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February 28, 2014

She gave at the office

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I review two rare and interesting off-Broadway revivals, Keen Company's Middle of the Night and the Mint Theater's London Wall. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Paddy Chayefsky doesn't exactly need to be "revived," seeing as how "Network" is even more admired now than when it first came out in 1976. But nowadays most people know him only for that ferociously prophetic satire of broadcast news and for "Marty," the 1953 live-TV drama whose film version snagged a best-picture Oscar and turned him into a Hollywood screenwriter. Few recall that Chayefsky also wrote two stage plays, "Middle of the Night" (1956) and "The Tenth Man" (1959), that both had long runs on Broadway but haven't been seen in New York for years.

Now Keen Company, the Off-Broadway troupe that specializes to consistently fine effect in what its mission statement refers to as "sincere plays," has exhumed "Middle of the Night," the story of a 53-year-old New York widower (Jonathan Hadary) who falls hard for his 23-year-old secretary (Nicole Lowrance). Adapted for the stage by Chayefsky from one of his hour-long "Philco Television Playhouse" scripts, it's a kitchen-sink midlife-crisis drama with a strongly ethnic flavor--Jerry is a down-to-earth Jewish garment manufacturer, Betty a needy, emotionally immature Gentile...

Mr. Hadary and Ms. Lowrance make an affecting couple, and Jonathan Silverstein's pointed staging succeeds in papering over most of the flaws. The result is a cultural period piece that still has the power to touch the heart...

COFFEY.jpegJohn Van Druten, who used to be big (he wrote five Broadway hits in the '40s and '50s) and is now forgotten, has lately come to the attention of the Mint Theater Company, another first-class Off-Broadway troupe that specializes in "worthy but neglected plays." The Mint has just mounted the U.S. premiere of his "London Wall," a 1931 comedy set in a London law office. Unlike "Middle of the Night," this witty, impeccably crafted tale of a quartet of working women and the benighted men for whom they work has a distinctly contemporary flavor, enough so that you'll come away wondering whether Van Druten might deserve credit for inventing the workplace comedy long before it found favor on TV.

Part of what makes "London Wall" so involving is that Van Druten heightens the play's emotional stakes by homing in on the plight of Blanche Janus (perfectly played by Julia Coffey), the firm's sardonic, wised-up senior secretary, who is 35, a notch or two older than her colleagues, and all too aware of what awaits her should she fail to find a husband: "Well, what else am I to do? Stick here, and go on living at home looking after father? I'm the only one left. And then he'll die, and then what else is there? Rooms, or a boarding house, or a club for women who can't get married? Earning three pounds a week for the rest of my life. No!" Yes, "London Wall" is a romcom with a (mostly) happy ending, but the fact that Blanche is up against it--and knows it--keeps you from getting too cozy...

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 28, 11:00 AM

Must Dudamel speak out?

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column I offer my thoughts on the continued silence of Gustavo Dudamel and Valery Gergiev regarding human-rights abuses in their native lands. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

h0-gustavo-dudamel.jpgGustavo Dudamel, the 33-year-old Venezuelan conductor who is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is also a loyal alumnus of El Sistema, Venezuela's much-admired public music-education program. He continues to support El Sistema and to lead concerts by government-funded youth orchestras--and declines to criticize the repressive policies of Nicolás Maduro, the country's autocratic president, which have led to public protests that are being suppressed violently.

"I'm a musician," Mr. Dudamel has explained. "If I were a politician, I would act as a politician for my own interest. But I'm an artist, and an artist should act for everybody....I cannot allow El Sistema to become a casualty of politics. Regardless of political or public pressure, I will continue this work in Venezuela and throughout the world."

If his response has a familiar ring, it's because you've heard similar words from another internationally famous conductor, Russia's Valery Gergiev. Mr. Gergiev, who is a longtime supporter of the thuggish Vladimir Putin regime, is being harshly criticized by colleagues for not speaking out against Mr. Putin's anti-gay policies. His response? "It is wrong to suggest that I have ever supported anti-gay legislation and in all my work I have upheld equal rights for all people. I am an artist and have for over three decades worked with tens of thousands of people and many of them are indeed my friends."

Are either of those slippery statements good enough? And do artists have a responsibility to protest against moral injustice?

Let's start with what ought to be a given: No artist is obliged to create political art, however worthy the cause. To do so is to run the risk of undermining the seriousness of his art by enlisting it in the service of propaganda. On the other hand, every artist is subject to the same moral obligations as his fellow men. Even a genius has no right to shrug off the universal claims of common decency--and it's no secret that great artists as a group have an unfortunate way of doing whatever they think will best serve their own purposes....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 28, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Moss Hart on theatrical economy

"The pencil in his hand began to make quick, darting marks on the manuscript, bracketing the cuts on page after page. It was astonishing to find how much of what we had written was unnecessary, how we had underestimated an audience's ability to grasp what was needful for them to know without restating it not once but sometimes two or even three times. It was reassuring to find that so meticulous a craftsman as George Kaufman himself still had to learn the hard way the ever-constant lesson of economy."

Moss Hart, Act One

Posted February 28, 9:00 AM

February 27, 2014

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.

BROADWAY:
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
No Man's Land/Waiting for Godot (drama, PG-13, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 30, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON OFF BROADWAY:
Outside Mullingar (comedy, PG-13, closes Mar. 16, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK OFF BROADWAY:
Hamlet/Saint Joan (drama, G/PG-13, remounting of off-Broadway productions, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 9, original productions reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN ORLANDO, FLA.:
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Parts I and II (drama, G/PG-13, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 9, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY IN GLENCOE, ILL.:
Port Authority (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY IN WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.:
Old Times (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

Posted February 27, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Moss Hart on the private world of theater

"For me, the excitement of auditions, the camaraderie of actors in rehearsal, the tight and secret conspiracy against the world, which begins to grow between actors and authors and directors and is the essence of putting on a play--this, to me at any rate, is the really satisfying part of the whole process, and the only thing, I think, that ever persuades me to walk toward a typewriter once again."

Moss Hart, Act One

Posted February 27, 9:00 AM

February 26, 2014

Snapshot: a Stan Freberg commercial (II)

A 1962 commercial for Cheerios, written by Stan Freberg:

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

Posted February 26, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Moss Hart on the "rules" of theater

"The frivolity with which all theatrical activity is conducted has one consoling feature--there are no rules of behavior that apply regularly to any part of the theatre. There is nothing that one can say about acting, writing, producing or directing that cannot be revoked in the next breath. Nothing is immutable. The logic of one year is a folly of the next."

Moss Hart, Act One

Posted February 26, 9:00 AM

February 25, 2014

Lookback: the limits of companionability

From 2004:

I like getting along with people--though I wouldn't pay any price for it. But the truth is that my inclination to companionability has never been put to anything like a severe test. I have good friends whose views I think silly, but none who seem to me downright evil (and I believe in the existence of evil). I sometimes wonder what I'd do if I were to learn that a friend of mine had committed a cold-blooded murder. I like to think that I wouldn't have befriended such a person in the first place, and that's probably true--but human nature is complicated enough that I can't say so with certainty....

Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 25, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Moss Hart on laughter in the theater

"Laughter cannot be faked, no matter how much good will an audience has toward an author. For an audience, whether it consists of one person or one thousand, shortly becomes a valid one in spite of itself the moment the mechanism of listening starts to operate. Every author, unless he chooses to be willfully self-deluded, carries a Geiger counter in his inner ear that tells him quickly enough whether he has struck the false politeness of hollow laughter or the real thing. There is no mistaking it."

Moss Hart, Act One

Posted February 25, 9:00 AM

February 24, 2014

Yeah, I know, it took me long enough...

...but I finally tore myself away from you-know-what long enough to completely update the Top Five and "Out of the Past" modules of the right-hand column with an all-new set of picks.

Take a look, click on the links, and enjoy yourself.

Posted February 24, 11:44 AM

FILM

Living in Oblivion. Mrs. T and I recently treated ourselves to a viewing of Tom DiCillo's prize-winning low-budget 1995 indie flick about the making of (what else?) a low-budget indie flick. Two decades later, it remains one of the funniest and most knowing screen comedies ever made, with wonderfully well-judged performances by Steve Buscemi and Catherine Keener. Whit Stillman loves it, and so will you (TT).

Posted February 24, 11:44 AM

HISTORY

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. I only just got around to reading this Pulitzer-winning 2010 study of the Great Migration, in which Wilkerson talked to and looked at the complicated lives of three of the countless southern blacks who moved north in the '30s, '40s, and '50s to escape the nightmare of racism in the Deep South. It's not so much a piece of formal scholarship as an exercise in historically informed storytelling, but on that level it's a really remarkable piece of work, written with immense sensitivity and packed with a wealth of telling, near-novelistic detail. For once, the subtitle is no exaggeration: this really is an epic story (TT).

Posted February 24, 11:26 AM

MUSICAL

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (Walter Kerr, 219 W. 48). A brilliantly effective musical-comedy adaptation of the same 1907 novel by Roy Horniman on which Kind Hearts and Coronets was also based, with Jefferson Mays giving a fabulous performance as the multiple murder victims whom Alec Guinness portrayed in the film (TT).

Posted February 24, 11:08 AM

Tick-tock

No doubt you've heard more than enough from me about Satchmo at the Waldorf, which is currently in previews at New York's Westside Theatre and will open there next Tuesday, eight days from now. My excuse, if I need one, is that it's hard for me to think about anything else. It's a big deal when a writer's first play opens off Broadway--for the writer, anyway--and I'm finding it increasingly difficult to keep an even strain as the great day approaches.

newsatch.jpegPrior to last Friday I couldn't quite put my finger on the precise nature of the sensations that I've been experiencing. Then it hit me: I feel as though a loved one were undergoing surgery while I sit in the waiting room, waiting to find out whether she made it. Yes, John Douglas Thompson and Gordon Edelstein, the star and director of Satchmo at the Waldorf, are the best "doctors" in the world, and I trust them completely--but the fact remains that there's nothing more for me do. It's their show now.

I made a couple of minor changes to the text of Satchmo on Wednesday morning. Gordon staged them that same afternoon and John performed them in the evening. The three of us agreed afterward that they should stay in the show...and that's it for me. The show is now "frozen," meaning that what you see on stage this week is what you'll see on opening night. Yes, John continues to refine his performance--he'll do that throughout the run--but the play itself is now officially finished. All that remains is to read the reviews and see how we do at the box office. I'm still showing up at rehearsals, but only because I can't bear to be anywhere else.

It helps that I'm not taking time off from my day job. I saw three shows last week and will see two more this week, and I have three pieces to write, two for The Wall Street Journal and one for Commentary, between now and Thursday. Mrs. T returns from Florida on Wednesday, and my brother and sister-in-law are coming to New York this weekend to see a preview. On top of all that, John and I will be taping a Satchmo-related episode of Theater Talk on Friday afternoon.

In short, I've got plenty to keep me busy, for which I'm infinitely grateful. But it's still going to be a long, long week in the waiting room.

* * *

The Clyde Fitch Report, one of New York's most widely read theater blogs, interviewed me last week as part of its "Critical I" series of conversations with drama critics. The questions were excellent. To find out whether my answers were any good, go here and see for yourself.

Marc Myers of JazzWax asked me five sharp questions about Satchmo at the Waldorf over the weekend. Marc's questions, and my answers, are here.

Posted February 24, 11:00 AM

CD

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Masterworks Broadway, two CDs). A complete performance of Edward Albee's now-classic 1964 play, performed by the entire original cast: Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, George Grizzard, and Melinda Dillon. Originally produced for Columbia by Goddard Lieberson and taped four months after the Broadway premiere, this astonishing historical document has never been reissued in any format since its original release. Must listening for anyone who cares about American theater (TT).

Posted February 24, 10:58 AM

MUSEUM

Matisse as Printmaker (Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, Fla., up through Mar. 16). Sixty-three aquatints, color prints, etchings, linocuts, lithographs, and monotypes by the greatest visual artist of the twentieth century. An exquisite single-gallery show that repays close attention and multiple visits (TT).

Posted February 24, 10:58 AM

Just because: a Stan Freberg commercial (I)

A 1970 "Great American Soup" commercial, written by Stan Freberg and starring Ann Miller:

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

Posted February 24, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Moss Hart on effortful playwriting

"I took it for granted, I do not know quite why, that the more agony a play generated in the writing, the better it was likely to emerge as a play. I am inclined to believe now that the very opposite is likely to be true. Agonizing effort has a way somehow of permeating the stage and drifting out across the footlights."

