AJ Logo an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

« August 2009 | Main | October 2009 »

September 30, 2009

CAAF: Summertime

SummerWillShow.jpgI'm reading Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show right now. It's about an Englishwoman who runs away to Paris and falls in love with her husband's mistress. I'd been wanting to read it ever since Sarah Waters named it as one of her favorite novels. At the time, it was out of print. But NYRB Classics reissued the novel this August, and I really think you couldn't do better than to get yourself a copy.

Warner was a poet as well as a novelist, and as I read I find myself admiring how this shows in how she works her sentences. It sounds like a deadly dull thing to praise, a writer's sentences, maybe because its praise that often gets awarded to books that are stultifying (meditations on a woodpile and changing cloud patterns and something-something about mortality and oh my god what page am I on it is only page 23). But the fact is Warner's sentences are unusually beautiful, and I keep wondering what it is about them that makes them so.

One particular thing I've noticed is the ratio of Latinate to Anglo-Saxon in the paragraphs. Warner's a very elegant stylist, and one danger of "elegant prose" is how easily it can become overly smooth and glassy. And then the reader slips right off the face of it. One of Warner's tricks is to pop in an Anglo-Saxon-rooted word here and there that's not only a good, just-right word, it also works like a prick to keep the paragraph from growing too smooth.

Example of elegance that would become glassy if the entire novel were like this:

Together they would look out of the window at the unfinished Ste. Clotilde, and an artistic conversation would take place, Père Hyacinthe with roulades of language expatiating on the beauties of the Gothic Frederick supplying cadences of agreement, till the two voices joined, as it were, in a duet, aspiring in thirds and sixths ...

Example of a prick in the elegance:

The pleasures of avarice were emphasized by the surroundings. It was difficult to believe that this was Paris, so nipped and dingy did it look, so down-hearted and down-at-heel. A shrewish wind was blowing.

The "shrewish" is good, but the "nipped" is perfect.

Another prick:

The smell of the sea, melancholy like a whine, rose from the filthy clucking water.

The inverse, of course, is also true. Sometimes the elegance extends and makes beautiful what would otherwise be ordinary. Here is a sentence that could have been "and they breakfasted on coffee, bread and sausage":

Some tin coffeepots, long wands of golden bread, a sausage in a paper chemise, gave a domesticated appearance to the barricade.

Posted September 30, 3:12 PM

CAAF: Exercise with the authors: Charles Dickens

overlook.jpg
With the recent glut of self-help books based on the works of great authors, I've been amusing myself with mock proposals, my favorite so far being Six-Pack Abs With Charles Bukowski. Another idea is a more generalized "exercise with the authors!"-type encyclopedia. Charles Dickens would have the first entry. From Jane Smiley's Penguin Lives biography:

It was in this period [1838ish] that he took up the habit of long, vigorous daily walks that seem almost unimaginable today for an otherwise very busy man with many obligations. At a pace of twelve to fifteen minutes per mile, he regularly covered twenty and sometimes thirty miles. Returning, as his brother-in-law said, "he looked the personification of energy, which seemed to ooze from every pore as from some hidden reservoir..."

I think of this often as last year I received a fancy GPS-style watch with which to track my walking/jogging (or "wogging"). It was a very generous present, but it's taken a lot of illusion out of my life. For example, pictured above is an overlook I walk to quite a bit that, if you asked me before, I would have told you was roughly a four-mile walk but which turns out to be more like two.

(If you have any similar "authors who exercise" tidbits, please feel free to share by email.)

Posted September 30, 12:11 PM

TT: Snapshot

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the "Death Hunt" cue from Bernard Herrmann's score for Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground:

Go here to see the main titles from On Dangerous Ground.

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

Posted September 30, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"Music arouses in us various emotions, but not the more terrible ones of horror, fear, rage, etc. It awakens rather the gentler feelings of tenderness and love, which readily passes into devotion."

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Posted September 30, 12:00 AM

September 29, 2009

TT: On the air

319VBJA8S0L._SL500_AA240_.jpgOn Monday I appeared on Soundcheck, WNYC's daily talk show about music, to talk about my Wall Street Journal column about deathbed masterpieces with John Schaefer, the host of Soundcheck. Also on the program was Crystal Zevon, the widow of Warren Zevon, who wrote and recorded his last album, The Wind, after he learned that he was dying of cancer.

Alas, I wasn't able to post a notice about my Soundcheck appearance due to circumstances beyond my control, but the episode has been archived, and you can listen to it via streaming audio on your computer by going here.

Posted September 29, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"I have (this sounds like fantastic nonsense, but it isn't) frequently caught myself positively solving some problem (of a more or less philosophical nature) in, say, the key of A minor, where I had utterly failed to reason it out in words."

Donald Francis Tovey (quoted in Mary Grierson, Donald Francis Tovey: A Biography Based on Letters)

Posted September 29, 12:00 AM

September 28, 2009

OGIC: First paragraphs I love

It's so easy to stop reading a book. To find a first paragraph that commands one's extended attention at once is rare. Even among books I adore, few hit their first few hundred words out of the park. Almost all of them need a grace period of two or three or twenty pages to hook you. Here's a paragraph that I think is a great beginning of a book:

Nolan pulls into the parking garage, braced for the Rican attendant with the cojones big enough to make a point of wondering what this rusted hunk of Chevy pickup junk is doing in Jag-u-ar City. But the ticket-spitting machine doesn't much care what Nolan's driving. It lifts its arm, like a benediction, like the hand of God dividing the Red Sea. Nolan passes a dozen empty spots and drives up to the top level, where he turns in beside a dusty van that hasn't been anywhere lately. He grabs his duffel bag, jumps out, inhales, filling his lungs with damp cement-y air. So far, so good, he likes the garage. He wishes he could stay here. He finds the stairwell where he would hide were he planning a mugging, corkscrews down five flights of stairs, and plunges into the honking inferno of midafternoon Times Square.

That's the first paragraph of Francine Prose's novel A Changed Man, about a neo-Nazi trying to reform. It tells you a good deal about Nolan while dispensing gemlike phrases like "honking inferno." And it left me wanting to know much more about the reluctance for which the character "passes a dozen empty spots and drives up to the top level." It roped me right in. That doesn't mean the book as a whole will deliver--though based on my previous experience reading Francine Prose, I expect it will, and then some.

I've become such an admirer of Prose this year, beginning January 1 when I bought her most recent novel, Goldengrove, on the basis of the title's allusion to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem and D. G. Myers's recommendation. In the spring I read The Blue Angel, about a creative writing teacher entangled with a student. And last month I picked up one of her young adult novels, After, out of curiosity (retrieving the link above, I saw that Myers recently posted a review of a new YA novel by Prose). I'm more comforted than cowed to see that twelve further Prose novels await me after I finish A Changed Man. The ones I've read so far are real tours de force.

(If you get a chance to see Prose read or speak, take advantage of it. She was here in March to read a new story and take questions about Goldengrove, and it was a riveting evening even for someone who isn't generally a fan of readings. She's formidably smart and says what she thinks--she was most interesting talking about subjects I didn't agree with her about.)

Previous books whose first paragraphs I love include Elaine Dundy's The Old Man and Me, now widely available, wonderfully.

Posted September 28, 12:26 AM

TT: Consumables

• What I saw on Broadway over the weekend: Keith Huff's A Steady Rain (with Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman) and Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts, both of which open this week.

nelliemckay.jpg• What I'm listening to: Rosanne Cash's The List (out October 6 from Manhattan) and Nellie McKay's Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day (out October 13 from Verve).

• What I'm reading: Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (out on Thursday from the Library of America) and Simon Louvish's Mae West: It Ain't No Sin.

Watch this space for further details....

Posted September 28, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"Just as the liar's punishment is, not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe any one else; so a guilty society can more easily be persuaded that any apparently innocent act is guilty than that any apparently guilty act is innocent."

George Bernard Shaw, The Quintessence of Ibsenism

Posted September 28, 12:00 AM

September 25, 2009

TT: A Cabaret to believe in

I wind up my summer travels this week with reviews of two out-of-town musicals, Trinity Rep's Cabaret in Providence, Rhode Island, and Paper Mill Playhouse's Little House on the Prairie in Millburn, New Jersey. The first is a gem, the second a dud. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

More people, I suspect, know "Cabaret" as a movie rather than a stage show nowadays. Bob Fosse's hard-edged, bisexually frank 1972 screen version, in which Joe Masteroff's book was completely rewritten and all but one of the songs were performed in a more or less naturalistic nightclub setting, was the most influential movie musical of the post-"Hair" era. Not only did Rob Marshall's 2002 film of "Chicago" owe everything to Fosse's example, but most of the major stage revivals of "Cabaret," including Sam Mendes' long-running 1999 Broadway production, have incorporated various elements inspired by or purloined from the Fosse film.

WK-AR321_THEATE_D_20090924113459.jpgCurt Columbus, the artistic director of Rhode Island's Trinity Repertory Company, has taken a different tack in his new revival of "Cabaret." Instead of trying to put Fosse's "Cabaret" on stage, he has given us a show that is substantially faithful to what Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb had in mind in the first place. This "Cabaret," unlike the film version, is an old-fashioned two-couple Broadway love story with a bracingly Brechtian dash of bitters: The songs sung by the bizarrely androgynous master of ceremonies of the Kit Kat Club (Joe Wilson, Jr.) supply ironic commentary on the futility of looking for love in a world driven mad by politics. The doomed romance of Fräulein Schneider (Phyllis Kay) and Herr Schultz (Stephen Berenson), her hapless Jewish boarder, is returned to center stage, while Sally Bowles (Rachael Warren) is not a top-dollar glamour puss but a middling hoofer who gets by on charm. Best of all, Mr. Columbus and Michael McGarty, his set designer, have hosed the polish off "Cabaret," setting their production in a run-down Weimar-era music hall that could easily have housed a real-life Kit Kat Club....

The strength of this strongly atmospheric production lies not in its individual performances but in its total effect. It is, above all, a believable "Cabaret," one that has the sharp and satisfying bite of authenticity....

The "Little House" novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder rank high among the permanent masterpieces of childhood, in large part because of the plain-spoken authenticity with which Wilder told her richly detailed autobiographical stories of pioneer life. It would take an Adam Guettel--or an Aaron Copland--to conceive and create a worthy musical-theater counterpart to what Wilder did in prose. The creators of "Little House on the Prairie: The Musical," which opened at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre last year and is now touring the regional circuit, haven't even tried. Instead, they've cuted up Wilder's books into something more like "One-Room High School Musical." The songs, by Rachel Portman and Donna di Novelli, are slick, innocuous movie-score pop, while Rachel Sheinkin's book, which stitches together familiar pieces of "By the Shores of Silver Lake," "The Long Winter" and "Little Town on the Prairie," is clumsily episodic and devoid of dramatic impetus....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Posted September 25, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"Give the people a new word and they think they have a new fact."

Willa Cather, "Four Letters: Escapism"

Posted September 25, 12:00 AM

September 24, 2009

TT: So you want to see a show?

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

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

BROADWAY:
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (comedy, G, suitable for bright children, reviewed here)
God of Carnage (serious comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
South Pacific * (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
Our Town (drama, G, suitable for mature children, reviewed here)

IN ASHLAND, OREGON:
The Music Man (musical, G, very child-friendly, closes Nov. 1, reviewed here)

IN CHICAGO:
The History Boys (drama, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, too intellectually complex for most adolescents, extended through Oct. 18, reviewed here)

IN SPRING GREEN, WIS:
Long Day's Journey into Night (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, too long and demanding for some adolescents, closes Oct. 18, reviewed here)

IN STRATFORD, ONTARIO:
The Importance of Being Earnest (comedy, G, closes Oct. 30, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN ARLINGTON, VA.:
Dirty Blonde (serious comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, closes Oct. 4, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
Henry V (Shakespeare, G, closes Oct. 2, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN ST. LOUIS, MO.:
Amadeus (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 4, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN STRATFORD, ONTARIO:
Three Sisters (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 3, reviewed here)

CLOSING SATURDAY IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
The Winter's Tale (Shakespeare, PG-13, reviewed here)

CLOSING SATURDAY IN TOPANGA, CALIF.:
The Cherry Orchard (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)

Posted September 24, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years."

Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

Posted September 24, 12:00 AM

September 23, 2009

TT: Snapshot

John Barrymore performs a scene from Shakespeare's Henry VI, filmed in 1929 for Show of Shows:

Go here to see Barrymore talking on screen about the scene he's about to play.

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

Posted September 23, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"It is when power is wedded to chronic fear that it becomes formidable."

Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind

Posted September 23, 12:00 AM

September 22, 2009

TT: Peekaboo

AUTHOR%20PHOTO%20%28KEN%20HOWARD%2C%20LO-RES%29.jpgMy last author photo is so old that it's (A) in black-and-white and (B) was shot on film. Not surprisingly, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt informed me in no uncertain terms that I needed a new digital photo for the dust jacket of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. Alas, I don't know any professional photographers, but I was lucky enough to run across a terrific one when I went to Santa Fe two months ago for the premiere of The Letter. The Santa Fe Opera employs Ken Howard to shoot its productions, and Ken was kind enough to make himself available between shows to shoot me as well.

