation. It pleased me to see how they made it a comedy. There were some silly things in it, but it went. Whenever I hear a story my first thought is how to make it into a comedy, and I think of how to make it into a drama only as a last resort. Do you remember the story about the man who wanted to commit suicide and stayed on a window ledge--Fourteen Hours? They wanted me to do it, and I said no. 'Why not?' they asked me. 'It's a great story.' I told them I didn't like suicides, and I told my friend Henry Hathaway that I didn't like the film he had directed. The public didn't like it either, and Zanuck told me I had been right. I told Zanuck: 'I might have done it if it had been Cary Grant getting from the bedroom of a woman whose husband had come back unexpectedly and after he was found on the ledge he pretended he was contemplating suicide.' Zanuck asked me if I wanted to start on that one the next day."

Howard Hawks, Cahiers du Cinema interview, 1956

TT: Almanac

"Friendship demands a religious treatment. We talk of choosing our friends, but friends are self-elected. Reverence is a great part of it."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays, First Series

December 14, 2006

TT: Almanac

"An audience is never wrong. An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark--that is critical genius."

Billy Wilder, interview, BBC2 (January 24, 1992)

TT: So you want to see a show?

Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

BROADWAY:
- Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
- A Chorus Line* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
- Company* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter and situations, reviewed here)
- The Drowsy Chaperone* (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
- The Vertical Hour* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Apr. 1)
- Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too intellectually complex to be suitable for children of any age, reviewed here, extended through May 12)

OFF BROADWAY:
- The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
- Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
- Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here, closes Jan. 14)
- Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, extended through Jan. 28)

CLOSING SUNDAY:
- Heartbreak House* (drama, G/PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON:
- The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Dec. 31)

TT: Whistling past the grave

The New York Times led off its annual list of notable classical recordings of the year with this determinedly optimistic passage:

The year brought more talk of doom and gloom for the classical recording industry, or at least its CD wing. Yet recordings continue to stream out from new sources as well as from major labels in retrenchment or recovery. And many of them are truly excellent.

That is not what I call encouraging, and neither is the list. Except for the reissues--which include such familiar, regularly recycled fare as Wanda Landowska's Bach recordings--I haven't heard anything on it. What's more, only one of the new recordings, a soon-to-be-released live performance by the late, lamented Lorraine Hunt Lieberson of her husband Peter's Neruda Songs, piqued my interest in the slightest. A Beethoven symphony cycle by Bernard Haitink? An original-instrument Eine kleine Nachtmusik? Krystian Zimerman's second recording of the Brahms D Minor Concerto? Still more John Adams and Philip Glass?

Don't get me wrong, please. I love classical music with all my heart and soul--but I have no love whatsoever for the current and final incarnation of the classical recording industry, which has been committing slow suicide for the past decade and more. As I wrote in "Life Without Records," the essay reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader in which I summed up the decline and fall of a great industry:

Now, after a quarter-century of Donnys and Barrys and Dannys and Zubies--of crossover and the Three Tenors and a hundred different recorded versions of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, each one duller than the last--the classical recording industry appears to be on its last legs. Nor will it die alone. Hard though it may be to imagine life without records and record stores, it is only a matter of time, and not much of it, before they disappear--and notwithstanding the myriad pleasures which the major labels have given us in the course of their century-long existence, it is at least possible that the 21st century will be better off without them.

To be sure, this prospect is understandably disturbing to many older musicians and music lovers, given the fact that the record album has played so pivotal a role in the culture of postwar music. Nor do I claim that life without records will necessarily be better--or worse. It will merely be different, just as the lives of actors were irrevocably changed by the invention of the motion-picture camera in ways that no one could possibly have foreseen in 1900. But one thing is already clear: unlike art museums and opera houses, records serve a purpose that technology has rendered obsolete.

I think of those words each time I walk past Tower Records' soon-to-be-shuttered Lincoln Center outlet. What will our lives be like without record stores? This is something I have written about, most recently in a "Sightings" column about the impending demise of Tower Records:

I've spent countless happy hours trolling the aisles of Tower Records in search of buried treasure. Yet when amazon.com and iTunes made it possible for me to buy any album I wanted without leaving my apartment, I didn't think twice about turning my back on Tower. As a wise old department-store owner once told Peter Drucker, "There is no customer loyalty that two cents off can't overcome."

Is the narrowly targeted buying-on-demand facilitated by online stores creating a world in which consumers are less likely to try new things? Perhaps--but the infinitely deep catalogs of these stores also make it possible for the curious listener to range farther afield than ever before. Only last week I saw the Signature Theatre Company's production of August Wilson's "Seven Guitars," in which a catchy tune called "Joe Louis Was a Fighting Man" is played between scenes. No sooner did I get home from the show than I went straight to iTunes, learned that the song was recorded by a gospel quartet called the Dixieaires and downloaded it to my iPod on the spot.

Yes, I miss the good old days of browsing, the same way I miss the big black manual typewriter that used to sit on my desk. Both had their advantages, just as online buying has its disadvantages. All blessings are mixed--but that doesn't make them any less blessed.

I got a lot of mail about that column, much of it frankly disapproving. So be it: there is plenty of room in the world for principled disagreement. But I don't think there can be any serious disagreement about the fact that the great cultural shift I predicted in "Life Without Records" (and on numerous prior occasions) is now taking place. For better and worse, the Age of the Album is over, and we must come to terms with its passing.

TT: Running interference

I just got back from a musical performed in a very small off-Broadway theater. One of my fellow playgoers, an older man seated one row ahead of me, was drunk--very, very happily so. He talked through most of the songs, then clapped loudly (and prematurely) when they were over, whooping and hollering for good measure. On more than one occasion he sang along with the performers, some of whom who were no more than fifteen feet from his aisle seat.

He was, in short, a nuisance and an embarrassment, and a half-dozen of his neighbors tried without success to shut him up. So did the director of the show, an exceedingly nice woman who tiptoed down the aisle midway through the second act and shushed him, to no avail whatsoever.

Needless to say, I would have been delighted to do to this man what I was momentarily tempted to do to the talkative woman with whom I shared a tram at Storm King Art Center this summer. (Alas, I neglected to bring the necessary equipment to the theater.) Yet I found the haughty dudgeon of the playgoers who chatted about the poor fellow at intermission to be slightly out of keeping with his actual behavior. Of course he was being rude--spectacularly so--but there was something innocent about his rudeness, exasperating though it was, if only because he was so obviously enjoying the show. Once it became apparent that nothing short of a baseball bat would silence him, I gave in to the situation and decided not to let myself get bent out of shape by it. Nor did I.