Moss Hart, Act One

Posted February 24, 9:00 AM

February 21, 2014

The man that got away

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I review The Bridges of Madison County. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

The producers of "The Bridges of Madison County" were smart to bill it as "Broadway's New Romantic Musical." Full-bore romanticism is in short supply on the musical-comedy stage these days--it almost always comes slathered in just-kidding-folks irony and pastiche--and Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman hold nothing back in their stage version of Robert James Waller's 1992 novel about an itinerant photographer (Steven Pasquale) who falls for an Italian-born rural housewife (Kelli O'Hara) and spends four days wooing, winning, bedding and losing her in between assignments for the National Geographic. The score is lush, the sentiments starry-eyed, and if you're the happy owner of one of the 12 million copies of Mr. Waller's book that are currently in print, this show's for you.

BRIDGESPIC.jpeg If, on the other hand, you regard the novel and its Clint Eastwood-directed 1995 screen adaptation as sticky bucketfuls of diabetes bait, there are still reasons to see "Bridges," the first and best of which is Ms. O'Hara. Her open-hearted performance is as believably acted and immaculately sung as anything she's ever done....

Up to a point, Mr. Brown's warm, expansive score is an equally strong selling point for "Bridges." Parts of it are as musically exciting as anything heard on Broadway since Stephen Sondheim's glory days....

But Mr. Brown is rather better at writing scenes than songs, and except for "Another Life," a sweetly folk-flavored ballad sung in a flashback by Robert's ex-wife (Whitney Bashor), none of the songs in "The Bridges of Madison County" has a clear-cut, boldly shaped melodic profile--or, for that matter, a truly memorable lyric. This would be less of a problem if Mr. Brown and Ms. Norman, who wrote the book, hadn't decided to open up Mr. Waller's uneventful plot by packing "Bridges" with short ensemble numbers that illustrate the memories of its two principal characters. The result is a musical that feels dramatically choppy, and in which the songs rarely seem to pay off....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 21, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Constant Lambert on Puccini

"I once made a list of all the things that everyone lies about. Much of it is, alas, unprintable in this savagely Puritan age, but I remember that sandwiched between a reluctance to reveal the fact that one had not read The Bridge of San Luis Rey and that one couldn't compose away from the piano came the habit of disguising one's affection for the operas of Puccini."

Constant Lambert, "Puccini: A Vindication"

Posted February 21, 9:00 AM

February 20, 2014

Rally 'round the flag!

The pennant for Satchmo at the Waldorf is now flying in front of the Westside Theatre. It looks too good to be true:

0220141309.jpg

Posted February 20, 1:27 PM

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.

BROADWAY:
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
No Man's Land/Waiting for Godot (drama, PG-13, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 30, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
Outside Mullingar (comedy, PG-13, closes Mar. 16, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON OFF BROADWAY:
Hamlet/Saint Joan (drama, G/PG-13, remounting of off-Broadway productions, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 9, original productions reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN ORLANDO, FLA.:
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Parts I and II (drama, G/PG-13, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 9, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN GLENCOE, ILL.:
Port Authority (drama, PG-13, closes Mar. 2, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.:
Old Times (drama, PG-13, closes Mar. 2, reviewed here)

Posted February 20, 11:00 AM

Almanac: Constant Lambert on technique

"Those who live for technique are killed by technique."

Constant Lambert, Music Ho!

Posted February 20, 9:00 AM

February 19, 2014

Full circle

WETHREE.jpegAm I nervous about the fast-approaching opening night of Satchmo at the Waldorf? Knowing what I know about the utter unpredictability of the theater business, I'd be crazy if I weren't. Mostly, though, I just walk around feeling slightly distracted. It isn't exactly a pleasant sensation, but it could be a whole lot worse. (It's a good thing, though, that I'm not driving anywhere these days. I shudder at the thought of finding myself behind the wheel of a car right now.)

This isn't to say that I'm confident that Satchmo will go over in New York. I'm not, to put it very, very mildly, even though the previews have gone well so far. But I believe that I've done my best, such as it is, and I know that I have a singularly gifted star and director. So insofar as I can think about other things, I do. When I can't, I work, and when I haven't any work to do, I go to the Westside Theatre and hang out. It's a comforting place to be, a windowless chamber cut off from the outside world whose busy occupants are wholly dedicated to the gratifying task of ensuring that the off-Broadway transfer of my first play looks and sounds as good as is humanly possible.

The closer we get to March 4, the better I see how accurately Moss Hart described what I'm feeling right now in Act One, his 1959 autobiography. It tells the stomach-churning story of how he collaborated with George S. Kaufman on Once in a Lifetime, a comedy that opened on Broadway in 1930 after much preliminary chaos and made the twenty-five-year-old Hart a celebrity in a single stroke of good fortune (preceded by a grueling year of appallingly hard work). The book describes in excruciating detail every setback and sleepless night that stood between the writing of the first draft of Once in a Lifetime and the publication of the reviews that turned it into a hit. It's a wonderful, terrible tale whose happy ending redeems all the horrors that lead up to it.

KAUFHART.jpegJames Lapine, as it happens, has just turned Act One into a play, and his stage version open at Lincoln Center Theater later this season. I can't wait to see it, not least because I'll know by then whether Satchmo at the Waldorf is a hit, a flop, or something in between.

I read Act One for the first time when I was a teenager. I'd just joined the high-school drama club, and Hart's tales of theatrical derring-do filled me with dreams of a life on the stage, dreams that were soon supplanted by a different, more practical set of music-related fantasies. To be sure, I continued to work on shows until I graduated from college, but then I put the theater behind me--permanently, I assumed.

Even after I became the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, it never occurred to me, not even for a moment, that a time would come when I'd know exactly how Moss Hart felt as he waited for Once in a Lifetime to open:

I walked toward Once in a Lifetime for the last time--that final walk every playwright takes toward his play, knowing that it is no longer his, that it belongs to the actors and the audience now, that a part of himself is to be judged by strangers and that he can only watch it as a stranger himself. The main consideration of his day, the keystone that has dictated his every waking moment, the cause that has enlisted his being for all these months, is at an end. He moves toward his destination with mixed emotions--it is the completion he has sought, but there is the ache of finality in it. He is at last a spectator--a spectator with the largest stake in the gamble of the evening, but a spectator nonetheless.

No, it isn't pleasant. But like I said, it could be worse.

Posted February 19, 12:00 PM

Snapshot: a Leonard Bernstein premiere

Leonard Bernstein conducts the premiere performance of his Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs on Omnibus in 1955:

For a partial list of the members of the studio band, go here.

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

Posted February 19, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Constant Lambert on individuality

"The artist who is one of a group writes for that group alone, whereas the artist who expresses personal experience may in the end reach universal experience."

Constant Lambert, Music Ho!

Posted February 19, 9:00 AM

February 18, 2014

Lookback: on reading biographies backwards

From 2004:

Without exception, my friends are puzzled by my more than occasional practice of reading biographies from back to front. It puzzles me, too, even though I've been doing it for years, and I can't offer any explanation, however theoretical, for a habit that at first, second, and third glances makes no sense. All I can tell you is that for some reason not yet accessible to introspection, I often prefer to read about a person's life in reverse chronological order, starting with his death and working backwards to his birth....

Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 18, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Constant Lambert on depression

It's no good escaping your doom
By taking a ticket to Spain;
The bulging portmanteaux of gloom
Will arrive by a later train.

Constant Lambert, undated quatrain

Posted February 18, 9:00 AM

February 17, 2014

As little as possible

marquee.jpgThe first two preview performances of the off-Broadway transfer of Satchmo at the Waldorf took place on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Westside Theatre, and they both went well--very well, if I do say so myself. John Douglas Thompson got well-deserved standing ovations both times, and I came home on Sunday feeling a lot better than I did on Friday, when I flew up to New York from Orlando with snow on my heels, a show coming into town, and (as if life hadn't already been sufficiently complicated) a crippled laptop in my shoulder bag.

What next? I went to bed on Sunday and slept for twelve straight hours. Having done so, my plan for the rest of Monday is to listen to relaxing music, read an improving book, and think about nothing in particular. No deadline this afternoon, no show tonight. Life begins anew on Tuesday, but today I need a rest, and I plan to get one. See you tomorrow.

Oh, yes--if you haven't already bought tickets to see Satchmo, what's keeping you? Time's a-wasting! Go here and do so forthwith. You'll be glad you did.

Posted February 17, 11:00 AM

Just because: Sid Caesar in Little Me

Courtesy of Will Friedwald, Sid Caesar performs a scene from Little Me, the Neil Simon-Carolyn Leigh-Cy Coleman musical version of Patrick Dennis' novel, on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963. The choreography is by Bob Fosse:

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

Posted February 17, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Mark Twain on laughter

"Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution--these can lift at a colossal humbug,--push it a little--crowd it a little--weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand."

Mark Twain, "Chronicle of Young Satan" (courtesy of Tim Hulsey)

Posted February 17, 9:00 AM

February 14, 2014

Out of the depths

In today's Wall Street Journal I review a rare American revival by Orlando Shakespeare Theater of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Before "Angels in America," there was "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby." The Royal Shakespeare Company's eight-and-a-half-hour-long stage version of Charles Dickens' 1839 novel, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, transferred to Broadway from London's West End in 1981, snapped up a best-play Tony and created in a single stroke the modern vogue for the marathon multi-part shows that have come to be known as "event theater."

os-nicholas-nickelby-part-1-review-20140124-001.jpegNot surprisingly, revivals of "Nicholas Nickleby," which calls for 39 actors, are rare. Accordingly, David Edgar, who wrote the script, prepared an abridged version in 2006 that has since been mounted three times on this side of the Atlantic. Now Orlando Shakespeare Theater has taken it on, with results that are both spectacular and satisfying. I didn't see the original production, which by all accounts was a miracle of creative stagecraft, but it's hard to imagine that it was more moving--or fun--than Orlando Shakespeare's six-and-a-half-hour version, directed by Jim Helsinger and Christopher Niess, whose 27 actors (who play 150-odd characters) are deployed with infinite resourcefulness....

For Dickens, characterization was caricature: Nicholas is the Good Guy, Ralph the Bad Guy, and everybody else is an elaborately drawn cartoon. That's what makes his novels so hard for many contemporary readers to get through--and what makes them so effective when adapted for the stage or the screen. Instead of wading through page-long thickets of broad-brush description, you watch talented actors portraying the characters, which frees you to focus on the plot and dialogue.

That's where Orlando Shakespeare's "Nicholas Nickleby" shines most brightly: The cast is consistently superior, starting with Greg Thornton, who plays Ralph as a hawk-faced, flint-hearted monster of self-will who, like Ebenezer Scrooge, has renounced human kindness. "All love is cant and vanity," he rasps, and you know at once that the fires of hell await him. What is most impressive about Mr. Thornton's performance, though, is that it isn't a caricature: You believe in its reality, which makes Ralph's decision to live without love even more horrifying....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

The opening scene of the original Royal Shakespeare Company production of Nicholas Nickleby, telecast in 1983:

Posted February 14, 11:00 AM

More than a rag

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column, I look at the developing controversy over the possible removal of a painting by Pablo Picasso from a famous New York skyscraper. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Pablo Picasso's most readily accessible painting isn't in a museum. It hangs in a New York restaurant--a restaurant that is housed in a building whose owner reportedly thinks that the painting is a piece of junk and wants to get rid of it.

Picasso1959_650.jpg"Le Tricorne" is a 19-foot-high canvas that Picasso painted in 1919 for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. It was originally used as a curtain for "The Three-Cornered Hat," a now-classic ballet composed by Manuel de Falla and choreographed by Léonide Massine for which Picasso designed the sets and costumes. John Richardson, Picasso's biographer, considers the décor for the ballet to be his "supreme theatrical achievement," and the curtain is a priceless relic, one of the last surviving souvenirs of the most influential ballet company of the 20th century. Forty years after Picasso painted it, Philip Johnson incorporated "Le Tricorne" into his plans for the Four Seasons Restaurant, which is located in Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, a 38-story skyscraper that is itself a classic of modern architecture. Ever since the Four Seasons opened in 1959, "Le Tricorne" has hung in the entryway, where it can be seen not only by patrons but by passers-by. The interior of the Four Seasons was designated as a landmark in 1989, meaning that it can't be altered without official approval.

End of story...right? Not even close.