The portrait on the left was taken one sunny afternoon in the Crosby Theater, the outdoor auditorium where The Letter was performed. The Givenchy tie that I'm wearing was the one originally belonging to Virgil Thomson that was given to me by Mrs. T as an opening-night present. I'm not especially photogenic, but I like this picture very much. I hope you do, too.

Posted September 22, 12:08 PM

TT: FAQ and A

Joanna Pinsker, my publicist at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, recently asked me to prepare a "self-interview" about Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong that could be sent to radio and TV producers. I was more than happy to oblige. I've posted a link to the questions and answers in the right-hand column, but in case you didn't notice it, you can read what I wrote by going here.

Assiduous readers of this blog won't find any of the information surprising, but it might possibly interest you to see how modern-day authors go about publicizing their books.

Posted September 22, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is."

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark

Posted September 22, 12:00 AM

September 21, 2009

TT: You have the right to home delivery

How come nobody told me about these?

48557926.jpg

If you've never seen any of the original black-and-white Dragnet episodes from the Fifties--most of which, alas, have been out of circulation for decades--you don't know what the show was really like. As I wrote in an essay called "In Praise of Drabness" that was published last year in National Review:

Like the later color version, the Dragnet of the Fifties was a no-nonsense half-hour police procedural that sought to show how ordinary cops catch ordinary crooks. The scripts, many of which were written by James E. Moser, combined straightforwardly linear plotting ("It was Wednesday, October 6. It was sultry in Los Angeles. We were working the day watch out of homicide.") with clipped dialogue spoken in a near-monotone, all accompanied by the taut, dissonant music of Walter Schumann. Then and later, most of the shots were screen-filling talking-head closeups, a plain-Jane style of cinematography that to this day is identified with Jack Webb.

The difference was that in the Fifties, Joe Friday and Frank Smith, his chubby, mildly eccentric partner, stalked their prey in a monochromatically drab Los Angeles that seemed to consist only of shabby storefronts and bleak-looking rooms in dollar-a-night hotels. Nobody was pretty in Dragnet, and almost nobody was happy. The atmosphere was that of film noir minus the kinks--the same stark visual grammar, only cleansed of the sour tang of corruption in high places. But even without the Chandleresque pessimism that gave film noir its seedy savor, Dragnet was still rough stuff, more uncompromising than anything that had hitherto been seen on TV. In 1954 Time called the series "a sort of peephole into a grim new world. The bums, priests, con men, whining housewives, burglars, waitresses, children, and bewildered ordinary citizens who people Dragnet seem as sorrowfully genuine as old pistols in a hockshop window."

Here's the opening sequence of "The Big Cast," a 1952 Dragnet featuring Lee Marvin. It'll give you a feel for what you've been missing:

Posted September 21, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

My engines, after ninety days o' race an' rack an' strain
Through all the seas of all Thy world, slam-bangin' home again.

Rudyard Kipling, "M'Andrew's Hymn"

Posted September 21, 12:00 AM

September 20, 2009

FACING THE FINAL CURTAIN

"Why are deathbed masterpieces so unusual? Mainly, I suspect, because prettified Hollywood-style deaths, in which the sudden disappearance of makeup is the only outward sign that a terminal illness has reached its denouement, are so uncommon..."

Posted September 20, 3:34 PM

September 18, 2009

TT: Some are more equal than others

I'm still on the road, and in today's Wall Street Journal I report on the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' revival of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus and the Lyric Stage Company of Boston's production of Kiss Me, Kate. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Peter Shaffer rang the box-office gong twice in a row with "Equus" and "Amadeus," both of which ran for well over a thousand performances on Broadway and have since been revived there, neither for very long. Yet they're still spectacularly effective, and "Amadeus" is something more than that: Mr. Shaffer's fictionalized portrayal of the musical rivalry between Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a powerful parable of the terrible mystery of human inequality. Alas, "Amadeus" is rarely seen on stage these days, partly because Milos Forman's 1984 film version was so successful and partly because the play calls for a large and expensive cast. That's what lured me to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' new revival, a polished production authoritatively staged by Paul Mason Barnes that makes the strongest possible case for what in retrospect now looks like one of the best plays of the '70s....

tn-500_2.jpgNowadays, of course, most people know "Amadeus" from Mr. Forman's film, an opulently designed costume piece that is great fun to watch but lacks the expressionistic intensity of the original play. In the stage version, by contrast, the spotlight never moves away from Salieri, an ambitious but modestly talented composer who is driven to the brink of madness by the inexplicable fact that supreme genius and juvenile vulgarity exist side by side in Mozart, his hated competitor: "It seemed to me that I had heard the voice of God--and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard--and that it was the voice of an obscene child!"

To impersonate so tortured a soul is a daunting task, but Andrew Long, who was terrific as Antony in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of "Antony and Cleopatra" that I saw in Washington last summer, is up to the job. He plays Salieri as a grotesque, grim-faced clown, an interpretation very much in accord with Mr. Barnes' staging, which emphasizes the comic aspect of "Amadeus" without lapsing into gross caricature....

If there's a better musical than "Kiss Me, Kate," I haven't seen it. Yet Cole Porter's masterpiece, near-perfect though it is, doesn't get done nearly often enough, and I've no idea why. All the more reason, then, to welcome the Lyric Stage Company of Boston's engaging new production, directed by Spiro Veloudos, whose small scale does nothing to diminish the charms of Porter's updated version of "The Taming of the Shrew."

To cram a classic Broadway musical into a 200-seat house requires considerable ingenuity, and I was especially impressed by the choreography of Ilyse Robbins, whose production numbers, especially "Too Darn Hot" and "Always True to You in My Fashion" (the second of which shows off the excellent dancing of Michele A. DeLuca to sumptuous effect), are all the more exciting for being performed in the lap of the audience....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Posted September 18, 12:00 AM

TT: Last time's a charm

1985%27R%2734.JPG.jpegErich Kunzel, the conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, conducted his last concert on August 1, exactly a month before he died. This event put me in mind of the surprisingly small number of performances that have been given and masterpieces that have been created by artists who knew they were dying, and--not so surprisingly--a "Sightings" column came out of my reflections on this grim subject.

Why are deathbed masterpieces like Edouard Manet's "Vase of White Lilacs and Roses" so rare, and what do they tell us about the dark encounter that awaits us all? Pick up a copy of Saturday's Wall Street Journal to see what I have to say.

UPDATE: Read the whole thing here.

* * *

Edward G. Robinson's death scene in Soylent Green was filmed just twelve days before he died. You can view it by going here.

Posted September 18, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here."

Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

Posted September 18, 12:00 AM

September 17, 2009

TT: So you want to see a show?

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

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

BROADWAY:
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (comedy, G, suitable for bright children, reviewed here)
God of Carnage (serious comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
South Pacific * (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
Our Town (drama, G, suitable for mature children, reviewed here)

IN ASHLAND, OREGON:
The Music Man (musical, G, very child-friendly, closes Nov. 1, reviewed here)

IN CHICAGO:
The History Boys (drama, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, too intellectually complex for most adolescents, extended through Oct. 18, reviewed here)

IN SPRING GREEN, WIS:
Long Day's Journey into Night (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, too long and demanding for some adolescents, closes Oct. 18, reviewed here)

IN STRATFORD, ONTARIO:
The Importance of Being Earnest (comedy, G, closes Oct. 30, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN ARLINGTON, VA.:
Dirty Blonde (serious comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, closes Oct. 4, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
Henry V (Shakespeare, G, closes Oct. 2, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN STRATFORD, ONTARIO:
Three Sisters (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 3, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
The Winter's Tale (Shakespeare, PG-13, closes Sept. 26, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN TOPANGA, CALIF.:
The Cherry Orchard (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, closes Sept. 26, reviewed here)

CLOSING SATURDAY IN EAST HADDAM, CONN.:
Camelot (musical, G, reviewed here)

Posted September 17, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear--not absence of fear."

Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson

Posted September 17, 12:00 AM

September 16, 2009

TT: Alan Gilbert's challenge

6a00d8341d045953ef010536ce1d51970c-800wi.jpgAlan Gilbert makes his debut tonight as the New York Philharmonic's music director. I wish him the very best of luck.

Here's part of what I wrote about his appointment in Commentary when it was announced two years ago. I haven't changed my mind since then.

* * *

If you care about the continuing fate of symphony orchestras, museums, ballet, opera, and theater companies, and all the other costly institutions that were the pillars of American high culture in the twentieth century, you must accept that these elitist enterprises cannot survive without the wholehearted support of a non-elite democratic public that believes in their significance.

Leonard Bernstein and Beverly Sills apprehended this, and did something about it. Perhaps more than any other American classical musicians of their generation, they did their best to communicate to ordinary middle-class Americans the notion that the fruits of high culture are accessible to all who make a good-faith effort to understand them. While that may not be strictly or wholly true, it is largely true--and an ennobling idea. I would not be greatly surprised if Sills in particular is remembered for delivering this message long after the specifics of her performing career are forgotten.

Alas, the message has to a considerable extent been forgotten by the orchestra that Bernstein led. To be sure, the New York Philharmonic, like all American orchestras, works hard at cultivating new audiences--but since Bernstein's time, its efforts in this direction have rarely involved its music directors. Neither Kurt Masur nor Lorin Maazel made any serious attempt to reach beyond the purview of their regular duties to communicate the significance of classical music to a mass audience. Like most conductors of their generation, they saw their job as purely musical, and took for granted that its value would be appreciated by the larger community they served.

Alan Gilbert will not have that luxury. Instead, he must start from scratch. He must realize, first of all, that mere exposure to the masterpieces of Western classical music does not ensure immediate recognition and acceptance of their greatness--least of all when those doing the exposing make it clear that they expect young audiences to like what they are hearing, on pain of being dismissed as stupid.

This condescending attitude is part of the "entitlement mentality" that has long prevented our high-culture institutions from coming fully to grips with the problem of audience development. Too many classical musicians still think that they deserve the support of the public, not that they have to earn it. One of the signal virtues of America's middlebrow culture was that for the most part it steered clear of this mentality. Its spokesmen--Bernstein foremost among them--believed devoutly in their responsibility to preach the gospel of art to all men in all conditions, and did so with an effectiveness that our generation can only envy.

I sincerely hope that Alan Gilbert will prove to be a great conductor. But I have no doubt that it is far more important to the future of classical music in America for him to be a great communicator, one who finds new ways to do what Leonard Bernstein did so superlatively well in the days of the middlebrow. And I suspect that his will be the harder task: to make the case for high culture to a generation that is increasingly ignorant, if not downright disdainful, of its life-changing power and glory.

Posted September 16, 12:00 AM

TT: Snapshot

Stan Getz plays "Blood Count," Billy Strayhorn's last composition, in 1990, a year before his own death. The pianist is Kenny Barron:

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

Posted September 16, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"Where there is great love there are always miracles."

Willa Cather Death Comes for the Archbishop

Posted September 16, 12:00 AM

September 15, 2009

TT: Packing and going

bevstl.jpgThe life of a peripatetic drama critic is an endless cycle of ennui and delight. I love seeing out-of-town shows, but in order to get to them, I have to endure the horrors of modern air travel, the only tolerable part of which is the view from a window seat on a clear day. On occasion it also means that I have to tear myself away from Mrs. T, and that's never any fun: our second anniversary is less than a month away, and the nearer it comes, the closer we grow.

Hence it's with sharply mixed feelings that I pack my bag this morning and fly alone from Hartford to St. Louis, where I'll be seeing the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis perform Amadeus tonight. I like Peter Shaffer's plays and I like St. Louis--I'm going to poke my head into the St. Louis Art Museum, a favorite stop, if my plane lands on time--but I've been on the move all summer, and if I had my druthers, I'd just as soon stay home.

2438.jpgThe good news (there is always good news) is that St. Louis is two hours north of Smalltown, U.S.A., so I'm going to drive down after the show and spend a few days with my family. I haven't been there since May, and my mother says she's starting to forget what I look like. She also claims to have baked a cake in honor of my visit. I'm more inclined to believe the second claim than the first, but either way, it'll be nice to be in Smalltown again. Mom and I have things to do, none of them significant but all important. For openers, I plan to take her on a long drive in the country, buy her a lunch or two, and tell her all about the premiere of The Letter. I might even sleep late!

See you around.

Posted September 15, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"To fear the worst oft cures the worse."

William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida

Posted September 15, 12:00 AM

September 14, 2009

TT: Ten and counting

ArtsJournal, which hosts this blog, turned ten years old yesterday. Doug McLennan, the founding genius and tutelary spirit of the site that Web-savvy people who take the arts seriously visit every day, has blogged about the anniversary here. His post is very much worth reading.

It was Doug who invited me to become ArtsJournal's first blogger. I went live nine years ago. More than six thousand postings later, Our Girl, CAAF, and I are still going strong, and still proud to be associated with the most important and influential arts-related site on the Web. At a time when newspaper and magazine coverage of the arts is in a tailspin, Doug has changed the face of arts journalism for the better.

I can't thank you enough, Doug, for making it possible for me to join the revolution. We're still here--and we're not going anywhere.