On the way home I remembered a story told by Mel Tormé in It Wasn't All Velvet, his 1988 autobiography:

One night, as I crooned my little songs in the famous Sunset Strip supper club, who should walk in but John Wayne, well into his cups. Hosting a half-dozen equally inebriated cronies, he plunked down at a ringside table, and they proceeded to make my life miserable. Near the closing moments of my performance, I pleaded with the box-office giant, "Give me a break, John. After all, I don't talk through your movies." The Mocambo was an expensive watering hole, and, admire him or not, the audience was on my side. They applauded my entreaty. "I'd like to sing a fine Kurt Weill song from Knickerbocker Holiday," I announced. "Here's ‘September Song.'"

Wayne's voice boomed in that pause between announcement and musical introduction: "Oh, boy," he slurringly informed his party and the rest of the patrons, "he's gonna get me with this one!" There was a burst of laughter from the audience and one from me as well. I began to sing the tune, forcing myself to keep a straight face. On almost every line of the lyric, the hushed audience could hear huge stage whispers of "Shh-h-h-h" from the big fella, his forefinger vertically pressed to his lips--like a kid in school, exhorting his classmates to hush up and pay attention to the teacher.

I learned something that night. The Duke and his pals were totally unmalicious in their revelry. They came to the Mocambo to continue the good time that had evidently begun earlier in the evening. But the main point is: their noisy participation in that night's performance was not calculated; it was never meant to degrade or humiliate. On those singular evenings throughout the years when happy drunks have attended my shows, the memory of that John Wayne incident has helped me keep my cool.

I hope it also provides some retrospective consolation to any of the actors in tonight's performance who may happen to read this posting.

TT: Kenny Davern, R.I.P.

Everybody I know who plays jazz for a living was sickened--no other word is strong enough--to learn of the death of Kenny Davern, who was struck down without warning on Tuesday by a heart attack. He was seventy-one, not so old for a jazzman, and not nearly old enough for so pungently individual a player.

The New York Times, which isn't always sound on such matters, gave Davern a good sendoff this morning, describing him as "a radically traditional jazz clarinetist and soprano saxophonist whose liquid tones linked him to the classical sound of New Orleans but who could also play free jazz." I'm told that he was, or could be, a difficult person, but his many friends are quick to add that he was worth the trouble, and then some.

Dan Morgenstern, who knew Davern for a half-century, called him "a master of his chosen art and craft" when he heard the bad news. You can see and hear his artistry by going here. If that clip piques your interest, I suggest you order what I gather was Davern's own favorite of the many albums on which he played, Dick Wellstood and His All-Star Orchestra Featuring Kenny Davern, recorded for Chiaroscuro in 1973. The title is a characteristically Wellstoodian joke, for the "orchestra" in question consisted solely and only of Davern on soprano saxophone and Wellstood on piano, both of whom were, as usual, in scorchingly fine form. The liner notes, unlikely as it may sound, are by William F. Buckley, Jr., and they end with this magisterial pronouncement about the All-Star Orchestra: "I hope you like it. If you don't, I'm sorry about that; sorry about you."

It is at times like these that I bless the name of Thomas Edison, and recall Shakespeare's words: Death makes no conquest of this conqueror,/For now he lives in fame though not in life. Thanks to the invention of the phonograph and its successor technologies, we no longer need settle for the fading memories of those lucky enough to have heard the great musicians of the past in person. We can hear them ourselves, and know that they were as good as their reputations (or not).

This unprecedented capacity to preserve the passing moment has been of special importance when it comes to an improvised music like jazz. As I wrote in Fi a number of years ago, "Without the phonograph, jazz might well have vanished into the humid night air of New Orleans, to be remembered only by those who first played and heard it; instead, it became America's principal contribution to twentieth-century music, known around the world." So, too, might Kenny Davern's playing have been forgotten. I'm glad we have it to comfort us today.

UPDATE: The London Independent ran an excellent Davern obit written by British jazz critic Steve Voce.

OGIC: Vita brevis

What's the bottom line on the new Thomas Harris novel, Hannibal Rising?

Readers who are expecting another Silence of the Lambs or Red Dragon are going to hurl this book across the room in anger.

That's all I needed to know. Thanks, Crime Fiction Dossier (via Jenny D.)!

Blast from the past: I reported on rereading Red Dragon and learning all manner of unexpected stuff here (some links have expired).

December 15, 2006

TT: Irked to the max

I have awakened with a great big honking head cold. All superfluous communication with the outside world is suspended until further notice!

(Sniffle.)

TT: Almanac

"Stay out of the theatrical world, out of its petty interests, its inbreeding tendencies, its stifling atmosphere, its corroding influence. Once become 'theatricalized,' and you are lost, my friend; you are lost."

Minnie Maddern Fiske, quoted in Alexander Woollcott, Mrs. Fiske: Her Views on Actors, Acting and the Problems of Production

TT: Mammon à la Mamet

In today's Wall Street Journal I have high praise (mostly) for a zippy new adaptation of an Edwardian semi-classic, The Voysey Inheritance, and two revivals, Antigone and The Apple Tree. Reading from top to bottom:

In theater, the innocent-looking word "adaptation" can cover a multitude of approaches--or sins. David Mamet has adapted "The Voysey Inheritance" with respect and a sharp knife, skillfully trimming two hours out of the four-hour running time of Harley Granville Barker's engrossing but verbose 1905 play about a family of financiers with a scandalous secret. The result is a smart, exciting show that's short enough to get you to the train on time....

A century ago, Granville Barker was widely regarded as England's most forward-looking stage director. Judging by this tale of hypocrisy among the upper middle classes, he was also a top-notch playwright....

Jean Anouilh's oh-so-Parisian 1944 adaptation of "Antigone" is a cheval of a different color, a modern-dress rewrite of a Greek tragedy in which the plot was subtly altered to make discreet but definite reference to the Nazi occupation of Vichy France. You don't have to know that, though, to delight in the elegance and intelligence with which Anouilh put a still-fresh spin on Sophocles' timeless tale....

Anouilh's once-fashionable plays long ago vanished from Broadway, so I am happy to report that the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, one of Manhattan's most artistically ambitious new Off-Off Broadway companies, has given "Antigone" a revival of exceptionally high quality....

Rejoice greatly, musical-comedy fans: The Roundabout Theatre Company has revived "The Apple Tree" as a vehicle for Kristin Chenoweth, and she drives it up and down Broadway like a brand-new Beemer....

