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January 31, 2007

TT: Almanac

"I am drawn to stories about people who really, really want something. That helps you to sing in ways that really matter to an audience. If your desire is big enough, then singing seems natural."

Adam Guettel, interview, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Jan. 28, 2006)

Posted January 31, 12:00 PM

TT: As good as a mile

Experience isn’t nearly as good a teacher as it ought to be, but it has taught me a few things, one of which is to always check my tape recorder prior to conducting an interview. An hour before I planned to leave my apartment on Tuesday to meet Ennio Morricone at the Italian Cultural Institute, I changed the batteries in my trusty old miniature cassette recorder and discovered that it had breathed its last. I dropped it in the wastebasket and walked briskly to the nearest Radio Shack to buy a replacement.

I was surprised—though not too much so—to discover that such old-fashioned devices had all but been replaced by digital recorders. Needless to say, I would have been more than happy to purchase one of those instead, but I didn’t have time to fumble with an unfamiliar technology and I still had a stack of Louis Armstrong-related interview tapes to transcribe, so I bought the last cassette recorder in the store, tried it out on the spot to make sure that it worked, paid the clerk, ran out the door, and flagged a cab.

Halfway through Central Park, I tried to remember how long I'd been using my old tape recorder. Suddenly it hit me: I'd bought it one afternoon in 1994 to interview a cabaret singer for the New York Daily News. I met her early that evening at a restaurant in the theater district, sat down at her table, and switched on my brand-new machine. Nothing happened. After a few minutes of futile fumbling, I put it back in my bag, mortified by my inadvertent display of professional incompetence.

What happened next is described in A Terry Teachout Reader:

I pulled out a notebook and started asking her about her early days. She came from a medium-sized town in Michigan. Her father had been a part-time trumpeter, and she had gotten her start with his band. “My family visited New York when I was twelve,” she said, “and I was already the kind of kid who read Earl Wilson’s column and wanted to go to Sardi’s and a Broadway show.” Laughing, I confessed that I, too, had read Wilson’s Broadway column as a child in Missouri. Indeed, the longer we talked, the more we found we had in common. Both of us had cut our teeth on jazz, longed to see the lights of Broadway, and traveled to New york to seek our fortunes.

What started off as an interview imperceptibly became a conversation. She spoke frankly of her struggle with Crohn’s disease, of the ileostomy she had undergone the year before in order to relieve the condition, of the hard times she had known and the hopes she had. After dinner, I walked her to the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, where she was singing anonymously in the pit of an ill-fated musical called The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, a thankless chore she had taken on in order to pay her medical bills. She was so tiny that I had to stoop to hear her over the roar of traffic in Times Square.

As soon I got back home, I took a closer look at the recorder and saw that the pause switch was on. I laughed myself silly. It never again malfunctioned, and in the thirteen years that followed I used it to tape interviews with Karrin Allyson, George Avakian, Maria Bachmann, Patricia Barber, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tony Bennett, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Charlap, Mary Foster Conklin, Norman Corwin, Eliot Feld, Renée Fleming, Jim Hall, Fred Hersch, Stephen Hough, David Ives, Keith Jarrett, Diana Krall, Lowell Liebermann, Audra McDonald, Marian McPartland, Pat Metheny, Dan Morgenstern, Mark Morris, Mark O’Connor, Madeleine Peyroux, Bucky and John Pizzarelli, Maria Schneider, George Shearing, Luciana Souza, Frederica von Stade, Ethan Stiefel, Whit Stillman, Paul Taylor (twice), Twyla Tharp, Edward Villella, Wendy Wasserstein, Robert Weiss, Christopher Wheeldon, Weslia Whitfield, and the members of the Emerson String Quartet, Nickel Creek, and Pilobolus.

All of those conversations were memorable and a few led to treasured friendships, but none would affect me so deeply as the interview with Nancy LaMott that my now-defunct cassette recorder failed to record. May it rest in peace.

Posted January 31, 10:42 AM

TT: Another old friend

A reader wrote, apropos of this posting about an alleged quote of mine, to reassure me that I really did say what the Web says I said. The quote, he gleefully informed me, came from a review of The Cat Who Went to Paris and Particularly Cats...and Rufus published in the Washington Post in 1991. It appeared in the first paragraph:

"This broadcast," Harry Reasoner once said at the beginning of a television show called "Essay on Women," "was prepared by men, and makes no claim to being fair. Prejudice has saved us a great deal of time in preparation." Perhaps I should start with a similar disclaimer: This review was written by the owner of an 11-year-old cat named Blossom. Not surprisingly, I have strong opinions about cats. Some are favorable, others merely resigned. I love Blossom, but I also know the limits of our relationship. He does what he wants, and I do what he wants. Most cat owners are like that. They understand that life with a cat is in certain ways a one-sided proposition. Cats are not educable; humans are. Moreover, cats know this. If you're not willing to humor them, you might as well stick to dogs.

Blossom died in my arms several years ago, but I still remember him (yes, he was a him) with slightly exasperated affection. A framed picture of him shares one of my bookshelves with the selected works of Willa Cather, Raymond Chandler, John P. Marquand, and Tom Wolfe—a place of honor, in other words. He was a good cat except when he wasn't, I loved him very much, and I'm glad to have occasion to mention him in this space.

Posted January 31, 4:13 AM

January 30, 2007

TT: Lost in the ozone

A friend writes:

I bought a cat calendar that featured a quote from you, so I had to write. You said: "Life with a cat is in certain ways a one-sided proposition. Cats are not educable; humans are. Moreover, cats know this."

This e-mail amazed me. It sounds very much like something I might have said—I lived with cats for two decades, after all—but I have no memory whatsoever of writing any such thing.

I Googled my alleged quote and found it in several places on the Web, unsourced in all cases, though one person tacked on an additional, equally plausible-sounding sentence: “If you're not willing to humor them, you might as well stick to dogs.” That one doesn’t ring any bells, either. Is it the fate of overly prolific authors to forget their past utterances as they lurch into middle age? Have I said other, comparably pithy things that have vanished no less irretrievably into the ether?

Would that I had time to get to the bottom of this puzzle, but I don’t, for I've got to spend the next couple of hours prepping for today's interview with Ennio Morricone. If anyone out there can tell me where and when I paid this backhanded tribute to the ineducability of Felis domesticus, I'd appreciate hearing from you....

Posted January 30, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"A molehill man is a pseudo-busy executive who comes to work at 9 am and finds a molehill on his desk. He has until 5 pm to make this molehill into a mountain. An accomplished molehill man will often have his mountain finished before lunch."

Fred Allen, Treadmill to Oblivion

Posted January 30, 12:00 PM

January 29, 2007

TT: Almanac

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith, "Not Waving but Drowning"

Posted January 29, 12:00 PM

TT: Not blogging but working

Last week was a good week for this blog. Our Girl and I had more visitors than usual, partly because we put up a lot of stuff and partly because we popped up on the Guardian’s litblog.

This week is likely to be somewhat dicier, for it seems that my life is in the process of getting more than a little bit hectic. I withdrew to Connecticut over the weekend to write a long Commentary essay on Alyn Shipton's A New History of Jazz and watch three old movies, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, William Wyler's Detective Story, and Fritz Lang's Human Desire. Today I'm returning to New York to interview Ennio Morricone for a Wall Street Journal profile, see four new plays by Alan Ball, Richard Nelson, Yasmina Reza, and Oren Safdie, and catch a New York City Ballet performance of George Balanchine's Liebeslieder Walzer, hitting all my regular deadlines in between these varied events.

I'll try to blog, too, and Our Girl will pay her usual Wednesday visit to this space, but outside of the daily almanac entry and my weekly theater-related postings, I make no promises whatsoever. For the moment I'm simply going to have to keep my head down and pedal hard.

In the immortal words of the Anonymous Bluesman, If you see me comin', raise your window high/If you see me passin', baby, hang your head and cry. Or something like that.

Later, maybe.

Posted January 29, 10:49 AM

January 26, 2007

TT: The very best we have

Today’s Wall Street Journal drama column starts out with a big bang—a hats-off celebration of Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of Brian Friel’s Translations—followed by a review of Signature Theatre’s Into the Woods, the first of three reports on my recent expedition to the theaters of Washington, D.C., and its environs:

The only time I don’t think Brian Friel is the best living playwright is immediately after I’ve seen a play by Tom Stoppard. That both men should be represented on Broadway this season is a boon, and though Mr. Stoppard’s “Coast of Utopia” trilogy, being both new and spectacular, will likely get most of the ink, the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of “Translations,” directed by Garry Hynes, deserves equal time. This production of Mr. Friel’s 1980 play, among the greatest written in the 20th century, is so comprehensively masterful that no critic, however enthusiastic, can do more than suggest its manifold virtues. Instead of reviewing it, I wish I could simply send you a ticket….

“Into the Woods,” in which Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack (the one who chopped down the beanstalk) meet in a forest and get into big trouble together, is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most frequently performed musicals, not because it’s the best but because it’s the most audience-friendly, right down to the reasonably happy ending. Perhaps Signature Theatre, a regional company whose imaginative Sondheim stagings have given it a national reputation, had that in mind when it picked Mr. Sondheim’s fractured fairy tale to open its new two-theater complex, located in an upscale suburban shopping mall not far from downtown Washington. Whatever the reason, this new production is as engaging and smartly designed as the handsome building that houses it….

No link. Buy a Journal—it’s cheap, easy to find, and full of goodies—or, better yet, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, a wise decision that will give you immediate access to my column and all the rest of the Journal’s Friday arts package. (If you’re already a subscriber, the column is here.)

Posted January 26, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"The images on the screen are patterns of light, not living actors. They are not affected by applause or hissing. They will be the same in a packed house or an empty one. And they will be the same every time the movie is shown. This affects the audience. Occasionally, movie audiences applaud or hiss or walk out, but for the most part they are passive. No social bond between the audience and the actors can exist."

O.B. Hardison, Entering the Maze: Identity and Change in Modern Culture

Posted January 26, 12:00 PM

January 25, 2007

TT: Old home week

I just got back from the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, where the Mark Morris Dance Group has been dancing a mixed bill in its own 140-seat performance space. To see a dance company in so small a venue is an amazingly intimate experience, one not so far removed from watching a working rehearsal. It happens that tonight’s program included Sang-Froid, a dance I was lucky enough to see Morris choreograph eight years ago. I wrote about it in a New York Times essay collected in A Terry Teachout Reader:

Mark Morris is making a dance—loudly. Dance studios, with their hardwood floors and mirrored walls, are noisy places even at the calmest of times, and Mr. Morris, who is working on a suite of nine dances to the music of Frederic Chopin, can raise a ruckus sufficient to drown out a medium-size riot. All afternoon he has been shouting, whistling, singing and emitting a steady stream of unprintable class-clown wisecracks in his shrill foghorn voice. It's as if John Belushi had decided to take up modern dance, or maybe Ernie Kovacs.

Visitors are often startled by Mr. Morris's antics, but his dancers are used to them. “Mark was loud before he was famous,” says Tina Fehlandt, a charter member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, not unaffectionately. Meanwhile, Ethan Iverson, the company's music director, clatters away at a finger-twistingly difficult etude on an ill-tuned baby grand in the corner of the studio, while a recording of “The Nutcracker”' pas de deux plays irrelevantly somewhere down the hall….

The tumultuous music has inspired Mr. Morris to transform Julie Worden, a handsome young woman who looks like a brainy cheerleader, into a suicidal princess who inexplicably finds herself swept up in some sort of mad Gothic torture fantasy. “Stop!” he screams as Ms. Worden sails despondently through the air for the third time in a row. He strikes a great-man pose and yells at no one in particular, “Isn’t it fun to be the cho-re-o-gra-pheur?”

Not only did Morris make all four of the dances I saw tonight, but he also appeared in one of them. The second movement of Italian Concerto is a male solo set to one of Bach’s most passionate instrumental arias. Morris is fifty, stocky, and gray-haired, and he rarely appears on stage anymore save to take curtain calls, but to see him execute the grandly sweeping arm movements of Italian Concerto is to be reminded that great dancing is far more than a mere matter of agility. He still fills his space to overflowing, and no sooner does he stride out of the wings than your eye goes straight to him and stays there.

Watching Italian Concerto and Sang-Froid at the Morris Center took me back to the days when I was seeing two or three ballet and modern-dance performances a week. I came late to dance, and it had so overwhelming an effect on me that I threw myself into it head first, in time becoming a dance critic and, eventually, the author of a book about George Balanchine.

I still love dance, but in recent years I’ve been spending so much time covering Broadway and regional theater that I rarely get to see Morris or Paul Taylor or New York City Ballet. Maybe that’s why tonight’s performance hit me so hard, to the point that my eyes actually filled with tears at the close of Love Song Waltzes, a moment about which Joan Acocella wrote beautifully and evocatively in her 1993 biography of Morris:

At the end of Love Song Waltzes one man waltzes each of the other eleven dancers off the stage, one by one, until finally he is alone. He pauses, and then, as the lights go out, he walks offstage by himself. For a dance that has taken the group as its subject, this is a stark ending, an admission that, the group notwithstanding, we are also alone, and we die alone. (The ending looks like a death.) But this does not undo the meaning of what has come before. Insofar as we transcend aloneness, we do so in the group. And what the group does is dance. It is significant that when the man is left alone on the stage, he stops dancing. He doesn’t waltz out; he walks out. When the others are gone, the dance is over, literally and figuratively. Dance and the group are the image of life as against death.

Balanchine choreographed the same set of Brahms waltzes in a totally different but no less moving way in Liebeslieder Walzer, my favorite of all his ballets. I regret to say that I haven’t seen it for years, and it’s been at least two years—far too long—since I last saw New York City Ballet. Fortunately, a blogger friend is taking me to an NYCB performance of Liebeslieder next Thursday. I don't like to wish time away, but after seeing Love Song Waltzes, I can hardly wait.

Posted January 25, 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)
Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, too intellectually complex to be suitable for children of any age, reviewed here, closes May 12)
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 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)
Meet Me in St. Louis (musical, G, very family-friendly, reviewed here, closes Feb. 18)
Room Service (comedy, G, reasonably family-friendly but a bit complicated for youngsters, reviewed here, extended through Mar. 25)
The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)

CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:
The Germans in Paris (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Sunday)
Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Sunday)

Posted January 25, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"A work-room should be like an old shoe; no matter how shabby, it’s better than a new one."

Willa Cather, The Professor's House

Posted January 25, 12:00 PM

January 24, 2007

TT: Small package

I just got back from Joe’s Pub, where I saw the front end of a two-nighter by Erin McKeown. She’s touring in support of her new CD, Sing You Sinners, about which I recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal:

Ms. McKeown, one of the freshest singer-songwriters of her generation, has chosen this time around to cut an album of standards. What sets it apart from the superficially similar efforts of such aging rock stars as Linda Ronstadt and Rod Stewart is that Ms. McKeown isn’t recycling the smooth sounds of yesteryear. Instead, she sings “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Just One of Those Things” as if she’d written them herself, performing them in the casual, slightly rough-hewn style of her previous albums, We Will Become Like Birds and Grand. The effect is both arrestingly personal and utterly contemporary…

All true, and I can’t recommend Sing You Sinners strongly enough—yet now that I’ve seen McKeown perform, I understand why Our Girl swears that you haven’t really heard her until you hear her in person. She’s amazing on stage, focused and charismatic, and her backup musicians, who suggest by turns a rockabilly combo, a jump band, and a power trio, are no less impressive. She’s also a charmer, a five-foot-nothing cutie with a sunshiny smile who obviously loves nothing better than singing in front of a crowd. (It tickled me that she was wearing a pinstriped suit, which made her look like she was auditioning to play the Master of Ceremonies in a big-budget high-school production of Cabaret.)

One of the many things that impressed me about tonight’s gig was the unforced ease with which McKeown moved from familiar standards like “Get Happy” and “Rhode Island Is Famous for You” to her own songs, making everything she sang seem all of a piece. I brought one of my twentysomething friends along, and she was knocked out by McKeown’s originals. “She’s so literate,” my friend said, and I agreed wholeheartedly. I rank her right up there with Jonatha Brooke, than which there is no higher praise.

From New York McKeown and her band head down to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. (where she’ll be taping an All Things Considered segment). You’ll find the rest of their itinerary here. Go, and tell her OGIC and I sent you.

Posted January 24, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Love and work are viewed and experienced as totally separate activities motivated by separate needs. Yet, when we think about it, our common sense tells us that our most inspired, creative acts are deeply tied to our need to love and that, when we lack love, we find it difficult to work creatively; that work without love is dead, mechanical, sheer competence without vitality, that love without work grows boring, monotonous, lacks depth and passion."

Marta Zahaykevich, “Critical Perspectives on Adult Women’s Development”

Posted January 24, 12:00 PM

OGIC: My town, more than just an ursine cult

This week, I live in a city consumed. Only a game, you say? Tell it to the scamps who pitched themselves into Lake Michigan after dark on a day when the temperature did not exceed the freezing point. Aw, such an endearing waste of emergency resources! Every city loves a champion, but certain places embrace certain championship runs with special fervor and purpose. In Chicago, a championship run mounted by a defensive-minded Bears team is probably as heaven-sent as it gets, giving the real-life superfans a chance to flaunt their imperviousness to the elements and reaffirm solemn allegiance to smashmouth football.

My point is this: it may seem from the outside—as it certainly does from the inside—that this is a town given over completely to ursine cultism and Superbowl anticipation. Through it all, however, cultural life in Chicago does go on. One case in point is the Art Institute, which will bravely kick off its free February on a Saturday when many Chicagoans will probably be busy buying the supermarkets out of Polishes, MGD, and blue and orange face paint. But wouldn't February 3rd be better spent at the AIC's debut of Q & Art? That day, more than 100 art experts will be posted throughout the galleries that day to field all questions, from the sublime to the ridiculous. I love the idea of this event, especially as a way to kick off a month of free access to one of the greatest museums in the world. From the museum’s press release:

On hand to answer questions and offer information will be the chief curators and department heads from American art; Medieval to Modern European Painting and Sculpture; African and Amerindian Art; the Ryerson and Burnham libraries; conservation; and Ancient art. Curatorial staff from all departments—Photography to Contemporary, Decorative Arts to Architecture and Design—will also be available throughout the museum. In the museum’s Fullerton Hall, historic and contemporary programs about the Art Institute…will run continuously from 2:00 to 4:30 p.m.

“Q&Art” is a major initiative by the Art Institute to make the museum as accessible as possible to all. The Art Institute hopes that Chicagoans will take advantage of its “open house” for the first three weeks of February and specifically on Saturday, February 3.

Offering access plus accessibility through personal contact, the Art Institute appears to be looking for a way to reach out to new audiences that's an alternative to the heavily hyped blockbuster show. Here's hoping they find some success drawing in new museumgoers and that other museums take notice—even if the act of God involving the local gridiron team deflates attendance, which, unfortunately, it well may.

Also in the home of the bean, the bona fide Broadway production of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, hailed by Terry here, has five days and six performances left in its Chicago run. I’ll be there Saturday night.

Finally, inspired by Terry’s euphoric report from the Erin McKeown show last night, I checked her tour schedule. The diva dynamo lands at Schuba’s on Southport, her traditional and ideal Chicago venue, on March 1. I will so be there, with so many bells on, they'll hear me coming a block away.

Posted January 24, 11:57 AM

TT: New kid on the block

Commentary, for which I write a monthly art-related essay, has gotten into the blogging business with a bang, launching a group blog called Contentions. It’s mostly about politics, but I’m contributing a weekly feature called “Bookshelf” in which I comment on new, newish, and (occasionally) not-so-new books about the arts. My first posting was on Howard Pollack’s George Gershwin: His Life and Work and Amanda Vaill’s Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins. This week I wrote about Lee Tanner’s The Jazz Image: Masters of Jazz Photography and Michael Ainger’s Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography.

Contentions' contributors all have their own archive pages. To read my postings, past, present, and future, go here.

Posted January 24, 9:54 AM

January 23, 2007

TT: Man's man

“God, I love this guy,” said the young man at the Barnes & Noble cash register from whom I purchased a couple of Elmore Leonard paperbacks the other day. “There’s nothing better to read on a plane.” Three days earlier I’d been sitting in the restaurant of a hotel in Washington, D.C., reading Unknown Man #89 as I ate my breakfast, when a balding, middle-aged businessman stopped at my table and said, “You’re going to love that one.”

I mention these two encounters because they’re the only times in recent memory that a stranger has spoken to me about a book I was reading—and both of the strangers in question happened to be men.

I wrote an essay about Mickey Spillane a few years ago that contained the following observation:

Spillane was writing for a generation of fellow veterans who spent their off-duty hours thumbing through paperbacks—thrillers, westerns, even the odd classic. They were accustomed to taking pleasure in the printed word. Now their grandsons go to the movies, or watch TV. Novels, even mysteries, are overwhelmingly read by and written for women. This is not to say that nobody’s writing regular-guy books anymore: they’re just not being read by regular guys. A no-nonsense crime novelist like Elmore Leonard is far more likely to appeal to eggheads like me than the working stiffs about whom he writes—I’ve never seen anybody reading a Leonard novel on the subway—whereas Spillane’s books were actually read and enjoyed by men who weren’t all that different from Mike Hammer. He may well have been the last novelist of whom such a thing could be said.

Might I have spoken too soon? Probably not. Still, I have a feeling that if regular guys are reading any new novels at all, it’s Elmore Leonard’s novels that they’re reading, and that’s all right by me. To be sure, Leonard isn’t as good as his critical advocates like to claim—among other things, he’s more than a little bit repetitious—but his best books are wonderfully entertaining, and on those not-infrequent occasions when I find myself stuck in a hotel room and disinclined to grapple with literature, I’m always happy to find one on my nightstand.