Posted September 14, 9:50 AM

TT: The golden age

In 1977 CBS aired When Television Was Young, a two-hour-long documentary hosted by Charles Kuralt (remember him?) that consisted for the most part of excerpts from kinescope recordings of live TV broadcasts that originally aired between 1949 and 1961. The programs include Captain Kangaroo, CBS Reports, Douglas Edwards with the News, The Edsel Show, The Ernie Kovacs Show, The Garry Moore Show, The Goldbergs, The Honeymooners, Howdy Doody, I Love Lucy, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, The Mickey Mouse Club, Mary Martin and Noël Coward: Together With Music, Mr. I. Magination, Playhouse 90, The Red Skelton Show, See It Now, The $64,000 Question, Studio One, Suspense, Texaco Star Theater, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, You Are There, and Your Show of Shows. Some anonymous benefactor has posted the whole show on YouTube in seven installments. I commend all seven to your attention.

Don't be thrown by the fact that the program gets off to such a slow start. Television used to be like that:

Posted September 14, 12:00 AM

TT: Three for three

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong has received yet another pre-publication rave, this one in the August issue of Booklist, the magazine of the American Library Association. Here's an excerpt:

Teachout excels when explaining such things as why the early Armstrong recordings with his Hot Five and Seven groups are cornerstones of jazz. He provides a fresh musician's perspective when analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of such foundational compositions as "Heebie Jeebies" and "West End Blues." Teachout also argues for the merits of Armstrong's popular music done in the manner of Bing Crosby. And he disagrees with the later bebop players who didn't like Armstrong's act, which they viewed as pandering to white audiences. What they didn't understand, and what Teachout vigorously argues while simultaneously revealing the soul of his subject, is that being an entertainer was wrapped up in Armstrong's personality and genius. Ultimately, Teachout's fine biography shows how much of Armstrong's love of music--and people--was behind that signature million-watt smile....

Nice, huh?

* * *

A boy must peddle his book, so I now have a personalized author page at Amazon. To see it, go here.

Posted September 14, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young."

Willa Cather, One of Ours

Posted September 14, 12:00 AM

September 11, 2009

TT: I remember...

...and always will.

Posted September 11, 8:41 AM

TT: Little house in the big woods

In this week's Wall Street Journal drama column I report on a production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night at American Players Theatre's new Touchstone Theatre, plus a revival by Arlington's Signature Theatre of Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

The recession has swept through America's regional theaters like swine flu through a kindergarten. A handful of prominent troupes, including Wisconsin's Madison Repertory Theatre and Massachusetts' North Shore Music Theatre, have closed up shop altogether, while others are working overtime to stay in business. You can see the fear in their safety-first programming (more musicals, familiar classics like "A Streetcar Named Desire" and small-cast comedies like "Private Lives") and slimmed-down schedules (I can't begin to list the companies that are putting on fewer shows this season).

m_a9865687b2004889957d44a87b4da869.jpgSo it's big news when a leading American company bucks the trend by opening a new theater. Wisconsin's American Players Theatre, which already presents five plays each summer in its 1,150-seat hilltop amphitheater, is now putting on a second series of productions in its new Touchstone Theatre, a handsome 200-seat indoor house whose prairie-flavored modern architecture and woodsy surroundings pay graceful homage to Frank Lloyd Wright (Taliesin, his home, is a mile or so away). In contrast to the Shakespeare-Shaw-Coward classical repertory performed in the Up-the-Hill Theater, the Touchstone plans to specialize in contemporary fare, and its initial group of offerings includes two major postwar plays, Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night" and Harold Pinter's "Old Times."...

TouchstoneTheatre600x325_jpg_595x325_crop_upscale_q85.jpgI found APT's production to be more convincing than the 2003 Broadway revival, though I suspect the fact that it was being presented in a 200-seat thrust-stage house instead of an 1,100-seat proscenium-stage Broadway theater had something to do with its effectiveness. "Long Day's Journey" is, after all, a five-character, one-set play, and even though four of the characters are members of a theatrical family, their intramural sniping is easier to take--and to sympathize with--when presented on the unexaggerated scale enabled by the Touchstone Theatre and encouraged by John Langs, the director of this production. This is the first time I've seen "Long Day's Journey" in a small house, and I'm inclined to think that it should always be done that way....

Claudia Shear rang the bell in 2000 with "Dirty Blonde," which ran for 352 performances on Broadway. Now it's being revived by Signature Theatre, the Washington, D.C.-area company that won this year's regional-theater Tony Award. With "Restoration," Ms. Shear's latest play, set to move from the La Jolla Playhouse to Off Broadway this spring, I thought it would be interesting to see how "Dirty Blonde" had held up--and I'm pleased to report that it's still a gem....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Posted September 11, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"After all, one knows one's weak points so well, that it's rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them & invent others that (one is fairly sure) don't exist--or exist in a less measure."

Edith Wharton, letter to Robert Grant (Nov. 19, 1907)

Posted September 11, 12:00 AM

September 10, 2009

TT: Don't listen, Mom!

SuperStock_1100-249.jpgVanity Fair is going to be posting a pair of "audio excerpts" from Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong on its Web site later this fall, so I spent the morning taping them. In one of the two passages, Armstrong repeatedly uses a twelve-letter word that has never appeared on this blog but is part of the working vocabulary of many jazz musicians. I read it into the microphone five times in a row without blinking an eye, and as I did so, it occurred to me that my own mother, who has never heard me use such language, might not approve.

Fortunately, my mother doesn't have a computer, so I think I'm in the clear. Nevertheless, I hope nobody tips her off that her son is going to be talking dirty on the Internet....

Posted September 10, 12:42 PM

TT: So you want to see a show?

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

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

BROADWAY:
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (comedy, G, suitable for bright children, reviewed here)
God of Carnage * (serious comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
South Pacific * (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
Our Town (drama, G, suitable for mature children, reviewed here)

IN ASHLAND, OREGON:
The Music Man (musical, G, very child-friendly, closes Nov. 1, reviewed here)

IN CHICAGO:
The History Boys (drama, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, too intellectually complex for most adolescents, extended through Oct. 18, reviewed here)

IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
Henry V (Shakespeare, G, closes Oct. 2, reviewed here)

IN STRATFORD, ONTARIO:
The Importance of Being Earnest (comedy, G, closes Oct. 30, reviewed here)
Three Sisters (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 3, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
The Winter's Tale (Shakespeare, PG-13, closes Sept. 26, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN TOPANGA, CALIF.:
The Cherry Orchard (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, closes Sept. 26, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN EAST HADDAM, CONN.:
Camelot (musical, G, closes Sept. 19, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY ON BROADWAY
Avenue Q * (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)

Posted September 10, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"I have never known a novel that was good enough to be good in spite of its being adapted to the author's political views."

Edith Wharton, letter to Upton Sinclair (Aug. 19, 1927)

Posted September 10, 12:00 AM

September 9, 2009

TT: Snapshot

Robert Frost talks about poetry:

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

Posted September 09, 12:00 AM

TT: Tall stack

Speaking of lists, I wrote about film regularly between 1998 and 2005, and at the end of that time I drew up a double-barreled list of the movies I'd reviewed that I liked best.

laura_linney1.jpgThese were the top twenty: The Apostle, Barbershop, Bright Young Things, Croupier, The Dreamlife of Angels, Election, Ghost World, High Fidelity, The Incredibles, The Last Days of Disco, Look at Me, Lost in Translation, Next Stop Wonderland, Out of Sight, Panic, The Sixth Sense, Spellbound, The Station Agent, Topsy-Turvy, and You Can Count on Me. (Junebug should have made that list as well, but I saw it a week after I filed my last review.)

These were the runners-up: About Schmidt, Being John Malkovich, The Cooler, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Garden State, Guinevere, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Lilo & Stitch, The Limey, Lovely and Amazing, Magnolia, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Pi, Ripley's Game, The Secret Lives of Dentists, Sideways, Sunshine State, Talk to Her, The Tao of Steve, The Whole Nine Yards, and Three Kings.

Those were the days!

Posted September 09, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision."

Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction

Posted September 09, 12:00 AM

September 8, 2009

TT: Things I miss

Creepy Crawlers. I've never enjoyed a Christmas present more than this one, which my parents gave me in 1964:

Short subjects. I'm grateful beyond words that the coming of home video has made it possible for me to enjoy the adventures of Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote at will in the comfort of my living room, but the only way to properly appreciate animated cartoons is to view them one at a time in a theater, screened in tandem with a full-length film. I'm just old enough to remember theatrical short subjects, and I loved it that you never knew what you'd see from week to week. It wasn't at all uncommon for the cartoon of the week to be more interesting than the feature that followed it. Can you imagine strolling into a movie house in 1947 to see Good News or Lady in the Lake and finding yourself confronted with something as bizarre as Tex Avery's King-Size Canary?

Fizzies. Forgotten but not gone, I'm pleased to say, though the company that reintroduced this long-discontinued Alka-Seltzer-style effervescent drink tablet in 2006 has somehow neglected to resurrect grape, my favorite flavor. In any case, I have yet to see the new Fizzies on sale in stores, much less advertised on Saturday-morning TV:

antenna.jpgRooftop TV antennas. I don't miss the lamentably fuzzy reception that they provided, or the fact that my family could only pick up three channels in Smalltown, U.S.A. (I never saw a public-TV program until I went off to college in 1974.) On the other hand, I loved being able to climb onto the roof of our house via the antenna pole. To do so was a hanging offense at 713 Hickory Drive, mainly because it terrified my mother, who was sure--not without reason--that her hopelessly clumsy son would fall off the roof and break his neck. I never did, but it's a wonder that I didn't.

Could it be that I secretly envied those adventurous classmates who, unlike me, broke an arm or a leg at play and thereafter were privileged to wear a plaster cast on which all their friends scribbled messages of good cheer? I wouldn't be at all surprised.

My World and Welcome to It. Once upon a time it was possible--just--for a half-hour prime-time network sitcom to start out like this:

My World and Welcome to It, which made its debut on NBC in the fall of 1969, ran for less than a year, but I watched every episode, and marveled at the deftness with which the show's creators transformed the cartoons and stories of James Thurber on which their scripts were based.

A decade later I had the good fortune to meet William Windom, who was touring in a one-man show in which he played Thurber, and told him how much the series had meant to me. I could tell how surprised he was that it had made so strong an impression on so young a person.

AP%20teletype.jpgTeletypes. Long before CNN was a glimmer in Ted Turner's eye, teletypes transmitted breaking news around the world. When I was a boy, every newsroom in America still contained one or more of these marvelous mechanical monsters, which printed wire-service copy onto endless strips of cheap yellow copy paper. The sound they made evoked newspaper journalism at its most hectic, which is undoubtedly the reason why the producers of The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite took care that a teletype could be heard clacking away in the background throughout the program's early years:

If Uncle Walter got his news from an AP teletype, you knew it had to be true.

I found teletypes unimaginably romantic, and was disappointed to find that computer terminals had rendered them obsolete long before I landed my first full-time newspaper job in 1987. Now they belong to the ages.

porch-swing.jpgPorch swings. I paid tribute to my grandmother's porch swing in my first book, a memoir that I wrote in 1991:

After the last firecracker was lit and tossed, I crawled into the wooden swing on the crumbling front porch of my grandmother's house and rocked in the breeze. Once in a while I brought a book with me, for there are few things as pleasant as reading a good book while sitting in a porch swing on a breezy summer day. More often, though, I left my book in the car, especially after my spindly legs grew long enough to reach the concrete floor of the porch. Then I would sit at the very edge of the broad wooden seat, kick as hard as I could and push the swing higher and higher into the air, high enough that the soles of my sneakers scraped the ceiling and the heavy chains of the swing gave off a scary thump every time I fell back to earth. The higher I swung, the surer I was that the rusty bolts would gradually work their way out of the rotten wood of the ceiling, sending me flying through the air to a bloody but glorious death. Before long, one of the old people always came stomping out of the house and told me to cut it out before I cracked my fool head open.

The house is still there, but the swing, like my youth, is long gone.

Posted September 08, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before."

Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction

Posted September 08, 12:00 AM

September 7, 2009

TT: Short stack

8491982_tml.jpgIn honor of the release of its new DVD edition of The Last Days of Disco, the folks at the Criterion Collection invited Whit Stillman to submit a top-ten list of his favorite Criterion releases. He chose Mario Monicelli's Big Deal on Madonna Street, Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus, Marcel Carné's Children of Paradise, François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come, Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey, Hitchcock's Notorious, and Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, and his comments on each film are both astute and revealing.

What would I choose from the Criterion catalogue? I like nearly all of the films on Whit's list, but only one, The Lady Eve, would make my personal top ten. Here are my other nine picks, in alphabetical order:

• Michael Powell's I Know Where I'm Going!

• Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming

• Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

• Whit Stillman's Metropolitan

• Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street

• Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (of course!)

• François Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player

• Carol Reed's The Third Man

• Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise

Runners-up: Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy, Ronald Neame's Hopscotch, Hitchcock's Notorious, and Renoir's The River.

Surprised?

P.S. I encourage my co-bloggers to do likewise!

Posted September 07, 12:00 AM

TT: The function of book blogging at the present time

Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence and D.G. Myers of A Commonplace Blog are jointly conducting a serial symposium called "The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time" whose participants have been invited to "speculate about the past, present, and future of this youngest of literary genres." Even though I'm not strictly a book blogger, they asked me to join the fray anyway. Here's my contribution. Their questions are followed by my answers:

• What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

Diaries, letters, commonplace books, periodical essays. I think of blogging as introspection made public.

• Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

No one. I've been blogging for six years--much longer than most artbloggers--and it stands to reason that I should have a pretty clear idea by now of what I want to do and how I want to do it.