No free link (damn and blast!). Buy the paper--it's only a dollar. Or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my review, plus lots of other highly readable stuff. (If you're already a subscriber, the review is here.)

December 18, 2006

TT: Almanac

"Every man is dangerous who only cares for one thing."

G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

TT: Stocking stuffers

A reader writes:

What would be your top three choices for classical CDs for Christmas? What would be your top three choices for jazz CDs?

That's the e-mail in its entirety. It's completely free-form--no specifications or limitations of any kind. In particular, my correspondent doesn't specify whether he has in mind newly released CDs, which makes his questions a bit trickier. Nevertheless, I'll assume, rightly or wrongly, that he's interested in recordings that first came to my attention, new or not, in 2006.

That said, here are my picks, with three pop albums thrown in for good measure.

CLASSICAL:
- Malcolm Arnold, Overtures, recorded by Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos)
- Alban Berg, Lyric Suite, recorded by the Juilliard String Quartet in 1959 (Testament)
- Paul Moravec, The Time Gallery, recorded by eighth blackbird (Naxos)

JAZZ:
- Bob Brookmeyer and the New Art Orchestra, Spirit Music (ArtistShare)
- Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, Out Louder (Indirecto)
- Deidre Rodman and Steve Swallow, Twin Falls (Sunnyside)

POP:
- Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac (Capitol)
- Mary Foster Conklin, Blues for Breakfast: Remembering Matt Dennis (Rhombus)
- Donald Fagen, Morph the Cat (Reprise)

If none of these CDs rings your bell, here are some others that also gave me great pleasure:

- Benjamin Britten, Orchestral Song Cycles, recorded by Ian Bostridge, Simon Rattle, and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI Classics)
- Hot Club of Detroit (Mack Avenue)
- Roger Kellaway Trio, Heroes (IPO)
- Nancy King, Live at Jazz Standard with Fred Hersch (MaxJazz)
- Erin McKeown, Sing You Sinners (Nettwerk)
- Nickel Creek, Reasons Why (The Very Best) (Sugar Hill)
- Madeleine Peyroux, Half the Perfect World (Rounder)
- Rachel Ries, For You Only (Waterbug)
- Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd (the original-cast album of the 2005 Broadway revival) (Nonesuch)
- Trio Beyond, Saudades (ECM)
- Fats Waller, If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It! (Bluebird/Legacy)
- Cy Walter, The Park Avenue Tatum (Shellwood)

Happy listening!

TT: Decongestant department

I'm not over my cold yet, but I'm somewhat better. As usual, though, I sound much worse than I feel, so if you're expecting me to call you today, don't.

See you Tuesday.

December 19, 2006

TT: Almanac

"The city is recruited from the country. In the year 1805, it is said, every legitimate monarch in Europe was imbecile. The city would have died out, rotted, and exploded, long ago, but that it was reinforced from the fields. It is only country which came to town day before yesterday, that is city and court today."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Manners"

TT: Packing my bags

The other night I walked into the lobby of an off-Broadway theater and ran into a woman who said to me, "Are you Terry Teachout?" I reluctantly admitted that I was. "There's something I've got to know," she said. "Where's Smalltown?"

Of course it's no secret, or at least not much of one. Among other things, I've strewn my postings from Smalltown, U.S.A., with innumerable clues to the identity of the place where I grew up, and whose name I suppress not out of the urge to conceal but in the hope that doing so will make it easier for readers who come from similarly small towns of their own to identify with my memories of the one that I still think of as my home. It pleases me to write about Smalltown as if it were Anytown, or Everytown, but if you really want to know where it is, all you have to do is ask.

Should you ask me tomorrow, your answer will come via e-mail from the place itself. I'm hitting the road first thing Wednesday morning to spend eight happy days in the bosom of my family. I expect I'll be posting a lot less during that time (at least until my sniffles dry up), though I don't plan to shut down altogether. In any case, I have clothes to fold and presents to buy, so if you'll excuse me, I'll return to my chores.

See you around.

TT: My favorite Christmas records

- Bethlehem Down (Peter Warlock, recorded by the King's Singers). Poor Peter Warlock, who put out the cat and turned on the gas at the end of a turbulent, too-short life, left behind a goodly number of modern Christmas carols, of which the modally flavored "Bethlehem Down," written in 1927, is the most frequently performed and (in my opinion) the prettiest. This performance is part of an unusually wide-ranging program of carols that also includes an exquisitely sung version of Praetorius's "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen," which might just be my all-time favorite traditional carol.

- Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Tchaikovsky-Shavers, recorded by the John Kirby Sextet). I have a sweet tooth for jazzed-up classics from the swing era, and this riffy, dapper version of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" charms my socks right off.

- A Ceremony of Carols (Benjamin Britten, recorded by Osian Ellis, Sir David Willcocks, and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge). If you've never heard it, order this CD right now.

- The Christmas Song (Mel Tormé and Bob Wells, recorded by the King Cole Trio). Every jazz musician's favorite Christmas song. Nat Cole recorded it three times, once without strings and twice in this simple, elegant arrangement, whose success persuaded Capitol Records that he had a future as a balladeer. The stereo remake is the one you hear on the radio, but it's the second 1946 version with strings that I like best, in part because you can hear Cole singing "reindeers" on the bridge, a charming little slip of the tongue that he fixed the next time around.

- The Difficult Season (Dave Frishberg, recorded by the composer). Leave it to Frishberg to remind us of what we all know but don't like to admit, which is that Christmas can be sad: The tinsel, the reindeer,/The chimney, the sleigh/Are the innocent dreams/Of an innocent day.

- The First Noël (traditional, recorded by Emmylou Harris). A down-home a cappella version, shimmeringly sung by Harris and Sharon and Cheryl White. It's from Light of the Stable, one of the few Christmas albums that's worth hearing from beginning to end--often.

- God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (traditional, recorded by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers). Of all the traditional English carols, this is the one I like best. This version is from Songs of Angels: Christmas Hymns and Carols, a 1994 CD in which Shaw revisited the much-loved a cappella arrangements he first recorded in 1946. The Christmas album to buy if you're only buying one.

- Good Morning Blues (Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, recorded by Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie and His Orchestra). Leadbelly made the first recording of this traditional blues, but it's Jimmy Rushing's 1938 version that gets played during the holidays: Santy Claus, Santy Claus, listen to my plea/Don't send me nuthin' for Christmas/But my baby back to me. Dig Basie's deep-dish piano solo.

- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, recorded by the Singers Unlimited). The most tenderly yearning of all pop songs about Christmas, originally written for Judy Garland to sing in Meet Me in St. Louis. Her youthful studio recording for Decca is a little masterpiece of unaffected sweetness, but permit me to direct you instead to Gene Puerling's iridescent a cappella arrangement. Bonnie Herman is the lead singer, and if her voice doesn't make you shiver, clean your ears. (Yes, I like Chrissie Hynde's version, too.)

- I Wonder as I Wander (Niles-Britten, recorded by Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson). This isn't really an Appalachian folksong, even though it sounds just like the real thing. Folklorist John Jacob Niles wrote it himself in 1933, later recording it to gloriously rough-hewn effect. My favorite version, though, is the one arranged by Benjamin Britten, in which the vocal verses are sung a cappella with the pianist supplying one-handed interludes between each stanza. There's nothing to it, really--nothing but magic. Britten and Peter Pears frequently performed it in concert, but they never got around to recording it, and it was only published posthumously. Until a live performance surfaces, Langridge's finely sung version will suffice.

- Laud to the Nativity (Ottorino Respighi, performed by Charles Bressler, Marie Gibson, Marilyn Horne, the Roger Wagner Chorale, Alfred Wallenstein, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic). Nobody knows this gorgeous piece, composed in 1930 by the man who brought you The Pines of Rome, to which it bears no resemblance whatsoever. When not setting off dynamite under orchestras, Respighi had a taste for faux-archaic harmonies, and Laud to the Nativity is a serene, mellifluously scored exercise in neoclassicism that deserves to be much better known. Perhaps the release of this great old recording (undoubtedly reissued on CD because of the presence of a very young Marilyn Horne) will help to make it so.

- Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, recorded by Woody Herman's First Herd). Totally hip. The arrangement is by Neal Hefti, the trumpet solo by Sonny Berman, the vocal by Herman. Here endeth the lesson, baby.

- Linus & Lucy (Vince Guaraldi, recorded by the Vince Guaraldi Trio). This is the bouncy uptempo number from A Charlie Brown Christmas that everybody remembers and loves, with good reason. Soundtrack jazz from the mid-Sixties tends to be embarrassingly lame, but Guaraldi knocked out the bull's-eye.

Over to Mr. Rifftides:

Maybe I love it because the music is so good, so fresh, that listening to it every year is a rediscovery. Maybe it's because when I hear it, I'm bewitched by the image from long ago of two little boys in their pajamas, transfixed as they watch Linus, Lucy, Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Maybe it's because I knew Guaraldi and in this music he captured his own child-like sense of wonder.

What he said.

- Nun wandre, Maria (Hugo Wolf, recorded by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore). From the Spanish Songbook, a haunting musical evocation of the journey of Mary and Joseph, whose steadfast love is symbolized by the gently spiraling triads in the piano part. Fischer-Dieskau could be over-fussy, but not here, and Moore provides immaculate support.

- O magnum mysterium (Tomás Luis de Victoria, recorded by Dennis Keene and Voices of Ascension). I've loved this austerely mystical motet ever since I first heard the Roger Wagner Chorale sing it three decades ago. That recording never made it to CD, but this one is a more than adequate substitute.

- O magnum mysterium (Morten Lauridsen, recorded by Stephen Layton and Polyphony). A modern classic by an extraordinarily gifted American composer whose work is known only to choral-music buffs. If you still think tonality is dead, listen to this glowing motet and marvel.

- Sleigh Ride (Leroy Anderson, recorded by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony). Anyone who doesn't like Anderson's witty orchestral miniatures is a churl, a spoilsport, and a clod. I still grin every time the trombones start blowing that boogie-woogie bass line under the trumpet solo!

- Swingin' Them Jingle Bells (James Pierpont, recorded by Fats Waller and His Rhythm). Stone guaranteed to blow your mind and adjust your attitude. We're talking major anarchy here.

- White Christmas (Irving Berlin, recorded by Charlie Parker). Written for Bing Crosby to sing in Holiday Inn. The recording I like best, by Joan Morris and William Bolcom, is out of print, so allow me to direct you instead to this aircheck of a Royal Roost broadcast from December 25, 1948. Kenny Dorham, Al Haig, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach back up the king of bebop, who tosses off the tune with a straight face, then burns his way through two solo choruses and a strategically placed quote from "Jingle Bells."

- Winter Wonderland (Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith, recorded by Johnny Mercer). My mother used to sing this song to me when I was a little boy. She hasn't recorded it yet, but Johnny Mercer's 1946 version, sweetly accompanied by Paul Weston and the Pied Pipers, is almost as good. Mercer was, of course, the greatest of all pop-song lyricists, but he was also a splendid singer, lazy and jazzy, and this performance sums him up neatly.

December 20, 2006

OGIC: You're going to need a bigger stocking

The other day Terry offered his short list of CDs for stockings. Here are a few more ideas for you from the world of print:

- Edward P. Jones, All Aunt Hagar's Children (Amistad). A patiently beautiful book of stories with the unmistakable air of permanence about them. It's not too much to say they awed me; five months later I think almost daily about the last paragraph of the last story. My book of the year, or perhaps the decade.

- Claire Messud, The Emperor's Children (Knopf). I devoured Messud's brilliantly observed, highly companionable book in one weekend during which all my plans to leave the couch came to naught. I did not feel guilty afterward. It is or isn't "about" 9/11, but among its many revelations it reminded me ten times more palpably than anything else has of what "normal" once felt like.

- Henry Green, Living; Loving; Party-Going (Penguin) and Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (New Directions). My current reading, Green throws you straightaway into the deep end of, for instance, the intricate little society of the domestic staff in an Irish castle (Loving). While you slowly sort out relationships and plots, the strange immediacy and piquancy of the language keeps you afloat, along with (and related to) his understated exaltation of everyday experience. A new sensation.

- Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement (Chicago). Because the whole thing won't fit in a stocking, silly! But seriously, if you're feeling generous, by all means buy the whole four-volume set and stick it under the tree. Powell's twelve-novel epic can prove addictive. A friend who's approaching the end of the third movement has determined to ration the remainder, clutching onto the vain hope that he can stretch out the experience indefinitely.

Nothing else I read (for the first time around) this year affected me like these four books.