Crime is Leonard's nominal subject matter, but it isn’t his main interest. I can’t think of a Leonard novel that doesn’t contain a prominent romantic subplot, usually involving an encounter between two divorced or separated people in their thirties or forties who got married too soon. These encounters are invariably portrayed in the wisecracking manner of Howard Hawks, but the relationships that arise from them are perfectly serious. Time and again Leonard’s characters admit to having foolishly fallen for partners who turned out to be boring, self-involved jerks, and time and again we see them meeting nicer partners who inspire them to take a second chance on love.

Could this be the reason why Leonard is so popular among male readers? I wonder. Men, after all, are often a good deal more idealistic than they care to admit, and Leonard gives them good old-fashioned romance hidden in a plain brown wrapper of violence. What’s not to like?

Needless to say, this is what sets Leonard apart from the first-generation noir stylists. They were romantics, too, but of a very different sort, disillusioned and cynical, and in their books the good guy never, ever got the nice girl. I readily admit to finding that kind of cynicism appealing, but there’s another part of me that warms to Leonard’s romantic optimism, even though I’m well aware that it’s as much of a pose as Philip Marlowe’s curdled nobility.

Here’s something I wrote a few years ago:

Most commercial films 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.

I like happy endings, too, but I don't always want them to be so easy as that, and given the inescapable fact that we all live under the twin aspects of modernity and eternity, I have a special liking for films that convey something of the complexity of modern life without losing sight of the pole star of truth. In particular, I like films about gravely flawed human beings who, faced with a set of similarly imperfect alternatives, suddenly find their moral imaginations regenerated by grace, make the best possible choice available to them and accept the consequences, good or bad.

All of which is well and good, but doesn’t necessarily serve the purpose of amusing tired, fussy aesthetes who feel the need to spin their mental wheels for an hour or two before drifting off to sleep. Great art, after all, portrays a world in which nobody meets cute, everybody ends up dead, and most people get a lot less out of life than they want—none of which is especially restful to contemplate at the end of a long day.

That’s why I watch old Hollywood movies on TV after hours, and why I read Elmore Leonard, a solid craftsman who tickles my fancies without insulting my intelligence. I can think of far less honorable ways to pass an evening.

* * *

If you’ve never read any of Elmore Leonard’s books, I suggest starting with Maximum Bob or LaBrava.

You might also consider watching Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 film of Out of Sight, which is faithful to both the plot and the spirit of the novel on which it is based.

UPDATE: A friend wrote:

Great art also portrays beauty, laughter, and joy.

To which I replied:

Yes, but honestly. It doesn't pretend that the other things don't exist (though it doesn't necessarily emphasize them, either). That's why Schubert can make you so happy—because his happiness is set in front of a backdrop of reality.

To which he replied:

But you wrote the definition, and you wrote it entirely grim.

To which I replied:

Yeah, yeah, O.K., I give up! I was feeling grim.

Posted January 23, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen—to use an image you'll understand—it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of...fact."

Brian Friel, Translations

Posted January 23, 12:00 PM

January 22, 2007

TT: Words to the wise

I planned to post something long and thoughtful today, but it turns out that I’m severely overpressed with multiple deadlines, so instead I’ll stall for time by pointing you in the direction of a few things worth seeing and/or hearing:

Turner Classic Movies is showing two rarely seen Fifties films that I strongly commend to your attention. Fritz Lang’s Human Desire, starring Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, will air on Monday at four p.m. EST. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival), starring Kirk Douglas, will air on Thursday at 2:30 a.m. EST. Both films take an extremely dark view of human nature, so brace yourself before tuning in.

Erin McKeown, the singer-songwriter whom Our Girl and I praise as often as we think we can get away with it, is playing a two-nighter this Tuesday (at 7) and Wednesday (at 9:30) at Joe’s Pub. She’s touring in support of Sing You Sinners, her new album of pre-rock standards, though she’ll also be singing some of her own songs. For more information, go here.

Amy Burton, one of my very favorite classical singers, is performing the voice-and-piano version of John Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan this Thursday at 7:30 at Symphony Space. Here’s what Corigliano wrote about the song cycle when it was premiered in 2000:

I had always heard, by reputation, of the high regard accorded the folk-ballad singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. But I was so engaged in developing my orchestral technique during the years when Dylan was heard by the rest of the world that I had never heard his songs. So I bought a collection of his texts, and found many of them to be every bit as beautiful and as immediate as I had heard—and surprisingly well-suited to my own musical language. I then contacted Jeff Rosen, his manager, who approached Bob Dylan with the idea of re-setting his poetry to my music.

I do not know of an instance in which this has been done before (which was part of what appealed to me), so I needed to explain that these would be in no way arrangements, or variations, or in any way derivations of the music of the original songs, which I decided to not hear before the cycle was complete. Just as Schumann or Brahms or Wolf had re-interpreted in their own musical styles the same Goethe text, I intended to treat the Dylan lyrics as the poems I found them to be. Nor would their settings make any attempt at pop or rock writing. I wanted to take poetry I knew to be strongly associated with popular art and readdress it in terms of concert art—crossover in the opposite direction, one might say….

For more details about the performance, go here.

• The off-Broadway revival of Room Service that I praised lavishly in The Wall Street Journal three weeks ago has been extended through March 25. For more information, look immediately to your right at the first item in the Top Five module.

• Music & Arts has just released Artur Schnabel Plays Mozart, a budget-priced five-CD box set that contains all of Schnabel’s commercial Mozart recordings, made between 1934 and 1948, plus live performances of two additional concertos (K. 482 and 488) and sonatas (K. 333 and 533/494). To order, go here.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to work! See you tomorrow, maybe....

Posted January 22, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"To remember everything is a form of madness."

Brian Friel, Translations

Posted January 22, 12:00 PM

January 20, 2007

A list of new things we've liked (subject to unexpected and wildly capricious updating).

To purchase or investigate, click on the link.

PLAY: Room Service (SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam, extended through Mar. 25). An electrifyingly frenetic off-Broadway revival of the 1937 backstage farce about a fast-talking Broadway producer with a heart of brass who can't raise enough cash to pay his hotel bill. Filmed by the Marx Brothers in 1938, Room Service works infinitely better on stage, and the Peccadillo Theater Company has given it a first-class production directed with zany aplomb by Dan Wackerman. If there's a funnier show in New York, I haven't seen it (TT).

DANCE: Mark Morris Dance Group (2 Lafayette St., Brooklyn, closes Jan. 24). A perfect mixed bill: Morris' latest effort, a new work set to Bach's Italian Concerto, plus three of his finest small-scale pieces, Love Song Waltzes (1989), The Argument (1999), and Sang-Froid (2000). All programs will be danced in the wonderfully intimate performance space of the Morris company's Brooklyn headquarters. Not to be missed under any circumstances whatsoever (TT).

EXHIBITION: The Odyssey Continues: Masterworks from the New Orleans Museum of Art and from Private New Orleans Collections (Wildenstein & Company, 19 E. 64, up through Feb. 9). One hundred works of art, including major pieces by Lotto, Tiepolo, Rodin, Bonnard, Redon, Braque, Kandinsky, Pollock, Cornell, and Diebenkorn. The $10 admission fee benefits NOMA, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and is nowhere near recovering. Do yourself--and NOMA--a favor and visit this memorable show (TT).

DVD: Ballets Russes (Zeitgeist). An enthralling 2005 documentary about the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, one of the most important dance companies of the Thirties and Forties, whose barnstorming tours helped to create an audience for dance in America. Interviews with surviving members are skillfully blended with vivid archival performance footage to tell an irresistibly nostalgic tale of life on the road. Great, great fun (TT).

CD: Erin McKeown, Sing You Sinners (Nettwerk). "About Last Night"'s favorite pop singer-songwriter hangs up her pen (temporarily) to cut an album of old-time standards performed in a rough-hewn, bewitchingly unslick style that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the glammed-up slumming of Linda Ronstadt and her successors (TT).

Posted January 20, 12:09 PM

Not new, but still worth a look or listen (and no less subject to change without notice).

To purchase or investigate, click on the link.

CD: Glenn Gould, Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491 (Sony). Glenn Gould claimed to hate Mozart's music and played it badly--with one towering exception. Never have the stern yet shapely melodic lines of Mozart's greatest minor-key concerto been etched more incisively than in this 1961 recording, gracefully accompanied by Walter Susskind and the CBC Symphony. If you're one of the many music lovers who finds Gould's myriad eccentricities offputting, listen to this CD with an open mind and prepare to be surprised (TT).

NOVEL: John P. Marquand, Sincerely, Willis Wayde. Babbitt with a backstory. This undeservedly forgotten 1955 blockbuster follows a New England businessman along the twisty road that leads from youthful idealism to mature vengefulness. Less subtle than Point of No Return, Marquand's masterpiece, it offers a harsher, explicitly satirical view of life among the capitalists, and though Marquand's Lewis-like portrayal of his anti-hero's philistinism is a bit heavy-handed, I can't think of a more convincing fictional description of the high price of getting what you think you want (TT).

Posted January 20, 12:07 PM

DRAMA KINGS

"These five biographies of theater luminaries outshine the rest..."

Posted January 20, 11:41 AM

FINE ART OF DISTINCTIONS

"Historically, a director's staging of a play has had the same legal status as a singer's interpretation of a song, but John Rando, the director of Urinetown, thinks it should be protected by copyright and subject to royalty. Whether or not the directors of the Akron and Chicago productions of Urinetown stole his ideas, this claim is clearly defensible..."

Posted January 20, 11:38 AM

BALLET? NEVER HEARD OF IT

"No classics, no stars, only a handful of long-lived institutions...so why take a chance on dance? And therein lies the challenge of reviving dance in America: Anyone who seeks to launch a new company, or revitalize an old one, must start by figuring out how to make large numbers of Americans want to see something about which they no longer know anything..."

Posted January 20, 11:35 AM

ABOUT TERRY'S BOOKS

Terry's latest book is Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, published by Gotham Books in the U.S. and the Robson Press in England and available here.

The New York Times' review of Duke is here. The Economist's review is here. The San Francisco Chronicle's review is here.

To hear Debbie Millman interview Terry on Design Matters, go here.

To read Ethan Iverson's "Do the Math" interview with Terry, go here.

Terry's last book was Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the U.S., JR Books in England, Larousse in Brazil, and United Press/Alpina in Russia. To read the New York Times review, go here. To see Terry talk about Pops with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN's Q&A, go here.

His previous books include All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, and A Terry Teachout Reader, a collection of Terry's essays about American art and culture. You can read excerpts from reviews of these books here.

Terry has also written a memoir, City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy, edited A Second Mencken Chrestomathy and Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959, contributed to The Oxford Companion to Jazz, and written introductions to William Bailey on Canvas, Paul Taylor's Private Domain: An Autobiography, Gene Lees' Waiting for Dizzy, and the paperback versions of Richard Stark's Flashfire and Firebreak and Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado. One of his essays is included in Robert Gottlieb's Reading Dance, and he contributed notes on recordings by Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, and Oscar Peterson to Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology.

You can buy any of these books by clicking on the titles.

Posted January 20, 11:21 AM

January 19, 2007

TT: Melancholy farce

Today's Wall Street Journal contains the first of a series of theatrical reports from the road. This time around I review a Cherry Orchard in Boston and a Noises Off in Washington:

It says much about the artistic health of Broadway that none of Anton Chekhov's plays has been seen there since 2000, and that two decades have gone by since "The Cherry Orchard" was last produced there (unless you count the Russian-language road-show version that ran for a week and a half in 1997). So when Boston's Huntington Theatre cast Kate Burton as Madame Ranevskaya in Chekhov's last and greatest play, I knew I had to go see it--and her. Nowadays Ms. Burton is best known as a TV star, but she is also one of the finest stage actresses we have, and in "The Cherry Orchard" she made an impression so strong and vibrant that I can still see her clearly in my mind's eye a week after the fact....

The Marxist reading of "The Cherry Orchard" as a snapshot of Russia on the eve of much-needed revolution was fashionable throughout much of the 20th century, but has grown less stylish of late. "You can never make a play this great about politics," says Nicholas Martin, the Huntington's artistic director, who has chosen instead to stress the comic side of "The Cherry Orchard." He gets his laughs and then some, but the broadness of his straightforward staging, which borders at times on slapsticky crudity, seemed to me to veer rather too far in the opposite direction....

I don't know if "Noises Off" is the funniest play ever written, but it's definitely the funniest play I've ever seen, and Washington's Arena Stage has given it a perfect revival. I mean it: I can't think of a single way in which this production could possibly have been improved....

No link, naturally, so get yourself a Journal and read the whole thing there, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, thereby giving you immediate access to my column and all the rest of the Journal's Friday arts package. (If you're already a subscriber, the column is here.)

Posted January 19, 12:00 PM

TT: Chris Wheeldon takes a chance

In my next "Sightings" column, to be published in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, I examine the hottest dance story of the month, if not the decade: Christopher Wheeldon's recently announced decision to leave New York City Ballet and launch his own classical ballet company. Yes, Wheeldon is the biggest choreographic talent to come along since Mark Morris--but is that fact alone enough to guarantee the kind of heavy-duty charitable cash flow necessary to bankroll a twenty-member dance troupe? Or might he possibly have something else in mind?

For the answer, pick up a copy of tomorrow's Journal, where you'll find my column in the "Pursuits" section.

Posted January 19, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up."

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Posted January 19, 12:00 PM

TT: My day

I'm sitting in my hotel room in Washington, D.C., having just eaten a very good breakfast downstairs. Last night I chatted with Our Girl on the phone, then read the first chapter of Bleak House before putting out the light, thus embarking on the fulfillment of one of my New Year's resolutions. This morning I spent an hour surfing the Web and catching up on my e-mail, then read the Washington Post on paper, something I almost never do anymore. In a few minutes I'll head for the Phillips Collection, where I plan to pass the middle part of the day looking at art, followed by a couple of hours' worth of writing. Tonight I'll be seeing the Signature Theatre Company's new production of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods.

The sky is blue, the wind is blowing, and for some reason I find that a sentence from one of Justice Holmes' letters is running through my head: "Life grows more equable as one grows older; not less interesting, but I hope a little more impersonal. An old man ought to be sad. I don't know whether I shall be when the wind is west and the sky clear."

Enjoy your day. I plan to.

Posted January 19, 10:42 AM

January 18, 2007

THE LONG GOODBYE

To read all three installments of "The Long Goodbye," a multi-part posting about the experience of watching a parent die, go here.

Posted January 18, 8:13 PM

TT: Cameo appearances

- I must have watched It's a Wonderful Life a half-dozen times, and every time I notice the piano player who pounds out a smoking-hot stomp tune at Nick's, the boisterous speakeasy in which Clarence, Jimmy Stewart's hapless guardian angel, makes the mistake of ordering mulled wine from the tough-guy bartender ("We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint ‘atmosphere'"). Yet it never occurred to me to wonder who he was until I happened to see the film again a couple of weeks ago. This time I looked him up on the Internet Movie Database, and guess what? He's Meade "Lux" Lewis, whose 1927 recording of "Honky Tonk Train Blues" is one of the half-dozen greatest examples of boogie-woogie piano on record.

Who knew? Not me.

- I also watched Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It, the movie that made Jayne Mansfield a star. Not only had I never seen it, but I'd never seen any of Mansfield's other movies--she was only a name to me--and I found her unexpectedly charming.

This inspired me to take a look at the BBC documentary on Mansfield that airs on Ovation from time to time. To my astonishment, it included a snippet of a Fifties kinescope in which Mansfield can be seen playing the first movement of Vivaldi's A Minor Violin Concerto, Op. 3, No. 6. (You can view a poor-quality transfer of the same snippet by going here.) This concerto is often played by students--I played it in high school--and though her performance isn't very good, it isn't hopelessly bad, either.

How strange that so touchingly earnest a creature should have gone to Hollywood and become a big-chested blonde bombshell! Only in America...

Posted January 18, 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)
- Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, too intellectually complex to be suitable for children of any age, reviewed here, closes May 12)
- 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 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)
- Meet Me in St. Louis (musical, G, very family-friendly, reviewed here, closes Feb. 18)
- The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, extended through Mar. 25)

CLOSING SOON:
- The Germans in Paris (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Jan. 29)
- Room Service (comedy, G, reasonably family-friendly but a bit complicated for youngsters, reviewed here, closes Jan. 29)
- Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Jan. 28)

Posted January 18, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Washington society has always demanded less and given more than any society in this country--demanded less of applause, deference, etiquette, and has accepted as current coin quick wit, appreciative tact, and a talent for talking."

M.E.W. Sherwood, An Epistle to Posterity

Posted January 18, 12:00 PM

TT: Michael Brecker, R.I.P.

I was going to write about Michael Brecker, the great jazz saxophonist who died last Saturday, but his colleague Randy Sandke said it all for me, and for the rest of us. Mr. Rifftides has posted Sandke's heartfelt tribute, plus links to other Brecker-related postings elsewhere in the blogosphere. Go here and start scrolling.

Posted January 18, 11:44 AM

TT: Memo from Cassandra

ArtsJournal blogger Greg Sandow has been writing a very important series of posts on the future of classical music. Three have appeared so far. (They are here, here, and here.) He's been taking a hard look at demographic trends and attendance numbers for major classical-music institutions in the U.S., and has arrived at the following conclusions:

- "The classical music audience is now, on the average, more than 50 years old. There's a common belief that it's always been this old, but I've uncovered data that shows this isn't true....If the audience has been getting older for 50 years, then clearly younger people aren't coming into it."

- "A trend that's been established for that long has to reflect some kind of deep-rooted cultural change--and the change it represents, I'd guess, is that our culture, over a long span of time, has lost interest in classical music."

- "In the 1960s, the biggest orchestras were selling all their tickets. Now they're suffering from a long-term decline in ticket sales. On top of that, classical music is far less central in our society than it was in the '60s, which makes it harder to attract both audience and funding."

Therefore:

- "This makes me think that the era of classical music is going to end. Not this year, not next year, maybe not in 10 years (though surely by then we'll see decisive signs of where we're going). But sometime reasonably soon, the era of classical music will be over....organized classical concerts, as we know them now, won't be very numerous, or at least won't be as numerous as they are now. Though they may well be replaced by other kinds of concerts--more informal, or also offering other kinds of music--in which classical music might be played. To be as precise as I can, I might say that the apparatus of classical music, as we know it now, will very likely fade away."

I agree. In fact, I've been saying much the same thing for a very long time now, and I've also been thinking about what the post-classical era might look like. In "Life Without Records," a 2002 essay on the collapse of the classical recording industry reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader, I speculated about the likely effects of the end of the international "superstar system" that was made possible by recording:

What would classical music look like without superstars? A possible answer can be found by looking at classical ballet. Few ballet companies tour regularly, and some of the most important, like New York City Ballet, are rarely seen outside their home towns; videocassettes are a notoriously inadequate substitute for live performances, and thus sell poorly. For these reasons, the major media devote little space to ballet, meaning that there are never more than one or two international superstars at any given moment. Most balletgoers spend the bulk of their time attending performances by the resident companies of the cities in which they live, and the dances, not the dancers, are the draw. (It is The Nutcracker that fills seats, not the Sugar Plum Fairy.)

In the United States, regional opera works in much the same way. Only a half-dozen major American companies can afford to import superstars; everyone else hires solid second-tier singers with little or no name recognition, often using local artists to fill out their casts. Audiences are attracted not by the stars, but by the show--that is, by dramatically compelling productions of musically interesting operas. If the larger culture of classical music were to be reorganized along similar lines, then concert presenters, instead of presenting a small roster of international celebrity virtuosos, might be forced to engage a wider range of lower-priced soloists, possibly including local artists and ensembles with a carefully cultivated base of loyal fans. Similarly, regional symphony orchestras would have to adopt more imaginative programming strategies in order to attract listeners who now buy tickets mainly to hear superstar soloists play popular concertos in person. It is possible, too, that with the breakup of the single worldwide market created by the superstar system, we might see a similar disintegration of the blandly eclectic "international" style of performance that came to dominate classical music in the Seventies. Performers who play for the moment, rather than for the microphones of an international record company primarily interested in its bottom line, are less likely to play it safe--and more likely to play interesting music.

In the midst of these seemingly endless uncertainties, one aspect of life without records is not only possible but probable: henceforth, nobody in his right mind will look to classical music as a means of making very large sums of money. Of all the ways in which the invention of the phonograph changed the culture of classical music, perhaps the most fateful was that it turned a local craft into an international trade, thereby attracting the attention of entrepreneurs who were more interested in money than art. Needless to say, there can be no art without money, but the recording industry, by creating a mass market for music, sucked unprecedentedly large amounts of money into the classical-music culture, thereby insidiously and inexorably altering its artistic priorities....

But enough about me. Go read Greg's posts, and start following his blog. Nobody is writing more intelligently--or convincingly--about the grim prospects facing classical musicians and classical-music institutions in the coming century.

Posted January 18, 10:56 AM

January 17, 2007

OGIC: Play with your words

A nice, expansive four-day weekend just came to a close, and I'm utterly exhausted. I spent the holiday weekend, and then some, doing something completely novel: competing in the MIT Mystery Hunt. Fellow blogger and ALN blogroll mainstay Eric Berlin was one of the veteran players on my team and has related his experience of the weekend in typically eloquent and entertaining fashion here. The MIT student paper covered the event here.