• How does book blogging differ from print counterparts such as book reviews?

For me, the only difference (other than the absence of a paycheck) is brevity and the constraints it imposes. I write the same way everywhere.

• How do you respond to this statement?--Blogging is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey.

It depends on how you blog--and how you define "hobby." I'd say it's more like painting for pleasure, or playing chamber music in the home. If you think those are hobbies, then so is book blogging.

• How has the experience of blogging changed the way you write?

I think it's probably reinforced my tendency to write in a conversational style--but, then, I've always tried to write the way I talk.

• What about the sometimes vicious nature of the beast?--the ad hominem attacks, and the widespread tendency to confuse harsh disagreement with such ad hominem attacks.

To blog is to become a public figure. Ad hominem attacks go with the territory. If you can't stand the flames, log off.

• Some say the golden age of blogging has already passed, that blogging has failed to fulfill its early promise; and the evidence which is given is that no one becomes famous from blogging any longer. Do you agree?

Er, who are all those "famous" book bloggers? Blogging is no longer a novelty, but artblogging of all sorts, including literate commentary on literature, has always been a minority pursuit and always will be.

• In a recent blog column, the technology writer Michael S. Malone suggests that a handful of bloggers have "earned huge audiences, while millions of others have not," because readers have learned to trust the more popular bloggers "to either consistently entertain us, or we trust their judgment in selecting interesting items for us to read, or we trust that their world view is just like our own and their ability to enunciate those views even better." Do you agree? Does this explain why no book blogger has earned a huge audience?

I think this is true, but I also think it's irrelevant to book blogging, for the reasons specified above. No book blogger will ever earn a huge audience, unless he limits himself to commentary on the novels of Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling.

• Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

It depends on whether you identify wisdom with traffic. I'm much less likely to pay attention to any critic of the arts who sees the world through politics-colored glasses--whatever their shade--but I suspect that the average reader feels differently.

Posted September 07, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"She is a person with many friends and many internal and moral and intellectual resources, yet she confesses in the most disarming--and helpful--manner how much the Internet came to her aid, first when her son was killed and second when she discovered that a term had been set on her own life. The importance of this medium in bringing about a great unspoken social reform--the abolition of loneliness--has not to my knowledge been better evoked."

Christopher Hitchens, "The Pain of Elizabeth Edwards" (The Atlantic, September 2009)

Posted September 07, 12:00 AM

September 4, 2009

TT: Seeing Shakespeare plain

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I report on my recent visit to Spring Green, Wisconsin, where I saw American Players Theatre perform Henry V and The Winter's Tale. Both productions were exceptionally fine. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

APT is a major classical repertory theater lightly disguised as an outdoor summer festival, and it has grown even more important with the opening of a 200-seat indoor house located a few steps away from the 1,148-seat hilltop amphitheatre in which the company has been performing since 1979. For all the attention being paid to the new Touchstone Theatre--about which I'll have more to say next week--the Up-the-Hill Theatre remains APT's base of operations, and the productions of "Henry V" and "The Winter's Tale" that I saw there last week are models of their kind, played on near-bare stages with a bracing vigor that makes you wonder why anybody would think of performing Shakespeare any other way.

I last saw "Henry V" in Central Park six summers ago in a production by Mark Wing-Davey that sought with limited success to transform Shakespeare's gripping portrait of the battle of Agincourt and its aftermath into an over-the-top-and-down-with-Bush pacifist comedy. Not so APT's version, staged with dashing directness by James Bohnen, the artistic director of Chicago's Remy Bumppo Theatre....

Robert Morgan's Edwardian-style costumes for "The Winter's Tale" are more ambitious than the ones designed by Fabio Toblini for "Henry V," but the overall approach of the production, staged by David Frank, APT's artistic director, is very much in the company's house style: The cast is mostly young, the staging spare and pointed, the poetry central at all times to the total effect....

"Arguably, this is the leading classical theater in the Midwest," says Chris Jones, my opposite number at the Chicago Tribune. I'd put it another way: American Players Theatre is to the Midwest what Shakespeare & Company is to New England, a troupe that sets high artistic standards and maintains them with effortless consistency.

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Posted September 04, 12:00 AM

TT: The war that never ends

inglourious-basterds-poster.jpgQuentin Tarantino has gone and made himself a war movie--and it looks like Inglourious Basterds is going to be a hit, judging by the first two weeks' worth of box-office receipts. So why did the creator of Pulp Fiction choose World War II as his subject? For that matter, why is anybody still making World War II movies sixty-four years after V-J Day? What is it about the Good War that continues to set it apart from all other wars in the eyes of Hollywood? I've taken a shot at answering that question in my latest "Sightings" column for tomorrow's Wall Street Journal.

To be sure, Tarantino swears that Inglourious Basterds is really "a spaghetti western, but using World War II iconography as opposed to cowboy iconography." Maybe that's true--and maybe there's more to that distinctive iconography than meets the eye. To find out what makes World War II so cinematically special, pick up a copy of Saturday's Journal and see what I have to say.

UPDATE: Read the whole thing here.

Posted September 04, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil."

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer

Posted September 04, 12:00 AM

September 3, 2009

TT: So you want to see a show?

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

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

BROADWAY:
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (comedy, G, suitable for bright children, reviewed here)
South Pacific * (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
Our Town (drama, G, suitable for mature children, reviewed here)

IN ASHLAND, OREGON:
The Music Man (musical, G, very child-friendly, closes Nov. 1, reviewed here)

IN CHICAGO:
The History Boys (drama, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, too intellectually complex for most adolescents, extended through Oct. 18, reviewed here)

IN STRATFORD, ONTARIO:
The Importance of Being Earnest (comedy, G, closes Oct. 30, reviewed here)
Three Sisters (drama, PG-13, closes Oct 3, reviewed here)

IN TOPANGA, CALIF.:
The Cherry Orchard (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, closes Sept. 26, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN EAST HADDAM, CONN.:
Camelot (musical, G, closes Sept. 19, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK ON BROADWAY
Avenue Q * (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, closes Sept. 13, reviewed here)

CLOSING SATURDAY IN LENOX, MASS:
Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, PG-13, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY IN GARRISON, N.Y.:
Pericles and Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare, PG-13, playing in repertory, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY OFF BROADWAY
Ruined (drama, PG-13/R, sexual content and suggestions of extreme violence, reviewed here)

Posted September 03, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"I lack what the English call character, by which they mean the power to refrain."

Alan Bennett, An Englishman Abroad

Posted September 03, 12:00 AM

September 2, 2009

TT: A second star in the sky

n652497192_9882.jpgPops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, out December 2, just received a starred pre-publication rave from Kirkus Reviews:

A comprehensive, affectionate biography of arguably the single most important figure in the history of jazz.

The broad outlines of the story are well known to jazz fans....Former professional jazz musician and Wall Street Journal drama critic Teachout (All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, 2004, etc.) fills in the details with a sure hand, drawing on numerous published sources as well as voluminous tape recordings and autobiographical writings left by Armstrong, many not available to earlier writers. The author sheds light on the embouchure problems that temporarily derailed Armstrong's career, and dictated a change of style, in the early '30s. He sympathetically re-evaluates Armstrong's later career, which many critics have dismissed as elevating showmanship above art, demonstrating that the trumpeter was much more than the unschooled natural genius some admirers saw in him. Without overloading the reader with technical details, Teachout shows how Armstrong's music evolved over the years, while staying true to lessons learned--above all, attention to melody--from his New Orleans mentors such as Oliver. Quotes from Armstrong's earthy autobiographical writings give the book authentic flavor. Teachout also deals frankly with Armstrong's lifelong marijuana use, the role of organized crime in his business affairs, his untidy marital life and his forthright statements on racial issues. The author makes an eloquent case for Armstrong's status as a pioneer, not just in jazz but in the broader context of 20th-century art.

A rewarding jazz biography and a revealing look at a broad swath of American cultural history.

This goes very nicely with the equally enthusiastic starred review of Pops that appeared last month in Publishers Weekly.

We seem to be off to a good start....

Posted September 02, 3:08 PM

CAAF: I'm smelting! I'm smelting!

Books I bought simply because the title amused me, no. 43: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Alchemy.

Related: If you have any lead pencils or jars of old pennies lying around, I'd be ever so grateful if you could send them along.

Posted September 02, 2:47 PM

CAAF: Turning on the magician

People sure wish George R.R. Martin would finish his new book! This new one is to be called A Dance With Dragons, and it's the fifth in his Song of Ice and Fire series, which despite its embarrassing, "a cologne by Oksana Baiul" name is, in fact, an excellent and very addictive fantasy series. I had reservations about the fourth book in the series (short version: too many family histories, too many nipples) but I'm still a fan -- and the fourth book ended with several cliffhangers that I'm eager to see get sorted out. This latest installment was originally due out a few years back. 2006? 2007? I don't remember the specific date; only that I counted down to it, then presented myself in a froth at the bookstore that week to pick up my copy. It was nowhere to be found. Later I checked Amazon and saw a new pub date, this one about six months or so in the future, had been fixed. Disappointing -- but what are you going to do? Then, a few months later, the revised publication date was replaced by this, more ominous message: "Currently unavailable. We don't know when or if this item will be back in stock." I checked Martin's website. An update there said something like, "Yep, I'm still writing."

Now, if you've ever been engaged in a writing project that's lasted a period of years you'll be familiar with how, after a while, no one seems to ask how the book is anymore. Instead they ask you when it will be done. And while people often mean it well, at some point you realize that the real question they're asking isn't "Are you done yet?" so much as "Why aren't you done?" It's an awkward question to field from family and friends. Worse, I imagine, would be to hear it from an agent or editor. But now I've discovered the most terrible thing of all: To have it be the subject of an open debate in the reviews section of Amazon.

Yesterday I happened to think about Martin's series and decided to check Dance With Dragons' Amazon page to see if it had a release date. No, but somehow the book had accrued 49 reviews and a two-and-a-half star rating. Had I missed the book's coming out? Was there some foreign edition that people had gotten a hold of? No. The majority of the "reviews" are fans expressing their disappointment with the delay in publication and asking variations of the question: "Why isn't it done yet?"

One reviewer writes:

I am thrilled to see that others share my growing concern. I, too, followed Robert Jordan through 11 main Novels and a prequel waiting for him to finish his series.

Then he died, leaving his series unfinished.

A lesson George RR Martin should learn from! [Ed. note: !!]

I'm a regular at GRRM's website and "Not a Blog" and have to say that I just can't put into words the disappointment I feel. Mr. Martin has caught the bug. He's decided that he is going to stretch out his "A Song of Fire and Ice" series as far and for as long as possible.

He has time to blog about football.
He has time to blog about politics.
He has time to blog about toy miniatures.
He has time to travel around the world.

But...

He has no time to work on his LONG overdue 5th book."


I'm torn here -- I'm a fan too, and I confess, I've sometimes seen pictures of Martin at sci-fi and fantasy conventions, smiling and looking like a lovely gent, and thought, "Get back to work, George!" But reading these comments I feel sympathy for him too. Because that above comment is how I've always imagined the ticker tape in people's heads runs when they ask me about the book: "She has time to take walks. She has time to watch Buffy reruns. She has time to drink wine. She has time to know a startling amount of celebrity gossip and random stories from the Internet."

Here's a snippet from another review:

Too much time has passed; I can't remember all the characters and the subtle nuances of the story have escaped me. It's been something like nine years since we read about some of our favorite characters in A Storm Of Swords. I just don't have the heart to drag myself through the series again to rekindle the affair, only to be left hanging yet another time at the conclusion.

I've moved on - and maybe you should too.

Poor George. Well, at least there's no section on Wikipedia specifically devoted to cataloging how long it's taking him to write the thing. Oh no, wait.

UPDATE: Thanks to Levi Stahl for directing me to Neil Gaiman sounding off on the same subject: "George R.R. Martin is not working for you." (Third item.)

Posted September 02, 2:21 PM

TT: Snapshot

Vladimir Nabokov and Lionel Trilling talk about Nabokov's Lolita:

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

Posted September 02, 12:00 AM

TT: Almanac

"I don't think in any language. I think in images. I don't believe that people think in languages. They don't move their lips when they think. It is only a certain type of illiterate person who moves his lips as he reads or ruminates. No, I think in images, and now and then a Russian phrase or an English phrase will form with the foam of the brainwave, but that's about all."

Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions

Posted September 02, 12:00 AM

September 1, 2009

THE CRAFTY ART OF ALAN AYCKBOURN

"Could it be that Ayckbourn is 'the Chekhov of our time,' as Matthew Warchus, the director of the Old Vic revival of The Norman Conquests, has claimed? At the very least, I believe he is not a commercial playwright but a kind of poet, a craftsman of genius who never lets you forget for a moment that his often ludicrous characters, like Chekhov's, are trapped in a world that has failed to live up to their expectations..."

Posted September 01, 9:38 PM

OGIC: Some links

Hi there, I'm just back from a largely internet-free vacation (except for some road tweeting) and am pretty busy catching up on everything, including my blog reading. Here are some items that have made me a little bit less sad to be back from perch dinners and rockhounding.

● At A Commonplace Blog, D. G. Myers reviews the new Richard Russo novel That Old Cape Magic and includes Russo's Empire Falls in his best American novels of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Find out his other four here.

● Levi Stahl is reading Anthony Powell again. He has some especially nice observations here.