OGIC: Runaway career

It's exactly because Matt Zoller Seitz is such a generous critic that his censure can be a wholly devastating blow--far more devastating than that of his more glib counterparts. That generosity, combined with his intelligence and taste, make his work among the most compelling criticism being written about any art form right now. Reading Seitz's review of Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, posted at The House Next Door yesterday, it's tempting to call it something along the lines of a drubbing or a takedown, but the piece is really too fine an instrument, and animated by too much good will, to merit such blunt epithets. Seitz goes out of his way to try to understand Soderbergh's choices and aims. When he calls the movie "painful," it's not with a smirk but with something like genuine sorrow for a talent gone missing. Which is not to suggest that the piece doesn't have any bite to it. But even the sharp bits have a place in the greater attempt to understand what went wrong here:

With its glancing interest in individual vs. collective guilt and its contrast of faux-Old Hollywood gloss and '70s movie degradation, The Good German seems to want to say, "The language of old Hollywood movies was an outgrowth of bourgeois American morality and the profit motive-ergo, old movie style conceals mundane and unpleasant human truths while protecting the powerful and reproducing their ideology." But what comes out is more like, "Old Hollywood movies are full of shit. Now watch this crane shot!"

Actually, the latter sounds closer than the former to a movie I'd like to see, but never mind. Seitz goes on from here to make a great point that far transcends the subjects of The Good German the fall of Steven Soderbergh, calling attention to a whole

subcategory of critics' darling that's proliferated like toadstools in the past decade, comprised of movies that foreground their influences rather than digesting them and creating something fresh. The short list includes Boogie Nights, the Psycho remake, Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven, Road to Perdition, Roman Coppola's superb and rarely-seen CQ, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Schindler's List and pretty much any Soderbergh film that's either set in the past (Kafka) or derived from an older film or films (The Underneath, Ocean's 11 and 12, Solaris). If you're up on the director's references, these sorts of films tend to be superficially interesting even if they fail to engage your emotions (or don't try to). But through the years I've gotten to the point where it's no longer enough for a movie to amuse me with its academic density and self-awareness; I also want to be moved, or at least enthralled, and the likelihood of that happening decreases in proportion to a director's tendency to quote other films rather than fully transform them.

He cites The Limey as an example of a Soberbergh movie that's "both fun and deep." Notably, The Limey was heavily influenced by John Boorman's hallucinatory, spellbinding Point Blank--enough so to be considered an homage, really, but it certainly fully digested its major influence and wrought something new. I jumped off the Soderbergh bandwagon about an hour into Ocean's Eleven myself--a movie I came to as a true believer, convinced its director could do no wrong whether he was delivering something as emotionally potent and fresh-looking as The Limey or simply stylish genre fun. Fun might be the last thing I'd call Ocean's Eleven, and I still haven't quite gotten over the letdown.

TT: Almanac

"Traveling takes the ink out of one's pen as well as the cash out of one's purse."

Herman Melville, letter to Evert A. Duyckinck (Dec. 2, 1849)

December 21, 2006

TT: Almanac

"Winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen. On the farm the weather was the great fact, and men's affairs went on underneath it, as the streams creep under the ice. But in Black Hawk the scene of human life was spread out shrunken and pinched, frozen down to the bare stalk."

Willa Cather, My Ántonia

TT: So you want to see a show?

Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

BROADWAY:
- Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
- A Chorus Line* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
- Company* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter and situations, reviewed here)
- The Drowsy Chaperone (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
- The Vertical Hour* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Apr. 1)
- Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too intellectually complex to be suitable for children of any age, reviewed here, extended through May 12)

OFF BROADWAY:
- The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
- Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
- Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here, closes Jan. 14)
- Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, extended through Jan. 28)
- The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, extended through Feb. 10)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK:
- Antigone (play, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Dec. 30)
- The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Dec. 31)

December 22, 2006

TT: Almanac

"A dilettantism in nature is barren and unworthy. A fop of fields is no better than his brother on Broadway."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature"

TT: Composer in the background

The Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting Franz Waxman: Music for the Cinema, a month-long 21-film retrospective of the work of the man who scored Sunset Boulevard, Rebecca, The Bride of Frankenstein, and hundreds of other golden-age Hollywood films.

Though Waxman won two Oscars (for Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun) and is ranked at least as highly as Erich Wolfgang Korngold or Max Steiner by most film-music connoisseurs, his name is much less well known to the public at large. I decided to try to do something about that--as well as to draw attention to the MoMA series--by devoting my next "Sightings" column, to be published in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, to a discussion of Waxman's work.

If that piques your interest, pick up a copy of tomorrow's Journal, where you'll find my column in the "Pursuits" section.

TT: All the land's a stage

In place of the usual reviews, I've devoted this morning's Wall Street Journal drama column to a retrospective look at the best American theater of 2006:

One of the things I've learned about American theater since becoming the Journal's drama critic three years ago is that it stretches from sea to shining sea. Yes, Broadway is where the money is, but most of the best shows in America are to be found Off Broadway or out of town. I reviewed plays in 14 states and the District of Columbia during 2006, and saw good things nearly everywhere I went. For those who thrill to the inexplicable, irreplaceable magic of live theater, those are truly glad tidings.

Unadventurous playgoers who stick to the well-worn rut that runs between 42nd and 54th Streets in Manhattan have a way of forgetting that there is often (if not always) an inverse relationship between the artistic quality of a play and the size of its production budget. Among the most pleasing shows I saw in 2006, for instance, were four revivals, three Off Broadway and one in Chicago, produced by vest-pocket companies that between them didn't have a quarter to spare on frills or furbelows....

No free link, so to find out what they were, and much, much more, pick up a copy of the Friday paper. (Believe me, you can afford it.) Alternatively, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you immediate access to my review, plus the rest of the Journal's end-of-the-year wrapup of the cultural highlights of 2006. (If you're already a subscriber, the column is here.)

TT: Through for the night

One of the minor ironies of my job is that in order to take time off, I have to see shows in advance and stockpile columns to be published in my absence, meaning that I usually end up spending good-sized chunks of my holidays recovering from the spasms of overwork that make them possible. In the five days preceding my trip from New York to Smalltown, U.S.A., for instance, I saw four shows, filed three Wall Street Journal columns and a Commentary essay, and caught a cold. On Wednesday I went to bed at two and arose at five-thirty, and by three o'clock that afternoon I was knocking on my mother's back door halfway across the country, suitcase in hand. I slept for ten hours that night and took a two-hour nap the following day, after which I felt like myself again, more or less.