So how did I end up spending my weekend in an MIT classroom with 46 bigger brains, taking on approximately 150 elegantly constructed, thematically interwoven puzzles? It's not exactly a situation one just sort of stumbles into, as you might guess. As frequent readers know, I'm a regular at the National Puzzlers League convention held each summer--in Indianapolis, Cambridge, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and, about six months from now, Ann Arbor. Every year I return from the Con exhilarated, happy, and with a few new friends. The NPL and the Mystery Hunt have significantly overlapping constituencies, and it was the wish to see some of these far-flung friends that landed me at the Mystery Hunt this year. For some reason, puzzlers, and especially the ones I'm closest to, tend to concentrate on either coast. Vanishingly few make their homes in the middle of the country, a fact regarding which I've been known to get a mite peevish on occasion and an excellent reason to travel to Cambridge last weekend and find out what the mystery is all about. And now I have some idea. As a thing, the MIT Mystery Hunt is a magnum opus of its kind, an elaborate, smoothly running machine whose enormity would seem to belie its elegance but astonishingly doesn't, and vice versa. As an experience, it's a more intense, more claustrophobic, grubbier NPL Con, from which I've returned...utterly exhausted.

That's not to say I didn't have a great time, because I did--thanks to the quality of the puzzles and especially the quality of the company. It surely wasn't the scenery: most of the weekend was spent in an MIT classroom whose notable features were approximately 20 fully wired, furiously worked laptop computers and three walls of blackboard that progressively filled with chalk marks as we solved puzzles and recorded the answers there (in a puzzle hunt of this magnitude, almost no answer is sufficient unto itself; it nearly always has an afterlife as a clue in another, second-order puzzle). An adjacent classroom was reserved for less critical activities such as eating and sleeping, though some of the other than perfectly dedicated among us opted for alternative quarters (mine in nearby Somerville were friendly and comfortable).

And we won! On the backs of a couple of brilliant teammates who were the first in the entire Hunt to crack the diabolical meta-puzzle (involving the answer words from ten other puzzles, as well as additional clues gathered from a video we'd been given) that had had us and several other teams stumped and stalled near the finish line for hours, we triumphed around 2 o'clock Sunday morning (would it have occurred to you immediately to use the U.S. Senate seating chart as a grid for a double-crostic?). Not a moment too soon, mind you, since the gargantuan task of running next year's Hunt now falls on us. Personally, I've never constructed a puzzle in my life, so my role is likely to be that of test-solver. Even from that humble perch, I'll be fascinated to see from the inside how one of these marvels comes together.

For the curious, the complete set of 2007 Mystery Hunt puzzles (and solutions) can be accessed here. One that might particularly divert readers of this blog is "Writing Nerds," here.

UPDATE: Edited to fix broken links. Sorry!!

Posted January 17, 12:25 PM

TT: Almanac

"In Washington, success is just a training course for failure."

Simon Hoggart, America: A User's Guide

Posted January 17, 12:00 PM

TT: Notes from the road

- A reader writes, inspired by yesterday's list of the best Hollywood films of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties:

Strong list. I agree that Robin Hood trumps Casablanca as Michael Curtiz's great contribution, though I imagine you'll get arguments. I'd put Big Sleep over To Have and Have Not for Howard Hawks. You really ought to consider a Disney picture in that pantheon: Pinocchio, probably.

In fact, I thought about Disney, though I would have been more inclined to include Dumbo. What I really regret, though, is not having had room to include one of the short cartoons that rank as a genre high among the greatest achievements of Hollywood's Golden Age--but which one? Chuck Jones' "Bully for Bugs"? Tex Avery's "King Size Canary"? I feel another list coming on.

(Incidentally, OGIC, I wouldn't mind hearing from you about my little list.)

- I took the train to Washington, D.C., yesterday afternoon, dropped my bags off at the hotel where I'll be spending the week, had dinner with Laura Lippman at the excellent Café MoZU, then went with her to Arena Stage to see that company's revival of Michael Frayn's Noises Off (about which more in Friday's Wall Street Journal). A fairly busy day, especially since I worked straight through the train ride from New York to Washington. As for today, I'll be spending it writing in my hotel room--no art, alas--after which it's off to the Folger Elizabethan Theatre for a performance of King Lear by the Classical Theatre of Harlem, a company I've been wanting to see for some time now.

More as it happens, but now I need to go scare up some breakfast.

Posted January 17, 9:25 AM

OGIC: This just in

And not a moment too soon! Rachel Ries, the Chicago singer-songwriter about whom I have been going on these last months--and whose work Terry admires as much as I do, Terryphiles--will be interviewed on XM Radio this morning by former "Morning Edition" host Bob Edwards. The details as dispatched to Rachel's mailing list late last night:

I was delighted (terrified & tongue-tied) to be interviewed by Bob Edwards last month for his program, The Bob Edwards Show, on XM Public Radio. Our little chat is airing tomorrow morning, Wednesday the 17th, at 8 am ET (with encores at 7, 9, 10 am and 8 pm ET). If you don't have XM Satellite Radio, never fear! You can listen in at www.xmradio.com. After the fact, it will also be available at audible.com.

Alas, I myself am XM-less and will have to catch it at audible.com, sigh.

However: for the benefit of all you Chicagoans out there, Ries performs at Uncommon Ground tonight and every remaining Wednesday in January from 8:00 to 10:00. Catch her before her sweet and salty "prairie swing/city folk" (a perfect description, presumably hers, that I blatantly stole from the Uncommon Ground web site) sweeps the nation! Today Bob Edwards, tomorrow the world.

Posted January 17, 2:04 AM

January 16, 2007

TT: Are they or aren't they?

I've received a fair amount of mail stirred up by the first sentence of my most recent essay in Commentary: "Hollywood rarely makes artistically serious movies, save by inadvertence." No need to supply details--you can imagine most of it for yourself--but one reader caught my attention by pointing to this paragraph:

Hollywood has always been a money-making enterprise, and it may well be that our latter-day Age of the Blockbuster is nothing more than a return to the historical norm from which the New Wave of the 70's was a short-lived aberration. Thus, for all the nostalgia with which American films of the 30's and 40's are now recalled, the best of them were unpretentious genre movies--Westerns, musicals, "screwball" comedies, and the bleak, cynical crime stories now known as film noir--turned out by inspired craftsmen who succeeded in transcending the limitations imposed on them by the studios at which they worked. It is these films, and not such nominally "serious" efforts as The Grapes of Wrath (1939) or The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), for which the studio system will be justly remembered.

The reader in question invited to put my money where my mouth was by naming what I thought were the best sound films made in Hollywood prior to the coming of the New Wave. That's a good question, and an impossible one, but I decided to try to answer it anyway.

Bearing in mind that I could change my mind later today, here are my fifteen picks, one to a director:

- It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)
- The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, 1938)
- The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)
- Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
- Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1941)
- The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
- To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1943)
- Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)
- Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
- All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
- Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)
- The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
- The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
- Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
- North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

Art, or not? You decide.

Posted January 16, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Washington is a very easy city for you to forget where you came from and why you got there in the first place."

Harry S. Truman (quoted in Merle Miller, Plain Speaking)

Posted January 16, 12:00 PM

January 15, 2007

TT: Hither and yon (cont'd)

I've been to Boston and back since you last heard from me. I took the train up from New York on Saturday to see Kate Burton in Nicholas Martin's production of Chekhov's Cherry Orchard. Alas, I didn't have time to do anything in Boston but see The Cherry Orchard and eat two meals, though I dined exceptionally well at a place called Brasserie Jo, which turns out to have an outpost in Chicago. (Got that, OGIC?) The weather was lousy, so perhaps the brevity of my stay was for the best.

I returned yesterday afternoon to commence a day and a half of nonstop writing. I'll spend the rest of the week in Washington, D.C., where I'll be seeing three plays and (I hope) a lot of art. Expect to hear from me with semi-regularity in this space, and from Our Girl on Wednesday.

Posted January 15, 12:00 PM

TT: Bigger than life

As I mentioned last week, I went to see the North Carolina Museum of Art's sold-out Monet retrospective (which closed yesterday) in between performances of Carolina Ballet's Monet Impressions. It was almost as crowded as the Manet show that Our Girl and I saw three years ago at the Art Institute of Chicago:

I almost never go to blockbuster shows during regular museum hours. As a working critic, I normally attend "press views," the pre-opening previews which, even when they draw good-sized audiences, are never too crowded. In the past couple of years, I've only had to fight crowds at one mega-blockbuster show, the Museum of Modern Art's "Matisse Picasso" (I reviewed it for The Wall Street Journal, then returned a second time in the company of a friend who had a spare ticket). As a result, I'd forgotten how oppressive it is to try to look at great art in the company of undifferentiated hordes of other viewers, a not-insubstantial percentage of whom are boorishly noisy....

I don't feel like rehearsing all the old arguments for and against such shows--they've been done to death, and nothing I say, here or elsewhere, will change the economic realities that drive museums to put together 100-piece extravaganzas of Impressionism's Greatest Hits. Nor do I propose to gripe about wall texts or audio tours. In a perfect world, museumgoers would simply look at paintings, then go home, read about them, and come back to see them again. Alas, the world of art is far from perfect: not only do most museumgoers like to read about the paintings they see while they're seeing them, but more than a few like to hear about them as well. What's more, I don't doubt that at least some of them profit from the experience, and far be it from me to decree that they should be deprived of it.

Having said all this, I do want to make a couple of modest proposals:

(1) Once a year, every working art critic should be required to attend a blockbuster show on a weekend or holiday. He should buy a ticket with his own money, line up with the citizenry, fight his way through the crowds, listen to an audio tour--and pay close attention to what his fellow museumgoers are saying and doing. In short, he should be forced to remind himself on a regular basis of how ordinary people experience art, and marvel at the fact that they keep coming back in spite of everything.

That one's easy. This one's harder:

(2) Every "civilian" who goes to a given museum at least six times a year should be allowed to attend a press or private view of a major exhibition. The experience of seeing a blockbuster show under such conditions is eye-opening in every sense of the word. If more ordinary museumgoers were to have such experiences, it might change their feelings about the ways in which museums present such exhibitions.

I thought of those proposals as I fought my way through "Monet in Normandy" last Thursday. I can't honestly say I enjoyed the experience. Great art isn't meant to be seen in a crowd, even a well-mannered crowd of friendly, earnest North Carolinians. On the other hand, seeing it under less than ideal circumstances is better than not seeing it at all, and the fact that I had to line up to see certain of the paintings actually forced me to spend more time looking at them than I might have spent had I been attending a press view.

I got stuck, for instance, in front of Wisteria (Glycines), a 1920 canvas owned by the Allen Memorial Art Museum, and realized after a few minutes of unintended scrutiny that Joan Mitchell must have seen the same painting at some point in her life and been influenced by it. Would I have made that connection had I been strolling briskly through a half-empty gallery? Probably not.

I also had time to reflect on the insufficiently appreciated fact that Monet's late paintings, which once were thought difficult to the point of obscurity, have in recent years become so popular that people who know little or nothing about art will line up to see them. How is it possible that Monet and Debussy, who in their own time were truly radical artists, are now beloved by the public at large?

I'm sorry to say that overfamiliarity long ago caused me to start taking both men for granted. Going to Raleigh to see "Monet in Normandy" and Monet Impressions has had the unexpected and welcome effect of renewing my long-dormant appreciation of their extreme originality. They were giants--and they still are. I can think of worse ways to be reminded of that fact than paying a visit to a crowded museum.

Posted January 15, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"I guess God made Boston on a wet Sunday."

Raymond Chandler, letter, Mar. 21, 1949

Posted January 15, 12:00 PM

January 13, 2007

TT: Drama kings

I'm in today's Wall Street Journal, not with a "Sightings" column (that's next week) but as the guest contributor of the Journal's "Five Best" books feature, whose participants are invited to name five favorite books in a category of their choosing. I chose theatrical biographies, and these were my picks:

- Park Honan, Shakespeare: A Life

- Michael Holroyd, Bernard Shaw (the one-volume abridgment)

- Simon Callow, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu

- Moss Hart, Act One

- John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton

The Journal has posted a free link to this piece. To read it, go here.

Posted January 13, 12:00 PM

January 12, 2007

TT: Historical hijinks

It's another off-Broadway week for this Friday's Wall Street Journal drama column, in which I review Verse Theater Manhattan's The Germans in Paris and Second Stage's The Scene:

The success of Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" continues to bemuse me. How could a trilogy of plays about a group of 19th-century Russian intellectuals have become the talk of the town? If such miracles are possible, then perhaps "The Germans in Paris," Jonathan Leaf's thought-provoking comedy about the private lives of Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx and Richard Wagner, will become the sleeper hit of the Off-Off Broadway season. I wouldn't bet on it, but stranger things have happened.

Mr. Leaf first came to my notice with "The Caterers," a flawed but promising play about Islamic terrorism. "The Germans in Paris," which is being revived by Verse Theater Manhattan after a brief run two years ago at 59E59 Theatres, is a very different piece of work, a historical extravaganza spun out of a real-life coincidence: Heine, Marx and Wagner all spent time in Paris, where they became swept up in the same revolutionary crosscurrents described in "The Coast of Utopia." So far as I know, Marx and Wagner never met, but they could have, and Heine knew both men well. Upon this "Travesties"-like foundation of fact, Mr. Leaf has erected an elaborate superstructure of speculation whose premise suggests a joke told by an egghead: Did you hear the one about the poet, the philosopher and the composer?...

Mr. Leaf has woven his web of fact and fiction with enviable skill, and the result is a sharp-witted comedy of manners that modulates neatly into high seriousness....

According to theatrical legend, anybody can write a good first act. I can't, but I've definitely seen a lot of plays that were good until intermission and bad afterward. "The Water's Edge," Theresa Rebeck's last play, was like that, and so is "The Scene," a black comedy about an out-of-work actor of a certain age (Tony Shalhoub) who trashes his marriage to an ultra-competent TV producer (Patricia Heaton) by sleeping with an amoral young bimbo (Anna Camp). The first act is fast, funny and more than clever enough, and when the lights came back up I was sure I'd be filing a rave, but no sooner did the cast return to the stage than the plot ran out of steam....

No free link, so do the obvious--buy the damn paper--or, less obviously but more productively, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you immediate access to my review, plus the rest of the Journal's weekend arts coverage. (If you're already a subscriber, the column is here.)

Posted January 12, 12:00 PM

TT: Life sentence

"I like Raleigh," I told the limo driver who picked me up at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. He laughed. "All you New Yorkers come down here and talk about how much you like Raleigh," he said, "but I don't notice any of you moving here." That silenced me. It also set me to wondering: would it be possible for me to live happily in a medium-sized city?

Raleigh, to be sure, has much to offer the culture-conscious émigré. Carolina Ballet is a first-rate dance company. Quail Ridge Books & Music is one of America's best independent bookstores. The North Carolina Museum of Art isn't exactly overburdened with masterpieces of modern art, but it does own a dozen excellent pieces by Joseph Cornell, Richard Diebenkorn, Marsden Hartley, Alex Katz, Anselm Kiefer, Franz Kline, Jacob Lawrence, Louise Nevelson, Ad Reinhardt, Joel Shapiro, Frank Stella, and Neil Welliver. (I briefly thought at one time of leaving the Teachout Museum en bloc to the NCMA, but I wouldn't want to stiff my friends!) Ms. Pratie Place and I dined wonderfully well at a classy pan-Asian restaurant called The Duck and Dumpling, and Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place" was playing on the jukebox as I strolled into the Raleigh Times Bar for a post-rehearsal drink. As for the local barbecue, it's to die for.

On the other hand, I was the only person on foot in downtown Raleigh at seven-thirty last night, not counting a couple of panhandlers. That matters more to me than you might think. Having spent the past decade and a half living in Manhattan, I now find it hard to imagine moving to a city that has no street life after dark. Perhaps I won't continue to feel that way as I grow older, but I'm not exactly young anymore, and so far my love of city life has yet to diminish.

Am I destined to pass the rest of my days in New York, going to first nights and eating late suppers? Or will urban life lose its shiny savor? Maybe--but I wouldn't bet on it. At least not yet.

Posted January 12, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"The theatre, for all its artifices, depicts life in a sense more truly than history, because the medium has a kindred movement to that of real life, though an artificial setting and form."

George Santayana, Skepticism and the Animal Mind

Posted January 12, 12:00 PM

January 11, 2007

TT: Busman's holiday

Now that I'm a drama critic, I rarely get to go to working rehearsals, which I love to do, so it was a great pleasure to fly into the Raleigh-Durham airport last night, jump in a car, drive straight to the stage door of the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, and charge into the theater just in time to hear Robert Weiss, the artistic director of Carolina Ballet, speak the following words into a microphone: "Dancers, we're going to try to go all the way through without stopping--unless there's a train wreck." I sighed with delight and plopped into a seat just behind Weiss and Lynne Taylor-Corbett, the choreographers of Monet Impressions, who were furiously dictating last-minute fix-this notes to their assistants as the dancers on stage ran through Weiss' "The Gardens at Giverny" and Taylor-Corbett's "Picnic on the Grass."

The New York Times ran a half-page preview of Monet Impressions yesterday, so I'll let their excellent reporter walk you through the show:

After carefully trolling the North Carolina Museum of Art's "Monet in Normandy" exhibition, seeking inspiration for a new dance, the choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett ended up using a painting not in the show: Monet's Déjeuner sur l'Herbe. That's right, Monet's--not Manet's better-known 1863 painting of the same title, depicting a languid luncheon party of four, including unabashedly naked women, but Monet's more decorous 1865-66 scene of a luncheon party of a dozen or so ladies and gentlemen, elegantly dressed.

"Whenever the word Impressionist is used, most people think first of Claude Monet, who depicted nature in a subjective and innovative way," she said. "Conversely, his studies of people seem objective and detached. I wondered about ‘Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe.' Who were these people, about to sit down outdoors to enjoy a meal together? What had they been doing moments before? What were they feeling?"

The dance that resulted from her musings, "Picnic on the Grass," will be the first part of the Carolina Ballet's "Monet Impressions," opening Jan. 11 at the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. The program, which also features "The Gardens at Giverny," by Robert Weiss, the Carolina Ballet's artistic director, coincides with the final weekend of the museum's substantial Monet exhibition...

The company's resident set designer, Jeff A.R. Jones, created a painted translucent scrim that can overlay either of two painted backdrops to suggest a changing Impressionist landscape without recreating each painting. For "Picnic" a drop of a tree trunk and leaves, created from woven strips of fabric for additional texture, is suspended over a hazier backdrop, evoking part of "Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe." For "The Gardens at Giverny," Monet's rose arbors and waterlily paintings are evoked.

That sounds ambitious, and it looks...well, astonishing. This morning I went to the museum to see "Monet in Normandy," having spent the previous evening gazing with mounting amazement at Monet Impressions, and my first impression of the ballet was confirmed by my hour-long visit to the exhibition: I don't know when I've seen a more complete fusion of dance, décor, and music. To be sure, I was watching a dress rehearsal, not the real thing, but even when accompanied by the frenzied mutterings of anxious artists determined to get it right on the night, Monet Impressions was so unabashedly gorgeous to behold that it knocked me flat.

The two dances are completely different in character. Taylor-Corbett's evocation of "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe," set to Poulenc's suavely bittersweet music, is charming in the very best sense of that oft-misused word--Sunday in the Park with Claude, so to speak. Weiss's ballet, accompanied by Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun and Nocturnes and the lushly Franco-Wagnerian music of Ernest Chausson, is more abstract, as befits a choreographer who learned his trade from George Balanchine, but no less immediately appealing to the eye and ear. Afterward he asked me what I thought, and I replied, "That one definitely passes the ooh-and-aah test."

That such an extravaganza should have been created in Raleigh will be surprising only to those who know nothing of Carolina Ballet. I've been covering the company for the better part of a decade now, and I know what Weiss and his collaborators can do. As I wrote in The Wall Street Journal back in 2002:

The story of Carolina Ballet is, to put it mildly, improbable. Started from scratch in 1997, it has grown to the point where it will be spending more than $5 million to present 84 performances this year. By big-city standards, of course, that's peanuts: New York City Ballet has a budget of $46.6 million. But you can cook a lot of tasty things with peanuts if you hire gourmet chefs. The company's fast-growing repertory includes both modern classics (one recent program featured Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco" and Antony Tudor's "Lilac Garden") and new works by principal guest choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett and whiz kid Christopher Wheeldon. It has performed in Budapest and at New York's Guggenheim Museum. It has collaborated with the cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci and the surrealist artist Patricia Nix...

Above all, Carolina Ballet has Robert Weiss. He knows Balanchine's demanding neoclassical style cold, but instead of making the abstract "plotless" dances that were his mentor's trademark, Weiss specializes in narrative ballets modeled after Balanchine's 1962 adaptation of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in which the plot is propelled, and the characters defined, through movement rather than mime. Like that deeply conservative yet radically innovative masterwork, Weiss' "Carmen" and "Romeo and Juliet" emphasize character-driven virtuoso dancing over the glitzy pageantry that dominates--and deadens--most of today's full-evening story ballets.

This time around I came to Raleigh not as a critic but as a civilian, more than happy to simply sit in my seat and watch Weiss and Taylor-Corbett do their stuff. I'll be at the premiere of Monet Impresssions tonight, accompanied by a local blogger friend, and I won't be taking any notes. I'm just going to look. That's my kind of night off.

Posted January 11, 12:06 PM

TT: Reality is the word

No, I didn't watch the debut of Grease: You're the One That I Want--I was otherwise occupied--but I wrote a "Sightings" column about it for The Wall Street Journal last fall. In case you didn't see that piece, here are some pertinent excerpts:

It was inevitable: "American Idol" is coming to Broadway. Not literally, of course, but "You're the One That I Want," the reality TV series in production at NBC, is the next best thing, a program whose viewers will pick a pair of unknowns to star in a Broadway musical. The musical in question is "Grease," the rock-and-roll romp that ran from 1972 to 1980, then returned to the Great White Way in 1994 and played for four more years. It might actually be good--Kathleen Marshall, the director, staged the brilliant Broadway revivals of "The Pajama Game" and "Wonderful Town"--but even if it's bad, it'll be big. Six million Brits watched the BBC series on which "You're the One That I Want" is based, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" If the NBC version is comparably popular in this country, it will be seen by 30 million Americans. That's a whole lot of potential ticket-buyers.