Because "Le Tricorne" is a painting, it's not a physical part of the Seagram Building. So even though it's now owned by the New York City Landmarks Conservancy, it's not covered by the landmark designation--and Aby Rosen, a real-estate developer whose company, RFR Holding, owns the building, wants to move it. RFR is claiming that the wall on which "Le Tricorne" was hung by Johnson is in imminent danger of collapse and needs to be rebuilt. The Museum of Modern Art has offered to store "Le Tricorne" but not to display it, and art conservators believe that the painting, which is brittle, can't be moved without destroying it.

According to the New York Times, Mr. Rosen, an art collector who goes in for avant-garde work, doesn't like "Le Tricorne" and would prefer to hang pieces from his own collection in the space that it currently occupies. One person actually claims to have heard him dismiss the painting as a "schmatte," which is Yiddish for "rag." And since Mr. Rosen owns the Seagram Building, he's legally entitled to demand that the Landmarks Commission remove "Le Tricorne," even if it fails to survive....

Mr. Rosen claims to appreciate art. Well, here's the acid test of his appreciation. Is it really so important for him to hang his Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons pieces in a space that was custom-tailored by Philip Johnson to show off a treasure of modernism like "Le Tricorne"? Now's his chance to show that he truly cares about great art....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 14, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Anthony Powell on facing facts

"There was nothing like facing facts. They blew into the face hard, like a stiff, exhilarating, decidedly gritty breeze, which brought sanity with it, even though sanity might be unwelcome."

Anthony Powell, The Kindly Ones

Posted February 14, 9:00 AM

February 13, 2014

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.

BROADWAY:
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
No Man's Land/Waiting for Godot (drama, PG-13, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 30, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
Outside Mullingar (comedy, PG-13, closes Mar. 16, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON OFF BROADWAY:
Hamlet/Saint Joan (drama, G/PG-13, remounting of off-Broadway production, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 9, original production reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN GLENCOE, ILL.:
Port Authority (drama, PG-13, closes Mar. 2, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.:
Old Times (drama, PG-13, closes Mar. 2, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY ON BROADWAY:
Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, G/PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)

Posted February 13, 11:00 AM

Almanac: Anthony Powell on love

"In real life, things are much worse than as represented in books. In books, you love someobdy and want them, win them or lose them. In real life, so often, you love them and don't want them, or want them and don't love them."

Anthony Powell, The Kindly Ones

Posted February 13, 10:00 AM

February 12, 2014

Snapshot: Albert Schweitzer plays Bach in Africa

Albert Schweitzer practices Bach on the pedal piano at his hospital in Africa:

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

Posted February 12, 11:00 AM

Almanac: Anthony Powell on the committed man

"His reactions placed him more and more as a recognisable type, spending much of his time in boredom and loneliness, yet in some way inhibited from taking in anything relevant about other people: at home only with 'causes.'"

Anthony Powell, At Lady Molly's

Posted February 12, 10:00 AM

February 11, 2014

Oasis

I'm flying back to New York on Thursday after a month and a half in Florida. I haven't been on vacation--nothing like it--but my stay wasn't exactly frenzied, either. Everything will change, however, as soon as I get off the plane. Not only must I grapple simultaneously with a snowstorm, a string of press previews and deadlines, and the inescapable turmoil of the fast-approaching opening night of Satchmo at the Waldorf, whose first public preview performance takes place on Saturday, but I'll also be looking after three houseguests this weekend. My life, in other words, will soon be turned upside down and shaken vigorously, and I'm already feeling the weight of what's to come.

Marie-Jose_in_a_Yellow_Dress_%28III%29_358_462_s.jpgIn order to calm myself, I went this afternoon to Matisse as Printmaker, a touring exhibition of sixty-three aquatints, color prints, etchings, linocuts, lithographs, and monotypes that is up at Rollins College's Cornell Fine Arts Museum through March 16. I was exceedingly frazzled when I walked into the museum, but within a minute or two I had already started to decompress, and an hour later I was myself again.

I've loved Matisse's sensuous art ever since I first took an interest in painting, but never before have I fully appreciated this oft-quoted, oft-misunderstood remark of his:

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter--a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

Art, of course, does many and various things. I doubt, though, that most people who have occasion to reflect on its myriad powers typically think first of its ability to console, to bring serenity to a troubled soul. I was in need of consolation today, and Matisse gave it to me.

CORTOT%20DRYPOINT.jpgQuite a few of the works on paper included in "Matisse as Printmaker" will be familiar to those who know his work well, but one of them, a drypoint called "The Pianist Alfred Cortot," was new to me. Cortot is one of my all-time favorite musicians, a recreative genius--no lesser word is strong enough--whose recorded performances of the music of Chopin, Schumann, Debussy, and Ravel are almost as important to me as the pieces themselves. He was also, I regret to say, a collabo who served as Vichy's High Commissioner of Fine Arts and played in Nazi Germany, and that despicable fact will taint the memory of his artistry to the end of time. Yet the artistry itself was and is beyond question, and it is fascinating to see what Matisse made of Cortot's characterful face in 1927, long before he chose to break bread with Hitler's henchmen.

Would that art existed in a realm beyond such temporal horrors, but it does not and cannot. Yet it is still capable of lifting us out of the world, out of ourselves, and that is what "Matisse as Printmaker" did for me: it gave me solace and brought me a bit of peace on a troubled afternoon.

* * *

Alfred Cortot plays Ravel's Sonatine:

Posted February 11, 3:19 PM

Lookback: Woody Allen's Pygmalion complex

From 2004, some thoughts on Woody Allen's fixations:

On the surface, Annie Hall purports to tell the tale of how his peculiarities alienate the woman he loves, but its true subject matter is how their relationship actually makes Diane Keaton a better person. I suppose this must have been the first on-screen manifestation of Allen's Pygmalion complex, which in Manhattan would explicitly reveal itself as an obsession with malleable young women. The trouble with such fixations, of course, is that even though the obsessed one grows inexorably older, the objects of his affection stay the same age--and we all know where that leads....

Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 11, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Anthony Powell on teasing

"I found later that she was indeed what is called 'a tease,' perhaps the only outward indication that her inner life was not altogether happy; since there is no greater sign of innate misery than a love of teasing."

Anthony Powell, At Lady Molly's

Posted February 11, 9:00 AM

February 10, 2014

Countdown

The first public preview of the off-Broadway production of Satchmo at the Waldorf takes place on Saturday night at the Westside Theatre. The posters are already up in the lobby, and I'll be flying back to New York on Thursday to take part in the final rehearsals. I'm told by my colleagues that the show is in excellent shape, but it's the public that has the last word, and five days from now they'll be speaking it for the first time.

SATCHMO%20FRONT-OF-HOUSE%20PHOTO.JPGHow do I feel? A bit distracted, sometimes mildly queasy, but mostly pretty calm. This is, after all, the fifth staging of Satchmo to hit the boards since the play was premiered in Orlando three years ago. Of course we've yet to do it in New York, but while the stakes are higher this time around, the experience is pretty much the same--so far.

Perhaps I'll feel differently come Saturday, or on March 4, our official opening night. Perhaps I'll be vomiting backstage, the way Moss Hart always did before a show of his opened. "I have been sick in the men's room every opening night of a play of mine in theatres all over the country," he confessed in Act One, his autobiography. That strikes me as highly unlikely--I can't remember the last time I threw up--but the fact that my first play is about to be produced in New York is even less likely, so you never know.

In any case, I'm not really excited yet, though I'm sure I will be by week's end. What I am is ready. I'm ready to find out how New Yorkers respond to Satchmo at the Waldorf, and to make whatever changes seem justified by their response. To be sure, I'm not expecting to do anything drastic to the script, but once again, you never know.

Mainly, though, I just want to see the curtain go up (figuratively speaking--we don't have one). I started working on Satchmo in 2010. I don't know whether it's as good as it can be, but four years later, I suspect it's just about as good as I can make it. The rest will be up to John Douglas Thompson and Gordon Edelstein--and to you. Come see what we've wrought, and cheer if you feel like it. I hope you do.

Posted February 10, 11:00 AM

Just because: Art Carney plays Kaufman and Hart

An excerpt from a TV production of You Can't Take It With You, directed by Paul Bogart and starring Art Carney, Howard Hesseman, and Jean Stapleton. This adaptation of the stage play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman was originally telecast on CBS in 1979:

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

Posted February 10, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Anthony Powell on egotism

"His manner of asking personal questions was of that kind not uncommonly to be found which is completely divorced from any interest in the answer. He was always prepared to embark on a lengthy cross-examination of almost anyone he might meet, at the termination of which--apart from such details as might chance to concern himself--he had absorbed no more about the person interrogated than he knew at the outset of the conversation. At the same time this process seemed somehow to gratify his own egotism."

Anthony Powell, At Lady Molly's

Posted February 10, 9:00 AM

February 7, 2014

See me, hear me (cont'd)

duke_lg.jpgIf you live in the vicinity of Winter Park, Florida, I'm taking part tonight in a performance of excerpts from Duke Ellington's sacred concerts that will be presented by John Sinclair, Chuck Archard, and a chorus and big band put together by Rollins College's Department of Music. In addition to supplying the narration, I'll be speaking about Ellington's religious beliefs and the history of his three full-evening sacred concerts, which were premiered in 1965, 1968, and 1973.

The performance kicks off at 7:30 at Winter Park's First Congregational Church, 225 S. Interlachen Ave. For more information, go here.

Posted February 07, 11:29 AM

Three's a crowd

In today's Wall Street Journal I review a regional revival, Palm Beach Dramaworks' Old Times, and the Broadway transfer of a new play, Bronx Bombers. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

One of the funniest characters in "Tootsie" is a scraggly-looking avant-garde playwright who sums up his goal in life as follows: "I like it when a guy comes up to me a week later and says, 'Hey, man, I saw your play...what happened?" Many people have been known to come away from the plays of Harold Pinter asking the same thing. It's not that Mr. Pinter's characters utter nonsense--their conversations typically sound like commonplace small talk--but they habitually talk past one another, and you soon realize that what they're saying and what they mean are irreconcilably at odds.

oldtimes.jpgAnd just what do they mean? In "Old Times," a 1971 Pinter three-hander that has been revived to outstanding effect by Palm Beach Dramaworks, it's unsettlingly hard to know. The situation seems clear enough at first: Deeley (Craig Wroe) and Kate (Shannon Koob), a fortyish married couple, are entertaining a houseguest named Anna (Pilar Witherspoon) who knew Kate 20 years ago. Were they lovers? Possibly. Are Anna and Deeley now competing for the strangely passive Kate's attention? Definitely. Beyond that, though, all is ambiguity, and critics have put forth varying interpretations of the situation portrayed in "Old Times," some of which are peculiar in the extreme. (Maybe Kate and Anna are really the same person! Maybe they're all dead!)

Mr. Pinter never tips his hand, and you need not entertain wild-eyed theories about the "meaning" of "Old Times" to relish the fast-mounting intricacies of the human chess match that is being played out before your eyes. Indeed, one of the best things about this production, stealthily directed by J. Barry Lewis, is that it keeps you guessing all the way to the end--and beyond....

Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser, the producers of "Bronx Bombers," have cooked up between them what appears to be a brand-new theatrical genre: the organized-sports docudrama. Working in tandem with playwright-director Eric Simonson, they've now brought three such plays to Broadway. The first one, "Lombardi," which opened there in 2010 and had a 271-performance run, was a smartly crafted piece of commercial entertainment that was more than well-made enough to appeal to playgoers who, like me, knew next to nothing about Vince Lombardi or the Green Bay Packers. Not so "Magic/Bird," an evasive exercise in basketball-themed hagiography that paid tedious homage to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and closed up shop after a month.

"Bronx Bombers" falls somewhere between those goalposts. An evening-long paean to Yogi Berra (played by Peter Scolari, lately of A.R. Gurney's "Family Furniture") and the New York Yankees, it has a pretty good first act, but stalls out after intermission with a dramatically static dream sequence in which Berra and his wife Carmen (Tracy Shayne) entertain a tableful of great Yankees of the past. If you don't know who Elston Howard and Thurman Munson were, you'll find the plot (such as it is) hard to follow, at times to the point of opaqueness....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 07, 11:00 AM

Almanac: Alec Guinness on acting technique

"When I watch, say, Maggie Smith, I have no awareness of any 'technical' accomplishment, no perception of any wheels which may be going round; what she does just seems to me mesmeric and true. If the 'technique' or mechanics show, then there must be something wrong. In any case I don't want to know; I just want to believe, enjoy and be taken into another world."