● Finally, the Walrus reminds us that before there was texting, there was passing notes in class. What's been lost in the transition? Penmanship as an added means of expression, certainly--"I am attempting to write neater this time so I won't give away my frenzied state of mind," one of the reprinted notes reads--and the happy fact that these snapshots of Saskatchewan school life around 1960 survived at all.

Enjoy, and eat cherries.

Posted September 01, 12:59 PM

TT: Almanac

"New York: Prison towers and modern posters for soap and whiskey."

Frank Lloyd Wright (quoted in the New York Times, Nov. 27, 1955)

Posted September 01, 12:00 AM

e="application/atom+xml" title="Atom" href="http://www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight/atom.xml" /> About Last Night: September 2009 Archives

« August 2009 | Main | October 2009 »

September 2009 Archives

September 1, 2009

TT: Almanac

"New York: Prison towers and modern posters for soap and whiskey."

Frank Lloyd Wright (quoted in the New York Times, Nov. 27, 1955)

OGIC: Some links

Hi there, I'm just back from a largely internet-free vacation (except for some road tweeting) and am pretty busy catching up on everything, including my blog reading. Here are some items that have made me a little bit less sad to be back from perch dinners and rockhounding.

● At A Commonplace Blog, D. G. Myers reviews the new Richard Russo novel That Old Cape Magic and includes Russo's Empire Falls in his best American novels of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Find out his other four here.

● Levi Stahl is reading Anthony Powell again. He has some especially nice observations here.

● Finally, the Walrus reminds us that before there was texting, there was passing notes in class. What's been lost in the transition? Penmanship as an added means of expression, certainly--"I am attempting to write neater this time so I won't give away my frenzied state of mind," one of the reprinted notes reads--and the happy fact that these snapshots of Saskatchewan school life around 1960 survived at all.

Enjoy, and eat cherries.

THE CRAFTY ART OF ALAN AYCKBOURN

"Could it be that Ayckbourn is 'the Chekhov of our time,' as Matthew Warchus, the director of the Old Vic revival of The Norman Conquests, has claimed? At the very least, I believe he is not a commercial playwright but a kind of poet, a craftsman of genius who never lets you forget for a moment that his often ludicrous characters, like Chekhov's, are trapped in a world that has failed to live up to their expectations..."

September 2, 2009

TT: Almanac

"I don't think in any language. I think in images. I don't believe that people think in languages. They don't move their lips when they think. It is only a certain type of illiterate person who moves his lips as he reads or ruminates. No, I think in images, and now and then a Russian phrase or an English phrase will form with the foam of the brainwave, but that's about all."

Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions

TT: Snapshot

Vladimir Nabokov and Lionel Trilling talk about Nabokov's Lolita:

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

CAAF: Turning on the magician

People sure wish George R.R. Martin would finish his new book! This new one is to be called A Dance With Dragons, and it's the fifth in his Song of Ice and Fire series, which despite its embarrassing, "a cologne by Oksana Baiul" name is, in fact, an excellent and very addictive fantasy series. I had reservations about the fourth book in the series (short version: too many family histories, too many nipples) but I'm still a fan -- and the fourth book ended with several cliffhangers that I'm eager to see get sorted out. This latest installment was originally due out a few years back. 2006? 2007? I don't remember the specific date; only that I counted down to it, then presented myself in a froth at the bookstore that week to pick up my copy. It was nowhere to be found. Later I checked Amazon and saw a new pub date, this one about six months or so in the future, had been fixed. Disappointing -- but what are you going to do? Then, a few months later, the revised publication date was replaced by this, more ominous message: "Currently unavailable. We don't know when or if this item will be back in stock." I checked Martin's website. An update there said something like, "Yep, I'm still writing."

Now, if you've ever been engaged in a writing project that's lasted a period of years you'll be familiar with how, after a while, no one seems to ask how the book is anymore. Instead they ask you when it will be done. And while people often mean it well, at some point you realize that the real question they're asking isn't "Are you done yet?" so much as "Why aren't you done?" It's an awkward question to field from family and friends. Worse, I imagine, would be to hear it from an agent or editor. But now I've discovered the most terrible thing of all: To have it be the subject of an open debate in the reviews section of Amazon.

Yesterday I happened to think about Martin's series and decided to check Dance With Dragons' Amazon page to see if it had a release date. No, but somehow the book had accrued 49 reviews and a two-and-a-half star rating. Had I missed the book's coming out? Was there some foreign edition that people had gotten a hold of? No. The majority of the "reviews" are fans expressing their disappointment with the delay in publication and asking variations of the question: "Why isn't it done yet?"

One reviewer writes:

I am thrilled to see that others share my growing concern. I, too, followed Robert Jordan through 11 main Novels and a prequel waiting for him to finish his series.

Then he died, leaving his series unfinished.

A lesson George RR Martin should learn from! [Ed. note: !!]

I'm a regular at GRRM's website and "Not a Blog" and have to say that I just can't put into words the disappointment I feel. Mr. Martin has caught the bug. He's decided that he is going to stretch out his "A Song of Fire and Ice" series as far and for as long as possible.

He has time to blog about football.
He has time to blog about politics.
He has time to blog about toy miniatures.
He has time to travel around the world.

But...

He has no time to work on his LONG overdue 5th book."


I'm torn here -- I'm a fan too, and I confess, I've sometimes seen pictures of Martin at sci-fi and fantasy conventions, smiling and looking like a lovely gent, and thought, "Get back to work, George!" But reading these comments I feel sympathy for him too. Because that above comment is how I've always imagined the ticker tape in people's heads runs when they ask me about the book: "She has time to take walks. She has time to watch Buffy reruns. She has time to drink wine. She has time to know a startling amount of celebrity gossip and random stories from the Internet."

Here's a snippet from another review:

Too much time has passed; I can't remember all the characters and the subtle nuances of the story have escaped me. It's been something like nine years since we read about some of our favorite characters in A Storm Of Swords. I just don't have the heart to drag myself through the series again to rekindle the affair, only to be left hanging yet another time at the conclusion.

I've moved on - and maybe you should too.

Poor George. Well, at least there's no section on Wikipedia specifically devoted to cataloging how long it's taking him to write the thing. Oh no, wait.

UPDATE: Thanks to Levi Stahl for directing me to Neil Gaiman sounding off on the same subject: "George R.R. Martin is not working for you." (Third item.)

CAAF: I'm smelting! I'm smelting!

Books I bought simply because the title amused me, no. 43: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Alchemy.

Related: If you have any lead pencils or jars of old pennies lying around, I'd be ever so grateful if you could send them along.

TT: A second star in the sky

n652497192_9882.jpgPops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, out December 2, just received a starred pre-publication rave from Kirkus Reviews:

A comprehensive, affectionate biography of arguably the single most important figure in the history of jazz.

The broad outlines of the story are well known to jazz fans....Former professional jazz musician and Wall Street Journal drama critic Teachout (All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, 2004, etc.) fills in the details with a sure hand, drawing on numerous published sources as well as voluminous tape recordings and autobiographical writings left by Armstrong, many not available to earlier writers. The author sheds light on the embouchure problems that temporarily derailed Armstrong's career, and dictated a change of style, in the early '30s. He sympathetically re-evaluates Armstrong's later career, which many critics have dismissed as elevating showmanship above art, demonstrating that the trumpeter was much more than the unschooled natural genius some admirers saw in him. Without overloading the reader with technical details, Teachout shows how Armstrong's music evolved over the years, while staying true to lessons learned--above all, attention to melody--from his New Orleans mentors such as Oliver. Quotes from Armstrong's earthy autobiographical writings give the book authentic flavor. Teachout also deals frankly with Armstrong's lifelong marijuana use, the role of organized crime in his business affairs, his untidy marital life and his forthright statements on racial issues. The author makes an eloquent case for Armstrong's status as a pioneer, not just in jazz but in the broader context of 20th-century art.

A rewarding jazz biography and a revealing look at a broad swath of American cultural history.

This goes very nicely with the equally enthusiastic starred review of Pops that appeared last month in Publishers Weekly.

We seem to be off to a good start....

September 3, 2009

TT: Almanac

"I lack what the English call character, by which they mean the power to refrain."

Alan Bennett, An Englishman Abroad

TT: So you want to see a show?

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

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

BROADWAY:
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (comedy, G, suitable for bright children, reviewed here)
South Pacific * (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
Our Town (drama, G, suitable for mature children, reviewed here)

IN ASHLAND, OREGON:
The Music Man (musical, G, very child-friendly, closes Nov. 1, reviewed here)

IN CHICAGO:
The History Boys (drama, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, too intellectually complex for most adolescents, extended through Oct. 18, reviewed here)

IN STRATFORD, ONTARIO:
The Importance of Being Earnest (comedy, G, closes Oct. 30, reviewed here)
Three Sisters (drama, PG-13, closes Oct 3, reviewed here)

IN TOPANGA, CALIF.:
The Cherry Orchard (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, closes Sept. 26, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN EAST HADDAM, CONN.:
Camelot (musical, G, closes Sept. 19, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK ON BROADWAY
Avenue Q * (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, closes Sept. 13, reviewed here)

CLOSING SATURDAY IN LENOX, MASS:
Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, PG-13, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY IN GARRISON, N.Y.:
Pericles and Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare, PG-13, playing in repertory, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY OFF BROADWAY
Ruined (drama, PG-13/R, sexual content and suggestions of extreme violence, reviewed here)

September 4, 2009

TT: Almanac

"Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil."

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer

TT: The war that never ends

inglourious-basterds-poster.jpgQuentin Tarantino has gone and made himself a war movie--and it looks like Inglourious Basterds is going to be a hit, judging by the first two weeks' worth of box-office receipts. So why did the creator of Pulp Fiction choose World War II as his subject? For that matter, why is anybody still making World War II movies sixty-four years after V-J Day? What is it about the Good War that continues to set it apart from all other wars in the eyes of Hollywood? I've taken a shot at answering that question in my latest "Sightings" column for tomorrow's Wall Street Journal.

To be sure, Tarantino swears that Inglourious Basterds is really "a spaghetti western, but using World War II iconography as opposed to cowboy iconography." Maybe that's true--and maybe there's more to that distinctive iconography than meets the eye. To find out what makes World War II so cinematically special, pick up a copy of Saturday's Journal and see what I have to say.

UPDATE: Read the whole thing here.

TT: Seeing Shakespeare plain

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I report on my recent visit to Spring Green, Wisconsin, where I saw American Players Theatre perform Henry V and The Winter's Tale. Both productions were exceptionally fine. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

APT is a major classical repertory theater lightly disguised as an outdoor summer festival, and it has grown even more important with the opening of a 200-seat indoor house located a few steps away from the 1,148-seat hilltop amphitheatre in which the company has been performing since 1979. For all the attention being paid to the new Touchstone Theatre--about which I'll have more to say next week--the Up-the-Hill Theatre remains APT's base of operations, and the productions of "Henry V" and "The Winter's Tale" that I saw there last week are models of their kind, played on near-bare stages with a bracing vigor that makes you wonder why anybody would think of performing Shakespeare any other way.

I last saw "Henry V" in Central Park six summers ago in a production by Mark Wing-Davey that sought with limited success to transform Shakespeare's gripping portrait of the battle of Agincourt and its aftermath into an over-the-top-and-down-with-Bush pacifist comedy. Not so APT's version, staged with dashing directness by James Bohnen, the artistic director of Chicago's Remy Bumppo Theatre....

Robert Morgan's Edwardian-style costumes for "The Winter's Tale" are more ambitious than the ones designed by Fabio Toblini for "Henry V," but the overall approach of the production, staged by David Frank, APT's artistic director, is very much in the company's house style: The cast is mostly young, the staging spare and pointed, the poetry central at all times to the total effect....

"Arguably, this is the leading classical theater in the Midwest," says Chris Jones, my opposite number at the Chicago Tribune. I'd put it another way: American Players Theatre is to the Midwest what Shakespeare & Company is to New England, a troupe that sets high artistic standards and maintains them with effortless consistency.

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

September 7, 2009

TT: Almanac

"She is a person with many friends and many internal and moral and intellectual resources, yet she confesses in the most disarming--and helpful--manner how much the Internet came to her aid, first when her son was killed and second when she discovered that a term had been set on her own life. The importance of this medium in bringing about a great unspoken social reform--the abolition of loneliness--has not to my knowledge been better evoked."

Christopher Hitchens, "The Pain of Elizabeth Edwards" (The Atlantic, September 2009)

TT: The function of book blogging at the present time

Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence and D.G. Myers of A Commonplace Blog are jointly conducting a serial symposium called "The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time" whose participants have been invited to "speculate about the past, present, and future of this youngest of literary genres." Even though I'm not strictly a book blogger, they asked me to join the fray anyway. Here's my contribution. Their questions are followed by my answers:

• What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

Diaries, letters, commonplace books, periodical essays. I think of blogging as introspection made public.

• Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

No one. I've been blogging for six years--much longer than most artbloggers--and it stands to reason that I should have a pretty clear idea by now of what I want to do and how I want to do it.

• How does book blogging differ from print counterparts such as book reviews?

For me, the only difference (other than the absence of a paycheck) is brevity and the constraints it imposes. I write the same way everywhere.

• How do you respond to this statement?--Blogging is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey.