Is "Grease" the future of Broadway? If so, it's a "future" that to some extent has already happened. Many theatrical producers are using focus groups, tracking polls, and other sophisticated research tools to make marketing decisions about the shows they present. In the past, such information has only been used to develop ad campaigns--but as the public response to "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" made clear, it can also be used to make artistic decisions....

Is that such a bad thing? After all, "Grease" isn't Shakespeare, or even Neil Simon. It's an innocuous confection whose sole purpose is to amuse, and I won't get even slightly bent out of shape if 30 million TV viewers should suddenly take an interest in the burning question of who will play Sandy and Danny in the Broadway revival. As Samuel Johnson told us long ago, "The Stage but echoes back the publick Voice./The Drama's Laws the Drama's Patrons give,/For we that live to please, must please to live." In any case, there are better places than Broadway to see serious theater, not only in New York but in Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and the countless other American cities where first-rate regional companies can be found. Anyone who looks to Broadway for creative leadership is looking under the wrong bushel.

I'm not a cultural relativist. I believe devoutly in the superiority of Shakespeare to Neil Simon. But I'm also a realist, and I keep a close eye on the myriad ways in which information-age capitalism is transforming American life by maximizing consumer choice. That's why I'm interested in "You're the One That I Want." I don't know whether "Grease" will be better or worse for having been cast by popular demand--but I have no doubt that its opening night will mark a sea change in the culture of commercial theater in America.

Needless to say, I'll be there.

Posted January 11, 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, closes 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)
- Meet Me in St. Louis (musical, G, very family-friendly, reviewed here, extended through Feb. 18)
- The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Feb. 10)

CLOSING SOON:
- Room Service (comedy, G, reasonably family-friendly but a bit complicated for youngsters, reviewed here, closes Jan. 29)
- Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Jan. 28)

CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:
- Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here, closes Sunday)

Posted January 11, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Good plays drive bad playgoers crazy."

Brooks Atkinson, Theater Arts (August 1956)

Posted January 11, 12:00 PM

January 10, 2007

TT: Almanac

"This music of yours. A manifestation of the highest energy--not at all abstract, but without an object, energy in a void, in pure ether--where else in the universe does such a thing appear? We Germans have taken over from philosophy the expression ‘in itself,' we use it every day without much idea of the metaphysical. But here you have it, such music is energy itself, yet not as idea, rather in its actuality. I call your attention to the fact that is almost the definition of God. Imitatio Dei--I am surprised it is not forbidden."

Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus (trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter)

Posted January 10, 12:00 PM

OGIC: Night thoughts

Heading toward the holidays, I anticipated being much more in evidence around here. Following the hectic build-up to Christmas, it seemed, a few quiet, blessedly blank days were in the offing--good for blogging as well as other essential activities too often deferred during life-as-usual: learning to knit; getting good and enveloped by the second season of The Wire, which has been sitting here keeping my Netflix subscription at a standstill for the last two or three months; and reading a book in longer sessions than the seven or eight minutes that expire, on a typical night, between when I shimmy beneath the covers and when my eyelids flutter, droop, and slam shut. For all these reasons, and for the overarching sense of exemption from many of life's normal demands, that week between the holidays has always been a sweet little stretch of exceptions to most of the usual rules.

Sweet, this year, it wasn't to be. Beginning with the scary but ultimately unharmful accident of an elderly relative on Christmas night, the last week of 2006 was crowded with illness and hospital visits. By New Year's it seemed, at least, that all of these incidents had ended well. But last week my grandmother, who is ninety-two years old, wound up back in the hospital. Though she's home again now, the doctors don't believe her condition will improve. And I'd take workaday life as I used to know it, with all its impositions and little assaults on time and mind, gladly.

Somewhere during the six years since I last lost a grandparent, I realize, I've changed. Losing my grandfathers in 1996 and 2001 was difficult, of course. I mourned them and learned an absolute new way of missing someone. With my grandmother's health failing now, I feel my own mortality implicated, and that of everyone I love--because I'm an older person now but also, I think, because past a certain age the end of a life ceases to seem premature, exceptional, unfair. There's no sense of the injustice of circumstances to distract you from facing the necessity of the event: you can focus on the "why now?" instead of the "why?" It's a colder, harder, more inexorable proof of the one inevitability. Besides which, you don't miss someone any less just because they lived a long life.

Changing the subject, but only sort of, who out there saw Children of Men who has also read P.D. James's book? I read perhaps a quarter of the book before venturing out to see the movie a couple of weeks ago. The latter experience was a frustrating one that has sent me back to the book fairly hungrily to see the founding concept of both book and movie--that the human race has gone almost two decades without being able to procreate--treated with some curiosity and imagination (I'm now about a third of the way through).

In Alfonso Cuarón's film, this germ serves merely as an occasion to depict and decry a fairly standard-issue vision of a future fascist dystopia. In some way that goes unspecified, we gather, the aging and near-extinction of the race has upset and depressed people; from that despair (and, perhaps more directly, from a governmental predisposition toward fascism) has sprung nearly worldwide catastrophe. Before infertility kills off the race, the movie suggests, the race will destroy itself out of rage and fear. That's a plausible enough extrapolation, I suppose, but it does by design foreclose the possibility of exploring the specificity of the sorrowful, wondering situation James posited.

It wasn't all bad. Cinematography and performances gave the first half a real pull before the movie descended into a tedious, overwrought tedious chase sequence during which nothing beyond pursuit and evasion develops--but I didn't feel much. By contrast, the ruminations of James's deeply flawed main character are less spectacular but entirely more moving. They're as illuminating of our own loneliness and reaching for consolation as of those of a dying race:

I can still find pleasure, more intellectual than sensual, in the effulgence of an Oxford spring, the blossoms in Belbroughton Road which seem lovelier every year, sunlight moving on stone walls, horse-chestnut trees in full bloom, tossing in the wind, the smell of a bean field in flower, the first snow-drops, the fragile compactness of a tulip. Pleasure need not be less keen because there will be centuries of springs to come, their blossom unseen by human eyes, the walls will crumble, the trees die and rot, the gardens revert to weeds and grass, because all beauty will outlive the human intelligence which records, enjoys and celebrates it. I tell myself this, but do I believe it when the pleasure now comes so rarely and, when it does, is so indistinguishable from pain? I can understand how the aristocrats and great landowners with no hope of posterity leave their estates untended. We can experience nothing but the present moment, live in no other second of time, and to understand this is as close as we can get to eternal life. But our minds reach back through centuries for the reassurance of our ancestry and, without the hope of posterity, for our race if not for ourselves, without the assurance that we being dead yet live, all pleasures of the mind and senses sometimes seem to me no more than pathetic and crumbling defences shored up against our ruins.

Peter Suderman is a more lucid voice of dissent from the critical consensus on the film; his review can be read here.

Have a good week.

Posted January 10, 9:00 AM

January 9, 2007

TT: Goings on about (and out of) town

On Saturday I went to DC Moore Gallery to see the Jane Wilson exhibition about which I blogged last week. I was so taken with one of Wilson's watercolors, "Breaking Light," that I bought it on the spot--the first time I've ever bought a piece of art that was hanging at a show. You can't view "Breaking Light" on line, alas, but it's still hanging at the gallery, and if you should happen to buy the catalogue, you can see it reproduced in the "Works on Paper" section.

Also included in the catalogue is the transcript of an interview with Wilson that contains this illuminating remark:

Although I was thoroughly intrigued and influenced by abstraction per se and, in fact, painted quite a few works in the '50s that might be considered Abstract Expressionist, I finally realized that I really liked subject matter and that I really liked the history of art. I wanted to pursue the natural world in ways that were meaningful to me and not ridden by theory or "position-taking." This meant going directly to traditional subjects and finding out how I might develop them. I became an avid museumgoer and liked looking back. I was beginning to realize that all of the artists of the past whom I admired in a bone-deep way had used the past as a source of the future.

On Monday morning I wrote two pieces, a "Five Best" article for this Saturday's The Wall Street Journal and a twenty-minute speech that I'll be delivering tonight at an Actors' Fund of America dinner. I then met an opera critic for lunch at Good Enough to Eat, during which we discussed the opera libretto I may or may not be writing.

I spent the afternoon booking travel (about which more below) and answering my mail, including an e-mail from the press rep of a theater company in Maryland who saw this posting and invited me to come see one of her company's shows in May. I accepted. Talk about cause and effect!

After dinner I strolled down to the ArcLight Theater to catch the opening-night performance of an off-Broadway show, Jonathan Leaf's The Germans in Paris, which I'll be reviewing in Friday's Journal.

Today I write, go to the gym, and give my speech. Tomorrow afternoon I'm off to Raleigh to see the world premiere of Carolina Ballet's Monet Impressions, an evening of dances by Robert Weiss and Lynne Taylor-Corbett, and take a peek at the North Carolina Museum of Art's Monet retrospective.

I fly back to New York on Friday, then depart once more on Saturday morning to see shows in Boston, Washington, and Arlington. I plan to blog from the road, but irregularly, so don't be surprised if I drop out of sight from time to time.

Over to you, OGIC!

Posted January 09, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Idleness is the beginning of all vice, the crown of all virtues."

Franz Kafka, notebook entry, Nov. 30, 1917

Posted January 09, 12:00 PM

January 8, 2007

TT: So you want to get reviewed?

If you read my Wall Street Journal drama column, you know that I take regional theater very seriously indeed. In fact, I'm the only New York-based drama critic who routinely covers productions all over America. In addition to covering Broadway and off-Broadway openings, I reviewed plays in fourteen states and the District of Columbia in 2006. I expect to range no less widely in 2007.

As I wrote in my "Sightings" column last June:

The time has come for American playgoers--and, no less important, arts editors--to start treating regional theater not as a minor-league branch of Broadway but as an artistically significant entity in and of itself. Take it from a critic who now spends much of his time living out of a suitcase: If you don't know what's hot in "the stix," you don't know the first thing about theater in 21st-century America.

I've just started working on my travel schedule for the summer of 2007. How can you increase your chances of persuading me to come see your company? Here's an updated version of the guidelines I use for deciding which out-of-town shows to see--along with some free suggestions for improving the way you reach out to the press:

- Basic requirements. I only review professional companies. I'm also more likely to review Equity productions, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule, especially if I'm already coming to your city to see another show. In addition, I don't review dinner theater, and it's unusual (but not unprecedented) for me to visit children's theaters or companies that produce only musicals.

- You must produce a minimum of four shows each season... That doesn't apply to summer festivals, but it's comparatively rare for me to cover a festival that doesn't produce at least three shows a year.

- ...and most of them have to be serious. I won't put you on my drop-dead list for milking the occasional cash cow, but if you specialize in such regional-theater staples as The Santaland Diaries, Tuesdays With Morrie, and anything with the word "magnolias" in the title, I won't go out of my way to come calling on you, either.

- Repeat performances. I almost never cover new or newish plays I've already reviewed in New York--especially if I panned them. The chances of my coming to town to see your production of The Clean House or Rabbit Hole, for instance, are well below zero. (Suggestion: if you're not reading my Wall Street Journal drama column, you probably ought to be.)

- Repertory is everything... I won't visit an out-of-town company I've never seen to review a play by an author of whom I've never heard. What I look for is an imaginative, wide-ranging mix of revivals of major plays--including comedies--and newer works by living playwrights and songwriters whose work I admire. Some names on the latter list: Alan Ayckbourn, Nilo Cruz, Horton Foote, Amy Freed, Brian Friel, Adam Guettel, A.R. Gurney, David Ives, Michael John LaChiusa, Warren Leight, Kenneth Lonergan, Lisa Loomer, David Mamet, Martin McDonagh, Itamar Moses, Lynn Nottage, Austin Pendleton, Harold Pinter, Oren Safdie, John Patrick Shanley, Stephen Sondheim, and Tom Stoppard.

I also have a select list of older plays about which I'd like to write that haven't been revived in New York lately (or ever). If you're doing The Beauty Part, The Cocktail Party, The Entertainer, Hotel Paradiso, Man and Superman, Rhinoceros, Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Visit, What the Butler Saw, or anything by Jean Anouilh, Noël Coward, Terence Rattigan, or August Wilson, drop me a line.

- ...and so is timing. Many Broadway shows open between the end of February and the middle of May, in time to qualify for that year's Tony nominations. During that period, I rarely have time or space to review out-of-town openings, no matter how enticing they may sound. On the other hand, I'm always looking for interesting shows to review in late December, January, the first half of February, the second half of May, the first half of June, and September.

- I group my shots. It isn't cost-effective for me to fly halfway across the country to review a single show. Whenever possible, I like to take in two or three different productions during a three- or four-day trip. (Bear in mind, though, that they don't all have to be in the same city.) If you're the publicist of the Podunk Repertory Company and you want me to review your revival of Our Town, your best bet is to point out that TheaterPodunk just happens to be doing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf that same weekend. Otherwise, I'll probably go to Chicago instead.

- Web sites matter--a lot. A clean-looking home page that conveys a maximum of information with a minimum of clutter tells me that you know what you're doing, thus increasing the likelihood that I'll come see you. An unprofessional-looking, illogically organized home page suggests the opposite. (If you can't spell, hire a proofreader.) This doesn't mean I won't consider reviewing you--I know appearances can be deceiving--but bad design is a needless obstacle to your being taken seriously by other online visitors.

If you want to keep traveling critics like me happy, make absolutely sure that the home page of your Web site contains the following easy-to-find information:

(1) The title of your current production, plus its opening and closing dates
(2) A link to a complete list of the rest of the current and/or upcoming season's productions
(3) A "CONTACT US" link that leads directly to an updated directory of staff members (including individual e-mail addresses--starting with the address of your press representative)
(4) A link to a page containing directions to your theater and a printable map
(5) Your address and main telephone number (not the box office!)

- Please omit paper. I strongly prefer to receive press releases via e-mail, and I don't want to receive routine Joe-Blow-is-now-our-assistant-stage-manager announcements via any means whatsoever.

- Write to me here. Mail sent to me at my Wall Street Journal e-mail address often gets lost in the kudzu of random press releases. I get a lot of spam at my "About Last Night" mailbox, too, but not as much as I do at the Journal.

Finally,

- Mention this posting. I like publicists who do their homework.

Posted January 08, 12:00 PM

TT: The fine art of distinctions

The Wall Street Journal has posted a free link to my most recent "Sightings" column, which ran in the "Pursuits" section of Saturday's paper:

What is intellectual property? Who owns it--and who deserves to get paid for it? Playgoers and music lovers don't often have occasion to ask such rarefied questions, but they've lately become important to the producers of a Broadway musical and the members of a British rock group.

- In November the director, choreographer and designers of the Broadway production of "Urinetown" publicly accused the Carousel Dinner Theatre of Akron, Ohio, and the Mercury Theater of Chicago of copying their work without permission and demanded royalty payments in return. The Akron and Chicago companies denied the charges and sued the Broadway production team for defamation.

- Last month a London judge awarded 40% of the copyright of Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" to Matthew Fisher, the group's ex-organist. Mr. Fisher, who had asked for 50%, doesn't claim to have written the song, but he did write the Bach-like organ countermelody heard on the group's 1967 recording of "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which sold 10 million copies. Judge William Blackburne called the countermelody "a distinctive and significant contribution to the overall composition and, quite obviously, the product of skill and labor on the part of the person who created it."

At first glance these two cases may appear unrelated--but I wouldn't be surprised if they both become landmarks in the evolution of copyright law....

Don't stop now--there's much more (including, believe it or not, a highly relevant plug for Erin McKeown's new CD, Sing You Sinners).

To read the whole thing, go here.

Posted January 08, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Work is the best of narcotics, providing the patient be strong enough to take it."

Beatrice Webb, diary entry, March 8, 1885

Posted January 08, 12:00 PM

January 5, 2007

TT: Magic in miniature

Today's Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted to a pair of small-scale off-Broadway revivals that I loved, the Peccadillo Theater Company's Room Service and the Irish Repertory Theatre's Meet Me in St. Louis:

"Room Service" is a hard-charging farce about a fast-talking Broadway producer with a heart of brass who can't raise enough cash to pay his hotel bill. Written by John Murray and Allen Boretz, it opened on Broadway in 1937, ran for 500 performances and was sold to Hollywood as a vehicle for the Marx Brothers, who filmed it the following year to modest comic effect (it wasn't exactly their kind of show). The Peccadillo Theater Company, an Off Broadway troupe that specializes in "forgotten American classics," has brought it back to town for the first time since 1953. Farce is the trickiest of theatrical genres to pull off--it requires on-the-nose timing and cocksure bravado--but this production, directed with zany aplomb by Dan Wackerman, is funny enough to take your mind off anything short of a death sentence....

As the producers of "High Fidelity" learned to their dismay, few coups are harder to carry off than turning a popular movie into a successful stage show. Vincente Minnelli's "Meet Me in St. Louis," among the half-dozen best film musicals ever made, was adapted for the stage by Hugh Wheeler and brought to Broadway in 1989. It closed its doors seven months later--not a bad run, but not a good one, either. Now the Irish Repertory Theatre has slimmed it down to Off Broadway proportions and given it a revival so stylish that I can't help but wonder why the original production (which I didn't see) failed to ring the bell....

No free link, so pick up a copy of this morning's Journal, which will also give you the opportunity to peruse the paper's brand-new and much-discussed redesign. Alternatively, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my review, plus the rest of the Journal's weekend arts coverage, which is soooo not for billionaires only. (If you're already a subscriber, the column is here.)

Posted January 05, 12:00 PM

TT: That laugh could cost you

In my next "Sightings" column, to be published in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, I look at two seemingly unrelated court cases that turn out to have a great deal in common. One is the fast-brewing imbroglio triggered when the director, choreographer, and designers of the Broadway production of Urinetown publicly accused two regional theater companies of stealing their ideas. The other is the decision of a London judge to award forty percent of the copyright of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" to the organist who played on the original Procol Harum recording--even though he didn't write the song.

Are these cases watershed moments in the ongoing redefinition of intellectual property rights? For the answer, pick up a copy of tomorrow's Journal, where you'll find my column in the "Pursuits" section.

Posted January 05, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"To have a large audience is not obscene. To want one is."

Ned Rorem (quoted in W, Oct. 10, 1980)

Posted January 05, 12:00 PM

January 4, 2007

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 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)
- The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Feb. 10)

CLOSING SOON:
- Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Jan. 28)

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

Posted January 04, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Growing up, as he came to understand after he had gotten safely through it, was essentially the process of learning not to care."

Allen Drury, Advise and Consent

Posted January 04, 12:00 PM

January 3, 2007

TT: Almanac

"Separation penetrates the disappearing person like a pigment and steeps him in gentle radiance."

Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street

Posted January 03, 12:00 PM

TT: Reading matter

If you haven't anything better to do, or even if you have, check out the right-hand column, where you'll find several new Top Five and "Out of the Past" picks and a link to my latest Commentary essay.

Posted January 03, 10:40 AM

TT: Words to the wise

Pardon my unscheduled return, but I forgot to blog about two imminent events to which I wanted to draw your attention:

- I'm a great fan of Farah Alvin, a smart singer-songwriter who doubles as a stage performer with pipes to burn. The last time I heard her live was in I Love You Because, an off-Broadway musical about which I raved last year in The Wall Street Journal, making special mention of Alvin, whom I called "the best young musical-comedy singer to come along in years."

Alvin rarely performs in New York nightclubs, but she's doing a one-nighter on Thursday at the New Leaf Café, an Upper Manhattan spot (it's in Fort Tryon Park, close to the Cloisters) of which I'm very fond. She'll be singing three sets, starting at eight o'clock. I'm in Connecticut and can't make it, so kindly go in my place and cheer her on.

For more information about the New Leaf Café, including directions, go here. To read what I wrote about Someday, Alvin's debut CD, go here. To order Someday or hear her sing, go here.

- Jane Wilson, one of my favorite American painters, has a one-woman show going up this Friday at New York's DC Moore Gallery. I last wrote about Wilson in a 2003 "Second City" column published in the Washington Post:

I paid a much-delayed visit to DC Moore Gallery last week to see an exhibition so lovely as to make me forget all about spring--except that Jane Wilson's latest paintings, a sequence of Long Island skyscapes, are as redolent of the changing seasons as a long walk along the shore. Call them Rothkoscapes, near-abstract studies whose canvas-filling horizontal bands of color and Constable-like storm clouds inhabit that intriguing middle ground between abstract expressionism and representation that is the most critically underrated painterly idiom of the postwar era. I especially liked the crisp focus of a suite of four small watercolors of Noyac Bay, but that's just me: Wilson's large-scale oils are fully as involving.

The new show runs through February 10. For more information about the gallery, which is at 724 Fifth Avenue, go here. To look at some of Wilson's paintings, go here.

Now, back to the grindstone!

Posted January 03, 9:37 AM

January 2, 2007

TT: Almanac

"Much of the Pain and Pleasure of mankind arises from the conjectures which every one makes of the thoughts of others; we all enjoy praise which we do not hear, and resent contempt which we do not see."

Samuel Johnson, The Idler, No. 103 (Apr. 5, 1760)

Posted January 02, 12:00 PM

January 1, 2007

TT: Right on time

I don't feel like looking back today--I've been doing more than enough of that in recent postings. Suffice it to say that 2006 was scary and happy in like proportions, with the latter finally edging out the former.