Alec Guinness, A Commonplace Book

Posted February 07, 10:00 AM

February 6, 2014

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.

BROADWAY:
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
No Man's Land/Waiting for Godot (drama, PG-13, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 30, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
Outside Mullingar (comedy, PG-13, closes Mar. 16, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
Hamlet/Saint Joan (drama, G/PG-13, remounting of off-Broadway production, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 9, original production reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN GLENCOE, ILL.:
Port Authority (drama, PG-13, closes Mar. 2, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK ON BROADWAY:
Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, G/PG-13, closes Feb. 16, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY OFF BROADWAY:
King Lear (Shakespeare, PG-13, reviewed here)
The Commons of Pensacola (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

Posted February 06, 11:00 AM

Almanac: Anthony Burgess on literature that moralizes

"As is well known, literature ceases to be literature when it commits itself to moral uplift; it becomes moral philosophy or some such dull thing."

Anthony Burgess, The Kingdom of the Wicked

Posted February 06, 10:00 AM

February 5, 2014

GOING ON AND ON AND ON ABOUT BARBARA STANWYCK

"How long should a biography be? Most modern readers seem to agree that the story of anyone other than a major world-historical figure or an artist of the highest significance can be adequately told in a single volume of roughly 400 pages. This is especially true of artists whose work is more interesting than their lives or personalities, as is typically the case with film actors. It is rare to encounter a movie star who, like James Stewart, also led a consequential life off-screen (he commanded a bomber squadron during World War II). Far more common are performers such as Fred Astaire or Humphrey Bogart whose 'real' lives are to be found in their films and whose private lives, though not without interest, do not lend themselves to memorable extended discussion..."

Posted February 05, 8:34 PM

Snapshot: James Baldwin in 1963

A rare TV interview with James Baldwin, originally telecast in 1963 on Miami's WCKT:

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

Posted February 05, 12:00 AM

Almanac: James Baldwin on sentimentality

"Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart, and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty."

James Baldwin, "Everybody's Protest Novel"

Posted February 05, 12:00 AM

February 4, 2014

Really big shows

0209beatlessullivanB.jpgEd Sullivan is in the news this week, sort of: Sunday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Most people under the age of fifty know nothing about Sullivan or his variety show, which ran on CBS from 1948 to 1971, but in its day it was a program of immense cultural significance. I've written about it on several occasions, most recently in Commentary in 2010:

Countless families ritually watched it together in their living rooms every Sunday night. Though [Elvis] Presley and the Beatles, who appeared in 1964, are Sullivan's best-remembered guests, some 10,000-odd other performers and groups--among them Woody Allen, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Irving Berlin, George Carlin, Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Noël Coward, Judy Garland, the Muppets, Edith Piaf, Richard Pryor, Barbra Streisand, and the Supremes--were seen on the show during its 23-year-run. In the Fifties and Sixties, to be booked by Sullivan was universally regarded as a sure sign that an up-and-coming performer was well on the way to stardom. "When Ed put his arm around you and pulled you over and said, 'She's a really funny little lady,'" Carol Burnett recalled, "America said, 'She's a really funny little lady.'"

I've long been fascinated by Sullivan's role in the formation of our now-defunct middlebrow common culture, so I thought it might be fun to commemorate the Beatles' American TV debut by offering a statistical snapshot of exactly who played The Ed Sullivan Show. Here are the names of some of Sullivan's best-remembered guests, followed by the number of times they appeared on the show:

Roberta Peters (41)
Alan King (37)
The Muppets (25)
Victor Borge (24)
Pearl Bailey (23)
ed%20sullivan%20and%20jackie%20mason.jpgJackie Mason (20)
Louis Armstrong (18)
Tony Bennett (15)
Eartha Kitt (15)
The Supremes (15)
Sophie Tucker (15)
Richard Rodgers (14)
Nat "King" Cole (13)
Peggy Lee (13)
Johnny Mathis (13)
Richard Pryor (13)
Mickey Mantle (12)
Flip Wilson (12)
Jack Benny (11)
Cab Calloway (11)
George Carlin (11)
The Beatles (10)
Duke Ellington (10)
Sammy Davis, Jr. (8)
Ethel Merman (8)
Bob Newhart (8)
Edith Piaf (8)
Edward Villella (8)
Count Basie (7)
Willie Mays (7)
Gwen Verdon (7)
The Harlem Globetrotters (6)
Mahalia Jackson (6)
Buster Keaton (6)
Charles Laughton (6)
Liberace (6)
Birgit Nilsson (6)
Ed%20Sullivan%20Time.jpgThe Rolling Stones (6)
Joan Sutherland (6)
The Temptations (6)
Fred Astaire (5)
Carol Burnett (5)
Bing Crosby (5)
Mort Sahl (5)
Barbra Streisand (5)
Woody Allen (4)
Margot Fonteyn (4)
Erroll Garner (4)
Lena Horne (4)
Gladys Knight and the Pips (4)
Lauritz Melchior (4)
Itzhak Perlman (4)
Andrés Segovia (4)
Chet Atkins (3)
Richard Burton (3)
Jacques d'Amboise (3)
Buck Owens (3)
Elvis Presley (3)
The Beach Boys (2)
James Brown (2)
Ray Charles (2)
Van Cliburn (2)
George M. Cohan (2)
Noël Coward (2)
Creedence Clearwater Revival (2)
Judy Garland (2)
Buddy Holly and the Crickets (2)
Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (2)
Rudolf Nureyev (2)
Ezio Pinza (2)
Buddy Rich (2)
Jerome Robbins' Ballets: U.S.A. (2)
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (2)
Leontyne Price (2)
Sly and the Family Stone (2)
Mel Tormé (2)
Stevie Wonder (2)
Marian Anderson (1)
The Band (1)
Albert Brooks (1)
The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1)
The Byrds (1)
Maria Callas (1)
Johnny Cash (1)
Salvador Dali (1) Ed-Sullivan-Salvador-Dali.jpg
The Doors (1)
Marvin Gaye (1)
John Gielgud (1)
Jefferson Airplane (1)
The Joffrey Ballet (1)
James Earl Jones (1)
Janis Joplin (1)
B.B. King (1)
Babe Ruth (1)
Albert Schweitzer (1)
Ravi Shankar (1)
Beverly Sills (1)
Tennessee Williams (1)

* * *

The opening of The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964:

Posted February 04, 12:00 PM

Lookback: is playing classical music an intellectual activity?

From 2004:

All of which leads me to ask: is the performance of classical music an intellectual activity? Did the breadth of Glenn Gould's culture make him a better interpreter of Bach? I wonder. I've known a lot of musicians in my time, some of whom were damned smart and some of whom were (ahem) less so, and I rarely noticed any clear-cut relationship between what went into their heads and what came out of their fingers or mouths. (In my more limited experience, the same is true of dancers and painters.) I'm not saying that a stupid person can become a successful musician, but I'm not so sure that having read T.S. Eliot equips you to play Beethoven's Op. 111 well....

Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 04, 11:00 AM

See me, hear me (cont'd)

terry-teachout-duke-ellington-man-behind-mask-38.jpegIf you live in the vicinity of Winter Park, Florida, I'm lecturing about Duke Ellington tonight at Rollins College. My talk, which is called "Duke Ellington: The Man Behind the Mask," is based on my newly published Ellington biography. A jazz combo led by Chuck Archard is accompanying me, and I'll also be showing Ellington-related film clips and (as usual) taking questions from the audience.

The event takes place at Tiedtke Concert Hall and starts at seven p.m. sharp. No tickets or reservations are required. For more information, go here.

Posted February 04, 8:15 AM

Almanac: Ronald Knox on false tolerance

"Like many men who always see two sides to a question, he loved to discharge his conscience by leaning on the counsel of those who saw only one."

Ronald Knox, Barchester Pilgrimage

Posted February 04, 8:00 AM

February 3, 2014

On your mark

BfFpURoCQAApVVp.jpgI arose at four a.m. last Tuesday and flew from Florida to New York to take part in a "straight six" rehearsal (six hours, no lunch break) for Satchmo at the Waldorf. It was forty degrees colder in Manhattan than in Orlando, and the cabby who picked me up at the airport was puzzled by the fact that I'd chosen to come north.

"You in town on business?" he asked.

"I'm here to rehearse a play," I replied.

"Huh. So, what are you? The director?"

"Writer."

I said it casually--or tried to--but it still felt to me as though trumpets were playing a fanfare somewhere in the distance.

55674.jpgWe're working at the New 42nd Street Studios, next door to the American Airlines Theatre, where I saw the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Machinal a couple of weeks ago. "What production, sir?" the man at the front desk asked, then handed me a laminated Satchmo at the Waldorf studio pass. I took the elevator to the seventh floor, noticing as I got off that Aladdin, the new Disney musical, is being rehearsed next door in the Jerome Robbins Studio. A plaque on the door to our space, the Mike Ockrent Studio, bore the following motto: REHEARSAL IS THE BEST PART.

I guess it's for keeps this time, I said to myself. Then I took a deep breath, walked in, and said hello to everybody. A few minutes later we were off and running, and a few more minutes after that I was swept up once again in the all-consuming process of staging a play.

What happens in a rehearsal hall stays in a rehearsal hall, but I can tell you that everything is going smoothly, just as it has ever since Gordon Edelstein, John Douglas Thompson, and I started working on Satchmo in 2012. I've added four short scenes to the script since the play was last performed in Philadelphia, three musical sequences and a new speech. This was the first time that I'd seen them acted, and they all looked and sounded convincing. In addition, I rewrote on the spot another bit that had long given us trouble, feeling as I did so just like...well, like a professional playwright.

BfFqknICEAA3UsT.jpgAfter rehearsal I grabbed a bite to eat, then went to the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre to see Outside Mullingar, John Patrick Shanley's new play. The next day I flew back to Florida and Mrs. T. We dined on leftovers and watched Tootsie, which opens with a montage of scenes from unsuccessful auditions at which Dustin Hoffman's character fails to get the part. Not surprisingly, this sequence is much more meaningful to me today than when I saw Tootsie in the theater thirty-two years ago. (Incidentally, I stole one of Joe Glaser's lines in Satchmo at the Waldorf from Tootsie. So far, nobody's noticed.)

I spent Tuesday evening with a new friend, a singer who hails from a very small town very far from New York. While my friend loves her new home, she confessed to me over dinner that she'd been feeling a bit blue of late, mainly because of the horrific difficulties facing any performer who tries to make her way in a place like this at a time like this. "I've been doing pretty well for myself," she said, "but the longer I live here, the more I feel like singing 'Is That All There Is?'" But then we ate our meal and strolled across the street to see our show, and the next day she sent me an e-mail that read as follows: "Thank you for such a delightful evening. You helped me remember how magical New York City can be."

I knew exactly what she meant, because I'd been thinking much the same thing all day long. Sometimes living here is like sticking your head in a pencil sharpener and turning the handle yourself, and there are plenty of days when I mutter Damn this place anyway! and start trying to figure out how to get the hell out of town for good. Yet there are also the times when a security guard says "What production, sir?" and hands me a badge with the name of my first play printed on it, and I find myself whistling a different tune in a major key.

Love it or hate it--or, just as likely, both--there's no place in the world like the theater district of New York. Especially when you've got a show coming in.

* * *

Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin, and Frank Sinatra sing "New York, New York," by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, in the 1949 film version of On the Town:

Posted February 03, 12:00 PM

Just because: Julian Bream plays Villa-Lobos

Julian Bream plays Villa-Lobos' Choros No. 1 in E Minor:

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

Posted February 03, 11:00 AM

Almanac: Alec Guinness on fools

"I neither suffer myself, nor other fools, gladly."

Alec Guinness, A Commonplace Book

Posted February 03, 10:00 AM

February 2, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman, R.I.P.

"Artists are artists because they have an extra sensitivity--a skin less, perhaps, than other people." So said Benjamin Britten, and I remembered his words when I learned that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of a heroin overdose.

Actors are peculiarly sensitive creatures. Some of them are so desperate for approval and unsure of their own identities that they will go to great and dangerous lengths merely to get through the day, much less a performance. I know nothing about Hoffman's private life, but anyone who dies as he did must have felt the pain of the damned. That he still managed to leave behind so much eloquent evidence of his extraordinary talent now looks in retrospect like something of a miracle.

