Jens Malte Fischer, Gustav Mahler (Yale, $50). This is the first full-scale single-volume primary-source English-language biography of Mahler, and it’s a winner. Don’t be fazed by its seven-hundred-page length–the style is straightforward, the structure clear and sensible, and Fischer never gets bogged down in superfluous detail. If you’ve read Mahler Remembered, Norman Lebrecht’s important collection of contemporary reminiscences, and want to learn more about the great composer-conductor, start here (TT).
Archives for July 2011
The Rockin’ Hammond of…Milt Buckner (Jasmine). Released in 2009, this two-for-one CD contains twenty-two hard-charging tracks originally recorded for Capitol in 1955 and 1956 by one of the unsung pioneers of jazz organ. The fare is bluesy and the mood is swinging (especially on the tracks that feature Duke Ellington’s Sam Woodyard on drums). Buckner’s trademark “locked-hands” style is in evidence throughout. Definitely not for irremediable eggheads, but if you like jazz that makes you pat your foot, prepare to turn it loose (TT).
Satchmo at the Waldorf, my first play, opens on September 15 in Orlando, Florida. Regular readers of this blog will recall that I directed a staged reading of the first part of Satchmo at the Waldorf in Winter Park back in February. (I blogged about the experience here and here.) This, however, is the real thing, a fully staged professional production featuring Dennis Neal, the star of February’s reading.
Here’s a blurb that I wrote about the play for publicity purposes:
It’s a biographer’s job to stick to the facts. In Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, I summed up what is known about the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century. But after I finished writing the book, I found that I had questions about Armstrong, and about his complex relationship with Joe Glaser, his longtime manager, that I simply couldn’t answer. How did Armstrong really feel about Glaser? And how did he feel, deep down inside, about his own life and work? Did he have any nagging doubts about the hard choices he’d made along the way? It struck me that a one-man play in which Armstrong looked back on those choices at the end of his life might prove to be very dramatic–and that it would be even more dramatic to have the same actor play Armstrong and Glaser. That’s how Satchmo at the Waldorf was born.
Satchmo at the Waldorf will be presented at Orlando Shakespeare’s Mandell Theatre. It runs Sept. 15-Oct. 2, with performances on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2:30. For information, call 407-405-8091 or e-mail SatchmoWaldorfAstoria@gmail.com.
Here’s the press release. Pass it on–and watch this space for further details.
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On September 15, Louis Armstrong comes back to life at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, where Dennis Neal stars in the world premiere of Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man play about the most beloved jazzman of all time. Set at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong performed in public for the last time before his death in 1971, Satchmo at the Waldorf is a theatrical tour de force, a play in which the same actor portrays Armstrong and Joe Glaser, the trumpeter’s controversial manager. Inspired by their actual words, the play takes a searching look at the complex relationship between the genius from New Orleans who turned jazz into a swinging art form and the hard-nosed, tough-talking ex-gangster from Chicago who made him an international icon.
The three men behind this powerhouse production include the playwright, Terry Teachout, drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and author of the best-selling biography, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong; the director, Rus Blackwell, one of Florida’s top actor-directors; and the star, Dennis Neal, a familiar face on Orlando stage and in film and television who acts with special insight into the essence of Armstrong.
In addition to being a drama critic and biographer, Teachout has also worked as a professional jazz bassist and written the libretti for two operas. He spent the past two winters as a scholar-in-residence at Rollins College’s Winter Park Institute, where he wrote the first draft of Satchmo at the Waldorf last year. Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong was praised by the New York Times as “eloquent and important” and chosen by the Washington Post as one of the ten best books of 2009. Satchmo at the Waldorf is his first play.
Teachout was the first Armstrong biographer to have access to 650 reel-to-reel tapes made by the trumpeter during the last quarter-century of his life, many of which contain astonishingly candid recordings of his private after-hours conversations. These tapes served as the inspiration for much of the dialogue in Satchmo at the Waldorf, in which the offstage Louis Armstrong–raw, frank, and uncensored–is revealed for the first time.