This year, like last year, will be busy, and since I haven't any shows to see until Sunday, I've decided to vanish into the woods of Connecticut to catch up on my writing. Except for the daily almanac and the usual theater-related postings on Thursday and Friday, I don't plan to blog for the rest of the week. (If I change my mind, kindly give me hell.) I don't know what Our Girl has in mind, but I'll leave it to her.

Have a nice week, and a nice year.

Posted January 01, 12:00 PM

TT: My (public) New Year's resolutions

- To finish Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. (The contract will help!)

- To see fewer plays--and write more thoughtfully about the ones I do see.

- To spend more time listening to music, not in the background or on the fly, but with the total concentration and involvement that it deserves.

- To read Bleak House and War and Peace at long last, and report on my progress in this space.

- To go to the gym four days a week, every week.

- To take more time off.

- To visit the Grand Canyon.

Posted January 01, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

Come, children, gather round my knee;
Something is about to be.

Tonight's December Thirty-First,
Something is about to burst.

The clock is crouching, dark and small,
Like a time bomb in the hall.

Hark! It's midnight, children dear.
Duck! Here comes another year.

Ogden Nash, "Good Riddance, but Now What?"

Posted January 01, 12:00 PM

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January 2007 Archives

January 1, 2007

TT: Almanac

Come, children, gather round my knee;
Something is about to be.

Tonight's December Thirty-First,
Something is about to burst.

The clock is crouching, dark and small,
Like a time bomb in the hall.

Hark! It's midnight, children dear.
Duck! Here comes another year.

Ogden Nash, "Good Riddance, but Now What?"

TT: My (public) New Year's resolutions

- To finish Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. (The contract will help!)

- To see fewer plays--and write more thoughtfully about the ones I do see.

- To spend more time listening to music, not in the background or on the fly, but with the total concentration and involvement that it deserves.

- To read Bleak House and War and Peace at long last, and report on my progress in this space.

- To go to the gym four days a week, every week.

- To take more time off.

- To visit the Grand Canyon.

TT: Right on time

I don't feel like looking back today--I've been doing more than enough of that in recent postings. Suffice it to say that 2006 was scary and happy in like proportions, with the latter finally edging out the former.

This year, like last year, will be busy, and since I haven't any shows to see until Sunday, I've decided to vanish into the woods of Connecticut to catch up on my writing. Except for the daily almanac and the usual theater-related postings on Thursday and Friday, I don't plan to blog for the rest of the week. (If I change my mind, kindly give me hell.) I don't know what Our Girl has in mind, but I'll leave it to her.

Have a nice week, and a nice year.

January 2, 2007

TT: Almanac

"Much of the Pain and Pleasure of mankind arises from the conjectures which every one makes of the thoughts of others; we all enjoy praise which we do not hear, and resent contempt which we do not see."

Samuel Johnson, The Idler, No. 103 (Apr. 5, 1760)

January 3, 2007

TT: Words to the wise

Pardon my unscheduled return, but I forgot to blog about two imminent events to which I wanted to draw your attention:

- I'm a great fan of Farah Alvin, a smart singer-songwriter who doubles as a stage performer with pipes to burn. The last time I heard her live was in I Love You Because, an off-Broadway musical about which I raved last year in The Wall Street Journal, making special mention of Alvin, whom I called "the best young musical-comedy singer to come along in years."

Alvin rarely performs in New York nightclubs, but she's doing a one-nighter on Thursday at the New Leaf Café, an Upper Manhattan spot (it's in Fort Tryon Park, close to the Cloisters) of which I'm very fond. She'll be singing three sets, starting at eight o'clock. I'm in Connecticut and can't make it, so kindly go in my place and cheer her on.

For more information about the New Leaf Café, including directions, go here. To read what I wrote about Someday, Alvin's debut CD, go here. To order Someday or hear her sing, go here.

- Jane Wilson, one of my favorite American painters, has a one-woman show going up this Friday at New York's DC Moore Gallery. I last wrote about Wilson in a 2003 "Second City" column published in the Washington Post:

I paid a much-delayed visit to DC Moore Gallery last week to see an exhibition so lovely as to make me forget all about spring--except that Jane Wilson's latest paintings, a sequence of Long Island skyscapes, are as redolent of the changing seasons as a long walk along the shore. Call them Rothkoscapes, near-abstract studies whose canvas-filling horizontal bands of color and Constable-like storm clouds inhabit that intriguing middle ground between abstract expressionism and representation that is the most critically underrated painterly idiom of the postwar era. I especially liked the crisp focus of a suite of four small watercolors of Noyac Bay, but that's just me: Wilson's large-scale oils are fully as involving.

The new show runs through February 10. For more information about the gallery, which is at 724 Fifth Avenue, go here. To look at some of Wilson's paintings, go here.

Now, back to the grindstone!

TT: Reading matter

If you haven't anything better to do, or even if you have, check out the right-hand column, where you'll find several new Top Five and "Out of the Past" picks and a link to my latest Commentary essay.

TT: Almanac

"Separation penetrates the disappearing person like a pigment and steeps him in gentle radiance."

Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street

January 4, 2007

TT: Almanac

"Growing up, as he came to understand after he had gotten safely through it, was essentially the process of learning not to care."

Allen Drury, Advise and Consent

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 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)
- The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Feb. 10)

CLOSING SOON:
- Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Jan. 28)

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

January 5, 2007

TT: Almanac

"To have a large audience is not obscene. To want one is."

Ned Rorem (quoted in W, Oct. 10, 1980)

TT: That laugh could cost you

In my next "Sightings" column, to be published in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, I look at two seemingly unrelated court cases that turn out to have a great deal in common. One is the fast-brewing imbroglio triggered when the director, choreographer, and designers of the Broadway production of Urinetown publicly accused two regional theater companies of stealing their ideas. The other is the decision of a London judge to award forty percent of the copyright of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" to the organist who played on the original Procol Harum recording--even though he didn't write the song.

Are these cases watershed moments in the ongoing redefinition of intellectual property rights? For the answer, pick up a copy of tomorrow's Journal, where you'll find my column in the "Pursuits" section.

TT: Magic in miniature

Today's Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted to a pair of small-scale off-Broadway revivals that I loved, the Peccadillo Theater Company's Room Service and the Irish Repertory Theatre's Meet Me in St. Louis:

"Room Service" is a hard-charging farce about a fast-talking Broadway producer with a heart of brass who can't raise enough cash to pay his hotel bill. Written by John Murray and Allen Boretz, it opened on Broadway in 1937, ran for 500 performances and was sold to Hollywood as a vehicle for the Marx Brothers, who filmed it the following year to modest comic effect (it wasn't exactly their kind of show). The Peccadillo Theater Company, an Off Broadway troupe that specializes in "forgotten American classics," has brought it back to town for the first time since 1953. Farce is the trickiest of theatrical genres to pull off--it requires on-the-nose timing and cocksure bravado--but this production, directed with zany aplomb by Dan Wackerman, is funny enough to take your mind off anything short of a death sentence....

As the producers of "High Fidelity" learned to their dismay, few coups are harder to carry off than turning a popular movie into a successful stage show. Vincente Minnelli's "Meet Me in St. Louis," among the half-dozen best film musicals ever made, was adapted for the stage by Hugh Wheeler and brought to Broadway in 1989. It closed its doors seven months later--not a bad run, but not a good one, either. Now the Irish Repertory Theatre has slimmed it down to Off Broadway proportions and given it a revival so stylish that I can't help but wonder why the original production (which I didn't see) failed to ring the bell....

No free link, so pick up a copy of this morning's Journal, which will also give you the opportunity to peruse the paper's brand-new and much-discussed redesign. Alternatively, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my review, plus the rest of the Journal's weekend arts coverage, which is soooo not for billionaires only. (If you're already a subscriber, the column is here.)

January 8, 2007

TT: Almanac

"Work is the best of narcotics, providing the patient be strong enough to take it."

Beatrice Webb, diary entry, March 8, 1885

TT: The fine art of distinctions

The Wall Street Journal has posted a free link to my most recent "Sightings" column, which ran in the "Pursuits" section of Saturday's paper:

What is intellectual property? Who owns it--and who deserves to get paid for it? Playgoers and music lovers don't often have occasion to ask such rarefied questions, but they've lately become important to the producers of a Broadway musical and the members of a British rock group.

- In November the director, choreographer and designers of the Broadway production of "Urinetown" publicly accused the Carousel Dinner Theatre of Akron, Ohio, and the Mercury Theater of Chicago of copying their work without permission and demanded royalty payments in return. The Akron and Chicago companies denied the charges and sued the Broadway production team for defamation.

- Last month a London judge awarded 40% of the copyright of Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" to Matthew Fisher, the group's ex-organist. Mr. Fisher, who had asked for 50%, doesn't claim to have written the song, but he did write the Bach-like organ countermelody heard on the group's 1967 recording of "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which sold 10 million copies. Judge William Blackburne called the countermelody "a distinctive and significant contribution to the overall composition and, quite obviously, the product of skill and labor on the part of the person who created it."

At first glance these two cases may appear unrelated--but I wouldn't be surprised if they both become landmarks in the evolution of copyright law....

Don't stop now--there's much more (including, believe it or not, a highly relevant plug for Erin McKeown's new CD, Sing You Sinners).

To read the whole thing, go here.

TT: So you want to get reviewed?

If you read my Wall Street Journal drama column, you know that I take regional theater very seriously indeed. In fact, I'm the only New York-based drama critic who routinely covers productions all over America. In addition to covering Broadway and off-Broadway openings, I reviewed plays in fourteen states and the District of Columbia in 2006. I expect to range no less widely in 2007.

As I wrote in my "Sightings" column last June:

The time has come for American playgoers--and, no less important, arts editors--to start treating regional theater not as a minor-league branch of Broadway but as an artistically significant entity in and of itself. Take it from a critic who now spends much of his time living out of a suitcase: If you don't know what's hot in "the stix," you don't know the first thing about theater in 21st-century America.

I've just started working on my travel schedule for the summer of 2007. How can you increase your chances of persuading me to come see your company? Here's an updated version of the guidelines I use for deciding which out-of-town shows to see--along with some free suggestions for improving the way you reach out to the press:

- Basic requirements. I only review professional companies. I'm also more likely to review Equity productions, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule, especially if I'm already coming to your city to see another show. In addition, I don't review dinner theater, and it's unusual (but not unprecedented) for me to visit children's theaters or companies that produce only musicals.

- You must produce a minimum of four shows each season... That doesn't apply to summer festivals, but it's comparatively rare for me to cover a festival that doesn't produce at least three shows a year.

- ...and most of them have to be serious. I won't put you on my drop-dead list for milking the occasional cash cow, but if you specialize in such regional-theater staples as The Santaland Diaries, Tuesdays With Morrie, and anything with the word "magnolias" in the title, I won't go out of my way to come calling on you, either.

- Repeat performances. I almost never cover new or newish plays I've already reviewed in New York--especially if I panned them. The chances of my coming to town to see your production of The Clean House or Rabbit Hole, for instance, are well below zero. (Suggestion: if you're not reading my Wall Street Journal drama column, you probably ought to be.)

- Repertory is everything... I won't visit an out-of-town company I've never seen to review a play by an author of whom I've never heard. What I look for is an imaginative, wide-ranging mix of revivals of major plays--including comedies--and newer works by living playwrights and songwriters whose work I admire. Some names on the latter list: Alan Ayckbourn, Nilo Cruz, Horton Foote, Amy Freed, Brian Friel, Adam Guettel, A.R. Gurney, David Ives, Michael John LaChiusa, Warren Leight, Kenneth Lonergan, Lisa Loomer, David Mamet, Martin McDonagh, Itamar Moses, Lynn Nottage, Austin Pendleton, Harold Pinter, Oren Safdie, John Patrick Shanley, Stephen Sondheim, and Tom Stoppard.

I also have a select list of older plays about which I'd like to write that haven't been revived in New York lately (or ever). If you're doing The Beauty Part, The Cocktail Party, The Entertainer, Hotel Paradiso, Man and Superman, Rhinoceros, Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Visit, What the Butler Saw, or anything by Jean Anouilh, Noël Coward, Terence Rattigan, or August Wilson, drop me a line.

- ...and so is timing. Many Broadway shows open between the end of February and the middle of May, in time to qualify for that year's Tony nominations. During that period, I rarely have time or space to review out-of-town openings, no matter how enticing they may sound. On the other hand, I'm always looking for interesting shows to review in late December, January, the first half of February, the second half of May, the first half of June, and September.

- I group my shots. It isn't cost-effective for me to fly halfway across the country to review a single show. Whenever possible, I like to take in two or three different productions during a three- or four-day trip. (Bear in mind, though, that they don't all have to be in the same city.) If you're the publicist of the Podunk Repertory Company and you want me to review your revival of Our Town, your best bet is to point out that TheaterPodunk just happens to be doing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf that same weekend. Otherwise, I'll probably go to Chicago instead.

- Web sites matter--a lot. A clean-looking home page that conveys a maximum of information with a minimum of clutter tells me that you know what you're doing, thus increasing the likelihood that I'll come see you. An unprofessional-looking, illogically organized home page suggests the opposite. (If you can't spell, hire a proofreader.) This doesn't mean I won't consider reviewing you--I know appearances can be deceiving--but bad design is a needless obstacle to your being taken seriously by other online visitors.

If you want to keep traveling critics like me happy, make absolutely sure that the home page of your Web site contains the following easy-to-find information:

(1) The title of your current production, plus its opening and closing dates
(2) A link to a complete list of the rest of the current and/or upcoming season's productions
(3) A "CONTACT US" link that leads directly to an updated directory of staff members (including individual e-mail addresses--starting with the address of your press representative)
(4) A link to a page containing directions to your theater and a printable map
(5) Your address and main telephone number (not the box office!)

- Please omit paper. I strongly prefer to receive press releases via e-mail, and I don't want to receive routine Joe-Blow-is-now-our-assistant-stage-manager announcements via any means whatsoever.

- Write to me here. Mail sent to me at my Wall Street Journal e-mail address often gets lost in the kudzu of random press releases. I get a lot of spam at my "About Last Night" mailbox, too, but not as much as I do at the Journal.

Finally,

- Mention this posting. I like publicists who do their homework.

January 9, 2007

TT: Almanac

"Idleness is the beginning of all vice, the crown of all virtues."

Franz Kafka, notebook entry, Nov. 30, 1917

TT: Goings on about (and out of) town

On Saturday I went to DC Moore Gallery to see the Jane Wilson exhibition about which I blogged last week. I was so taken with one of Wilson's watercolors, "Breaking Light," that I bought it on the spot--the first time I've ever bought a piece of art that was hanging at a show. You can't view "Breaking Light" on line, alas, but it's still hanging at the gallery, and if you should happen to buy the catalogue, you can see it reproduced in the "Works on Paper" section.

Also included in the catalogue is the transcript of an interview with Wilson that contains this illuminating remark:

Although I was thoroughly intrigued and influenced by abstraction per se and, in fact, painted quite a few works in the '50s that might be considered Abstract Expressionist, I finally realized that I really liked subject matter and that I really liked the history of art. I wanted to pursue the natural world in ways that were meaningful to me and not ridden by theory or "position-taking." This meant going directly to traditional subjects and finding out how I might develop them. I became an avid museumgoer and liked looking back. I was beginning to realize that all of the artists of the past whom I admired in a bone-deep way had used the past as a source of the future.

On Monday morning I wrote two pieces, a "Five Best" article for this Saturday's The Wall Street Journal and a twenty-minute speech that I'll be delivering tonight at an Actors' Fund of America dinner. I then met an opera critic for lunch at Good Enough to Eat, during which we discussed the opera libretto I may or may not be writing.

I spent the afternoon booking travel (about which more below) and answering my mail, including an e-mail from the press rep of a theater company in Maryland who saw this posting and invited me to come see one of her company's shows in May. I accepted. Talk about cause and effect!

After dinner I strolled down to the ArcLight Theater to catch the opening-night performance of an off-Broadway show, Jonathan Leaf's The Germans in Paris, which I'll be reviewing in Friday's Journal.

Today I write, go to the gym, and give my speech. Tomorrow afternoon I'm off to Raleigh to see the world premiere of Carolina Ballet's Monet Impressions, an evening of dances by Robert Weiss and Lynne Taylor-Corbett, and take a peek at the North Carolina Museum of Art's Monet retrospective.

I fly back to New York on Friday, then depart once more on Saturday morning to see shows in Boston, Washington, and Arlington. I plan to blog from the road, but irregularly, so don't be surprised if I drop out of sight from time to time.

Over to you, OGIC!

January 10, 2007

OGIC: Night thoughts

Heading toward the holidays, I anticipated being much more in evidence around here. Following the hectic build-up to Christmas, it seemed, a few quiet, blessedly blank days were in the offing--good for blogging as well as other essential activities too often deferred during life-as-usual: learning to knit; getting good and enveloped by the second season of The Wire, which has been sitting here keeping my Netflix subscription at a standstill for the last two or three months; and reading a book in longer sessions than the seven or eight minutes that expire, on a typical night, between when I shimmy beneath the covers and when my eyelids flutter, droop, and slam shut. For all these reasons, and for the overarching sense of exemption from many of life's normal demands, that week between the holidays has always been a sweet little stretch of exceptions to most of the usual rules.

Sweet, this year, it wasn't to be. Beginning with the scary but ultimately unharmful accident of an elderly relative on Christmas night, the last week of 2006 was crowded with illness and hospital visits. By New Year's it seemed, at least, that all of these incidents had ended well. But last week my grandmother, who is ninety-two years old, wound up back in the hospital. Though she's home again now, the doctors don't believe her condition will improve. And I'd take workaday life as I used to know it, with all its impositions and little assaults on time and mind, gladly.

Somewhere during the six years since I last lost a grandparent, I realize, I've changed. Losing my grandfathers in 1996 and 2001 was difficult, of course. I mourned them and learned an absolute new way of missing someone. With my grandmother's health failing now, I feel my own mortality implicated, and that of everyone I love--because I'm an older person now but also, I think, because past a certain age the end of a life ceases to seem premature, exceptional, unfair. There's no sense of the injustice of circumstances to distract you from facing the necessity of the event: you can focus on the "why now?" instead of the "why?" It's a colder, harder, more inexorable proof of the one inevitability. Besides which, you don't miss someone any less just because they lived a long life.

Changing the subject, but only sort of, who out there saw Children of Men who has also read P.D. James's book? I read perhaps a quarter of the book before venturing out to see the movie a couple of weeks ago. The latter experience was a frustrating one that has sent me back to the book fairly hungrily to see the founding concept of both book and movie--that the human race has gone almost two decades without being able to procreate--treated with some curiosity and imagination (I'm now about a third of the way through).

In Alfonso Cuarón's film, this germ serves merely as an occasion to depict and decry a fairly standard-issue vision of a future fascist dystopia. In some way that goes unspecified, we gather, the aging and near-extinction of the race has upset and depressed people; from that despair (and, perhaps more directly, from a governmental predisposition toward fascism) has sprung nearly worldwide catastrophe. Before infertility kills off the race, the movie suggests, the race will destroy itself out of rage and fear. That's a plausible enough extrapolation, I suppose, but it does by design foreclose the possibility of exploring the specificity of the sorrowful, wondering situation James posited.

It wasn't all bad. Cinematography and performances gave the first half a real pull before the movie descended into a tedious, overwrought tedious chase sequence during which nothing beyond pursuit and evasion develops--but I didn't feel much. By contrast, the ruminations of James's deeply flawed main character are less spectacular but entirely more moving. They're as illuminating of our own loneliness and reaching for consolation as of those of a dying race:

I can still find pleasure, more intellectual than sensual, in the effulgence of an Oxford spring, the blossoms in Belbroughton Road which seem lovelier every year, sunlight moving on stone walls, horse-chestnut trees in full bloom, tossing in the wind, the smell of a bean field in flower, the first snow-drops, the fragile compactness of a tulip. Pleasure need not be less keen because there will be centuries of springs to come, their blossom unseen by human eyes, the walls will crumble, the trees die and rot, the gardens revert to weeds and grass, because all beauty will outlive the human intelligence which records, enjoys and celebrates it. I tell myself this, but do I believe it when the pleasure now comes so rarely and, when it does, is so indistinguishable from pain? I can understand how the aristocrats and great landowners with no hope of posterity leave their estates untended. We can experience nothing but the present moment, live in no other second of time, and to understand this is as close as we can get to eternal life. But our minds reach back through centuries for the reassurance of our ancestry and, without the hope of posterity, for our race if not for ourselves, without the assurance that we being dead yet live, all pleasures of the mind and senses sometimes seem to me no more than pathetic and crumbling defences shored up against our ruins.

Peter Suderman is a more lucid voice of dissent from the critical consensus on the film; his review can be read here.

Have a good week.

TT: Almanac

"This music of yours. A manifestation of the highest energy--not at all abstract, but without an object, energy in a void, in pure ether--where else in the universe does such a thing appear? We Germans have taken over from philosophy the expression ‘in itself,' we use it every day without much idea of the metaphysical. But here you have it, such music is energy itself, yet not as idea, rather in its actuality. I call your attention to the fact that is almost the definition of God. Imitatio Dei--I am surprised it is not forbidden."

Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus (trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter)

January 11, 2007

TT: Almanac

"Good plays drive bad playgoers crazy."