LOMAN.jpgHoffman was as good on stage as on screen, and I had the honor to review his performance as Willy Loman in Mike Nichols' 2012 revival of Death of a Salesman. This is what I wrote about it:

Philip Seymour Hoffman, the star of Mike Nichols' revival of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," is following in the well-remembered footsteps of Lee J. Cobb, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman and Brian Dennehy, and it's a tribute to his talent that you won't feel inclined to compare him to any of his predecessors. When he first comes trudging onto the stage, carrying his weatherbeaten sample cases as though each one contains half the weight of the world, you feel at once that you're seeing not a performance but a person, stooped and stunned by the burden of failure. No sooner does he sigh "Oh, boy, oh, boy" than you forget all about the actor and follow Willy down the stony road to the open grave that awaits him at play's end.

I'm glad I was there that night. I hope he was proud of what he did.

* * *

A scene from Capote, written by Dan Futterman, directed by Bennett Miller, and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Chris Cooper:

Posted February 02, 8:15 PM

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February 2, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman, R.I.P.

"Artists are artists because they have an extra sensitivity--a skin less, perhaps, than other people." So said Benjamin Britten, and I remembered his words when I learned that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of a heroin overdose.

Actors are peculiarly sensitive creatures. Some of them are so desperate for approval and unsure of their own identities that they will go to great and dangerous lengths merely to get through the day, much less a performance. I know nothing about Hoffman's private life, but anyone who dies as he did must have felt the pain of the damned. That he still managed to leave behind so much eloquent evidence of his extraordinary talent now looks in retrospect like something of a miracle.

LOMAN.jpgHoffman was as good on stage as on screen, and I had the honor to review his performance as Willy Loman in Mike Nichols' 2012 revival of Death of a Salesman. This is what I wrote about it:

Philip Seymour Hoffman, the star of Mike Nichols' revival of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," is following in the well-remembered footsteps of Lee J. Cobb, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman and Brian Dennehy, and it's a tribute to his talent that you won't feel inclined to compare him to any of his predecessors. When he first comes trudging onto the stage, carrying his weatherbeaten sample cases as though each one contains half the weight of the world, you feel at once that you're seeing not a performance but a person, stooped and stunned by the burden of failure. No sooner does he sigh "Oh, boy, oh, boy" than you forget all about the actor and follow Willy down the stony road to the open grave that awaits him at play's end.

I'm glad I was there that night. I hope he was proud of what he did.

* * *

A scene from Capote, written by Dan Futterman, directed by Bennett Miller, and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Chris Cooper:

February 3, 2014

Almanac: Alec Guinness on fools

"I neither suffer myself, nor other fools, gladly."

Alec Guinness, A Commonplace Book

Just because: Julian Bream plays Villa-Lobos

Julian Bream plays Villa-Lobos' Choros No. 1 in E Minor:

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

On your mark

BfFpURoCQAApVVp.jpgI arose at four a.m. last Tuesday and flew from Florida to New York to take part in a "straight six" rehearsal (six hours, no lunch break) for Satchmo at the Waldorf. It was forty degrees colder in Manhattan than in Orlando, and the cabby who picked me up at the airport was puzzled by the fact that I'd chosen to come north.

"You in town on business?" he asked.

"I'm here to rehearse a play," I replied.

"Huh. So, what are you? The director?"

"Writer."

I said it casually--or tried to--but it still felt to me as though trumpets were playing a fanfare somewhere in the distance.

55674.jpgWe're working at the New 42nd Street Studios, next door to the American Airlines Theatre, where I saw the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Machinal a couple of weeks ago. "What production, sir?" the man at the front desk asked, then handed me a laminated Satchmo at the Waldorf studio pass. I took the elevator to the seventh floor, noticing as I got off that Aladdin, the new Disney musical, is being rehearsed next door in the Jerome Robbins Studio. A plaque on the door to our space, the Mike Ockrent Studio, bore the following motto: REHEARSAL IS THE BEST PART.

I guess it's for keeps this time, I said to myself. Then I took a deep breath, walked in, and said hello to everybody. A few minutes later we were off and running, and a few more minutes after that I was swept up once again in the all-consuming process of staging a play.

What happens in a rehearsal hall stays in a rehearsal hall, but I can tell you that everything is going smoothly, just as it has ever since Gordon Edelstein, John Douglas Thompson, and I started working on Satchmo in 2012. I've added four short scenes to the script since the play was last performed in Philadelphia, three musical sequences and a new speech. This was the first time that I'd seen them acted, and they all looked and sounded convincing. In addition, I rewrote on the spot another bit that had long given us trouble, feeling as I did so just like...well, like a professional playwright.

BfFqknICEAA3UsT.jpgAfter rehearsal I grabbed a bite to eat, then went to the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre to see Outside Mullingar, John Patrick Shanley's new play. The next day I flew back to Florida and Mrs. T. We dined on leftovers and watched Tootsie, which opens with a montage of scenes from unsuccessful auditions at which Dustin Hoffman's character fails to get the part. Not surprisingly, this sequence is much more meaningful to me today than when I saw Tootsie in the theater thirty-two years ago. (Incidentally, I stole one of Joe Glaser's lines in Satchmo at the Waldorf from Tootsie. So far, nobody's noticed.)

I spent Tuesday evening with a new friend, a singer who hails from a very small town very far from New York. While my friend loves her new home, she confessed to me over dinner that she'd been feeling a bit blue of late, mainly because of the horrific difficulties facing any performer who tries to make her way in a place like this at a time like this. "I've been doing pretty well for myself," she said, "but the longer I live here, the more I feel like singing 'Is That All There Is?'" But then we ate our meal and strolled across the street to see our show, and the next day she sent me an e-mail that read as follows: "Thank you for such a delightful evening. You helped me remember how magical New York City can be."

I knew exactly what she meant, because I'd been thinking much the same thing all day long. Sometimes living here is like sticking your head in a pencil sharpener and turning the handle yourself, and there are plenty of days when I mutter Damn this place anyway! and start trying to figure out how to get the hell out of town for good. Yet there are also the times when a security guard says "What production, sir?" and hands me a badge with the name of my first play printed on it, and I find myself whistling a different tune in a major key.

Love it or hate it--or, just as likely, both--there's no place in the world like the theater district of New York. Especially when you've got a show coming in.

* * *

Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin, and Frank Sinatra sing "New York, New York," by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, in the 1949 film version of On the Town:

February 4, 2014

Almanac: Ronald Knox on false tolerance

"Like many men who always see two sides to a question, he loved to discharge his conscience by leaning on the counsel of those who saw only one."

Ronald Knox, Barchester Pilgrimage

See me, hear me (cont'd)

terry-teachout-duke-ellington-man-behind-mask-38.jpegIf you live in the vicinity of Winter Park, Florida, I'm lecturing about Duke Ellington tonight at Rollins College. My talk, which is called "Duke Ellington: The Man Behind the Mask," is based on my newly published Ellington biography. A jazz combo led by Chuck Archard is accompanying me, and I'll also be showing Ellington-related film clips and (as usual) taking questions from the audience.

The event takes place at Tiedtke Concert Hall and starts at seven p.m. sharp. No tickets or reservations are required. For more information, go here.

Lookback: is playing classical music an intellectual activity?

From 2004:

All of which leads me to ask: is the performance of classical music an intellectual activity? Did the breadth of Glenn Gould's culture make him a better interpreter of Bach? I wonder. I've known a lot of musicians in my time, some of whom were damned smart and some of whom were (ahem) less so, and I rarely noticed any clear-cut relationship between what went into their heads and what came out of their fingers or mouths. (In my more limited experience, the same is true of dancers and painters.) I'm not saying that a stupid person can become a successful musician, but I'm not so sure that having read T.S. Eliot equips you to play Beethoven's Op. 111 well....

Read the whole thing here.

Really big shows

0209beatlessullivanB.jpgEd Sullivan is in the news this week, sort of: Sunday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Most people under the age of fifty know nothing about Sullivan or his variety show, which ran on CBS from 1948 to 1971, but in its day it was a program of immense cultural significance. I've written about it on several occasions, most recently in Commentary in 2010:

Countless families ritually watched it together in their living rooms every Sunday night. Though [Elvis] Presley and the Beatles, who appeared in 1964, are Sullivan's best-remembered guests, some 10,000-odd other performers and groups--among them Woody Allen, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Irving Berlin, George Carlin, Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Noël Coward, Judy Garland, the Muppets, Edith Piaf, Richard Pryor, Barbra Streisand, and the Supremes--were seen on the show during its 23-year-run. In the Fifties and Sixties, to be booked by Sullivan was universally regarded as a sure sign that an up-and-coming performer was well on the way to stardom. "When Ed put his arm around you and pulled you over and said, 'She's a really funny little lady,'" Carol Burnett recalled, "America said, 'She's a really funny little lady.'"

I've long been fascinated by Sullivan's role in the formation of our now-defunct middlebrow common culture, so I thought it might be fun to commemorate the Beatles' American TV debut by offering a statistical snapshot of exactly who played The Ed Sullivan Show. Here are the names of some of Sullivan's best-remembered guests, followed by the number of times they appeared on the show:

Roberta Peters (41)
Alan King (37)
The Muppets (25)
Victor Borge (24)
Pearl Bailey (23)
ed%20sullivan%20and%20jackie%20mason.jpgJackie Mason (20)
Louis Armstrong (18)
Tony Bennett (15)
Eartha Kitt (15)
The Supremes (15)
Sophie Tucker (15)
Richard Rodgers (14)
Nat "King" Cole (13)
Peggy Lee (13)
Johnny Mathis (13)
Richard Pryor (13)
Mickey Mantle (12)
Flip Wilson (12)
Jack Benny (11)
Cab Calloway (11)
George Carlin (11)
The Beatles (10)
Duke Ellington (10)
Sammy Davis, Jr. (8)
Ethel Merman (8)
Bob Newhart (8)
Edith Piaf (8)
Edward Villella (8)
Count Basie (7)
Willie Mays (7)
Gwen Verdon (7)
The Harlem Globetrotters (6)
Mahalia Jackson (6)
Buster Keaton (6)
Charles Laughton (6)
Liberace (6)
Birgit Nilsson (6)
Ed%20Sullivan%20Time.jpgThe Rolling Stones (6)
Joan Sutherland (6)
The Temptations (6)
Fred Astaire (5)
Carol Burnett (5)
Bing Crosby (5)
Mort Sahl (5)
Barbra Streisand (5)
Woody Allen (4)
Margot Fonteyn (4)
Erroll Garner (4)
Lena Horne (4)
Gladys Knight and the Pips (4)
Lauritz Melchior (4)
Itzhak Perlman (4)
Andrés Segovia (4)
Chet Atkins (3)
Richard Burton (3)
Jacques d'Amboise (3)
Buck Owens (3)
Elvis Presley (3)
The Beach Boys (2)
James Brown (2)
Ray Charles (2)
Van Cliburn (2)
George M. Cohan (2)
Noël Coward (2)
Creedence Clearwater Revival (2)
Judy Garland (2)
Buddy Holly and the Crickets (2)
Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (2)
Rudolf Nureyev (2)
Ezio Pinza (2)
Buddy Rich (2)
Jerome Robbins' Ballets: U.S.A. (2)
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (2)
Leontyne Price (2)
Sly and the Family Stone (2)
Mel Tormé (2)
Stevie Wonder (2)
Marian Anderson (1)
The Band (1)
Albert Brooks (1)
The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1)
The Byrds (1)
Maria Callas (1)
Johnny Cash (1)
Salvador Dali (1) Ed-Sullivan-Salvador-Dali.jpg
The Doors (1)
Marvin Gaye (1)
John Gielgud (1)
Jefferson Airplane (1)
The Joffrey Ballet (1)
James Earl Jones (1)
Janis Joplin (1)
B.B. King (1)
Babe Ruth (1)
Albert Schweitzer (1)
Ravi Shankar (1)
Beverly Sills (1)
Tennessee Williams (1)

* * *

The opening of The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964:

February 5, 2014

Almanac: James Baldwin on sentimentality

"Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart, and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty."

James Baldwin, "Everybody's Protest Novel"

Snapshot: James Baldwin in 1963

A rare TV interview with James Baldwin, originally telecast in 1963 on Miami's WCKT:

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

GOING ON AND ON AND ON ABOUT BARBARA STANWYCK

"How long should a biography be? Most modern readers seem to agree that the story of anyone other than a major world-historical figure or an artist of the highest significance can be adequately told in a single volume of roughly 400 pages. This is especially true of artists whose work is more interesting than their lives or personalities, as is typically the case with film actors. It is rare to encounter a movie star who, like James Stewart, also led a consequential life off-screen (he commanded a bomber squadron during World War II). Far more common are performers such as Fred Astaire or Humphrey Bogart whose 'real' lives are to be found in their films and whose private lives, though not without interest, do not lend themselves to memorable extended discussion..."