Outside of sleeping, I haven't done much since I got here. My mother and I watched Cool Hand Luke and To Have and Have Not and took a drive around town to look at the Christmas lights. I check my e-mail from time to time, but it isn't easy to surf the Web with a dialup connection nowadays, so instead I've been watching The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, which is a bit like listening to a kindergarten teacher from an upper-middle-class suburb cheerily reading horror stories out loud to her class.

I've finished one of the books I brought with me to Smalltown, a dullish biography of Tom Stoppard, and now am trying to decide whether to read myself to sleep with Bleak House, Fathers and Sons, or Master and Commander. I need to make up my mind pretty soon, for it's drawing close to midnight and my eyelids are growing heavy. The only sounds I can hear are the soft whir of my iBook, the flickering whisper of rain on the rooftop, and an out-of-tune train whistle wailing in the distance. All my pieces are written, all my shows seen. For the moment, the rest of my life can take care of itself.

December 25, 2006

TT: Almanac

"There are many things I know which are not verifiable but nobody can tell me I don't know them."

Tom Stoppard, Jumpers

December 26, 2006

TT: Almanac

"The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is."

Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

TT: Crossroads

I lost my mother in Wal-Mart last Friday. This sounds less like a true-life event than the first line of the sort of song you might hear on the radio in Smalltown, U.S.A., but it really happened. I dropped her off at the entrance, and as she closed the car door she said, "I'll meet you inside." No sooner had I driven off to find a parking place than it struck me that she hadn't said where she'd meet me. Since the Smalltown Wal-Mart is roughly the size of a football field or two, I realized that I had a problem on my hands.

I started pushing my way through the hordes of shoppers, searching for a septuagenarian with a shopping cart. I ran into three people who knew me, but none of them had seen my mother. After spending ten minutes vainly wandering up and down the aisles, I gave up, went to the service desk, and had her paged. "EVELYN TEACHOUT, PLEASE MEET YOUR SON AT THE FITTING ROOMS," the pretty young woman at the counter said into a microphone, her soft voice electronically inflated into a Paul Bunyan-like bellow.

My mother showed up a few minutes later, pushing a cart full of presents and wondering what all the fuss was about. I reminded her of the last time I'd had her paged. It was during a childhood trip to the SEMO District Fair in Cape Girardeau, where I somehow managed to slip away from my parents and strike out on my own. Within minutes I knew I'd made a big mistake, and a sympathetic passer-by escorted me to the security desk, where I identified myself and asked for help. That was more than forty years ago, but my mother still tells the tale with the utmost relish at family gatherings. Now I've got one to tell on her.

After I collected my wandering parent, we headed over to the grocery department to pick up a few staples. Suddenly I heard my cell phone ringing. It was my agent, calling from New York to inquire about the progress of our current project.

"Do you know where I am?" I asked him. "I'm standing with my mother in the mayonnaise section of the Smalltown Wal-Mart."

"Uh, that's nice," he replied warily.

I rarely have occasion to take long-distance calls while shopping in Smalltown, and this one reminded me of the feeling of disorientation that comes over me whenever I uproot myself from my hectic life in New York to spend a few days visiting my family. I felt much the same way on Christmas morning as I read this e-mail from a Manhattan friend:

new york is 1963 quiet. traffic is very light, sidewalks walkable and restaurants have a certain solitude. their muffled sound reminded me of the automats of the 1960s, when eating spaces were filled only with the low buzz of conversation and clinking plates rather than blaring iPod mixes and the crush of bellowing suburban laughter. no wonder people could think back then. new york just feels less bombarded by everything this past week, the pace cut in half. stood at a red light and watched a woman across the street buy a christmas tree at about 10 p.m. and wondered why and how presents could get under there in time. or perhaps it was a jaded soul who finally broke down after hearing bing, dino or ella in barnes & noble. it was a relatively small one, slightly larger than she was, and she had to put it down once mid broadway while crossing to re-adjust the weight. almost as if the tree was giving her a hard time for her delay.

I've lived in New York for twenty years, but I've only spent a single Christmas there. One year when I was working at the Daily News, I drew the short straw and had to put out the Christmas and New Year's Day editorial pages, meaning that I couldn't make it home for the holidays. (I went to New York City Ballet's Nutcracker instead.) Otherwise, I've always gone home to Smalltown, and been glad to do so.

Alas, the boisterous Christmas-eve parties of my mother's extended family are no more, for three of her five siblings have died and most of my cousins moved away from this part of the country long ago. Now my brother, his wife, their daughter, and her boyfriend come to my mother's house on Christmas morning to eat brunch and open presents. It's not nearly so noisy a celebration, but it's still a good one.

I haven't been keeping up with events in the outside world, but I do know that James Brown and Daniel Pinkham died. I can't claim to have been saddened by Brown's passing--he was never a favorite of mine--though it didn't escape my notice that he died of congestive heart failure, the same disease that struck me down last year. Pinkham's music, on the other hand, has always given me great pleasure, especially the Christmas Cantata he composed in 1957. I sang in a performance of that elegant little piece back when I was in college, half a lifetime ago, and I'm listening to it as I write these words on Christmas night, seated at a rickety card table set up in the bedroom in which I slept as a boy.

I sat in this same room a year ago and reflected on the illness that days before had come close to taking my life:

I already knew one thing that was at least as important: whatever the verdict, I wasn't going to give up without a fight. I have music to hear, plays to review, paintings to see, etchings to buy and treasure, a book to finish writing, a blog to keep, dozens of friends who claim quite convincingly to love me, and many, many memories, a few dark and desperate, far more full of light.

I lived instead of dying, and now I'm back home again, remembering Christmases past and giving humble thanks for the myriad blessings whose sum is my existence. Some are as deceptively small as a ten-minute cantata, others as unimaginably vast as the Missouri sky, but all are subsumed in the haunting words of Alexander Herzen that I quoted the other day: "Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have." If Herzen was right, then I am the richest of men.

UPDATE: Here's a sweet little tribute to Daniel Pinkham from a bass trombonist who has played his Christmas Cantata dozens of times and has yet to grow tired of it.

December 27, 2006

TT: Almanac

"It's no trick loving somebody at their best. Love is loving them at their worst."

Tom Stoppard, The Real Thing

TT: Shame, R.I.P.

I've been rereading my mother's battered copy of Advise and Consent, Allen Drury's 1959 novel about a Senate confirmation hearing and its aftermath. I regret to say that I was more than a little bit snarky about Drury in an essay about Washington novels that I wrote for the New York Times Book Review back in 1995. The occasion for the piece was his last novel, A Thing of State, which wasn't very good:

Mr. Drury is still up to his familiar tricks: bad guys in the Middle East, bad guys in the White House, bad guys in the Washington press corps (the only thing Mr. Drury hates more than a wimpy politician is a liberal columnist), all simmering gently in a rich stew of adjectives.