Brooks Atkinson, Theater Arts (August 1956)

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 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)
- Meet Me in St. Louis (musical, G, very family-friendly, reviewed here, extended through Feb. 18)
- The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Feb. 10)

CLOSING SOON:
- Room Service (comedy, G, reasonably family-friendly but a bit complicated for youngsters, reviewed here, closes Jan. 29)
- Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Jan. 28)

CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:
- Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here, closes Sunday)

TT: Reality is the word

No, I didn't watch the debut of Grease: You're the One That I Want--I was otherwise occupied--but I wrote a "Sightings" column about it for The Wall Street Journal last fall. In case you didn't see that piece, here are some pertinent excerpts:

It was inevitable: "American Idol" is coming to Broadway. Not literally, of course, but "You're the One That I Want," the reality TV series in production at NBC, is the next best thing, a program whose viewers will pick a pair of unknowns to star in a Broadway musical. The musical in question is "Grease," the rock-and-roll romp that ran from 1972 to 1980, then returned to the Great White Way in 1994 and played for four more years. It might actually be good--Kathleen Marshall, the director, staged the brilliant Broadway revivals of "The Pajama Game" and "Wonderful Town"--but even if it's bad, it'll be big. Six million Brits watched the BBC series on which "You're the One That I Want" is based, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" If the NBC version is comparably popular in this country, it will be seen by 30 million Americans. That's a whole lot of potential ticket-buyers.

Is "Grease" the future of Broadway? If so, it's a "future" that to some extent has already happened. Many theatrical producers are using focus groups, tracking polls, and other sophisticated research tools to make marketing decisions about the shows they present. In the past, such information has only been used to develop ad campaigns--but as the public response to "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" made clear, it can also be used to make artistic decisions....

Is that such a bad thing? After all, "Grease" isn't Shakespeare, or even Neil Simon. It's an innocuous confection whose sole purpose is to amuse, and I won't get even slightly bent out of shape if 30 million TV viewers should suddenly take an interest in the burning question of who will play Sandy and Danny in the Broadway revival. As Samuel Johnson told us long ago, "The Stage but echoes back the publick Voice./The Drama's Laws the Drama's Patrons give,/For we that live to please, must please to live." In any case, there are better places than Broadway to see serious theater, not only in New York but in Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and the countless other American cities where first-rate regional companies can be found. Anyone who looks to Broadway for creative leadership is looking under the wrong bushel.

I'm not a cultural relativist. I believe devoutly in the superiority of Shakespeare to Neil Simon. But I'm also a realist, and I keep a close eye on the myriad ways in which information-age capitalism is transforming American life by maximizing consumer choice. That's why I'm interested in "You're the One That I Want." I don't know whether "Grease" will be better or worse for having been cast by popular demand--but I have no doubt that its opening night will mark a sea change in the culture of commercial theater in America.

Needless to say, I'll be there.

TT: Busman's holiday

Now that I'm a drama critic, I rarely get to go to working rehearsals, which I love to do, so it was a great pleasure to fly into the Raleigh-Durham airport last night, jump in a car, drive straight to the stage door of the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, and charge into the theater just in time to hear Robert Weiss, the artistic director of Carolina Ballet, speak the following words into a microphone: "Dancers, we're going to try to go all the way through without stopping--unless there's a train wreck." I sighed with delight and plopped into a seat just behind Weiss and Lynne Taylor-Corbett, the choreographers of Monet Impressions, who were furiously dictating last-minute fix-this notes to their assistants as the dancers on stage ran through Weiss' "The Gardens at Giverny" and Taylor-Corbett's "Picnic on the Grass."

The New York Times ran a half-page preview of Monet Impressions yesterday, so I'll let their excellent reporter walk you through the show:

After carefully trolling the North Carolina Museum of Art's "Monet in Normandy" exhibition, seeking inspiration for a new dance, the choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett ended up using a painting not in the show: Monet's Déjeuner sur l'Herbe. That's right, Monet's--not Manet's better-known 1863 painting of the same title, depicting a languid luncheon party of four, including unabashedly naked women, but Monet's more decorous 1865-66 scene of a luncheon party of a dozen or so ladies and gentlemen, elegantly dressed.

"Whenever the word Impressionist is used, most people think first of Claude Monet, who depicted nature in a subjective and innovative way," she said. "Conversely, his studies of people seem objective and detached. I wondered about ‘Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe.' Who were these people, about to sit down outdoors to enjoy a meal together? What had they been doing moments before? What were they feeling?"

The dance that resulted from her musings, "Picnic on the Grass," will be the first part of the Carolina Ballet's "Monet Impressions," opening Jan. 11 at the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. The program, which also features "The Gardens at Giverny," by Robert Weiss, the Carolina Ballet's artistic director, coincides with the final weekend of the museum's substantial Monet exhibition...

The company's resident set designer, Jeff A.R. Jones, created a painted translucent scrim that can overlay either of two painted backdrops to suggest a changing Impressionist landscape without recreating each painting. For "Picnic" a drop of a tree trunk and leaves, created from woven strips of fabric for additional texture, is suspended over a hazier backdrop, evoking part of "Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe." For "The Gardens at Giverny," Monet's rose arbors and waterlily paintings are evoked.

That sounds ambitious, and it looks...well, astonishing. This morning I went to the museum to see "Monet in Normandy," having spent the previous evening gazing with mounting amazement at Monet Impressions, and my first impression of the ballet was confirmed by my hour-long visit to the exhibition: I don't know when I've seen a more complete fusion of dance, décor, and music. To be sure, I was watching a dress rehearsal, not the real thing, but even when accompanied by the frenzied mutterings of anxious artists determined to get it right on the night, Monet Impressions was so unabashedly gorgeous to behold that it knocked me flat.

The two dances are completely different in character. Taylor-Corbett's evocation of "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe," set to Poulenc's suavely bittersweet music, is charming in the very best sense of that oft-misused word--Sunday in the Park with Claude, so to speak. Weiss's ballet, accompanied by Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun and Nocturnes and the lushly Franco-Wagnerian music of Ernest Chausson, is more abstract, as befits a choreographer who learned his trade from George Balanchine, but no less immediately appealing to the eye and ear. Afterward he asked me what I thought, and I replied, "That one definitely passes the ooh-and-aah test."

That such an extravaganza should have been created in Raleigh will be surprising only to those who know nothing of Carolina Ballet. I've been covering the company for the better part of a decade now, and I know what Weiss and his collaborators can do. As I wrote in The Wall Street Journal back in 2002:

The story of Carolina Ballet is, to put it mildly, improbable. Started from scratch in 1997, it has grown to the point where it will be spending more than $5 million to present 84 performances this year. By big-city standards, of course, that's peanuts: New York City Ballet has a budget of $46.6 million. But you can cook a lot of tasty things with peanuts if you hire gourmet chefs. The company's fast-growing repertory includes both modern classics (one recent program featured Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco" and Antony Tudor's "Lilac Garden") and new works by principal guest choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett and whiz kid Christopher Wheeldon. It has performed in Budapest and at New York's Guggenheim Museum. It has collaborated with the cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci and the surrealist artist Patricia Nix...

Above all, Carolina Ballet has Robert Weiss. He knows Balanchine's demanding neoclassical style cold, but instead of making the abstract "plotless" dances that were his mentor's trademark, Weiss specializes in narrative ballets modeled after Balanchine's 1962 adaptation of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in which the plot is propelled, and the characters defined, through movement rather than mime. Like that deeply conservative yet radically innovative masterwork, Weiss' "Carmen" and "Romeo and Juliet" emphasize character-driven virtuoso dancing over the glitzy pageantry that dominates--and deadens--most of today's full-evening story ballets.

This time around I came to Raleigh not as a critic but as a civilian, more than happy to simply sit in my seat and watch Weiss and Taylor-Corbett do their stuff. I'll be at the premiere of Monet Impresssions tonight, accompanied by a local blogger friend, and I won't be taking any notes. I'm just going to look. That's my kind of night off.

January 12, 2007

TT: Almanac

"The theatre, for all its artifices, depicts life in a sense more truly than history, because the medium has a kindred movement to that of real life, though an artificial setting and form."

George Santayana, Skepticism and the Animal Mind

TT: Life sentence

"I like Raleigh," I told the limo driver who picked me up at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. He laughed. "All you New Yorkers come down here and talk about how much you like Raleigh," he said, "but I don't notice any of you moving here." That silenced me. It also set me to wondering: would it be possible for me to live happily in a medium-sized city?

Raleigh, to be sure, has much to offer the culture-conscious émigré. Carolina Ballet is a first-rate dance company. Quail Ridge Books & Music is one of America's best independent bookstores. The North Carolina Museum of Art isn't exactly overburdened with masterpieces of modern art, but it does own a dozen excellent pieces by Joseph Cornell, Richard Diebenkorn, Marsden Hartley, Alex Katz, Anselm Kiefer, Franz Kline, Jacob Lawrence, Louise Nevelson, Ad Reinhardt, Joel Shapiro, Frank Stella, and Neil Welliver. (I briefly thought at one time of leaving the Teachout Museum en bloc to the NCMA, but I wouldn't want to stiff my friends!) Ms. Pratie Place and I dined wonderfully well at a classy pan-Asian restaurant called The Duck and Dumpling, and Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place" was playing on the jukebox as I strolled into the Raleigh Times Bar for a post-rehearsal drink. As for the local barbecue, it's to die for.

On the other hand, I was the only person on foot in downtown Raleigh at seven-thirty last night, not counting a couple of panhandlers. That matters more to me than you might think. Having spent the past decade and a half living in Manhattan, I now find it hard to imagine moving to a city that has no street life after dark. Perhaps I won't continue to feel that way as I grow older, but I'm not exactly young anymore, and so far my love of city life has yet to diminish.

Am I destined to pass the rest of my days in New York, going to first nights and eating late suppers? Or will urban life lose its shiny savor? Maybe--but I wouldn't bet on it. At least not yet.

TT: Historical hijinks

It's another off-Broadway week for this Friday's Wall Street Journal drama column, in which I review Verse Theater Manhattan's The Germans in Paris and Second Stage's The Scene:

The success of Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" continues to bemuse me. How could a trilogy of plays about a group of 19th-century Russian intellectuals have become the talk of the town? If such miracles are possible, then perhaps "The Germans in Paris," Jonathan Leaf's thought-provoking comedy about the private lives of Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx and Richard Wagner, will become the sleeper hit of the Off-Off Broadway season. I wouldn't bet on it, but stranger things have happened.

Mr. Leaf first came to my notice with "The Caterers," a flawed but promising play about Islamic terrorism. "The Germans in Paris," which is being revived by Verse Theater Manhattan after a brief run two years ago at 59E59 Theatres, is a very different piece of work, a historical extravaganza spun out of a real-life coincidence: Heine, Marx and Wagner all spent time in Paris, where they became swept up in the same revolutionary crosscurrents described in "The Coast of Utopia." So far as I know, Marx and Wagner never met, but they could have, and Heine knew both men well. Upon this "Travesties"-like foundation of fact, Mr. Leaf has erected an elaborate superstructure of speculation whose premise suggests a joke told by an egghead: Did you hear the one about the poet, the philosopher and the composer?...

Mr. Leaf has woven his web of fact and fiction with enviable skill, and the result is a sharp-witted comedy of manners that modulates neatly into high seriousness....

According to theatrical legend, anybody can write a good first act. I can't, but I've definitely seen a lot of plays that were good until intermission and bad afterward. "The Water's Edge," Theresa Rebeck's last play, was like that, and so is "The Scene," a black comedy about an out-of-work actor of a certain age (Tony Shalhoub) who trashes his marriage to an ultra-competent TV producer (Patricia Heaton) by sleeping with an amoral young bimbo (Anna Camp). The first act is fast, funny and more than clever enough, and when the lights came back up I was sure I'd be filing a rave, but no sooner did the cast return to the stage than the plot ran out of steam....

No free link, so do the obvious--buy the damn paper--or, less obviously but more productively, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you immediate access to my review, plus the rest of the Journal's weekend arts coverage. (If you're already a subscriber, the column is here.)

January 13, 2007

TT: Drama kings

I'm in today's Wall Street Journal, not with a "Sightings" column (that's next week) but as the guest contributor of the Journal's "Five Best" books feature, whose participants are invited to name five favorite books in a category of their choosing. I chose theatrical biographies, and these were my picks:

- Park Honan, Shakespeare: A Life

- Michael Holroyd, Bernard Shaw (the one-volume abridgment)

- Simon Callow, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu

- Moss Hart, Act One

- John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton

The Journal has posted a free link to this piece. To read it, go here.

January 15, 2007

TT: Almanac

"I guess God made Boston on a wet Sunday."

Raymond Chandler, letter, Mar. 21, 1949

TT: Bigger than life

As I mentioned last week, I went to see the North Carolina Museum of Art's sold-out Monet retrospective (which closed yesterday) in between performances of Carolina Ballet's Monet Impressions. It was almost as crowded as the Manet show that Our Girl and I saw three years ago at the Art Institute of Chicago:

I almost never go to blockbuster shows during regular museum hours. As a working critic, I normally attend "press views," the pre-opening previews which, even when they draw good-sized audiences, are never too crowded. In the past couple of years, I've only had to fight crowds at one mega-blockbuster show, the Museum of Modern Art's "Matisse Picasso" (I reviewed it for The Wall Street Journal, then returned a second time in the company of a friend who had a spare ticket). As a result, I'd forgotten how oppressive it is to try to look at great art in the company of undifferentiated hordes of other viewers, a not-insubstantial percentage of whom are boorishly noisy....

I don't feel like rehearsing all the old arguments for and against such shows--they've been done to death, and nothing I say, here or elsewhere, will change the economic realities that drive museums to put together 100-piece extravaganzas of Impressionism's Greatest Hits. Nor do I propose to gripe about wall texts or audio tours. In a perfect world, museumgoers would simply look at paintings, then go home, read about them, and come back to see them again. Alas, the world of art is far from perfect: not only do most museumgoers like to read about the paintings they see while they're seeing them, but more than a few like to hear about them as well. What's more, I don't doubt that at least some of them profit from the experience, and far be it from me to decree that they should be deprived of it.

Having said all this, I do want to make a couple of modest proposals:

(1) Once a year, every working art critic should be required to attend a blockbuster show on a weekend or holiday. He should buy a ticket with his own money, line up with the citizenry, fight his way through the crowds, listen to an audio tour--and pay close attention to what his fellow museumgoers are saying and doing. In short, he should be forced to remind himself on a regular basis of how ordinary people experience art, and marvel at the fact that they keep coming back in spite of everything.

That one's easy. This one's harder:

(2) Every "civilian" who goes to a given museum at least six times a year should be allowed to attend a press or private view of a major exhibition. The experience of seeing a blockbuster show under such conditions is eye-opening in every sense of the word. If more ordinary museumgoers were to have such experiences, it might change their feelings about the ways in which museums present such exhibitions.

I thought of those proposals as I fought my way through "Monet in Normandy" last Thursday. I can't honestly say I enjoyed the experience. Great art isn't meant to be seen in a crowd, even a well-mannered crowd of friendly, earnest North Carolinians. On the other hand, seeing it under less than ideal circumstances is better than not seeing it at all, and the fact that I had to line up to see certain of the paintings actually forced me to spend more time looking at them than I might have spent had I been attending a press view.

I got stuck, for instance, in front of Wisteria (Glycines), a 1920 canvas owned by the Allen Memorial Art Museum, and realized after a few minutes of unintended scrutiny that Joan Mitchell must have seen the same painting at some point in her life and been influenced by it. Would I have made that connection had I been strolling briskly through a half-empty gallery? Probably not.

I also had time to reflect on the insufficiently appreciated fact that Monet's late paintings, which once were thought difficult to the point of obscurity, have in recent years become so popular that people who know little or nothing about art will line up to see them. How is it possible that Monet and Debussy, who in their own time were truly radical artists, are now beloved by the public at large?

I'm sorry to say that overfamiliarity long ago caused me to start taking both men for granted. Going to Raleigh to see "Monet in Normandy" and Monet Impressions has had the unexpected and welcome effect of renewing my long-dormant appreciation of their extreme originality. They were giants--and they still are. I can think of worse ways to be reminded of that fact than paying a visit to a crowded museum.

TT: Hither and yon (cont'd)

I've been to Boston and back since you last heard from me. I took the train up from New York on Saturday to see Kate Burton in Nicholas Martin's production of Chekhov's Cherry Orchard. Alas, I didn't have time to do anything in Boston but see The Cherry Orchard and eat two meals, though I dined exceptionally well at a place called Brasserie Jo, which turns out to have an outpost in Chicago. (Got that, OGIC?) The weather was lousy, so perhaps the brevity of my stay was for the best.

I returned yesterday afternoon to commence a day and a half of nonstop writing. I'll spend the rest of the week in Washington, D.C., where I'll be seeing three plays and (I hope) a lot of art. Expect to hear from me with semi-regularity in this space, and from Our Girl on Wednesday.

January 16, 2007

TT: Almanac

"Washington is a very easy city for you to forget where you came from and why you got there in the first place."

Harry S. Truman (quoted in Merle Miller, Plain Speaking)

TT: Are they or aren't they?

I've received a fair amount of mail stirred up by the first sentence of my most recent essay in Commentary: "Hollywood rarely makes artistically serious movies, save by inadvertence." No need to supply details--you can imagine most of it for yourself--but one reader caught my attention by pointing to this paragraph:

Hollywood has always been a money-making enterprise, and it may well be that our latter-day Age of the Blockbuster is nothing more than a return to the historical norm from which the New Wave of the 70's was a short-lived aberration. Thus, for all the nostalgia with which American films of the 30's and 40's are now recalled, the best of them were unpretentious genre movies--Westerns, musicals, "screwball" comedies, and the bleak, cynical crime stories now known as film noir--turned out by inspired craftsmen who succeeded in transcending the limitations imposed on them by the studios at which they worked. It is these films, and not such nominally "serious" efforts as The Grapes of Wrath (1939) or The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), for which the studio system will be justly remembered.

The reader in question invited to put my money where my mouth was by naming what I thought were the best sound films made in Hollywood prior to the coming of the New Wave. That's a good question, and an impossible one, but I decided to try to answer it anyway.

Bearing in mind that I could change my mind later today, here are my fifteen picks, one to a director:

- It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)
- The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, 1938)
- The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)
- Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
- Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1941)
- The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
- To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1943)
- Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)
- Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
- All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
- Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)
- The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
- The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
- Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
- North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

Art, or not? You decide.

January 17, 2007

OGIC: This just in

And not a moment too soon! Rachel Ries, the Chicago singer-songwriter about whom I have been going on these last months--and whose work Terry admires as much as I do, Terryphiles--will be interviewed on XM Radio this morning by former "Morning Edition" host Bob Edwards. The details as dispatched to Rachel's mailing list late last night:

I was delighted (terrified & tongue-tied) to be interviewed by Bob Edwards last month for his program, The Bob Edwards Show, on XM Public Radio. Our little chat is airing tomorrow morning, Wednesday the 17th, at 8 am ET (with encores at 7, 9, 10 am and 8 pm ET). If you don't have XM Satellite Radio, never fear! You can listen in at www.xmradio.com. After the fact, it will also be available at audible.com.

Alas, I myself am XM-less and will have to catch it at audible.com, sigh.

However: for the benefit of all you Chicagoans out there, Ries performs at Uncommon Ground tonight and every remaining Wednesday in January from 8:00 to 10:00. Catch her before her sweet and salty "prairie swing/city folk" (a perfect description, presumably hers, that I blatantly stole from the Uncommon Ground web site) sweeps the nation! Today Bob Edwards, tomorrow the world.

TT: Notes from the road

- A reader writes, inspired by yesterday's list of the best Hollywood films of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties:

Strong list. I agree that Robin Hood trumps Casablanca as Michael Curtiz's great contribution, though I imagine you'll get arguments. I'd put Big Sleep over To Have and Have Not for Howard Hawks. You really ought to consider a Disney picture in that pantheon: Pinocchio, probably.

In fact, I thought about Disney, though I would have been more inclined to include Dumbo. What I really regret, though, is not having had room to include one of the short cartoons that rank as a genre high among the greatest achievements of Hollywood's Golden Age--but which one? Chuck Jones' "Bully for Bugs"? Tex Avery's "King Size Canary"? I feel another list coming on.

(Incidentally, OGIC, I wouldn't mind hearing from you about my little list.)

- I took the train to Washington, D.C., yesterday afternoon, dropped my bags off at the hotel where I'll be spending the week, had dinner with Laura Lippman at the excellent Café MoZU, then went with her to Arena Stage to see that company's revival of Michael Frayn's Noises Off (about which more in Friday's Wall Street Journal). A fairly busy day, especially since I worked straight through the train ride from New York to Washington. As for today, I'll be spending it writing in my hotel room--no art, alas--after which it's off to the Folger Elizabethan Theatre for a performance of King Lear by the Classical Theatre of Harlem, a company I've been wanting to see for some time now.

More as it happens, but now I need to go scare up some breakfast.

TT: Almanac

"In Washington, success is just a training course for failure."

Simon Hoggart, America: A User's Guide

OGIC: Play with your words

A nice, expansive four-day weekend just came to a close, and I'm utterly exhausted. I spent the holiday weekend, and then some, doing something completely novel: competing in the MIT Mystery Hunt. Fellow blogger and ALN blogroll mainstay Eric Berlin was one of the veteran players on my team and has related his experience of the weekend in typically eloquent and entertaining fashion here. The MIT student paper covered the event here.