February 6, 2014

Almanac: Anthony Burgess on literature that moralizes

"As is well known, literature ceases to be literature when it commits itself to moral uplift; it becomes moral philosophy or some such dull thing."

Anthony Burgess, The Kingdom of the Wicked

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.

BROADWAY:
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
No Man's Land/Waiting for Godot (drama, PG-13, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 30, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
Outside Mullingar (comedy, PG-13, closes Mar. 16, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
Hamlet/Saint Joan (drama, G/PG-13, remounting of off-Broadway production, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 9, original production reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN GLENCOE, ILL.:
Port Authority (drama, PG-13, closes Mar. 2, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK ON BROADWAY:
Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, G/PG-13, closes Feb. 16, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY OFF BROADWAY:
King Lear (Shakespeare, PG-13, reviewed here)
The Commons of Pensacola (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

February 7, 2014

Almanac: Alec Guinness on acting technique

"When I watch, say, Maggie Smith, I have no awareness of any 'technical' accomplishment, no perception of any wheels which may be going round; what she does just seems to me mesmeric and true. If the 'technique' or mechanics show, then there must be something wrong. In any case I don't want to know; I just want to believe, enjoy and be taken into another world."

Alec Guinness, A Commonplace Book

Three's a crowd

In today's Wall Street Journal I review a regional revival, Palm Beach Dramaworks' Old Times, and the Broadway transfer of a new play, Bronx Bombers. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

One of the funniest characters in "Tootsie" is a scraggly-looking avant-garde playwright who sums up his goal in life as follows: "I like it when a guy comes up to me a week later and says, 'Hey, man, I saw your play...what happened?" Many people have been known to come away from the plays of Harold Pinter asking the same thing. It's not that Mr. Pinter's characters utter nonsense--their conversations typically sound like commonplace small talk--but they habitually talk past one another, and you soon realize that what they're saying and what they mean are irreconcilably at odds.

oldtimes.jpgAnd just what do they mean? In "Old Times," a 1971 Pinter three-hander that has been revived to outstanding effect by Palm Beach Dramaworks, it's unsettlingly hard to know. The situation seems clear enough at first: Deeley (Craig Wroe) and Kate (Shannon Koob), a fortyish married couple, are entertaining a houseguest named Anna (Pilar Witherspoon) who knew Kate 20 years ago. Were they lovers? Possibly. Are Anna and Deeley now competing for the strangely passive Kate's attention? Definitely. Beyond that, though, all is ambiguity, and critics have put forth varying interpretations of the situation portrayed in "Old Times," some of which are peculiar in the extreme. (Maybe Kate and Anna are really the same person! Maybe they're all dead!)

Mr. Pinter never tips his hand, and you need not entertain wild-eyed theories about the "meaning" of "Old Times" to relish the fast-mounting intricacies of the human chess match that is being played out before your eyes. Indeed, one of the best things about this production, stealthily directed by J. Barry Lewis, is that it keeps you guessing all the way to the end--and beyond....

Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser, the producers of "Bronx Bombers," have cooked up between them what appears to be a brand-new theatrical genre: the organized-sports docudrama. Working in tandem with playwright-director Eric Simonson, they've now brought three such plays to Broadway. The first one, "Lombardi," which opened there in 2010 and had a 271-performance run, was a smartly crafted piece of commercial entertainment that was more than well-made enough to appeal to playgoers who, like me, knew next to nothing about Vince Lombardi or the Green Bay Packers. Not so "Magic/Bird," an evasive exercise in basketball-themed hagiography that paid tedious homage to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and closed up shop after a month.

"Bronx Bombers" falls somewhere between those goalposts. An evening-long paean to Yogi Berra (played by Peter Scolari, lately of A.R. Gurney's "Family Furniture") and the New York Yankees, it has a pretty good first act, but stalls out after intermission with a dramatically static dream sequence in which Berra and his wife Carmen (Tracy Shayne) entertain a tableful of great Yankees of the past. If you don't know who Elston Howard and Thurman Munson were, you'll find the plot (such as it is) hard to follow, at times to the point of opaqueness....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

See me, hear me (cont'd)

duke_lg.jpgIf you live in the vicinity of Winter Park, Florida, I'm taking part tonight in a performance of excerpts from Duke Ellington's sacred concerts that will be presented by John Sinclair, Chuck Archard, and a chorus and big band put together by Rollins College's Department of Music. In addition to supplying the narration, I'll be speaking about Ellington's religious beliefs and the history of his three full-evening sacred concerts, which were premiered in 1965, 1968, and 1973.

The performance kicks off at 7:30 at Winter Park's First Congregational Church, 225 S. Interlachen Ave. For more information, go here.

February 10, 2014

Almanac: Anthony Powell on egotism

"His manner of asking personal questions was of that kind not uncommonly to be found which is completely divorced from any interest in the answer. He was always prepared to embark on a lengthy cross-examination of almost anyone he might meet, at the termination of which--apart from such details as might chance to concern himself--he had absorbed no more about the person interrogated than he knew at the outset of the conversation. At the same time this process seemed somehow to gratify his own egotism."

Anthony Powell, At Lady Molly's

Just because: Art Carney plays Kaufman and Hart

An excerpt from a TV production of You Can't Take It With You, directed by Paul Bogart and starring Art Carney, Howard Hesseman, and Jean Stapleton. This adaptation of the stage play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman was originally telecast on CBS in 1979:

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

Countdown

The first public preview of the off-Broadway production of Satchmo at the Waldorf takes place on Saturday night at the Westside Theatre. The posters are already up in the lobby, and I'll be flying back to New York on Thursday to take part in the final rehearsals. I'm told by my colleagues that the show is in excellent shape, but it's the public that has the last word, and five days from now they'll be speaking it for the first time.

SATCHMO%20FRONT-OF-HOUSE%20PHOTO.JPGHow do I feel? A bit distracted, sometimes mildly queasy, but mostly pretty calm. This is, after all, the fifth staging of Satchmo to hit the boards since the play was premiered in Orlando three years ago. Of course we've yet to do it in New York, but while the stakes are higher this time around, the experience is pretty much the same--so far.

Perhaps I'll feel differently come Saturday, or on March 4, our official opening night. Perhaps I'll be vomiting backstage, the way Moss Hart always did before a show of his opened. "I have been sick in the men's room every opening night of a play of mine in theatres all over the country," he confessed in Act One, his autobiography. That strikes me as highly unlikely--I can't remember the last time I threw up--but the fact that my first play is about to be produced in New York is even less likely, so you never know.

In any case, I'm not really excited yet, though I'm sure I will be by week's end. What I am is ready. I'm ready to find out how New Yorkers respond to Satchmo at the Waldorf, and to make whatever changes seem justified by their response. To be sure, I'm not expecting to do anything drastic to the script, but once again, you never know.

Mainly, though, I just want to see the curtain go up (figuratively speaking--we don't have one). I started working on Satchmo in 2010. I don't know whether it's as good as it can be, but four years later, I suspect it's just about as good as I can make it. The rest will be up to John Douglas Thompson and Gordon Edelstein--and to you. Come see what we've wrought, and cheer if you feel like it. I hope you do.

February 11, 2014

Almanac: Anthony Powell on teasing

"I found later that she was indeed what is called 'a tease,' perhaps the only outward indication that her inner life was not altogether happy; since there is no greater sign of innate misery than a love of teasing."

Anthony Powell, At Lady Molly's

Lookback: Woody Allen's Pygmalion complex

From 2004, some thoughts on Woody Allen's fixations:

On the surface, Annie Hall purports to tell the tale of how his peculiarities alienate the woman he loves, but its true subject matter is how their relationship actually makes Diane Keaton a better person. I suppose this must have been the first on-screen manifestation of Allen's Pygmalion complex, which in Manhattan would explicitly reveal itself as an obsession with malleable young women. The trouble with such fixations, of course, is that even though the obsessed one grows inexorably older, the objects of his affection stay the same age--and we all know where that leads....

Read the whole thing here.

Oasis

I'm flying back to New York on Thursday after a month and a half in Florida. I haven't been on vacation--nothing like it--but my stay wasn't exactly frenzied, either. Everything will change, however, as soon as I get off the plane. Not only must I grapple simultaneously with a snowstorm, a string of press previews and deadlines, and the inescapable turmoil of the fast-approaching opening night of Satchmo at the Waldorf, whose first public preview performance takes place on Saturday, but I'll also be looking after three houseguests this weekend. My life, in other words, will soon be turned upside down and shaken vigorously, and I'm already feeling the weight of what's to come.

Marie-Jose_in_a_Yellow_Dress_%28III%29_358_462_s.jpgIn order to calm myself, I went this afternoon to Matisse as Printmaker, a touring exhibition of sixty-three aquatints, color prints, etchings, linocuts, lithographs, and monotypes that is up at Rollins College's Cornell Fine Arts Museum through March 16. I was exceedingly frazzled when I walked into the museum, but within a minute or two I had already started to decompress, and an hour later I was myself again.

I've loved Matisse's sensuous art ever since I first took an interest in painting, but never before have I fully appreciated this oft-quoted, oft-misunderstood remark of his:

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter--a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

Art, of course, does many and various things. I doubt, though, that most people who have occasion to reflect on its myriad powers typically think first of its ability to console, to bring serenity to a troubled soul. I was in need of consolation today, and Matisse gave it to me.

CORTOT%20DRYPOINT.jpgQuite a few of the works on paper included in "Matisse as Printmaker" will be familiar to those who know his work well, but one of them, a drypoint called "The Pianist Alfred Cortot," was new to me. Cortot is one of my all-time favorite musicians, a recreative genius--no lesser word is strong enough--whose recorded performances of the music of Chopin, Schumann, Debussy, and Ravel are almost as important to me as the pieces themselves. He was also, I regret to say, a collabo who served as Vichy's High Commissioner of Fine Arts and played in Nazi Germany, and that despicable fact will taint the memory of his artistry to the end of time. Yet the artistry itself was and is beyond question, and it is fascinating to see what Matisse made of Cortot's characterful face in 1927, long before he chose to break bread with Hitler's henchmen.

Would that art existed in a realm beyond such temporal horrors, but it does not and cannot. Yet it is still capable of lifting us out of the world, out of ourselves, and that is what "Matisse as Printmaker" did for me: it gave me solace and brought me a bit of peace on a troubled afternoon.

* * *

Alfred Cortot plays Ravel's Sonatine:

February 12, 2014

Almanac: Anthony Powell on the committed man

"His reactions placed him more and more as a recognisable type, spending much of his time in boredom and loneliness, yet in some way inhibited from taking in anything relevant about other people: at home only with 'causes.'"

Anthony Powell, At Lady Molly's

Snapshot: Albert Schweitzer plays Bach in Africa

Albert Schweitzer practices Bach on the pedal piano at his hospital in Africa:

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

February 13, 2014

Almanac: Anthony Powell on love

"In real life, things are much worse than as represented in books. In books, you love someobdy and want them, win them or lose them. In real life, so often, you love them and don't want them, or want them and don't love them."

Anthony Powell, The Kindly Ones

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.

BROADWAY:
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
No Man's Land/Waiting for Godot (drama, PG-13, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 30, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
Outside Mullingar (comedy, PG-13, closes Mar. 16, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON OFF BROADWAY:
Hamlet/Saint Joan (drama, G/PG-13, remounting of off-Broadway production, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 9, original production reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN GLENCOE, ILL.:
Port Authority (drama, PG-13, closes Mar. 2, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.:
Old Times (drama, PG-13, closes Mar. 2, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY ON BROADWAY:
Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, G/PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)

February 14, 2014

Almanac: Anthony Powell on facing facts

"There was nothing like facing facts. They blew into the face hard, like a stiff, exhilarating, decidedly gritty breeze, which brought sanity with it, even though sanity might be unwelcome."

Anthony Powell, The Kindly Ones

More than a rag

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column, I look at the developing controversy over the possible removal of a painting by Pablo Picasso from a famous New York skyscraper. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Pablo Picasso's most readily accessible painting isn't in a museum. It hangs in a New York restaurant--a restaurant that is housed in a building whose owner reportedly thinks that the painting is a piece of junk and wants to get rid of it.