That essay riled Drury so much that he sent me a sharply worded letter. It embarrasses me in retrospect, though not because I now believe Advise and Consent to be an unheralded masterpiece. It is, in fact, a quintessential example of the plot-heavy blockbuster novel, massively eventful and heavily laden with characters wearing primary-color hats. So far as I know, next to nobody under the age of fifty has even heard of the book, which has been out of print for years.

On the other hand, just about everyone older than that is likely either to have read Advise and Consent (it was on the best-seller lists for nearly two years) or seen Otto Preminger's 1962 film version. As Peggy Noonan wrote in What I Saw at the Revolution, her 1990 memoir of the Reagan years, all the baby boomers in the Reagan White House "had read Advise and Consent and at least one other of Allen Drury's wonderful old novels about Washington. We had read them in the Sixties, when we were young, and they were part of the reason we were here."

I, too, read Advise and Consent when I was young, and find myself returning to it every few years, not because it's a great novel, or even a good one, but because it is a hugely entertaining good-bad book that fills me with nostalgia. (Nor am I unique in this regard, as you can see by going here.) I looked up my old essay on Drury and the Washington novel the other day, and found in it an explanation of why this should be so:

Unlike his more recent predecessors, Allen Drury was not a novelist de metier: he started out as a Washington correspondent. And "Advise and Consent," the story of a confirmation fight that leads to the suicide of a senator, the resignation of a majority leader and the death of a President, is very much a reporter's novel, full of the inside skinny. Some of Mr. Drury's senators drink too much and sleep around; some remain in loveless marriages to further their political careers; one, a promising young Mormon from Utah, has a homosexual past. (Tony Kushner, call your office.) Like all clubmen, they mostly like one another and mostly get along, and not infrequently strike private deals that have nothing to do with party politics.

If all this sounds old hat, bear in mind that Mr. Drury was writing long before Politics as Life Style became an obsession of American journalists. When he came along, nobody was covering Washington politicians as personalities, at least not with anything remotely approaching candor. C-Span and the Style section of The Washington Post were far in the future. Yet the appetite for personality journalism about politicians had already been created by radio and television: all that remained was to feed it. Mr. Drury did so with a vengeance, and thereby became rich, famous, and the proud owner of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

"Advise and Consent" also sold because, like all big-selling novels, it told its readers what they wanted to hear. In 1959, Americans were digging fallout shelters and watching Nikita Khrushchev cavort menacingly on TV. They saw the Soviet Union as a concrete threat to their continued existence, and wanted desperately to believe that American politicians, whatever their differences, were collectively up to the task of keeping the Russians on ice. The containment of the Soviet Union is the only ideological issue at stake in "Advise and Consent": every character is defined by whether or not he is soft on Communism. And though there are villains in Mr. Drury's Washington, never is it suggested for a moment that every politician is a liar and a thief. In fact, nearly all of his characters seek earnestly to do the right thing: "Just when things seem at their most cynical, something comes along that appeals to idealism and fair play, and the forces of deceit go down before it like tenpins."

These sentiments were decidedly in vogue in 1959. Never was public faith in government's capacity to do good as unswerving as in the ask-not-what era, in which the man who won World War II was succeeded by Mr. PT-109....

Ah, youth!

I should add, however, that something else has changed since 1959. Advise and Consent hinges on the suicide of a married senator whose wartime affair with a serviceman is about to be revealed by a political columnist. It isn't generally known, but this plot element was loosely based on the real-life story of Lester C. Hunt, a Democratic senator from Wyoming who shot himself in his Capitol office in 1954.

Here's what happened, according to Hunt's Wikipedia entry:

Hunt was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948, taking office on January 3, 1949. During his tenure in the Senate, Hunt became a bitter enemy of Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, and his criticism of McCarthy's anticommunist tactics marked him as a prime target in the 1954 election.

Leading up to the 1954 election, Republicans held a Senate majority of one vote, and pressured Hunt to resign from the Senate. Republican Senator Styles Bridges warned Hunt that unless he withdrew, Wyoming voters would find out about the arrest of Hunt's twenty-year-old son for soliciting prostitution from a male undercover police officer in Lafayette Square in July 1953. After some vacillation, Hunt announced that he would not seek reelection on June 8, 1954. Eleven days later, he shot himself in his Senate office.

One significant detail is missing from this dry account: Hunt's son was president of the student body of the Episcopal Theological School of Cambridge. That would have upped the humiliation ante considerably in 1954--but what about now? Can you seriously imagine a senator, or any other public figure, commiting suicide under similar circumstances today? In fact, let's take it one step further: can you think of any secret so shameful that a contemporary public figure would rather die than face the consequences of its becoming known? I can't.

Interestingly--if not incidentally--Allen Drury was both a staunch conservative and a lifelong bachelor. So far as I know, he never had anything to say for public consumption on the radical change in American mores that took place between the publication of Advise and Consent and his death in 1998 at the age of eighty. Given the fact that he portrayed Brigham Anderson, the senator who commits suicide in Advise and Consent, as a man of high integrity, I'd venture to guess that his views might have been worth hearing.

I offer in evidence a passage in which Senator Anderson reflects on his marital difficulties:

Searching his heart and mind with complete and unsparing honesty about it now, he knew with absolute certainty that the situation they were in could have happened, and indeed did happen, to many and many a marriage; it had nothing to do with ghosts from the past, though he never denied their importance to his life. He was a good father a good if temporarily troubled husband, a good servant, a good Senator, and a good man; and central to all this, in a way he understood thoroughly in his own nature, was the episode in Honolulu....

For all its pain, and for all that it was not exactly the sort of thing you would want to discuss in Salt Lake City, he did not regret that it had happened. There were things he had to find out about himself; the war, as it did for so many, furnished the crucible, and in it that episode had probably been the single most illuminating episode of all. He could not honestly say he was sorry; his only sorrow was that fate had ended it so hurtfully for them both instead of allowing the war to send them apart again as calmly and simply and inevitably as it had brought them together.

Again, I'm not going to try to tell you that Advise and Consent is any better than it is--but in how many best-selling American novels of the Fifties can you find a passage remotely like that? No doubt somebody will get around to writing a dissertation on it one of these days....

December 28, 2006

TT: Almanac

"Age is a very high price to pay for maturity."

Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

TT: Almanac

Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

BROADWAY:
- Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
- A Chorus Line* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
- Company* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter and situations, reviewed here)
- The Drowsy Chaperone (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
- The Vertical Hour* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Apr. 1)
- Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too intellectually complex to be suitable for children of any age, reviewed here, extended through May 12)

OFF BROADWAY:
- The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
- Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
- Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Jan. 28)
- The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Feb. 10)

CLOSING SOON:
- Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here, closes Jan. 14)

CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:
- Antigone (play, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Saturday)
- The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Sunday)

TT: Family album

One of my mother's most treasured heirlooms is a copy of the second edition of Our Baby's First Seven Years, the "baby book" in which she set down the particulars of my early childhood. I flipped through its yellowed pages yesterday, and as I set out on the longish three-leg trip (two hours by land, two at the airport in St. Louis, three in the sky) from Smalltown, U.S.A., back to New York City, it occurs to me that you might be amused by some of what I found there.

The book itself, which is still in print, is a period piece of no small cultural interest. Originally published in 1928 by the Mothers' Aid of the Chicago Lying-In Hospital, it's a sober-sided volume that has been drastically revised several times since the second edition of 1941, whose foreword contains the kind of language no longer spoken in polite company:

A baby's book should contain a great deal more than a mere record of worldly events affecting the new candidate for citizenship. It should have all the delicate and lovely sentiments attached to the birth and beginnings of life of the new individual, but it should include more than this. It should be a record showing the gradual physical and spiritual development of the body and soul....

A record of all the phenomena which transpire during these years will have a value that grows with time, and increases greatly with the number of babies upon whom such observations are made. For example, a study of 1000 baby books such as this, carefully filled out, will give valuable information in every department of medicine, will guide the teacher, the physical culturists, the eugenist, and the statesman, in their broad efforts to improve the race, as well as the physician in the treatment of the individual case.

Fortunately, my mother never got around to turning her copy of Our Baby's First Seven Years over to her friendly neighborhood eugenist. Instead, she kept it for me, having filled it to the brim with photographs, relics, and unscientific data inscribed in her neat, round hand.

The first item is a picture of me taken at ten-fifteen on the evening of February 6, 1956, thirty minutes after I was born. I weighed eight pounds and one-and-a-half ounces, and had the same broad nose and full lips that are my most prominent features a half-century later. My period of gestation was "uneventful," my birth "normal," my behavior "quiet." A bill taped into the book reveals that Southeast Missouri Hospital of Cape Girardeau charged my parents $134.27 ($926.20 in today's dollars) for the privilege of bringing me into the world.

"Beginning at nine months," my mother wrote a few pages later, "he adores television commercials. Will not move or take his eyes from the screen." At eleven months I could stand up, and on January 18, 1957, I took my first unaided steps. A year and three days after that I spoke my first complete sentence: "Give me some milk, please." On the next page, my mother made the following note: "By two years old Terry could say anything." Later on she recorded an anecdote reminiscent of a scene from Our Town:

Terry was saying his prayers in Nov. 1959. He said, "And God bless Terry Teachout, 308 Powers St., Smalltown, Mo." I said, "Why do you say all that, Terry?" He said, "I just thought God ought to have my address, too."

I liked music, too: not only could I sing such simple ditties as "Camptown Races," "Jesus Loves Me," and "Jingle Bells," but my parents had given me a small record player of my own. Then as now, I made the most of it:

Terry listens with concentration to all "serious" music, claps and laughs to gay music. Would listen to records for hours....Listens for an hour or so after nap every day at his insistence of "I'll hear records, please."

The printed word followed shortly thereafter. I taught myself to read at three, and within a year I could read "almost anything, all childrens' books, signs, even newspapers with the exception of difficult proper names." I was tested upon entering the first grade and was found to be "reading on sixth grade level."

At this point the entries start to dry up, for my brother was born in 1960 and my parents would be increasingly preoccupied with him. The last handwritten entry in the book is a notation on the "Second Grade" page: "I think Terry did far better socially this year."

That was the year when John Kennedy was assassinated and the Beatles came to the United States, the earliest events of which I have clear and extensive first-hand memories untainted by retrospective family anecdotage. Before then I can recall only isolated flashes and fragments. Starting in 1963, the veil of unknowing was lifted, and the task of preserving the story of my life passed from my mother to me.

December 29, 2006

TT: Almanac

"Since certainty is unattainable, entertainment value is the only justification for conversation."

Tom Stoppard, Undiscovered Country

TT: The middle of the journey

I return to business as usual in this week's Wall Street Journal, reviewing the second part of Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia and the Broadway transfer of Spring Awakening:

Here's a how-de-do: "The Coast of Utopia," Tom Stoppard's triptych of heavyweight history plays about the 19th-century Russian revolutionaries who struck the match that set the modern world on fire, has become fashionable Manhattan's must-see show. The second installment, "Shipwreck," is now alternating in repertory with "Voyage" at Lincoln Center ("Salvage" opens Feb. 15). These plays are the inverse of light entertainment: they're long, structurally complex and bristling with ideas. Yet the combined weekly box-office gross for "The Coast of Utopia" is right up there alongside "Jersey Boys" and "The Lion King." As the saying goes, there's no accounting for taste--not even the good kind.

If anything I just said causes you to suspect that "The Coast of Utopia" is the theatrical equivalent of "A Brief History of Time," that least read of best sellers, let me correct this misapprehension at once: "Voyage" and "Shipwreck" are pure theater, fueled by ideas but propelled by the combined force of high drama and resplendent language. Even if you know nothing of the historical figures on whom Mr. Stoppard's characters are based, you'll be pulled irresistibly into the maelstrom of their crowded lives--and riveted by the tale of how their idealism bore bitter fruit....

"Spring Awakening," the trendiest show of the 2006-07 season, has transferred to Broadway from the Atlantic Theater, slightly revised but otherwise intact. Most of my critical colleagues shrieked with joy when it opened, but I didn't agree with them in June and don't after a second viewing: I still think this glammed-up rock 'n' roll version of Frank Wedekind's once-shocking 1891 play about puberty in Wilhelmine Germany is all wrapping and no present....

No free link, so get thee to a newsstand and buy a copy of this morning's paper, or go thee hence to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you then-and-there access to my review, plus the rest of the Journal's weekend arts report, which is (A) extensive and (B) not for rich people only. (If you're already a subscriber, the column is here.)

About December 2006

This page contains all entries posted to About Last Night in December 2006. They are listed from oldest to newest.

November 2006 is the previous archive.

January 2007 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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