It depends on how you blog--and how you define "hobby." I'd say it's more like painting for pleasure, or playing chamber music in the home. If you think those are hobbies, then so is book blogging.

• How has the experience of blogging changed the way you write?

I think it's probably reinforced my tendency to write in a conversational style--but, then, I've always tried to write the way I talk.

• What about the sometimes vicious nature of the beast?--the ad hominem attacks, and the widespread tendency to confuse harsh disagreement with such ad hominem attacks.

To blog is to become a public figure. Ad hominem attacks go with the territory. If you can't stand the flames, log off.

• Some say the golden age of blogging has already passed, that blogging has failed to fulfill its early promise; and the evidence which is given is that no one becomes famous from blogging any longer. Do you agree?

Er, who are all those "famous" book bloggers? Blogging is no longer a novelty, but artblogging of all sorts, including literate commentary on literature, has always been a minority pursuit and always will be.

• In a recent blog column, the technology writer Michael S. Malone suggests that a handful of bloggers have "earned huge audiences, while millions of others have not," because readers have learned to trust the more popular bloggers "to either consistently entertain us, or we trust their judgment in selecting interesting items for us to read, or we trust that their world view is just like our own and their ability to enunciate those views even better." Do you agree? Does this explain why no book blogger has earned a huge audience?

I think this is true, but I also think it's irrelevant to book blogging, for the reasons specified above. No book blogger will ever earn a huge audience, unless he limits himself to commentary on the novels of Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling.

• Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

It depends on whether you identify wisdom with traffic. I'm much less likely to pay attention to any critic of the arts who sees the world through politics-colored glasses--whatever their shade--but I suspect that the average reader feels differently.

TT: Short stack

8491982_tml.jpgIn honor of the release of its new DVD edition of The Last Days of Disco, the folks at the Criterion Collection invited Whit Stillman to submit a top-ten list of his favorite Criterion releases. He chose Mario Monicelli's Big Deal on Madonna Street, Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus, Marcel Carné's Children of Paradise, François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come, Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey, Hitchcock's Notorious, and Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, and his comments on each film are both astute and revealing.

What would I choose from the Criterion catalogue? I like nearly all of the films on Whit's list, but only one, The Lady Eve, would make my personal top ten. Here are my other nine picks, in alphabetical order:

• Michael Powell's I Know Where I'm Going!

• Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming

• Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

• Whit Stillman's Metropolitan

• Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street

• Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (of course!)

• François Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player

• Carol Reed's The Third Man

• Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise

Runners-up: Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy, Ronald Neame's Hopscotch, Hitchcock's Notorious, and Renoir's The River.

Surprised?

P.S. I encourage my co-bloggers to do likewise!

September 8, 2009

TT: Almanac

"Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before."

Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction

TT: Things I miss

Creepy Crawlers. I've never enjoyed a Christmas present more than this one, which my parents gave me in 1964:

Short subjects. I'm grateful beyond words that the coming of home video has made it possible for me to enjoy the adventures of Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote at will in the comfort of my living room, but the only way to properly appreciate animated cartoons is to view them one at a time in a theater, screened in tandem with a full-length film. I'm just old enough to remember theatrical short subjects, and I loved it that you never knew what you'd see from week to week. It wasn't at all uncommon for the cartoon of the week to be more interesting than the feature that followed it. Can you imagine strolling into a movie house in 1947 to see Good News or Lady in the Lake and finding yourself confronted with something as bizarre as Tex Avery's King-Size Canary?

Fizzies. Forgotten but not gone, I'm pleased to say, though the company that reintroduced this long-discontinued Alka-Seltzer-style effervescent drink tablet in 2006 has somehow neglected to resurrect grape, my favorite flavor. In any case, I have yet to see the new Fizzies on sale in stores, much less advertised on Saturday-morning TV:

antenna.jpgRooftop TV antennas. I don't miss the lamentably fuzzy reception that they provided, or the fact that my family could only pick up three channels in Smalltown, U.S.A. (I never saw a public-TV program until I went off to college in 1974.) On the other hand, I loved being able to climb onto the roof of our house via the antenna pole. To do so was a hanging offense at 713 Hickory Drive, mainly because it terrified my mother, who was sure--not without reason--that her hopelessly clumsy son would fall off the roof and break his neck. I never did, but it's a wonder that I didn't.

Could it be that I secretly envied those adventurous classmates who, unlike me, broke an arm or a leg at play and thereafter were privileged to wear a plaster cast on which all their friends scribbled messages of good cheer? I wouldn't be at all surprised.

My World and Welcome to It. Once upon a time it was possible--just--for a half-hour prime-time network sitcom to start out like this:

My World and Welcome to It, which made its debut on NBC in the fall of 1969, ran for less than a year, but I watched every episode, and marveled at the deftness with which the show's creators transformed the cartoons and stories of James Thurber on which their scripts were based.

A decade later I had the good fortune to meet William Windom, who was touring in a one-man show in which he played Thurber, and told him how much the series had meant to me. I could tell how surprised he was that it had made so strong an impression on so young a person.

AP%20teletype.jpgTeletypes. Long before CNN was a glimmer in Ted Turner's eye, teletypes transmitted breaking news around the world. When I was a boy, every newsroom in America still contained one or more of these marvelous mechanical monsters, which printed wire-service copy onto endless strips of cheap yellow copy paper. The sound they made evoked newspaper journalism at its most hectic, which is undoubtedly the reason why the producers of The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite took care that a teletype could be heard clacking away in the background throughout the program's early years:

If Uncle Walter got his news from an AP teletype, you knew it had to be true.

I found teletypes unimaginably romantic, and was disappointed to find that computer terminals had rendered them obsolete long before I landed my first full-time newspaper job in 1987. Now they belong to the ages.

porch-swing.jpgPorch swings. I paid tribute to my grandmother's porch swing in my first book, a memoir that I wrote in 1991:

After the last firecracker was lit and tossed, I crawled into the wooden swing on the crumbling front porch of my grandmother's house and rocked in the breeze. Once in a while I brought a book with me, for there are few things as pleasant as reading a good book while sitting in a porch swing on a breezy summer day. More often, though, I left my book in the car, especially after my spindly legs grew long enough to reach the concrete floor of the porch. Then I would sit at the very edge of the broad wooden seat, kick as hard as I could and push the swing higher and higher into the air, high enough that the soles of my sneakers scraped the ceiling and the heavy chains of the swing gave off a scary thump every time I fell back to earth. The higher I swung, the surer I was that the rusty bolts would gradually work their way out of the rotten wood of the ceiling, sending me flying through the air to a bloody but glorious death. Before long, one of the old people always came stomping out of the house and told me to cut it out before I cracked my fool head open.

The house is still there, but the swing, like my youth, is long gone.

September 9, 2009

TT: Almanac

"True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision."

Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction

TT: Tall stack

Speaking of lists, I wrote about film regularly between 1998 and 2005, and at the end of that time I drew up a double-barreled list of the movies I'd reviewed that I liked best.

laura_linney1.jpgThese were the top twenty: The Apostle, Barbershop, Bright Young Things, Croupier, The Dreamlife of Angels, Election, Ghost World, High Fidelity, The Incredibles, The Last Days of Disco, Look at Me, Lost in Translation, Next Stop Wonderland, Out of Sight, Panic, The Sixth Sense, Spellbound, The Station Agent, Topsy-Turvy, and You Can Count on Me. (Junebug should have made that list as well, but I saw it a week after I filed my last review.)

These were the runners-up: About Schmidt, Being John Malkovich, The Cooler, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Garden State, Guinevere, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Lilo & Stitch, The Limey, Lovely and Amazing, Magnolia, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Pi, Ripley's Game, The Secret Lives of Dentists, Sideways, Sunshine State, Talk to Her, The Tao of Steve, The Whole Nine Yards, and Three Kings.

Those were the days!

TT: Snapshot

Robert Frost talks about poetry:

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

September 10, 2009

TT: Almanac

"I have never known a novel that was good enough to be good in spite of its being adapted to the author's political views."

Edith Wharton, letter to Upton Sinclair (Aug. 19, 1927)

TT: So you want to see a show?

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

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

BROADWAY:
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (comedy, G, suitable for bright children, reviewed here)
God of Carnage * (serious comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
South Pacific * (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
Our Town (drama, G, suitable for mature children, reviewed here)

IN ASHLAND, OREGON:
The Music Man (musical, G, very child-friendly, closes Nov. 1, reviewed here)

IN CHICAGO:
The History Boys (drama, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, too intellectually complex for most adolescents, extended through Oct. 18, reviewed here)

IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
Henry V (Shakespeare, G, closes Oct. 2, reviewed here)

IN STRATFORD, ONTARIO:
The Importance of Being Earnest (comedy, G, closes Oct. 30, reviewed here)
Three Sisters (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 3, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
The Winter's Tale (Shakespeare, PG-13, closes Sept. 26, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN TOPANGA, CALIF.:
The Cherry Orchard (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, closes Sept. 26, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN EAST HADDAM, CONN.:
Camelot (musical, G, closes Sept. 19, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY ON BROADWAY
Avenue Q * (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)

TT: Don't listen, Mom!

SuperStock_1100-249.jpgVanity Fair is going to be posting a pair of "audio excerpts" from Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong on its Web site later this fall, so I spent the morning taping them. In one of the two passages, Armstrong repeatedly uses a twelve-letter word that has never appeared on this blog but is part of the working vocabulary of many jazz musicians. I read it into the microphone five times in a row without blinking an eye, and as I did so, it occurred to me that my own mother, who has never heard me use such language, might not approve.

Fortunately, my mother doesn't have a computer, so I think I'm in the clear. Nevertheless, I hope nobody tips her off that her son is going to be talking dirty on the Internet....

September 11, 2009

TT: Almanac

"After all, one knows one's weak points so well, that it's rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them & invent others that (one is fairly sure) don't exist--or exist in a less measure."

Edith Wharton, letter to Robert Grant (Nov. 19, 1907)

TT: Little house in the big woods

In this week's Wall Street Journal drama column I report on a production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night at American Players Theatre's new Touchstone Theatre, plus a revival by Arlington's Signature Theatre of Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

The recession has swept through America's regional theaters like swine flu through a kindergarten. A handful of prominent troupes, including Wisconsin's Madison Repertory Theatre and Massachusetts' North Shore Music Theatre, have closed up shop altogether, while others are working overtime to stay in business. You can see the fear in their safety-first programming (more musicals, familiar classics like "A Streetcar Named Desire" and small-cast comedies like "Private Lives") and slimmed-down schedules (I can't begin to list the companies that are putting on fewer shows this season).

m_a9865687b2004889957d44a87b4da869.jpgSo it's big news when a leading American company bucks the trend by opening a new theater. Wisconsin's American Players Theatre, which already presents five plays each summer in its 1,150-seat hilltop amphitheater, is now putting on a second series of productions in its new Touchstone Theatre, a handsome 200-seat indoor house whose prairie-flavored modern architecture and woodsy surroundings pay graceful homage to Frank Lloyd Wright (Taliesin, his home, is a mile or so away). In contrast to the Shakespeare-Shaw-Coward classical repertory performed in the Up-the-Hill Theater, the Touchstone plans to specialize in contemporary fare, and its initial group of offerings includes two major postwar plays, Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night" and Harold Pinter's "Old Times."...

TouchstoneTheatre600x325_jpg_595x325_crop_upscale_q85.jpgI found APT's production to be more convincing than the 2003 Broadway revival, though I suspect the fact that it was being presented in a 200-seat thrust-stage house instead of an 1,100-seat proscenium-stage Broadway theater had something to do with its effectiveness. "Long Day's Journey" is, after all, a five-character, one-set play, and even though four of the characters are members of a theatrical family, their intramural sniping is easier to take--and to sympathize with--when presented on the unexaggerated scale enabled by the Touchstone Theatre and encouraged by John Langs, the director of this production. This is the first time I've seen "Long Day's Journey" in a small house, and I'm inclined to think that it should always be done that way....

Claudia Shear rang the bell in 2000 with "Dirty Blonde," which ran for 352 performances on Broadway. Now it's being revived by Signature Theatre, the Washington, D.C.-area company that won this year's regional-theater Tony Award. With "Restoration," Ms. Shear's latest play, set to move from the La Jolla Playhouse to Off Broadway this spring, I thought it would be interesting to see how "Dirty Blonde" had held up--and I'm pleased to report that it's still a gem....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

TT: I remember...

...and always will.

September 14, 2009

TT: Almanac

"The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young."

Willa Cather, One of Ours

TT: Three for three

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong has received yet another pre-publication rave, this one in the August issue of Booklist, the magazine of the American Library Association. Here's an excerpt:

Teachout excels when explaining such things as why the early Armstrong recordings with his Hot Five and Seven groups are cornerstones of jazz. He provides a fresh musician's perspective when analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of such foundational compositions as "Heebie Jeebies" and "West End Blues." Teachout also argues for the merits of Armstrong's popular music done in the manner of Bing Crosby. And he disagrees with the later bebop players who didn't like Armstrong's act, which they viewed as pandering to white audiences. What they didn't understand, and what Teachout vigorously argues while simultaneously revealing the soul of his subject, is that being an entertainer was wrapped up in Armstrong's personality and genius. Ultimately, Teachout's fine biography shows how much of Armstrong's love of music--and people--was behind that signature million-watt smile....

Nice, huh?

* * *

A boy must peddle his book, so I now have a personalized author page at Amazon. To see it, go here.