Picasso1959_650.jpg"Le Tricorne" is a 19-foot-high canvas that Picasso painted in 1919 for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. It was originally used as a curtain for "The Three-Cornered Hat," a now-classic ballet composed by Manuel de Falla and choreographed by Léonide Massine for which Picasso designed the sets and costumes. John Richardson, Picasso's biographer, considers the décor for the ballet to be his "supreme theatrical achievement," and the curtain is a priceless relic, one of the last surviving souvenirs of the most influential ballet company of the 20th century. Forty years after Picasso painted it, Philip Johnson incorporated "Le Tricorne" into his plans for the Four Seasons Restaurant, which is located in Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, a 38-story skyscraper that is itself a classic of modern architecture. Ever since the Four Seasons opened in 1959, "Le Tricorne" has hung in the entryway, where it can be seen not only by patrons but by passers-by. The interior of the Four Seasons was designated as a landmark in 1989, meaning that it can't be altered without official approval.

End of story...right? Not even close.

Because "Le Tricorne" is a painting, it's not a physical part of the Seagram Building. So even though it's now owned by the New York City Landmarks Conservancy, it's not covered by the landmark designation--and Aby Rosen, a real-estate developer whose company, RFR Holding, owns the building, wants to move it. RFR is claiming that the wall on which "Le Tricorne" was hung by Johnson is in imminent danger of collapse and needs to be rebuilt. The Museum of Modern Art has offered to store "Le Tricorne" but not to display it, and art conservators believe that the painting, which is brittle, can't be moved without destroying it.

According to the New York Times, Mr. Rosen, an art collector who goes in for avant-garde work, doesn't like "Le Tricorne" and would prefer to hang pieces from his own collection in the space that it currently occupies. One person actually claims to have heard him dismiss the painting as a "schmatte," which is Yiddish for "rag." And since Mr. Rosen owns the Seagram Building, he's legally entitled to demand that the Landmarks Commission remove "Le Tricorne," even if it fails to survive....

Mr. Rosen claims to appreciate art. Well, here's the acid test of his appreciation. Is it really so important for him to hang his Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons pieces in a space that was custom-tailored by Philip Johnson to show off a treasure of modernism like "Le Tricorne"? Now's his chance to show that he truly cares about great art....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Out of the depths

In today's Wall Street Journal I review a rare American revival by Orlando Shakespeare Theater of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Before "Angels in America," there was "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby." The Royal Shakespeare Company's eight-and-a-half-hour-long stage version of Charles Dickens' 1839 novel, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, transferred to Broadway from London's West End in 1981, snapped up a best-play Tony and created in a single stroke the modern vogue for the marathon multi-part shows that have come to be known as "event theater."

os-nicholas-nickelby-part-1-review-20140124-001.jpegNot surprisingly, revivals of "Nicholas Nickleby," which calls for 39 actors, are rare. Accordingly, David Edgar, who wrote the script, prepared an abridged version in 2006 that has since been mounted three times on this side of the Atlantic. Now Orlando Shakespeare Theater has taken it on, with results that are both spectacular and satisfying. I didn't see the original production, which by all accounts was a miracle of creative stagecraft, but it's hard to imagine that it was more moving--or fun--than Orlando Shakespeare's six-and-a-half-hour version, directed by Jim Helsinger and Christopher Niess, whose 27 actors (who play 150-odd characters) are deployed with infinite resourcefulness....

For Dickens, characterization was caricature: Nicholas is the Good Guy, Ralph the Bad Guy, and everybody else is an elaborately drawn cartoon. That's what makes his novels so hard for many contemporary readers to get through--and what makes them so effective when adapted for the stage or the screen. Instead of wading through page-long thickets of broad-brush description, you watch talented actors portraying the characters, which frees you to focus on the plot and dialogue.

That's where Orlando Shakespeare's "Nicholas Nickleby" shines most brightly: The cast is consistently superior, starting with Greg Thornton, who plays Ralph as a hawk-faced, flint-hearted monster of self-will who, like Ebenezer Scrooge, has renounced human kindness. "All love is cant and vanity," he rasps, and you know at once that the fires of hell await him. What is most impressive about Mr. Thornton's performance, though, is that it isn't a caricature: You believe in its reality, which makes Ralph's decision to live without love even more horrifying....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

The opening scene of the original Royal Shakespeare Company production of Nicholas Nickleby, telecast in 1983:

February 17, 2014

Almanac: Mark Twain on laughter

"Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution--these can lift at a colossal humbug,--push it a little--crowd it a little--weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand."

Mark Twain, "Chronicle of Young Satan" (courtesy of Tim Hulsey)

Just because: Sid Caesar in Little Me

Courtesy of Will Friedwald, Sid Caesar performs a scene from Little Me, the Neil Simon-Carolyn Leigh-Cy Coleman musical version of Patrick Dennis' novel, on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963. The choreography is by Bob Fosse:

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

As little as possible

marquee.jpgThe first two preview performances of the off-Broadway transfer of Satchmo at the Waldorf took place on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Westside Theatre, and they both went well--very well, if I do say so myself. John Douglas Thompson got well-deserved standing ovations both times, and I came home on Sunday feeling a lot better than I did on Friday, when I flew up to New York from Orlando with snow on my heels, a show coming into town, and (as if life hadn't already been sufficiently complicated) a crippled laptop in my shoulder bag.

What next? I went to bed on Sunday and slept for twelve straight hours. Having done so, my plan for the rest of Monday is to listen to relaxing music, read an improving book, and think about nothing in particular. No deadline this afternoon, no show tonight. Life begins anew on Tuesday, but today I need a rest, and I plan to get one. See you tomorrow.

Oh, yes--if you haven't already bought tickets to see Satchmo, what's keeping you? Time's a-wasting! Go here and do so forthwith. You'll be glad you did.

February 18, 2014

Almanac: Constant Lambert on depression

It's no good escaping your doom
By taking a ticket to Spain;
The bulging portmanteaux of gloom
Will arrive by a later train.

Constant Lambert, undated quatrain

Lookback: on reading biographies backwards

From 2004:

Without exception, my friends are puzzled by my more than occasional practice of reading biographies from back to front. It puzzles me, too, even though I've been doing it for years, and I can't offer any explanation, however theoretical, for a habit that at first, second, and third glances makes no sense. All I can tell you is that for some reason not yet accessible to introspection, I often prefer to read about a person's life in reverse chronological order, starting with his death and working backwards to his birth....

Read the whole thing here.

February 19, 2014

Almanac: Constant Lambert on individuality

"The artist who is one of a group writes for that group alone, whereas the artist who expresses personal experience may in the end reach universal experience."

Constant Lambert, Music Ho!

Snapshot: a Leonard Bernstein premiere

Leonard Bernstein conducts the premiere performance of his Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs on Omnibus in 1955:

For a partial list of the members of the studio band, go here.

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

Full circle

WETHREE.jpegAm I nervous about the fast-approaching opening night of Satchmo at the Waldorf? Knowing what I know about the utter unpredictability of the theater business, I'd be crazy if I weren't. Mostly, though, I just walk around feeling slightly distracted. It isn't exactly a pleasant sensation, but it could be a whole lot worse. (It's a good thing, though, that I'm not driving anywhere these days. I shudder at the thought of finding myself behind the wheel of a car right now.)

This isn't to say that I'm confident that Satchmo will go over in New York. I'm not, to put it very, very mildly, even though the previews have gone well so far. But I believe that I've done my best, such as it is, and I know that I have a singularly gifted star and director. So insofar as I can think about other things, I do. When I can't, I work, and when I haven't any work to do, I go to the Westside Theatre and hang out. It's a comforting place to be, a windowless chamber cut off from the outside world whose busy occupants are wholly dedicated to the gratifying task of ensuring that the off-Broadway transfer of my first play looks and sounds as good as is humanly possible.

The closer we get to March 4, the better I see how accurately Moss Hart described what I'm feeling right now in Act One, his 1959 autobiography. It tells the stomach-churning story of how he collaborated with George S. Kaufman on Once in a Lifetime, a comedy that opened on Broadway in 1930 after much preliminary chaos and made the twenty-five-year-old Hart a celebrity in a single stroke of good fortune (preceded by a grueling year of appallingly hard work). The book describes in excruciating detail every setback and sleepless night that stood between the writing of the first draft of Once in a Lifetime and the publication of the reviews that turned it into a hit. It's a wonderful, terrible tale whose happy ending redeems all the horrors that lead up to it.

KAUFHART.jpegJames Lapine, as it happens, has just turned Act One into a play, and his stage version open at Lincoln Center Theater later this season. I can't wait to see it, not least because I'll know by then whether Satchmo at the Waldorf is a hit, a flop, or something in between.

I read Act One for the first time when I was a teenager. I'd just joined the high-school drama club, and Hart's tales of theatrical derring-do filled me with dreams of a life on the stage, dreams that were soon supplanted by a different, more practical set of music-related fantasies. To be sure, I continued to work on shows until I graduated from college, but then I put the theater behind me--permanently, I assumed.

Even after I became the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, it never occurred to me, not even for a moment, that a time would come when I'd know exactly how Moss Hart felt as he waited for Once in a Lifetime to open:

I walked toward Once in a Lifetime for the last time--that final walk every playwright takes toward his play, knowing that it is no longer his, that it belongs to the actors and the audience now, that a part of himself is to be judged by strangers and that he can only watch it as a stranger himself. The main consideration of his day, the keystone that has dictated his every waking moment, the cause that has enlisted his being for all these months, is at an end. He moves toward his destination with mixed emotions--it is the completion he has sought, but there is the ache of finality in it. He is at last a spectator--a spectator with the largest stake in the gamble of the evening, but a spectator nonetheless.

No, it isn't pleasant. But like I said, it could be worse.

February 20, 2014

Almanac: Constant Lambert on technique

"Those who live for technique are killed by technique."

Constant Lambert, Music Ho!

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.

BROADWAY:
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
No Man's Land/Waiting for Godot (drama, PG-13, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 30, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
Outside Mullingar (comedy, PG-13, closes Mar. 16, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON OFF BROADWAY:
Hamlet/Saint Joan (drama, G/PG-13, remounting of off-Broadway productions, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 9, original productions reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN ORLANDO, FLA.:
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Parts I and II (drama, G/PG-13, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 9, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN GLENCOE, ILL.:
Port Authority (drama, PG-13, closes Mar. 2, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.:
Old Times (drama, PG-13, closes Mar. 2, reviewed here)

Rally 'round the flag!

The pennant for Satchmo at the Waldorf is now flying in front of the Westside Theatre. It looks too good to be true:

0220141309.jpg

February 21, 2014

Almanac: Constant Lambert on Puccini

"I once made a list of all the things that everyone lies about. Much of it is, alas, unprintable in this savagely Puritan age, but I remember that sandwiched between a reluctance to reveal the fact that one had not read The Bridge of San Luis Rey and that one couldn't compose away from the piano came the habit of disguising one's affection for the operas of Puccini."

Constant Lambert, "Puccini: A Vindication"

The man that got away

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I review The Bridges of Madison County. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

The producers of "The Bridges of Madison County" were smart to bill it as "Broadway's New Romantic Musical." Full-bore romanticism is in short supply on the musical-comedy stage these days--it almost always comes slathered in just-kidding-folks irony and pastiche--and Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman hold nothing back in their stage version of Robert James Waller's 1992 novel about an itinerant photographer (Steven Pasquale) who falls for an Italian-born rural housewife (Kelli O'Hara) and spends four days wooing, winning, bedding and losing her in between assignments for the National Geographic. The score is lush, the sentiments starry-eyed, and if you're the happy owner of one of the 12 million copies of Mr. Waller's book that are currently in print, this show's for you.

BRIDGESPIC.jpeg If, on the other hand, you regard the novel and its Clint Eastwood-directed 1995 screen adaptation as sticky bucketfuls of diabetes bait, there are still reasons to see "Bridges," the first and best of which is Ms. O'Hara. Her open-hearted performance is as believably acted and immaculately sung as anything she's ever done....

Up to a point, Mr. Brown's warm, expansive score is an equally strong selling point for "Bridges." Parts of it are as musically exciting as anything heard on Broadway since Stephen Sondheim's glory days....