So how did I end up spending my weekend in an MIT classroom with 46 bigger brains, taking on approximately 150 elegantly constructed, thematically interwoven puzzles? It's not exactly a situation one just sort of stumbles into, as you might guess. As frequent readers know, I'm a regular at the National Puzzlers League convention held each summer--in Indianapolis, Cambridge, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and, about six months from now, Ann Arbor. Every year I return from the Con exhilarated, happy, and with a few new friends. The NPL and the Mystery Hunt have significantly overlapping constituencies, and it was the wish to see some of these far-flung friends that landed me at the Mystery Hunt this year. For some reason, puzzlers, and especially the ones I'm closest to, tend to concentrate on either coast. Vanishingly few make their homes in the middle of the country, a fact regarding which I've been known to get a mite peevish on occasion and an excellent reason to travel to Cambridge last weekend and find out what the mystery is all about. And now I have some idea. As a thing, the MIT Mystery Hunt is a magnum opus of its kind, an elaborate, smoothly running machine whose enormity would seem to belie its elegance but astonishingly doesn't, and vice versa. As an experience, it's a more intense, more claustrophobic, grubbier NPL Con, from which I've returned...utterly exhausted.

That's not to say I didn't have a great time, because I did--thanks to the quality of the puzzles and especially the quality of the company. It surely wasn't the scenery: most of the weekend was spent in an MIT classroom whose notable features were approximately 20 fully wired, furiously worked laptop computers and three walls of blackboard that progressively filled with chalk marks as we solved puzzles and recorded the answers there (in a puzzle hunt of this magnitude, almost no answer is sufficient unto itself; it nearly always has an afterlife as a clue in another, second-order puzzle). An adjacent classroom was reserved for less critical activities such as eating and sleeping, though some of the other than perfectly dedicated among us opted for alternative quarters (mine in nearby Somerville were friendly and comfortable).

And we won! On the backs of a couple of brilliant teammates who were the first in the entire Hunt to crack the diabolical meta-puzzle (involving the answer words from ten other puzzles, as well as additional clues gathered from a video we'd been given) that had had us and several other teams stumped and stalled near the finish line for hours, we triumphed around 2 o'clock Sunday morning (would it have occurred to you immediately to use the U.S. Senate seating chart as a grid for a double-crostic?). Not a moment too soon, mind you, since the gargantuan task of running next year's Hunt now falls on us. Personally, I've never constructed a puzzle in my life, so my role is likely to be that of test-solver. Even from that humble perch, I'll be fascinated to see from the inside how one of these marvels comes together.

For the curious, the complete set of 2007 Mystery Hunt puzzles (and solutions) can be accessed here. One that might particularly divert readers of this blog is "Writing Nerds," here.

UPDATE: Edited to fix broken links. Sorry!!

January 18, 2007

TT: Memo from Cassandra

ArtsJournal blogger Greg Sandow has been writing a very important series of posts on the future of classical music. Three have appeared so far. (They are here, here, and here.) He's been taking a hard look at demographic trends and attendance numbers for major classical-music institutions in the U.S., and has arrived at the following conclusions:

- "The classical music audience is now, on the average, more than 50 years old. There's a common belief that it's always been this old, but I've uncovered data that shows this isn't true....If the audience has been getting older for 50 years, then clearly younger people aren't coming into it."

- "A trend that's been established for that long has to reflect some kind of deep-rooted cultural change--and the change it represents, I'd guess, is that our culture, over a long span of time, has lost interest in classical music."

- "In the 1960s, the biggest orchestras were selling all their tickets. Now they're suffering from a long-term decline in ticket sales. On top of that, classical music is far less central in our society than it was in the '60s, which makes it harder to attract both audience and funding."

Therefore:

- "This makes me think that the era of classical music is going to end. Not this year, not next year, maybe not in 10 years (though surely by then we'll see decisive signs of where we're going). But sometime reasonably soon, the era of classical music will be over....organized classical concerts, as we know them now, won't be very numerous, or at least won't be as numerous as they are now. Though they may well be replaced by other kinds of concerts--more informal, or also offering other kinds of music--in which classical music might be played. To be as precise as I can, I might say that the apparatus of classical music, as we know it now, will very likely fade away."

I agree. In fact, I've been saying much the same thing for a very long time now, and I've also been thinking about what the post-classical era might look like. In "Life Without Records," a 2002 essay on the collapse of the classical recording industry reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader, I speculated about the likely effects of the end of the international "superstar system" that was made possible by recording:

What would classical music look like without superstars? A possible answer can be found by looking at classical ballet. Few ballet companies tour regularly, and some of the most important, like New York City Ballet, are rarely seen outside their home towns; videocassettes are a notoriously inadequate substitute for live performances, and thus sell poorly. For these reasons, the major media devote little space to ballet, meaning that there are never more than one or two international superstars at any given moment. Most balletgoers spend the bulk of their time attending performances by the resident companies of the cities in which they live, and the dances, not the dancers, are the draw. (It is The Nutcracker that fills seats, not the Sugar Plum Fairy.)

In the United States, regional opera works in much the same way. Only a half-dozen major American companies can afford to import superstars; everyone else hires solid second-tier singers with little or no name recognition, often using local artists to fill out their casts. Audiences are attracted not by the stars, but by the show--that is, by dramatically compelling productions of musically interesting operas. If the larger culture of classical music were to be reorganized along similar lines, then concert presenters, instead of presenting a small roster of international celebrity virtuosos, might be forced to engage a wider range of lower-priced soloists, possibly including local artists and ensembles with a carefully cultivated base of loyal fans. Similarly, regional symphony orchestras would have to adopt more imaginative programming strategies in order to attract listeners who now buy tickets mainly to hear superstar soloists play popular concertos in person. It is possible, too, that with the breakup of the single worldwide market created by the superstar system, we might see a similar disintegration of the blandly eclectic "international" style of performance that came to dominate classical music in the Seventies. Performers who play for the moment, rather than for the microphones of an international record company primarily interested in its bottom line, are less likely to play it safe--and more likely to play interesting music.

In the midst of these seemingly endless uncertainties, one aspect of life without records is not only possible but probable: henceforth, nobody in his right mind will look to classical music as a means of making very large sums of money. Of all the ways in which the invention of the phonograph changed the culture of classical music, perhaps the most fateful was that it turned a local craft into an international trade, thereby attracting the attention of entrepreneurs who were more interested in money than art. Needless to say, there can be no art without money, but the recording industry, by creating a mass market for music, sucked unprecedentedly large amounts of money into the classical-music culture, thereby insidiously and inexorably altering its artistic priorities....

But enough about me. Go read Greg's posts, and start following his blog. Nobody is writing more intelligently--or convincingly--about the grim prospects facing classical musicians and classical-music institutions in the coming century.

TT: Michael Brecker, R.I.P.

I was going to write about Michael Brecker, the great jazz saxophonist who died last Saturday, but his colleague Randy Sandke said it all for me, and for the rest of us. Mr. Rifftides has posted Sandke's heartfelt tribute, plus links to other Brecker-related postings elsewhere in the blogosphere. Go here and start scrolling.

TT: Almanac

"Washington society has always demanded less and given more than any society in this country--demanded less of applause, deference, etiquette, and has accepted as current coin quick wit, appreciative tact, and a talent for talking."

M.E.W. Sherwood, An Epistle to Posterity

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)
- Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, too intellectually complex to be suitable for children of any age, reviewed here, closes May 12)
- 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 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)
- Meet Me in St. Louis (musical, G, very family-friendly, reviewed here, closes Feb. 18)
- The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, extended through Mar. 25)

CLOSING SOON:
- The Germans in Paris (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Jan. 29)
- Room Service (comedy, G, reasonably family-friendly but a bit complicated for youngsters, reviewed here, closes Jan. 29)
- Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Jan. 28)

TT: Cameo appearances

- I must have watched It's a Wonderful Life a half-dozen times, and every time I notice the piano player who pounds out a smoking-hot stomp tune at Nick's, the boisterous speakeasy in which Clarence, Jimmy Stewart's hapless guardian angel, makes the mistake of ordering mulled wine from the tough-guy bartender ("We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint ‘atmosphere'"). Yet it never occurred to me to wonder who he was until I happened to see the film again a couple of weeks ago. This time I looked him up on the Internet Movie Database, and guess what? He's Meade "Lux" Lewis, whose 1927 recording of "Honky Tonk Train Blues" is one of the half-dozen greatest examples of boogie-woogie piano on record.

Who knew? Not me.

- I also watched Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It, the movie that made Jayne Mansfield a star. Not only had I never seen it, but I'd never seen any of Mansfield's other movies--she was only a name to me--and I found her unexpectedly charming.

This inspired me to take a look at the BBC documentary on Mansfield that airs on Ovation from time to time. To my astonishment, it included a snippet of a Fifties kinescope in which Mansfield can be seen playing the first movement of Vivaldi's A Minor Violin Concerto, Op. 3, No. 6. (You can view a poor-quality transfer of the same snippet by going here.) This concerto is often played by students--I played it in high school--and though her performance isn't very good, it isn't hopelessly bad, either.

How strange that so touchingly earnest a creature should have gone to Hollywood and become a big-chested blonde bombshell! Only in America...

THE LONG GOODBYE

To read all three installments of "The Long Goodbye," a multi-part posting about the experience of watching a parent die, go here.

January 19, 2007

TT: My day

I'm sitting in my hotel room in Washington, D.C., having just eaten a very good breakfast downstairs. Last night I chatted with Our Girl on the phone, then read the first chapter of Bleak House before putting out the light, thus embarking on the fulfillment of one of my New Year's resolutions. This morning I spent an hour surfing the Web and catching up on my e-mail, then read the Washington Post on paper, something I almost never do anymore. In a few minutes I'll head for the Phillips Collection, where I plan to pass the middle part of the day looking at art, followed by a couple of hours' worth of writing. Tonight I'll be seeing the Signature Theatre Company's new production of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods.

The sky is blue, the wind is blowing, and for some reason I find that a sentence from one of Justice Holmes' letters is running through my head: "Life grows more equable as one grows older; not less interesting, but I hope a little more impersonal. An old man ought to be sad. I don't know whether I shall be when the wind is west and the sky clear."

Enjoy your day. I plan to.

TT: Almanac

"One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up."

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

TT: Chris Wheeldon takes a chance

In my next "Sightings" column, to be published in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, I examine the hottest dance story of the month, if not the decade: Christopher Wheeldon's recently announced decision to leave New York City Ballet and launch his own classical ballet company. Yes, Wheeldon is the biggest choreographic talent to come along since Mark Morris--but is that fact alone enough to guarantee the kind of heavy-duty charitable cash flow necessary to bankroll a twenty-member dance troupe? Or might he possibly have something else in mind?

For the answer, pick up a copy of tomorrow's Journal, where you'll find my column in the "Pursuits" section.

TT: Melancholy farce

Today's Wall Street Journal contains the first of a series of theatrical reports from the road. This time around I review a Cherry Orchard in Boston and a Noises Off in Washington:

It says much about the artistic health of Broadway that none of Anton Chekhov's plays has been seen there since 2000, and that two decades have gone by since "The Cherry Orchard" was last produced there (unless you count the Russian-language road-show version that ran for a week and a half in 1997). So when Boston's Huntington Theatre cast Kate Burton as Madame Ranevskaya in Chekhov's last and greatest play, I knew I had to go see it--and her. Nowadays Ms. Burton is best known as a TV star, but she is also one of the finest stage actresses we have, and in "The Cherry Orchard" she made an impression so strong and vibrant that I can still see her clearly in my mind's eye a week after the fact....

The Marxist reading of "The Cherry Orchard" as a snapshot of Russia on the eve of much-needed revolution was fashionable throughout much of the 20th century, but has grown less stylish of late. "You can never make a play this great about politics," says Nicholas Martin, the Huntington's artistic director, who has chosen instead to stress the comic side of "The Cherry Orchard." He gets his laughs and then some, but the broadness of his straightforward staging, which borders at times on slapsticky crudity, seemed to me to veer rather too far in the opposite direction....

I don't know if "Noises Off" is the funniest play ever written, but it's definitely the funniest play I've ever seen, and Washington's Arena Stage has given it a perfect revival. I mean it: I can't think of a single way in which this production could possibly have been improved....

No link, naturally, so get yourself a Journal and read the whole thing there, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, thereby giving you immediate access to my column and all the rest of the Journal's Friday arts package. (If you're already a subscriber, the column is here.)

January 20, 2007

ABOUT TERRY'S BOOKS

Terry's latest book is Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, published by Gotham Books in the U.S. and the Robson Press in England and available here.

The New York Times' review of Duke is here. The Economist's review is here. The San Francisco Chronicle's review is here.

To hear Debbie Millman interview Terry on Design Matters, go here.

To read Ethan Iverson's "Do the Math" interview with Terry, go here.

Continue reading "ABOUT TERRY'S BOOKS" »

BALLET? NEVER HEARD OF IT

"No classics, no stars, only a handful of long-lived institutions...so why take a chance on dance? And therein lies the challenge of reviving dance in America: Anyone who seeks to launch a new company, or revitalize an old one, must start by figuring out how to make large numbers of Americans want to see something about which they no longer know anything..."

FINE ART OF DISTINCTIONS

"Historically, a director's staging of a play has had the same legal status as a singer's interpretation of a song, but John Rando, the director of Urinetown, thinks it should be protected by copyright and subject to royalty. Whether or not the directors of the Akron and Chicago productions of Urinetown stole his ideas, this claim is clearly defensible..."

DRAMA KINGS

"These five biographies of theater luminaries outshine the rest..."

Not new, but still worth a look or listen (and no less subject to change without notice).

To purchase or investigate, click on the link.

CD: Glenn Gould, Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491 (Sony). Glenn Gould claimed to hate Mozart's music and played it badly--with one towering exception. Never have the stern yet shapely melodic lines of Mozart's greatest minor-key concerto been etched more incisively than in this 1961 recording, gracefully accompanied by Walter Susskind and the CBC Symphony. If you're one of the many music lovers who finds Gould's myriad eccentricities offputting, listen to this CD with an open mind and prepare to be surprised (TT).

NOVEL: John P. Marquand, Sincerely, Willis Wayde. Babbitt with a backstory. This undeservedly forgotten 1955 blockbuster follows a New England businessman along the twisty road that leads from youthful idealism to mature vengefulness. Less subtle than Point of No Return, Marquand's masterpiece, it offers a harsher, explicitly satirical view of life among the capitalists, and though Marquand's Lewis-like portrayal of his anti-hero's philistinism is a bit heavy-handed, I can't think of a more convincing fictional description of the high price of getting what you think you want (TT).

A list of new things we've liked (subject to unexpected and wildly capricious updating).

To purchase or investigate, click on the link.

PLAY: Room Service (SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam, extended through Mar. 25). An electrifyingly frenetic off-Broadway revival of the 1937 backstage farce about a fast-talking Broadway producer with a heart of brass who can't raise enough cash to pay his hotel bill. Filmed by the Marx Brothers in 1938, Room Service works infinitely better on stage, and the Peccadillo Theater Company has given it a first-class production directed with zany aplomb by Dan Wackerman. If there's a funnier show in New York, I haven't seen it (TT).

DANCE: Mark Morris Dance Group (2 Lafayette St., Brooklyn, closes Jan. 24). A perfect mixed bill: Morris' latest effort, a new work set to Bach's Italian Concerto, plus three of his finest small-scale pieces, Love Song Waltzes (1989), The Argument (1999), and Sang-Froid (2000). All programs will be danced in the wonderfully intimate performance space of the Morris company's Brooklyn headquarters. Not to be missed under any circumstances whatsoever (TT).

EXHIBITION: The Odyssey Continues: Masterworks from the New Orleans Museum of Art and from Private New Orleans Collections (Wildenstein & Company, 19 E. 64, up through Feb. 9). One hundred works of art, including major pieces by Lotto, Tiepolo, Rodin, Bonnard, Redon, Braque, Kandinsky, Pollock, Cornell, and Diebenkorn. The $10 admission fee benefits NOMA, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and is nowhere near recovering. Do yourself--and NOMA--a favor and visit this memorable show (TT).

DVD: Ballets Russes (Zeitgeist). An enthralling 2005 documentary about the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, one of the most important dance companies of the Thirties and Forties, whose barnstorming tours helped to create an audience for dance in America. Interviews with surviving members are skillfully blended with vivid archival performance footage to tell an irresistibly nostalgic tale of life on the road. Great, great fun (TT).

CD: Erin McKeown, Sing You Sinners (Nettwerk). "About Last Night"'s favorite pop singer-songwriter hangs up her pen (temporarily) to cut an album of old-time standards performed in a rough-hewn, bewitchingly unslick style that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the glammed-up slumming of Linda Ronstadt and her successors (TT).

January 22, 2007

TT: Almanac

"To remember everything is a form of madness."

Brian Friel, Translations

TT: Words to the wise

I planned to post something long and thoughtful today, but it turns out that I’m severely overpressed with multiple deadlines, so instead I’ll stall for time by pointing you in the direction of a few things worth seeing and/or hearing:

Turner Classic Movies is showing two rarely seen Fifties films that I strongly commend to your attention. Fritz Lang’s Human Desire, starring Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, will air on Monday at four p.m. EST. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival), starring Kirk Douglas, will air on Thursday at 2:30 a.m. EST. Both films take an extremely dark view of human nature, so brace yourself before tuning in.

Erin McKeown, the singer-songwriter whom Our Girl and I praise as often as we think we can get away with it, is playing a two-nighter this Tuesday (at 7) and Wednesday (at 9:30) at Joe’s Pub. She’s touring in support of Sing You Sinners, her new album of pre-rock standards, though she’ll also be singing some of her own songs. For more information, go here.

Amy Burton, one of my very favorite classical singers, is performing the voice-and-piano version of John Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan this Thursday at 7:30 at Symphony Space. Here’s what Corigliano wrote about the song cycle when it was premiered in 2000:

I had always heard, by reputation, of the high regard accorded the folk-ballad singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. But I was so engaged in developing my orchestral technique during the years when Dylan was heard by the rest of the world that I had never heard his songs. So I bought a collection of his texts, and found many of them to be every bit as beautiful and as immediate as I had heard—and surprisingly well-suited to my own musical language. I then contacted Jeff Rosen, his manager, who approached Bob Dylan with the idea of re-setting his poetry to my music.

I do not know of an instance in which this has been done before (which was part of what appealed to me), so I needed to explain that these would be in no way arrangements, or variations, or in any way derivations of the music of the original songs, which I decided to not hear before the cycle was complete. Just as Schumann or Brahms or Wolf had re-interpreted in their own musical styles the same Goethe text, I intended to treat the Dylan lyrics as the poems I found them to be. Nor would their settings make any attempt at pop or rock writing. I wanted to take poetry I knew to be strongly associated with popular art and readdress it in terms of concert art—crossover in the opposite direction, one might say….

For more details about the performance, go here.

• The off-Broadway revival of Room Service that I praised lavishly in The Wall Street Journal three weeks ago has been extended through March 25. For more information, look immediately to your right at the first item in the Top Five module.

• Music & Arts has just released Artur Schnabel Plays Mozart, a budget-priced five-CD box set that contains all of Schnabel’s commercial Mozart recordings, made between 1934 and 1948, plus live performances of two additional concertos (K. 482 and 488) and sonatas (K. 333 and 533/494). To order, go here.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to work! See you tomorrow, maybe....

January 23, 2007

TT: Almanac

"But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen—to use an image you'll understand—it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of...fact."

Brian Friel, Translations

TT: Man's man

“God, I love this guy,” said the young man at the Barnes & Noble cash register from whom I purchased a couple of Elmore Leonard paperbacks the other day. “There’s nothing better to read on a plane.” Three days earlier I’d been sitting in the restaurant of a hotel in Washington, D.C., reading Unknown Man #89 as I ate my breakfast, when a balding, middle-aged businessman stopped at my table and said, “You’re going to love that one.”

I mention these two encounters because they’re the only times in recent memory that a stranger has spoken to me about a book I was reading—and both of the strangers in question happened to be men.

I wrote an essay about Mickey Spillane a few years ago that contained the following observation:

Spillane was writing for a generation of fellow veterans who spent their off-duty hours thumbing through paperbacks—thrillers, westerns, even the odd classic. They were accustomed to taking pleasure in the printed word. Now their grandsons go to the movies, or watch TV. Novels, even mysteries, are overwhelmingly read by and written for women. This is not to say that nobody’s writing regular-guy books anymore: they’re just not being read by regular guys. A no-nonsense crime novelist like Elmore Leonard is far more likely to appeal to eggheads like me than the working stiffs about whom he writes—I’ve never seen anybody reading a Leonard novel on the subway—whereas Spillane’s books were actually read and enjoyed by men who weren’t all that different from Mike Hammer. He may well have been the last novelist of whom such a thing could be said.

Might I have spoken too soon? Probably not. Still, I have a feeling that if regular guys are reading any new novels at all, it’s Elmore Leonard’s novels that they’re reading, and that’s all right by me. To be sure, Leonard isn’t as good as his critical advocates like to claim—among other things, he’s more than a little bit repetitious—but his best books are wonderfully entertaining, and on those not-infrequent occasions when I find myself stuck in a hotel room and disinclined to grapple with literature, I’m always happy to find one on my nightstand.

Crime is Leonard's nominal subject matter, but it isn’t his main interest. I can’t think of a Leonard novel that doesn’t contain a prominent romantic subplot, usually involving an encounter between two divorced or separated people in their thirties or forties who got married too soon. These encounters are invariably portrayed in the wisecracking manner of Howard Hawks, but the relationships that arise from them are perfectly serious. Time and again Leonard’s characters admit to having foolishly fallen for partners who turned out to be boring, self-involved jerks, and time and again we see them meeting nicer partners who inspire them to take a second chance on love.

Could this be the reason why Leonard is so popular among male readers? I wonder. Men, after all, are often a good deal more idealistic than they care to admit, and Leonard gives them good old-fashioned romance hidden in a plain brown wrapper of violence. What’s not to like?