Rus Blackwell, one of the most sought-after actor/directors in the southeast, brings a wealth of experience and a passion for storytelling to Satchmo. Blackwell is a graduate of New York’s Circle in the Square Theatre School, where he had the opportunity to study with well-known directors Michael Kahn and Nikos Psachoropolous. Most recently, he directed Sweet Bird of Youth and A Streetcar Named Desire for the Tennessee Williams Tribute in Williams’ birthplace of Columbus, Miss. He is a founding member and former artistic director for Mad Cow Theatre Company and SoulFire Theatre here in Orlando and has an extensive resume as an actor in theatre, film and television. Some of his credits include last year’s Shotgun for Orlando Shakespeare and such feature films as Monster, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Dolphin Tale, and Battle: Los Angeles. He will be appearing on the Starz series Magic City and in this year’s God of Carnage here at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre.
Dennis Neal, one of Orlando’s most respected actors with twenty-five years’ experience, is a founding member of Mad Cow Theatre and has performed in such notable productions as The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Jesus Hopped the A Train, Seven Guitars, Two Trains Running, The Piano Lesson, and Shotgun. Theatregoers will recognize him from these and many other productions at Mad Cow Theatre, Empty Spaces, the Peoples’ Theatre, and the Orlando Shakespeare Festival, as well as from film and TV in Dead Man Walking, Wild Things, Endure, Letters to God, Sunshine State, ABC’s The Practice, and NBC’s The West Wing. He has performed in works by August Wilson, Athol Fugard, David Mamet, and Stephen Adly Guirgis, and brings his own unique style and brilliance to Satchmo at the Waldorf.
William Elliot, the set and lighting designer, has long been a favorite for his artistic interpretation of a playwright’s vision. He was a professor at the University of Central Florida and is currently professor at Stetson University teaching production and acting as the production manager and technical director for the University. Some of his notable designs include All My Sons, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, and The Importance of Being Earnest.
Louis Armstrong and the All Stars perform “Blueberry Hill” on Australian TV in 1963:
“A counterfactual account of history appeals especially to people who are disappointed in the real thing. Settled fact is unsatisfying; history as it occurs seems somehow a cheat.”
Andrew Ferguson, “What Does Newt Gingrich Know?” (New York Times Magazine, June 29, 2011)
…here’s the view from our hotel balcony overlooking the coast of Maine:
“Mr. Welles’ problem was that he wanted it both ways. He was a perfectionist who expected his collaborators to sit around endlessly waiting for him to make up his mind–and to pay for all the overtime that he ran up along the way. Simon Callow, his biographer, has summed up this failing in one devastating sentence: ‘Any form of limitation, obligation, responsibility or enforced duty was intolerable to him, rendering him claustrophobic and destructive.’ That’s the wrong kind of perfectionism, and it led, as it usually does, to disaster…”
In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I review two first-class shows that I saw on the road this past week, Shakespeare & Company’s The Memory of Water in Massachusetts and the Peterborough Players’ Ancestral Voices in New Hampshire. Here’s an excerpt.
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Sometimes familiarity breeds not contempt but delight. The dramatic potential of funerals, for instance, is well known to playwrights and screenwriters, since they typically trigger the kind of razor-sharp focus on family life and its discontents that is the stuff of good theater. Yet the subject of death and its immediate aftermath, however familiar it may be, remains inexhaustibly fertile, and Shelagh Stephenson’s “The Memory of Water,” which had its English premiere in 1996 and was first seen Off Broadway two years later, is a prime example of a play that turns an oft-told tale into something fresh and immediate. So, too, is Shakespeare & Company’s revival a wholly satisfying piece of work, a show full of bull’s-eye moments that make you sit up straight in your seat and say, “I’ve been there–that’s just how it is.”
One of the reasons why “The Memory of Water” rings so true is that the three bereaved sisters who are its central characters are portrayed with such eccentric individuality that you can’t help but suspect that they were drawn from life. Played to perfection by Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Corinna May and Kristin Wold, they flounder in the dark waters of sorrow, squabbling one moment and giggling together the next, each unable in her own way to come to terms with the memory of their gravely flawed mother (Annette Miller).