TT: The golden age

In 1977 CBS aired When Television Was Young, a two-hour-long documentary hosted by Charles Kuralt (remember him?) that consisted for the most part of excerpts from kinescope recordings of live TV broadcasts that originally aired between 1949 and 1961. The programs include Captain Kangaroo, CBS Reports, Douglas Edwards with the News, The Edsel Show, The Ernie Kovacs Show, The Garry Moore Show, The Goldbergs, The Honeymooners, Howdy Doody, I Love Lucy, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, The Mickey Mouse Club, Mary Martin and Noël Coward: Together With Music, Mr. I. Magination, Playhouse 90, The Red Skelton Show, See It Now, The $64,000 Question, Studio One, Suspense, Texaco Star Theater, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, You Are There, and Your Show of Shows. Some anonymous benefactor has posted the whole show on YouTube in seven installments. I commend all seven to your attention.

Don't be thrown by the fact that the program gets off to such a slow start. Television used to be like that:

TT: Ten and counting

ArtsJournal, which hosts this blog, turned ten years old yesterday. Doug McLennan, the founding genius and tutelary spirit of the site that Web-savvy people who take the arts seriously visit every day, has blogged about the anniversary here. His post is very much worth reading.

It was Doug who invited me to become ArtsJournal's first blogger. I went live nine years ago. More than six thousand postings later, Our Girl, CAAF, and I are still going strong, and still proud to be associated with the most important and influential arts-related site on the Web. At a time when newspaper and magazine coverage of the arts is in a tailspin, Doug has changed the face of arts journalism for the better.

I can't thank you enough, Doug, for making it possible for me to join the revolution. We're still here--and we're not going anywhere.

September 15, 2009

TT: Almanac

"To fear the worst oft cures the worse."

William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida

TT: Packing and going

bevstl.jpgThe life of a peripatetic drama critic is an endless cycle of ennui and delight. I love seeing out-of-town shows, but in order to get to them, I have to endure the horrors of modern air travel, the only tolerable part of which is the view from a window seat on a clear day. On occasion it also means that I have to tear myself away from Mrs. T, and that's never any fun: our second anniversary is less than a month away, and the nearer it comes, the closer we grow.

Hence it's with sharply mixed feelings that I pack my bag this morning and fly alone from Hartford to St. Louis, where I'll be seeing the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis perform Amadeus tonight. I like Peter Shaffer's plays and I like St. Louis--I'm going to poke my head into the St. Louis Art Museum, a favorite stop, if my plane lands on time--but I've been on the move all summer, and if I had my druthers, I'd just as soon stay home.

2438.jpgThe good news (there is always good news) is that St. Louis is two hours north of Smalltown, U.S.A., so I'm going to drive down after the show and spend a few days with my family. I haven't been there since May, and my mother says she's starting to forget what I look like. She also claims to have baked a cake in honor of my visit. I'm more inclined to believe the second claim than the first, but either way, it'll be nice to be in Smalltown again. Mom and I have things to do, none of them significant but all important. For openers, I plan to take her on a long drive in the country, buy her a lunch or two, and tell her all about the premiere of The Letter. I might even sleep late!

See you around.

September 16, 2009

TT: Almanac

"Where there is great love there are always miracles."

Willa Cather Death Comes for the Archbishop

TT: Snapshot

Stan Getz plays "Blood Count," Billy Strayhorn's last composition, in 1990, a year before his own death. The pianist is Kenny Barron:

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

TT: Alan Gilbert's challenge

6a00d8341d045953ef010536ce1d51970c-800wi.jpgAlan Gilbert makes his debut tonight as the New York Philharmonic's music director. I wish him the very best of luck.

Here's part of what I wrote about his appointment in Commentary when it was announced two years ago. I haven't changed my mind since then.

* * *

If you care about the continuing fate of symphony orchestras, museums, ballet, opera, and theater companies, and all the other costly institutions that were the pillars of American high culture in the twentieth century, you must accept that these elitist enterprises cannot survive without the wholehearted support of a non-elite democratic public that believes in their significance.

Leonard Bernstein and Beverly Sills apprehended this, and did something about it. Perhaps more than any other American classical musicians of their generation, they did their best to communicate to ordinary middle-class Americans the notion that the fruits of high culture are accessible to all who make a good-faith effort to understand them. While that may not be strictly or wholly true, it is largely true--and an ennobling idea. I would not be greatly surprised if Sills in particular is remembered for delivering this message long after the specifics of her performing career are forgotten.

Alas, the message has to a considerable extent been forgotten by the orchestra that Bernstein led. To be sure, the New York Philharmonic, like all American orchestras, works hard at cultivating new audiences--but since Bernstein's time, its efforts in this direction have rarely involved its music directors. Neither Kurt Masur nor Lorin Maazel made any serious attempt to reach beyond the purview of their regular duties to communicate the significance of classical music to a mass audience. Like most conductors of their generation, they saw their job as purely musical, and took for granted that its value would be appreciated by the larger community they served.

Alan Gilbert will not have that luxury. Instead, he must start from scratch. He must realize, first of all, that mere exposure to the masterpieces of Western classical music does not ensure immediate recognition and acceptance of their greatness--least of all when those doing the exposing make it clear that they expect young audiences to like what they are hearing, on pain of being dismissed as stupid.

This condescending attitude is part of the "entitlement mentality" that has long prevented our high-culture institutions from coming fully to grips with the problem of audience development. Too many classical musicians still think that they deserve the support of the public, not that they have to earn it. One of the signal virtues of America's middlebrow culture was that for the most part it steered clear of this mentality. Its spokesmen--Bernstein foremost among them--believed devoutly in their responsibility to preach the gospel of art to all men in all conditions, and did so with an effectiveness that our generation can only envy.

I sincerely hope that Alan Gilbert will prove to be a great conductor. But I have no doubt that it is far more important to the future of classical music in America for him to be a great communicator, one who finds new ways to do what Leonard Bernstein did so superlatively well in the days of the middlebrow. And I suspect that his will be the harder task: to make the case for high culture to a generation that is increasingly ignorant, if not downright disdainful, of its life-changing power and glory.

September 17, 2009

TT: Almanac

"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear--not absence of fear."

Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson

TT: So you want to see a show?

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

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

BROADWAY:
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (comedy, G, suitable for bright children, reviewed here)
God of Carnage (serious comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
South Pacific * (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
Our Town (drama, G, suitable for mature children, reviewed here)

IN ASHLAND, OREGON:
The Music Man (musical, G, very child-friendly, closes Nov. 1, reviewed here)

IN CHICAGO:
The History Boys (drama, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, too intellectually complex for most adolescents, extended through Oct. 18, reviewed here)

IN SPRING GREEN, WIS:
Long Day's Journey into Night (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, too long and demanding for some adolescents, closes Oct. 18, reviewed here)

IN STRATFORD, ONTARIO:
The Importance of Being Earnest (comedy, G, closes Oct. 30, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN ARLINGTON, VA.:
Dirty Blonde (serious comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, closes Oct. 4, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
Henry V (Shakespeare, G, closes Oct. 2, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN STRATFORD, ONTARIO:
Three Sisters (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 3, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
The Winter's Tale (Shakespeare, PG-13, closes Sept. 26, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN TOPANGA, CALIF.:
The Cherry Orchard (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, closes Sept. 26, reviewed here)

CLOSING SATURDAY IN EAST HADDAM, CONN.:
Camelot (musical, G, reviewed here)

September 18, 2009

TT: Almanac

"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here."

Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

TT: Last time's a charm

1985%27R%2734.JPG.jpegErich Kunzel, the conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, conducted his last concert on August 1, exactly a month before he died. This event put me in mind of the surprisingly small number of performances that have been given and masterpieces that have been created by artists who knew they were dying, and--not so surprisingly--a "Sightings" column came out of my reflections on this grim subject.

Why are deathbed masterpieces like Edouard Manet's "Vase of White Lilacs and Roses" so rare, and what do they tell us about the dark encounter that awaits us all? Pick up a copy of Saturday's Wall Street Journal to see what I have to say.

UPDATE: Read the whole thing here.

* * *

Edward G. Robinson's death scene in Soylent Green was filmed just twelve days before he died. You can view it by going here.

TT: Some are more equal than others

I'm still on the road, and in today's Wall Street Journal I report on the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' revival of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus and the Lyric Stage Company of Boston's production of Kiss Me, Kate. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Peter Shaffer rang the box-office gong twice in a row with "Equus" and "Amadeus," both of which ran for well over a thousand performances on Broadway and have since been revived there, neither for very long. Yet they're still spectacularly effective, and "Amadeus" is something more than that: Mr. Shaffer's fictionalized portrayal of the musical rivalry between Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a powerful parable of the terrible mystery of human inequality. Alas, "Amadeus" is rarely seen on stage these days, partly because Milos Forman's 1984 film version was so successful and partly because the play calls for a large and expensive cast. That's what lured me to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' new revival, a polished production authoritatively staged by Paul Mason Barnes that makes the strongest possible case for what in retrospect now looks like one of the best plays of the '70s....

tn-500_2.jpgNowadays, of course, most people know "Amadeus" from Mr. Forman's film, an opulently designed costume piece that is great fun to watch but lacks the expressionistic intensity of the original play. In the stage version, by contrast, the spotlight never moves away from Salieri, an ambitious but modestly talented composer who is driven to the brink of madness by the inexplicable fact that supreme genius and juvenile vulgarity exist side by side in Mozart, his hated competitor: "It seemed to me that I had heard the voice of God--and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard--and that it was the voice of an obscene child!"

To impersonate so tortured a soul is a daunting task, but Andrew Long, who was terrific as Antony in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of "Antony and Cleopatra" that I saw in Washington last summer, is up to the job. He plays Salieri as a grotesque, grim-faced clown, an interpretation very much in accord with Mr. Barnes' staging, which emphasizes the comic aspect of "Amadeus" without lapsing into gross caricature....

If there's a better musical than "Kiss Me, Kate," I haven't seen it. Yet Cole Porter's masterpiece, near-perfect though it is, doesn't get done nearly often enough, and I've no idea why. All the more reason, then, to welcome the Lyric Stage Company of Boston's engaging new production, directed by Spiro Veloudos, whose small scale does nothing to diminish the charms of Porter's updated version of "The Taming of the Shrew."

To cram a classic Broadway musical into a 200-seat house requires considerable ingenuity, and I was especially impressed by the choreography of Ilyse Robbins, whose production numbers, especially "Too Darn Hot" and "Always True to You in My Fashion" (the second of which shows off the excellent dancing of Michele A. DeLuca to sumptuous effect), are all the more exciting for being performed in the lap of the audience....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

September 20, 2009

FACING THE FINAL CURTAIN

"Why are deathbed masterpieces so unusual? Mainly, I suspect, because prettified Hollywood-style deaths, in which the sudden disappearance of makeup is the only outward sign that a terminal illness has reached its denouement, are so uncommon..."

September 21, 2009

TT: Almanac

My engines, after ninety days o' race an' rack an' strain
Through all the seas of all Thy world, slam-bangin' home again.

Rudyard Kipling, "M'Andrew's Hymn"

TT: You have the right to home delivery

How come nobody told me about these?

48557926.jpg

If you've never seen any of the original black-and-white Dragnet episodes from the Fifties--most of which, alas, have been out of circulation for decades--you don't know what the show was really like. As I wrote in an essay called "In Praise of Drabness" that was published last year in National Review:

Like the later color version, the Dragnet of the Fifties was a no-nonsense half-hour police procedural that sought to show how ordinary cops catch ordinary crooks. The scripts, many of which were written by James E. Moser, combined straightforwardly linear plotting ("It was Wednesday, October 6. It was sultry in Los Angeles. We were working the day watch out of homicide.") with clipped dialogue spoken in a near-monotone, all accompanied by the taut, dissonant music of Walter Schumann. Then and later, most of the shots were screen-filling talking-head closeups, a plain-Jane style of cinematography that to this day is identified with Jack Webb.

The difference was that in the Fifties, Joe Friday and Frank Smith, his chubby, mildly eccentric partner, stalked their prey in a monochromatically drab Los Angeles that seemed to consist only of shabby storefronts and bleak-looking rooms in dollar-a-night hotels. Nobody was pretty in Dragnet, and almost nobody was happy. The atmosphere was that of film noir minus the kinks--the same stark visual grammar, only cleansed of the sour tang of corruption in high places. But even without the Chandleresque pessimism that gave film noir its seedy savor, Dragnet was still rough stuff, more uncompromising than anything that had hitherto been seen on TV. In 1954 Time called the series "a sort of peephole into a grim new world. The bums, priests, con men, whining housewives, burglars, waitresses, children, and bewildered ordinary citizens who people Dragnet seem as sorrowfully genuine as old pistols in a hockshop window."

Here's the opening sequence of "The Big Cast," a 1952 Dragnet featuring Lee Marvin. It'll give you a feel for what you've been missing:

September 22, 2009

TT: Almanac

"The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is."

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark

TT: FAQ and A

Joanna Pinsker, my publicist at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, recently asked me to prepare a "self-interview" about Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong that could be sent to radio and TV producers. I was more than happy to oblige. I've posted a link to the questions and answers in the right-hand column, but in case you didn't notice it, you can read what I wrote by going here.