Needless to say, this is what sets Leonard apart from the first-generation noir stylists. They were romantics, too, but of a very different sort, disillusioned and cynical, and in their books the good guy never, ever got the nice girl. I readily admit to finding that kind of cynicism appealing, but there’s another part of me that warms to Leonard’s romantic optimism, even though I’m well aware that it’s as much of a pose as Philip Marlowe’s curdled nobility.

Here’s something I wrote a few years ago:

Most commercial films 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.

I like happy endings, too, but I don't always want them to be so easy as that, and given the inescapable fact that we all live under the twin aspects of modernity and eternity, I have a special liking for films that convey something of the complexity of modern life without losing sight of the pole star of truth. In particular, I like films about gravely flawed human beings who, faced with a set of similarly imperfect alternatives, suddenly find their moral imaginations regenerated by grace, make the best possible choice available to them and accept the consequences, good or bad.

All of which is well and good, but doesn’t necessarily serve the purpose of amusing tired, fussy aesthetes who feel the need to spin their mental wheels for an hour or two before drifting off to sleep. Great art, after all, portrays a world in which nobody meets cute, everybody ends up dead, and most people get a lot less out of life than they want—none of which is especially restful to contemplate at the end of a long day.

That’s why I watch old Hollywood movies on TV after hours, and why I read Elmore Leonard, a solid craftsman who tickles my fancies without insulting my intelligence. I can think of far less honorable ways to pass an evening.

* * *

If you’ve never read any of Elmore Leonard’s books, I suggest starting with Maximum Bob or LaBrava.

You might also consider watching Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 film of Out of Sight, which is faithful to both the plot and the spirit of the novel on which it is based.

UPDATE: A friend wrote:

Great art also portrays beauty, laughter, and joy.

To which I replied:

Yes, but honestly. It doesn't pretend that the other things don't exist (though it doesn't necessarily emphasize them, either). That's why Schubert can make you so happy—because his happiness is set in front of a backdrop of reality.

To which he replied:

But you wrote the definition, and you wrote it entirely grim.

To which I replied:

Yeah, yeah, O.K., I give up! I was feeling grim.

January 24, 2007

TT: New kid on the block

Commentary, for which I write a monthly art-related essay, has gotten into the blogging business with a bang, launching a group blog called Contentions. It’s mostly about politics, but I’m contributing a weekly feature called “Bookshelf” in which I comment on new, newish, and (occasionally) not-so-new books about the arts. My first posting was on Howard Pollack’s George Gershwin: His Life and Work and Amanda Vaill’s Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins. This week I wrote about Lee Tanner’s The Jazz Image: Masters of Jazz Photography and Michael Ainger’s Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography.

Contentions' contributors all have their own archive pages. To read my postings, past, present, and future, go here.

OGIC: My town, more than just an ursine cult

This week, I live in a city consumed. Only a game, you say? Tell it to the scamps who pitched themselves into Lake Michigan after dark on a day when the temperature did not exceed the freezing point. Aw, such an endearing waste of emergency resources! Every city loves a champion, but certain places embrace certain championship runs with special fervor and purpose. In Chicago, a championship run mounted by a defensive-minded Bears team is probably as heaven-sent as it gets, giving the real-life superfans a chance to flaunt their imperviousness to the elements and reaffirm solemn allegiance to smashmouth football.

My point is this: it may seem from the outside—as it certainly does from the inside—that this is a town given over completely to ursine cultism and Superbowl anticipation. Through it all, however, cultural life in Chicago does go on. One case in point is the Art Institute, which will bravely kick off its free February on a Saturday when many Chicagoans will probably be busy buying the supermarkets out of Polishes, MGD, and blue and orange face paint. But wouldn't February 3rd be better spent at the AIC's debut of Q & Art? That day, more than 100 art experts will be posted throughout the galleries that day to field all questions, from the sublime to the ridiculous. I love the idea of this event, especially as a way to kick off a month of free access to one of the greatest museums in the world. From the museum’s press release:

On hand to answer questions and offer information will be the chief curators and department heads from American art; Medieval to Modern European Painting and Sculpture; African and Amerindian Art; the Ryerson and Burnham libraries; conservation; and Ancient art. Curatorial staff from all departments—Photography to Contemporary, Decorative Arts to Architecture and Design—will also be available throughout the museum. In the museum’s Fullerton Hall, historic and contemporary programs about the Art Institute…will run continuously from 2:00 to 4:30 p.m.

“Q&Art” is a major initiative by the Art Institute to make the museum as accessible as possible to all. The Art Institute hopes that Chicagoans will take advantage of its “open house” for the first three weeks of February and specifically on Saturday, February 3.

Offering access plus accessibility through personal contact, the Art Institute appears to be looking for a way to reach out to new audiences that's an alternative to the heavily hyped blockbuster show. Here's hoping they find some success drawing in new museumgoers and that other museums take notice—even if the act of God involving the local gridiron team deflates attendance, which, unfortunately, it well may.

Also in the home of the bean, the bona fide Broadway production of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, hailed by Terry here, has five days and six performances left in its Chicago run. I’ll be there Saturday night.

Finally, inspired by Terry’s euphoric report from the Erin McKeown show last night, I checked her tour schedule. The diva dynamo lands at Schuba’s on Southport, her traditional and ideal Chicago venue, on March 1. I will so be there, with so many bells on, they'll hear me coming a block away.

TT: Almanac

"Love and work are viewed and experienced as totally separate activities motivated by separate needs. Yet, when we think about it, our common sense tells us that our most inspired, creative acts are deeply tied to our need to love and that, when we lack love, we find it difficult to work creatively; that work without love is dead, mechanical, sheer competence without vitality, that love without work grows boring, monotonous, lacks depth and passion."

Marta Zahaykevich, “Critical Perspectives on Adult Women’s Development”

TT: Small package

I just got back from Joe’s Pub, where I saw the front end of a two-nighter by Erin McKeown. She’s touring in support of her new CD, Sing You Sinners, about which I recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal:

Ms. McKeown, one of the freshest singer-songwriters of her generation, has chosen this time around to cut an album of standards. What sets it apart from the superficially similar efforts of such aging rock stars as Linda Ronstadt and Rod Stewart is that Ms. McKeown isn’t recycling the smooth sounds of yesteryear. Instead, she sings “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Just One of Those Things” as if she’d written them herself, performing them in the casual, slightly rough-hewn style of her previous albums, We Will Become Like Birds and Grand. The effect is both arrestingly personal and utterly contemporary…

All true, and I can’t recommend Sing You Sinners strongly enough—yet now that I’ve seen McKeown perform, I understand why Our Girl swears that you haven’t really heard her until you hear her in person. She’s amazing on stage, focused and charismatic, and her backup musicians, who suggest by turns a rockabilly combo, a jump band, and a power trio, are no less impressive. She’s also a charmer, a five-foot-nothing cutie with a sunshiny smile who obviously loves nothing better than singing in front of a crowd. (It tickled me that she was wearing a pinstriped suit, which made her look like she was auditioning to play the Master of Ceremonies in a big-budget high-school production of Cabaret.)

One of the many things that impressed me about tonight’s gig was the unforced ease with which McKeown moved from familiar standards like “Get Happy” and “Rhode Island Is Famous for You” to her own songs, making everything she sang seem all of a piece. I brought one of my twentysomething friends along, and she was knocked out by McKeown’s originals. “She’s so literate,” my friend said, and I agreed wholeheartedly. I rank her right up there with Jonatha Brooke, than which there is no higher praise.

From New York McKeown and her band head down to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. (where she’ll be taping an All Things Considered segment). You’ll find the rest of their itinerary here. Go, and tell her OGIC and I sent you.

January 25, 2007

TT: Almanac

"A work-room should be like an old shoe; no matter how shabby, it’s better than a new one."

Willa Cather, The Professor's House

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)
Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, too intellectually complex to be suitable for children of any age, reviewed here, closes May 12)
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 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)
Meet Me in St. Louis (musical, G, very family-friendly, reviewed here, closes Feb. 18)
Room Service (comedy, G, reasonably family-friendly but a bit complicated for youngsters, reviewed here, extended through Mar. 25)
The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)

CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:
The Germans in Paris (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Sunday)
Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Sunday)

TT: Old home week

I just got back from the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, where the Mark Morris Dance Group has been dancing a mixed bill in its own 140-seat performance space. To see a dance company in so small a venue is an amazingly intimate experience, one not so far removed from watching a working rehearsal. It happens that tonight’s program included Sang-Froid, a dance I was lucky enough to see Morris choreograph eight years ago. I wrote about it in a New York Times essay collected in A Terry Teachout Reader:

Mark Morris is making a dance—loudly. Dance studios, with their hardwood floors and mirrored walls, are noisy places even at the calmest of times, and Mr. Morris, who is working on a suite of nine dances to the music of Frederic Chopin, can raise a ruckus sufficient to drown out a medium-size riot. All afternoon he has been shouting, whistling, singing and emitting a steady stream of unprintable class-clown wisecracks in his shrill foghorn voice. It's as if John Belushi had decided to take up modern dance, or maybe Ernie Kovacs.

Visitors are often startled by Mr. Morris's antics, but his dancers are used to them. “Mark was loud before he was famous,” says Tina Fehlandt, a charter member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, not unaffectionately. Meanwhile, Ethan Iverson, the company's music director, clatters away at a finger-twistingly difficult etude on an ill-tuned baby grand in the corner of the studio, while a recording of “The Nutcracker”' pas de deux plays irrelevantly somewhere down the hall….

The tumultuous music has inspired Mr. Morris to transform Julie Worden, a handsome young woman who looks like a brainy cheerleader, into a suicidal princess who inexplicably finds herself swept up in some sort of mad Gothic torture fantasy. “Stop!” he screams as Ms. Worden sails despondently through the air for the third time in a row. He strikes a great-man pose and yells at no one in particular, “Isn’t it fun to be the cho-re-o-gra-pheur?”

Not only did Morris make all four of the dances I saw tonight, but he also appeared in one of them. The second movement of Italian Concerto is a male solo set to one of Bach’s most passionate instrumental arias. Morris is fifty, stocky, and gray-haired, and he rarely appears on stage anymore save to take curtain calls, but to see him execute the grandly sweeping arm movements of Italian Concerto is to be reminded that great dancing is far more than a mere matter of agility. He still fills his space to overflowing, and no sooner does he stride out of the wings than your eye goes straight to him and stays there.

Watching Italian Concerto and Sang-Froid at the Morris Center took me back to the days when I was seeing two or three ballet and modern-dance performances a week. I came late to dance, and it had so overwhelming an effect on me that I threw myself into it head first, in time becoming a dance critic and, eventually, the author of a book about George Balanchine.

I still love dance, but in recent years I’ve been spending so much time covering Broadway and regional theater that I rarely get to see Morris or Paul Taylor or New York City Ballet. Maybe that’s why tonight’s performance hit me so hard, to the point that my eyes actually filled with tears at the close of Love Song Waltzes, a moment about which Joan Acocella wrote beautifully and evocatively in her 1993 biography of Morris:

At the end of Love Song Waltzes one man waltzes each of the other eleven dancers off the stage, one by one, until finally he is alone. He pauses, and then, as the lights go out, he walks offstage by himself. For a dance that has taken the group as its subject, this is a stark ending, an admission that, the group notwithstanding, we are also alone, and we die alone. (The ending looks like a death.) But this does not undo the meaning of what has come before. Insofar as we transcend aloneness, we do so in the group. And what the group does is dance. It is significant that when the man is left alone on the stage, he stops dancing. He doesn’t waltz out; he walks out. When the others are gone, the dance is over, literally and figuratively. Dance and the group are the image of life as against death.

Balanchine choreographed the same set of Brahms waltzes in a totally different but no less moving way in Liebeslieder Walzer, my favorite of all his ballets. I regret to say that I haven’t seen it for years, and it’s been at least two years—far too long—since I last saw New York City Ballet. Fortunately, a blogger friend is taking me to an NYCB performance of Liebeslieder next Thursday. I don't like to wish time away, but after seeing Love Song Waltzes, I can hardly wait.

January 26, 2007

TT: Almanac

"The images on the screen are patterns of light, not living actors. They are not affected by applause or hissing. They will be the same in a packed house or an empty one. And they will be the same every time the movie is shown. This affects the audience. Occasionally, movie audiences applaud or hiss or walk out, but for the most part they are passive. No social bond between the audience and the actors can exist."

O.B. Hardison, Entering the Maze: Identity and Change in Modern Culture

TT: The very best we have

Today’s Wall Street Journal drama column starts out with a big bang—a hats-off celebration of Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of Brian Friel’s Translations—followed by a review of Signature Theatre’s Into the Woods, the first of three reports on my recent expedition to the theaters of Washington, D.C., and its environs:

The only time I don’t think Brian Friel is the best living playwright is immediately after I’ve seen a play by Tom Stoppard. That both men should be represented on Broadway this season is a boon, and though Mr. Stoppard’s “Coast of Utopia” trilogy, being both new and spectacular, will likely get most of the ink, the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of “Translations,” directed by Garry Hynes, deserves equal time. This production of Mr. Friel’s 1980 play, among the greatest written in the 20th century, is so comprehensively masterful that no critic, however enthusiastic, can do more than suggest its manifold virtues. Instead of reviewing it, I wish I could simply send you a ticket….

“Into the Woods,” in which Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack (the one who chopped down the beanstalk) meet in a forest and get into big trouble together, is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most frequently performed musicals, not because it’s the best but because it’s the most audience-friendly, right down to the reasonably happy ending. Perhaps Signature Theatre, a regional company whose imaginative Sondheim stagings have given it a national reputation, had that in mind when it picked Mr. Sondheim’s fractured fairy tale to open its new two-theater complex, located in an upscale suburban shopping mall not far from downtown Washington. Whatever the reason, this new production is as engaging and smartly designed as the handsome building that houses it….

No link. Buy a Journal—it’s cheap, easy to find, and full of goodies—or, better yet, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, a wise decision that will give you immediate access to my column and all the rest of the Journal’s Friday arts package. (If you’re already a subscriber, the column is here.)

January 29, 2007

TT: Not blogging but working

Last week was a good week for this blog. Our Girl and I had more visitors than usual, partly because we put up a lot of stuff and partly because we popped up on the Guardian’s litblog.

This week is likely to be somewhat dicier, for it seems that my life is in the process of getting more than a little bit hectic. I withdrew to Connecticut over the weekend to write a long Commentary essay on Alyn Shipton's A New History of Jazz and watch three old movies, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, William Wyler's Detective Story, and Fritz Lang's Human Desire. Today I'm returning to New York to interview Ennio Morricone for a Wall Street Journal profile, see four new plays by Alan Ball, Richard Nelson, Yasmina Reza, and Oren Safdie, and catch a New York City Ballet performance of George Balanchine's Liebeslieder Walzer, hitting all my regular deadlines in between these varied events.

I'll try to blog, too, and Our Girl will pay her usual Wednesday visit to this space, but outside of the daily almanac entry and my weekly theater-related postings, I make no promises whatsoever. For the moment I'm simply going to have to keep my head down and pedal hard.

In the immortal words of the Anonymous Bluesman, If you see me comin', raise your window high/If you see me passin', baby, hang your head and cry. Or something like that.

Later, maybe.

TT: Almanac

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith, "Not Waving but Drowning"

January 30, 2007

TT: Almanac

"A molehill man is a pseudo-busy executive who comes to work at 9 am and finds a molehill on his desk. He has until 5 pm to make this molehill into a mountain. An accomplished molehill man will often have his mountain finished before lunch."

Fred Allen, Treadmill to Oblivion

TT: Lost in the ozone

A friend writes:

I bought a cat calendar that featured a quote from you, so I had to write. You said: "Life with a cat is in certain ways a one-sided proposition. Cats are not educable; humans are. Moreover, cats know this."

This e-mail amazed me. It sounds very much like something I might have said—I lived with cats for two decades, after all—but I have no memory whatsoever of writing any such thing.

I Googled my alleged quote and found it in several places on the Web, unsourced in all cases, though one person tacked on an additional, equally plausible-sounding sentence: “If you're not willing to humor them, you might as well stick to dogs.” That one doesn’t ring any bells, either. Is it the fate of overly prolific authors to forget their past utterances as they lurch into middle age? Have I said other, comparably pithy things that have vanished no less irretrievably into the ether?

Would that I had time to get to the bottom of this puzzle, but I don’t, for I've got to spend the next couple of hours prepping for today's interview with Ennio Morricone. If anyone out there can tell me where and when I paid this backhanded tribute to the ineducability of Felis domesticus, I'd appreciate hearing from you....

January 31, 2007

TT: Another old friend

A reader wrote, apropos of this posting about an alleged quote of mine, to reassure me that I really did say what the Web says I said. The quote, he gleefully informed me, came from a review of The Cat Who Went to Paris and Particularly Cats...and Rufus published in the Washington Post in 1991. It appeared in the first paragraph:

"This broadcast," Harry Reasoner once said at the beginning of a television show called "Essay on Women," "was prepared by men, and makes no claim to being fair. Prejudice has saved us a great deal of time in preparation." Perhaps I should start with a similar disclaimer: This review was written by the owner of an 11-year-old cat named Blossom. Not surprisingly, I have strong opinions about cats. Some are favorable, others merely resigned. I love Blossom, but I also know the limits of our relationship. He does what he wants, and I do what he wants. Most cat owners are like that. They understand that life with a cat is in certain ways a one-sided proposition. Cats are not educable; humans are. Moreover, cats know this. If you're not willing to humor them, you might as well stick to dogs.

Blossom died in my arms several years ago, but I still remember him (yes, he was a him) with slightly exasperated affection. A framed picture of him shares one of my bookshelves with the selected works of Willa Cather, Raymond Chandler, John P. Marquand, and Tom Wolfe—a place of honor, in other words. He was a good cat except when he wasn't, I loved him very much, and I'm glad to have occasion to mention him in this space.

TT: As good as a mile

Experience isn’t nearly as good a teacher as it ought to be, but it has taught me a few things, one of which is to always check my tape recorder prior to conducting an interview. An hour before I planned to leave my apartment on Tuesday to meet Ennio Morricone at the Italian Cultural Institute, I changed the batteries in my trusty old miniature cassette recorder and discovered that it had breathed its last. I dropped it in the wastebasket and walked briskly to the nearest Radio Shack to buy a replacement.

I was surprised—though not too much so—to discover that such old-fashioned devices had all but been replaced by digital recorders. Needless to say, I would have been more than happy to purchase one of those instead, but I didn’t have time to fumble with an unfamiliar technology and I still had a stack of Louis Armstrong-related interview tapes to transcribe, so I bought the last cassette recorder in the store, tried it out on the spot to make sure that it worked, paid the clerk, ran out the door, and flagged a cab.

Halfway through Central Park, I tried to remember how long I'd been using my old tape recorder. Suddenly it hit me: I'd bought it one afternoon in 1994 to interview a cabaret singer for the New York Daily News. I met her early that evening at a restaurant in the theater district, sat down at her table, and switched on my brand-new machine. Nothing happened. After a few minutes of futile fumbling, I put it back in my bag, mortified by my inadvertent display of professional incompetence.

What happened next is described in A Terry Teachout Reader:

I pulled out a notebook and started asking her about her early days. She came from a medium-sized town in Michigan. Her father had been a part-time trumpeter, and she had gotten her start with his band. “My family visited New York when I was twelve,” she said, “and I was already the kind of kid who read Earl Wilson’s column and wanted to go to Sardi’s and a Broadway show.” Laughing, I confessed that I, too, had read Wilson’s Broadway column as a child in Missouri. Indeed, the longer we talked, the more we found we had in common. Both of us had cut our teeth on jazz, longed to see the lights of Broadway, and traveled to New york to seek our fortunes.

What started off as an interview imperceptibly became a conversation. She spoke frankly of her struggle with Crohn’s disease, of the ileostomy she had undergone the year before in order to relieve the condition, of the hard times she had known and the hopes she had. After dinner, I walked her to the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, where she was singing anonymously in the pit of an ill-fated musical called The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, a thankless chore she had taken on in order to pay her medical bills. She was so tiny that I had to stoop to hear her over the roar of traffic in Times Square.

As soon I got back home, I took a closer look at the recorder and saw that the pause switch was on. I laughed myself silly. It never again malfunctioned, and in the thirteen years that followed I used it to tape interviews with Karrin Allyson, George Avakian, Maria Bachmann, Patricia Barber, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tony Bennett, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Charlap, Mary Foster Conklin, Norman Corwin, Eliot Feld, Renée Fleming, Jim Hall, Fred Hersch, Stephen Hough, David Ives, Keith Jarrett, Diana Krall, Lowell Liebermann, Audra McDonald, Marian McPartland, Pat Metheny, Dan Morgenstern, Mark Morris, Mark O’Connor, Madeleine Peyroux, Bucky and John Pizzarelli, Maria Schneider, George Shearing, Luciana Souza, Frederica von Stade, Ethan Stiefel, Whit Stillman, Paul Taylor (twice), Twyla Tharp, Edward Villella, Wendy Wasserstein, Robert Weiss, Christopher Wheeldon, Weslia Whitfield, and the members of the Emerson String Quartet, Nickel Creek, and Pilobolus.

All of those conversations were memorable and a few led to treasured friendships, but none would affect me so deeply as the interview with Nancy LaMott that my now-defunct cassette recorder failed to record. May it rest in peace.

TT: Almanac

"I am drawn to stories about people who really, really want something. That helps you to sing in ways that really matter to an audience. If your desire is big enough, then singing seems natural."

Adam Guettel, interview, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Jan. 28, 2006)

About January 2007

This page contains all entries posted to About Last Night in January 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2006 is the previous archive.

February 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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