Like an old-time prospector, Ms. Stephenson is forever finding glittering nuggets of dialogue in her pan: “Your idea of getting somewhere was marrying a dentist in a sheepskin coat from the Rotary Club.” “The funeral director’s got a plastic hand.” “I don’t think that colonic irrigation was a very good idea. Not for Alzheimer’s.” But while “The Memory of Water” plays like a comedy for much of its length, many of its most impressive moments take place when the laughter dies away without warning and the characters are overwhelmed by remembered anger and present pain….
A.R. Gurney is another playwright who rarely fails to find new things to say about old subjects, and “Ancestral Voices” ranks among his strongest efforts in that line, a portrait of a family of old-money WASPs from upstate New York whose tight ranks have been cloven by the wedge of divorce. First presented by New York’s Lincoln Center Theater in 1999, “Ancestral Voices” was written to be done as a staged reading by five actors who play multiple roles and remain seated throughout the show–but Gus Kaikkonen, artistic director of New Hampshire’s Peterborough Players, has chosen instead to mount it as a fully staged play performed by a cast of 13. Though I can’t say whether Mr. Gurney would approve, Mr. Kaikkonen has directed “Ancestral Voices” with such fluidity and attention to detail that it works at least as well in this new form.
I confess with embarrassment to having misjudged “Ancestral Voices” when I saw the original production. Back then it struck me as a white-bread rewrite of Woody Allen’s “Radio Days.” Now I find it extraordinarily moving, a searching look at a class of once-confident Americans who have (in the words of one of the characters) “lost our usefulness” and are seeking new ways to live, some more successfully than others….
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Read the whole thing here.
In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I reflect on the problem of perfectionism in the arts. Here’s an excerpt.
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Twenty-six years after his death, Orson Welles is back in the news. “Chimes at Midnight,” the 1965 film version of Shakespeare’s history plays that occupied him throughout his middle age, will be shown in England next month in what is being billed as a “brand-new, never-seen-before restoration.” The reason why it had to be restored is that “Chimes at Midnight” was made independently and on the cheap, for by 1965 Welles had so antagonized the Hollywood establishment that no major studio would have anything to do with him. As a result, “Chimes at Midnight” was shot, edited and dubbed under sub-standard conditions, and the prints that have circulated since the film’s original release are all of low quality.
Welles’ long-standing difficulties with Hollywood are the stuff of legend. At bottom, though, they amount to this: He was a fanatical, impractical perfectionist who was willing to spend any amount of time and money on his films. But it was always other people’s money, and the moguls who put up the money in Hollywood did so in order to make still more money. After Welles made “Citizen Kane” in 1941, it was clear that he was neither interested in making box-office smashes nor willing to tolerate the relentless assembly-line discipline of the American film industry. Hence he spent most of the rest of his life wandering in the wilderness of underfunded independent film production, unable to fully realize any of his creative dreams.
Is it fair to say that Welles’ perfectionism laid him low? Every great artist, after all, strives for perfection. In fact, that’s part of what makes them great: They’re never entirely satisfied with anything that they do….
Alas, that kind of suffering goes with the territory. The trick, as every artist knows, is not to let it interfere with getting things done. The wisest artists are the ones who finish a new work, walk away and move on to the next project. Whenever a colleague pointed out a “mistake” in one of Dmitri Shostakovich’s compositions, he invariably responded, “Oh, I’ll fix that in my next piece.”
The road to malignant perfectionism, by contrast, starts with chronic indecision. Jerome Robbins, whose inability to make up his mind was legendary throughout the world of dance, was known for choreographing multiple versions of a variation, then waiting until the last possible minute to decide which one to use. Beyond a certain point, this kind of perfectionism is all but impossible to distinguish from unprofessionalism, and Orson Welles reached that point early in his career….
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Read the whole thing here.
Orson Welles talks about Chimes at Midnight and the character of Falstaff in a BBC interview:
“For, in certain moods, no man can weigh this world, without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the even balance.”
Herman Melville, “Hawthorne and the Mosses”