Assiduous readers of this blog won't find any of the information surprising, but it might possibly interest you to see how modern-day authors go about publicizing their books.

TT: Peekaboo

AUTHOR%20PHOTO%20%28KEN%20HOWARD%2C%20LO-RES%29.jpgMy last author photo is so old that it's (A) in black-and-white and (B) was shot on film. Not surprisingly, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt informed me in no uncertain terms that I needed a new digital photo for the dust jacket of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. Alas, I don't know any professional photographers, but I was lucky enough to run across a terrific one when I went to Santa Fe two months ago for the premiere of The Letter. The Santa Fe Opera employs Ken Howard to shoot its productions, and Ken was kind enough to make himself available between shows to shoot me as well.

The portrait on the left was taken one sunny afternoon in the Crosby Theater, the outdoor auditorium where The Letter was performed. The Givenchy tie that I'm wearing was the one originally belonging to Virgil Thomson that was given to me by Mrs. T as an opening-night present. I'm not especially photogenic, but I like this picture very much. I hope you do, too.

September 23, 2009

TT: Almanac

"It is when power is wedded to chronic fear that it becomes formidable."

Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind

TT: Snapshot

John Barrymore performs a scene from Shakespeare's Henry VI, filmed in 1929 for Show of Shows:

Go here to see Barrymore talking on screen about the scene he's about to play.

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

September 24, 2009

TT: Almanac

"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years."

Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

TT: So you want to see a show?

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

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

BROADWAY:
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (comedy, G, suitable for bright children, reviewed here)
God of Carnage (serious comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
South Pacific * (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
Our Town (drama, G, suitable for mature children, reviewed here)

IN ASHLAND, OREGON:
The Music Man (musical, G, very child-friendly, closes Nov. 1, reviewed here)

IN CHICAGO:
The History Boys (drama, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, too intellectually complex for most adolescents, extended through Oct. 18, reviewed here)

IN SPRING GREEN, WIS:
Long Day's Journey into Night (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, too long and demanding for some adolescents, closes Oct. 18, reviewed here)

IN STRATFORD, ONTARIO:
The Importance of Being Earnest (comedy, G, closes Oct. 30, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN ARLINGTON, VA.:
Dirty Blonde (serious comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, closes Oct. 4, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
Henry V (Shakespeare, G, closes Oct. 2, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN ST. LOUIS, MO.:
Amadeus (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 4, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN STRATFORD, ONTARIO:
Three Sisters (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 3, reviewed here)

CLOSING SATURDAY IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
The Winter's Tale (Shakespeare, PG-13, reviewed here)

CLOSING SATURDAY IN TOPANGA, CALIF.:
The Cherry Orchard (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)

September 25, 2009

TT: Almanac

"Give the people a new word and they think they have a new fact."

Willa Cather, "Four Letters: Escapism"

TT: A Cabaret to believe in

I wind up my summer travels this week with reviews of two out-of-town musicals, Trinity Rep's Cabaret in Providence, Rhode Island, and Paper Mill Playhouse's Little House on the Prairie in Millburn, New Jersey. The first is a gem, the second a dud. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

More people, I suspect, know "Cabaret" as a movie rather than a stage show nowadays. Bob Fosse's hard-edged, bisexually frank 1972 screen version, in which Joe Masteroff's book was completely rewritten and all but one of the songs were performed in a more or less naturalistic nightclub setting, was the most influential movie musical of the post-"Hair" era. Not only did Rob Marshall's 2002 film of "Chicago" owe everything to Fosse's example, but most of the major stage revivals of "Cabaret," including Sam Mendes' long-running 1999 Broadway production, have incorporated various elements inspired by or purloined from the Fosse film.

WK-AR321_THEATE_D_20090924113459.jpgCurt Columbus, the artistic director of Rhode Island's Trinity Repertory Company, has taken a different tack in his new revival of "Cabaret." Instead of trying to put Fosse's "Cabaret" on stage, he has given us a show that is substantially faithful to what Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb had in mind in the first place. This "Cabaret," unlike the film version, is an old-fashioned two-couple Broadway love story with a bracingly Brechtian dash of bitters: The songs sung by the bizarrely androgynous master of ceremonies of the Kit Kat Club (Joe Wilson, Jr.) supply ironic commentary on the futility of looking for love in a world driven mad by politics. The doomed romance of Fräulein Schneider (Phyllis Kay) and Herr Schultz (Stephen Berenson), her hapless Jewish boarder, is returned to center stage, while Sally Bowles (Rachael Warren) is not a top-dollar glamour puss but a middling hoofer who gets by on charm. Best of all, Mr. Columbus and Michael McGarty, his set designer, have hosed the polish off "Cabaret," setting their production in a run-down Weimar-era music hall that could easily have housed a real-life Kit Kat Club....

The strength of this strongly atmospheric production lies not in its individual performances but in its total effect. It is, above all, a believable "Cabaret," one that has the sharp and satisfying bite of authenticity....

The "Little House" novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder rank high among the permanent masterpieces of childhood, in large part because of the plain-spoken authenticity with which Wilder told her richly detailed autobiographical stories of pioneer life. It would take an Adam Guettel--or an Aaron Copland--to conceive and create a worthy musical-theater counterpart to what Wilder did in prose. The creators of "Little House on the Prairie: The Musical," which opened at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre last year and is now touring the regional circuit, haven't even tried. Instead, they've cuted up Wilder's books into something more like "One-Room High School Musical." The songs, by Rachel Portman and Donna di Novelli, are slick, innocuous movie-score pop, while Rachel Sheinkin's book, which stitches together familiar pieces of "By the Shores of Silver Lake," "The Long Winter" and "Little Town on the Prairie," is clumsily episodic and devoid of dramatic impetus....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

September 28, 2009

TT: Almanac

"Just as the liar's punishment is, not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe any one else; so a guilty society can more easily be persuaded that any apparently innocent act is guilty than that any apparently guilty act is innocent."

George Bernard Shaw, The Quintessence of Ibsenism

TT: Consumables

• What I saw on Broadway over the weekend: Keith Huff's A Steady Rain (with Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman) and Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts, both of which open this week.

nelliemckay.jpg• What I'm listening to: Rosanne Cash's The List (out October 6 from Manhattan) and Nellie McKay's Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day (out October 13 from Verve).

• What I'm reading: Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (out on Thursday from the Library of America) and Simon Louvish's Mae West: It Ain't No Sin.

Watch this space for further details....

OGIC: First paragraphs I love

It's so easy to stop reading a book. To find a first paragraph that commands one's extended attention at once is rare. Even among books I adore, few hit their first few hundred words out of the park. Almost all of them need a grace period of two or three or twenty pages to hook you. Here's a paragraph that I think is a great beginning of a book:

Nolan pulls into the parking garage, braced for the Rican attendant with the cojones big enough to make a point of wondering what this rusted hunk of Chevy pickup junk is doing in Jag-u-ar City. But the ticket-spitting machine doesn't much care what Nolan's driving. It lifts its arm, like a benediction, like the hand of God dividing the Red Sea. Nolan passes a dozen empty spots and drives up to the top level, where he turns in beside a dusty van that hasn't been anywhere lately. He grabs his duffel bag, jumps out, inhales, filling his lungs with damp cement-y air. So far, so good, he likes the garage. He wishes he could stay here. He finds the stairwell where he would hide were he planning a mugging, corkscrews down five flights of stairs, and plunges into the honking inferno of midafternoon Times Square.

That's the first paragraph of Francine Prose's novel A Changed Man, about a neo-Nazi trying to reform. It tells you a good deal about Nolan while dispensing gemlike phrases like "honking inferno." And it left me wanting to know much more about the reluctance for which the character "passes a dozen empty spots and drives up to the top level." It roped me right in. That doesn't mean the book as a whole will deliver--though based on my previous experience reading Francine Prose, I expect it will, and then some.

I've become such an admirer of Prose this year, beginning January 1 when I bought her most recent novel, Goldengrove, on the basis of the title's allusion to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem and D. G. Myers's recommendation. In the spring I read The Blue Angel, about a creative writing teacher entangled with a student. And last month I picked up one of her young adult novels, After, out of curiosity (retrieving the link above, I saw that Myers recently posted a review of a new YA novel by Prose). I'm more comforted than cowed to see that twelve further Prose novels await me after I finish A Changed Man. The ones I've read so far are real tours de force.

(If you get a chance to see Prose read or speak, take advantage of it. She was here in March to read a new story and take questions about Goldengrove, and it was a riveting evening even for someone who isn't generally a fan of readings. She's formidably smart and says what she thinks--she was most interesting talking about subjects I didn't agree with her about.)

Previous books whose first paragraphs I love include Elaine Dundy's The Old Man and Me, now widely available, wonderfully.

September 29, 2009

TT: Almanac

"I have (this sounds like fantastic nonsense, but it isn't) frequently caught myself positively solving some problem (of a more or less philosophical nature) in, say, the key of A minor, where I had utterly failed to reason it out in words."

Donald Francis Tovey (quoted in Mary Grierson, Donald Francis Tovey: A Biography Based on Letters)

TT: On the air

319VBJA8S0L._SL500_AA240_.jpgOn Monday I appeared on Soundcheck, WNYC's daily talk show about music, to talk about my Wall Street Journal column about deathbed masterpieces with John Schaefer, the host of Soundcheck. Also on the program was Crystal Zevon, the widow of Warren Zevon, who wrote and recorded his last album, The Wind, after he learned that he was dying of cancer.

Alas, I wasn't able to post a notice about my Soundcheck appearance due to circumstances beyond my control, but the episode has been archived, and you can listen to it via streaming audio on your computer by going here.

September 30, 2009

TT: Almanac

"Music arouses in us various emotions, but not the more terrible ones of horror, fear, rage, etc. It awakens rather the gentler feelings of tenderness and love, which readily passes into devotion."

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

TT: Snapshot

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the "Death Hunt" cue from Bernard Herrmann's score for Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground:

Go here to see the main titles from On Dangerous Ground.

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

CAAF: Exercise with the authors: Charles Dickens

overlook.jpg
With the recent glut of self-help books based on the works of great authors, I've been amusing myself with mock proposals, my favorite so far being Six-Pack Abs With Charles Bukowski. Another idea is a more generalized "exercise with the authors!"-type encyclopedia. Charles Dickens would have the first entry. From Jane Smiley's Penguin Lives biography:

It was in this period [1838ish] that he took up the habit of long, vigorous daily walks that seem almost unimaginable today for an otherwise very busy man with many obligations. At a pace of twelve to fifteen minutes per mile, he regularly covered twenty and sometimes thirty miles. Returning, as his brother-in-law said, "he looked the personification of energy, which seemed to ooze from every pore as from some hidden reservoir..."

I think of this often as last year I received a fancy GPS-style watch with which to track my walking/jogging (or "wogging"). It was a very generous present, but it's taken a lot of illusion out of my life. For example, pictured above is an overlook I walk to quite a bit that, if you asked me before, I would have told you was roughly a four-mile walk but which turns out to be more like two.

(If you have any similar "authors who exercise" tidbits, please feel free to share by email.)

CAAF: Summertime

SummerWillShow.jpgI'm reading Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show right now. It's about an Englishwoman who runs away to Paris and falls in love with her husband's mistress. I'd been wanting to read it ever since Sarah Waters named it as one of her favorite novels. At the time, it was out of print. But NYRB Classics reissued the novel this August, and I really think you couldn't do better than to get yourself a copy.

Warner was a poet as well as a novelist, and as I read I find myself admiring how this shows in how she works her sentences. It sounds like a deadly dull thing to praise, a writer's sentences, maybe because its praise that often gets awarded to books that are stultifying (meditations on a woodpile and changing cloud patterns and something-something about mortality and oh my god what page am I on it is only page 23). But the fact is Warner's sentences are unusually beautiful, and I keep wondering what it is about them that makes them so.

One particular thing I've noticed is the ratio of Latinate to Anglo-Saxon in the paragraphs. Warner's a very elegant stylist, and one danger of "elegant prose" is how easily it can become overly smooth and glassy. And then the reader slips right off the face of it. One of Warner's tricks is to pop in an Anglo-Saxon-rooted word here and there that's not only a good, just-right word, it also works like a prick to keep the paragraph from growing too smooth.

Example of elegance that would become glassy if the entire novel were like this:

Together they would look out of the window at the unfinished Ste. Clotilde, and an artistic conversation would take place, Père Hyacinthe with roulades of language expatiating on the beauties of the Gothic Frederick supplying cadences of agreement, till the two voices joined, as it were, in a duet, aspiring in thirds and sixths ...

Example of a prick in the elegance:

The pleasures of avarice were emphasized by the surroundings. It was difficult to believe that this was Paris, so nipped and dingy did it look, so down-hearted and down-at-heel. A shrewish wind was blowing.

The "shrewish" is good, but the "nipped" is perfect.

Another prick:

The smell of the sea, melancholy like a whine, rose from the filthy clucking water.

The inverse, of course, is also true. Sometimes the elegance extends and makes beautiful what would otherwise be ordinary. Here is a sentence that could have been "and they breakfasted on coffee, bread and sausage":

Some tin coffeepots, long wands of golden bread, a sausage in a paper chemise, gave a domesticated appearance to the barricade.

About September 2009

This page contains all entries posted to About Last Night in September 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

August 2009 is the previous archive.

October 2009 is the next archive.

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

Powered by
Movable Type 3.33