But Mr. Brown is rather better at writing scenes than songs, and except for "Another Life," a sweetly folk-flavored ballad sung in a flashback by Robert's ex-wife (Whitney Bashor), none of the songs in "The Bridges of Madison County" has a clear-cut, boldly shaped melodic profile--or, for that matter, a truly memorable lyric. This would be less of a problem if Mr. Brown and Ms. Norman, who wrote the book, hadn't decided to open up Mr. Waller's uneventful plot by packing "Bridges" with short ensemble numbers that illustrate the memories of its two principal characters. The result is a musical that feels dramatically choppy, and in which the songs rarely seem to pay off....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

February 24, 2014

Almanac: Moss Hart on effortful playwriting

"I took it for granted, I do not know quite why, that the more agony a play generated in the writing, the better it was likely to emerge as a play. I am inclined to believe now that the very opposite is likely to be true. Agonizing effort has a way somehow of permeating the stage and drifting out across the footlights."

Moss Hart, Act One

Just because: a Stan Freberg commercial (I)

A 1970 "Great American Soup" commercial, written by Stan Freberg and starring Ann Miller:

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

MUSEUM

Matisse as Printmaker (Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, Fla., up through Mar. 16). Sixty-three aquatints, color prints, etchings, linocuts, lithographs, and monotypes by the greatest visual artist of the twentieth century. An exquisite single-gallery show that repays close attention and multiple visits (TT).

CD

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Masterworks Broadway, two CDs). A complete performance of Edward Albee's now-classic 1964 play, performed by the entire original cast: Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, George Grizzard, and Melinda Dillon. Originally produced for Columbia by Goddard Lieberson and taped four months after the Broadway premiere, this astonishing historical document has never been reissued in any format since its original release. Must listening for anyone who cares about American theater (TT).

Tick-tock

No doubt you've heard more than enough from me about Satchmo at the Waldorf, which is currently in previews at New York's Westside Theatre and will open there next Tuesday, eight days from now. My excuse, if I need one, is that it's hard for me to think about anything else. It's a big deal when a writer's first play opens off Broadway--for the writer, anyway--and I'm finding it increasingly difficult to keep an even strain as the great day approaches.

newsatch.jpegPrior to last Friday I couldn't quite put my finger on the precise nature of the sensations that I've been experiencing. Then it hit me: I feel as though a loved one were undergoing surgery while I sit in the waiting room, waiting to find out whether she made it. Yes, John Douglas Thompson and Gordon Edelstein, the star and director of Satchmo at the Waldorf, are the best "doctors" in the world, and I trust them completely--but the fact remains that there's nothing more for me do. It's their show now.

I made a couple of minor changes to the text of Satchmo on Wednesday morning. Gordon staged them that same afternoon and John performed them in the evening. The three of us agreed afterward that they should stay in the show...and that's it for me. The show is now "frozen," meaning that what you see on stage this week is what you'll see on opening night. Yes, John continues to refine his performance--he'll do that throughout the run--but the play itself is now officially finished. All that remains is to read the reviews and see how we do at the box office. I'm still showing up at rehearsals, but only because I can't bear to be anywhere else.

It helps that I'm not taking time off from my day job. I saw three shows last week and will see two more this week, and I have three pieces to write, two for The Wall Street Journal and one for Commentary, between now and Thursday. Mrs. T returns from Florida on Wednesday, and my brother and sister-in-law are coming to New York this weekend to see a preview. On top of all that, John and I will be taping a Satchmo-related episode of Theater Talk on Friday afternoon.

In short, I've got plenty to keep me busy, for which I'm infinitely grateful. But it's still going to be a long, long week in the waiting room.

* * *

The Clyde Fitch Report, one of New York's most widely read theater blogs, interviewed me last week as part of its "Critical I" series of conversations with drama critics. The questions were excellent. To find out whether my answers were any good, go here and see for yourself.

Marc Myers of JazzWax asked me five sharp questions about Satchmo at the Waldorf over the weekend. Marc's questions, and my answers, are here.

MUSICAL

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (Walter Kerr, 219 W. 48). A brilliantly effective musical-comedy adaptation of the same 1907 novel by Roy Horniman on which Kind Hearts and Coronets was also based, with Jefferson Mays giving a fabulous performance as the multiple murder victims whom Alec Guinness portrayed in the film (TT).

HISTORY

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. I only just got around to reading this Pulitzer-winning 2010 study of the Great Migration, in which Wilkerson talked to and looked at the complicated lives of three of the countless southern blacks who moved north in the '30s, '40s, and '50s to escape the nightmare of racism in the Deep South. It's not so much a piece of formal scholarship as an exercise in historically informed storytelling, but on that level it's a really remarkable piece of work, written with immense sensitivity and packed with a wealth of telling, near-novelistic detail. For once, the subtitle is no exaggeration: this really is an epic story (TT).

FILM

Living in Oblivion. Mrs. T and I recently treated ourselves to a viewing of Tom DiCillo's prize-winning low-budget 1995 indie flick about the making of (what else?) a low-budget indie flick. Two decades later, it remains one of the funniest and most knowing screen comedies ever made, with wonderfully well-judged performances by Steve Buscemi and Catherine Keener. Whit Stillman loves it, and so will you (TT).

Yeah, I know, it took me long enough...

...but I finally tore myself away from you-know-what long enough to completely update the Top Five and "Out of the Past" modules of the right-hand column with an all-new set of picks.

Take a look, click on the links, and enjoy yourself.

February 25, 2014

Almanac: Moss Hart on laughter in the theater

"Laughter cannot be faked, no matter how much good will an audience has toward an author. For an audience, whether it consists of one person or one thousand, shortly becomes a valid one in spite of itself the moment the mechanism of listening starts to operate. Every author, unless he chooses to be willfully self-deluded, carries a Geiger counter in his inner ear that tells him quickly enough whether he has struck the false politeness of hollow laughter or the real thing. There is no mistaking it."

Moss Hart, Act One

Lookback: the limits of companionability

From 2004:

I like getting along with people--though I wouldn't pay any price for it. But the truth is that my inclination to companionability has never been put to anything like a severe test. I have good friends whose views I think silly, but none who seem to me downright evil (and I believe in the existence of evil). I sometimes wonder what I'd do if I were to learn that a friend of mine had committed a cold-blooded murder. I like to think that I wouldn't have befriended such a person in the first place, and that's probably true--but human nature is complicated enough that I can't say so with certainty....

Read the whole thing here.

February 26, 2014

Almanac: Moss Hart on the "rules" of theater

"The frivolity with which all theatrical activity is conducted has one consoling feature--there are no rules of behavior that apply regularly to any part of the theatre. There is nothing that one can say about acting, writing, producing or directing that cannot be revoked in the next breath. Nothing is immutable. The logic of one year is a folly of the next."

Moss Hart, Act One

Snapshot: a Stan Freberg commercial (II)

A 1962 commercial for Cheerios, written by Stan Freberg:

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

February 27, 2014

Almanac: Moss Hart on the private world of theater

"For me, the excitement of auditions, the camaraderie of actors in rehearsal, the tight and secret conspiracy against the world, which begins to grow between actors and authors and directors and is the essence of putting on a play--this, to me at any rate, is the really satisfying part of the whole process, and the only thing, I think, that ever persuades me to walk toward a typewriter once again."

Moss Hart, Act One

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.

BROADWAY:
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
No Man's Land/Waiting for Godot (drama, PG-13, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 30, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON OFF BROADWAY:
Outside Mullingar (comedy, PG-13, closes Mar. 16, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK OFF BROADWAY:
Hamlet/Saint Joan (drama, G/PG-13, remounting of off-Broadway productions, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 9, original productions reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK IN ORLANDO, FLA.:
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Parts I and II (drama, G/PG-13, playing in rotating repertory, closes Mar. 9, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY IN GLENCOE, ILL.:
Port Authority (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY IN WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.:
Old Times (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

February 28, 2014

Almanac: Moss Hart on theatrical economy

"The pencil in his hand began to make quick, darting marks on the manuscript, bracketing the cuts on page after page. It was astonishing to find how much of what we had written was unnecessary, how we had underestimated an audience's ability to grasp what was needful for them to know without restating it not once but sometimes two or even three times. It was reassuring to find that so meticulous a craftsman as George Kaufman himself still had to learn the hard way the ever-constant lesson of economy."

Moss Hart, Act One

Must Dudamel speak out?

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column I offer my thoughts on the continued silence of Gustavo Dudamel and Valery Gergiev regarding human-rights abuses in their native lands. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

h0-gustavo-dudamel.jpgGustavo Dudamel, the 33-year-old Venezuelan conductor who is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is also a loyal alumnus of El Sistema, Venezuela's much-admired public music-education program. He continues to support El Sistema and to lead concerts by government-funded youth orchestras--and declines to criticize the repressive policies of Nicolás Maduro, the country's autocratic president, which have led to public protests that are being suppressed violently.

"I'm a musician," Mr. Dudamel has explained. "If I were a politician, I would act as a politician for my own interest. But I'm an artist, and an artist should act for everybody....I cannot allow El Sistema to become a casualty of politics. Regardless of political or public pressure, I will continue this work in Venezuela and throughout the world."

If his response has a familiar ring, it's because you've heard similar words from another internationally famous conductor, Russia's Valery Gergiev. Mr. Gergiev, who is a longtime supporter of the thuggish Vladimir Putin regime, is being harshly criticized by colleagues for not speaking out against Mr. Putin's anti-gay policies. His response? "It is wrong to suggest that I have ever supported anti-gay legislation and in all my work I have upheld equal rights for all people. I am an artist and have for over three decades worked with tens of thousands of people and many of them are indeed my friends."

Are either of those slippery statements good enough? And do artists have a responsibility to protest against moral injustice?

Let's start with what ought to be a given: No artist is obliged to create political art, however worthy the cause. To do so is to run the risk of undermining the seriousness of his art by enlisting it in the service of propaganda. On the other hand, every artist is subject to the same moral obligations as his fellow men. Even a genius has no right to shrug off the universal claims of common decency--and it's no secret that great artists as a group have an unfortunate way of doing whatever they think will best serve their own purposes....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

She gave at the office

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I review two rare and interesting off-Broadway revivals, Keen Company's Middle of the Night and the Mint Theater's London Wall. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Paddy Chayefsky doesn't exactly need to be "revived," seeing as how "Network" is even more admired now than when it first came out in 1976. But nowadays most people know him only for that ferociously prophetic satire of broadcast news and for "Marty," the 1953 live-TV drama whose film version snagged a best-picture Oscar and turned him into a Hollywood screenwriter. Few recall that Chayefsky also wrote two stage plays, "Middle of the Night" (1956) and "The Tenth Man" (1959), that both had long runs on Broadway but haven't been seen in New York for years.

Now Keen Company, the Off-Broadway troupe that specializes to consistently fine effect in what its mission statement refers to as "sincere plays," has exhumed "Middle of the Night," the story of a 53-year-old New York widower (Jonathan Hadary) who falls hard for his 23-year-old secretary (Nicole Lowrance). Adapted for the stage by Chayefsky from one of his hour-long "Philco Television Playhouse" scripts, it's a kitchen-sink midlife-crisis drama with a strongly ethnic flavor--Jerry is a down-to-earth Jewish garment manufacturer, Betty a needy, emotionally immature Gentile...

Mr. Hadary and Ms. Lowrance make an affecting couple, and Jonathan Silverstein's pointed staging succeeds in papering over most of the flaws. The result is a cultural period piece that still has the power to touch the heart...

COFFEY.jpegJohn Van Druten, who used to be big (he wrote five Broadway hits in the '40s and '50s) and is now forgotten, has lately come to the attention of the Mint Theater Company, another first-class Off-Broadway troupe that specializes in "worthy but neglected plays." The Mint has just mounted the U.S. premiere of his "London Wall," a 1931 comedy set in a London law office. Unlike "Middle of the Night," this witty, impeccably crafted tale of a quartet of working women and the benighted men for whom they work has a distinctly contemporary flavor, enough so that you'll come away wondering whether Van Druten might deserve credit for inventing the workplace comedy long before it found favor on TV.

Part of what makes "London Wall" so involving is that Van Druten heightens the play's emotional stakes by homing in on the plight of Blanche Janus (perfectly played by Julia Coffey), the firm's sardonic, wised-up senior secretary, who is 35, a notch or two older than her colleagues, and all too aware of what awaits her should she fail to find a husband: "Well, what else am I to do? Stick here, and go on living at home looking after father? I'm the only one left. And then he'll die, and then what else is there? Rooms, or a boarding house, or a club for women who can't get married? Earning three pounds a week for the rest of my life. No!" Yes, "London Wall" is a romcom with a (mostly) happy ending, but the fact that Blanche is up against it--and knows it--keeps you from getting too cozy...

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