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April 30, 2014

It's true! It's true!

As you may have already heard, I've won a Bradley Prize. Here's part of what The Wall Street Journal had to say about it:

We're delighted to report that our colleague and artistic polymath Terry Teachout has been named one of the winners of the 2014 Bradley Prize.

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, based in Milwaukee, offers the awards each year to as many as four individuals for their distinguished contributions to American institutions, free enterprise and other causes that the late Bradley brothers championed. The recognition comes with a cash prize of $250,000 and will be presented in Washington, D.C., on June 18. Additional winners will be named in the coming weeks.

Our readers know Terry as our drama critic and cultural essayist in his biweekly "Sightings" column. He is also a man of many artistic parts, as a playwright, biographer and opera librettist. "Satchmo at the Waldorf," his first play, is currently running at New York's Westside Theatre. His books include "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington," "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong" and "The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken." He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012 and has served on the National Council on the Arts.

"Terry Teachout has distinguished himself, not just as a first-rate journalist, but as a supporter of the arts," said Michael W. Grebe, president and CEO of the Bradley Foundation. "His work as a biographer and a playwright is critical to advancing and preserving America's artistic and cultural tradition."...

Read the whole thing here.

I'm flabbergasted--and humbled. And, yes, it's true: Mrs. T and I really have decided to use part of the prize money to buy a new toaster. We need one.

Posted April 30, 1:01 PM

Snapshot: the making of Peter Grimes

From a 1945 British Pathé newsreel, preparations for the premiere of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes:

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

Posted April 30, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Isaiah Berlin on received opinion

"Isaiah told a long story about the death of the Spanish poet Lope de Vega. Assured that he was now finally at death's door, de Vega was able to confess one final (for a poet) sacreligious thought: 'Alors, Dante m'embête'--'Well, then, Dante bores me.'"

Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Posted April 30, 9:00 AM

April 29, 2014

Lookback: on being edited

From 2004:

I worked as a magazine and newspaper editor for many years before becoming a full-time freelance writer, and on one never-to-be-forgotten occasion I edited a piece so extensively that had it been a screenplay, I would have received an on-screen credit. When the piece won a major magazine award a few months later, I smiled wryly, as did my colleagues, yet it never occurred to any of us to blow the whistle on the writer. He "wrote" the piece, and that, so far as we were concerned, was that.

One reason why I kept my mouth shut is that I've been the beneficiary of superior editing on innumerable occasions, never that extensive but at times...well, quite substantial.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted April 29, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Michael Ignatieff on living vicariously

"The advantage of vicariousness, of course, is that you do not risk a mistake; you can watch other people making them for you."

Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Posted April 29, 9:00 AM

April 28, 2014

Rounded with a sleep

97690103_134847046100.jpgMost people outlive their parents, but few anticipate doing so. Even when it was agonizingly clear that my mother was dying, I never said to myself, Soon I'll never see her again. It may be that the finality of death is harder to grasp than any of life's other hard realities. Whatever the reason, I didn't expect the sharp jolt that briefly shook me when my sister-in-law e-mailed me a photo of the twin graves in which my parents are buried, marked by a single bronze tablet that shows, for the first time, the dates on which they both died.

My mother, who occasionally visited the cemetery where she now rests, once confessed to me that it made her sick to her stomach when she first saw her name on that tablet, which my father had prudently purchased long before the fact, arranging for the two of them to be buried next to his own mother. I have no such well-laid plans: I intend to donate as many of my organs as can be usefully harvested, and I don't care what happens to the rest of me after that. But it was important to my parents that they arrange in advance for the disposal of their remains, and being basically conventional people, they did the customary thing.

I wonder if either of them guessed how often I'd think about them after they were gone. Not surprisingly, I did so when my first play opened in New York, knowing that the occasion would have meant the world to them. But it's the routine occasions, not the special ones, that mean the most to me. I think of my mother, for instance, whenever I take a cab down to the theater district to see a show, that being the time when I usually called her--as I did most days--to chat about whatever might be on our minds. I think of my father, by contrast, whenever I happen to see Perry Mason on TV, for he loved nothing more than to guess who did it midway through each episode, if not sooner. (He usually got it right, too.)

713.jpegToday is my beloved brother's birthday, so it stands to reason that our parents should be on my mind. It is a source of ceaseless pleasure to me--as well as a modest amount of friendly envy--that David and Kathy now live in the house where the two of us grew up. While our shared childhood wasn't perfect, it was mostly very happy. We owe that happiness to Bert and Evelyn Teachout, who spent the whole of our time in that house doing all that was in their power to prepare us for whatever life might hold in store outside it.

I've been reading Michael Ignatieff's biography of Isaiah Berlin, who made this observation thirteen years before his death in 1997:

As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any. I do not at all ask what it is, but I suspect it has none and this is a source of great comfort to me. We make of it what we can and that is all there is about it.

We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep, says Prospero in The Tempest. My parents made of their little lives what they could, and they didn't ask what it meant, either. Perhaps it was because they already knew the answer: they built a house and raised two sons whom they loved with all their hearts. That was dream enough for them. I would never pretend that every night I slept under their roof was free of shadows, but I never doubted for a moment that they loved me. Nor do I doubt that the new owners of 713 Hickory Drive feel the same way.

Posted April 28, 11:00 AM

Just because: Rudyard Kipling gives a speech

A rare 1933 sound film of Rudyard Kipling speaking at a luncheon of the Royal Society of Literature for visiting members of the Canadian Authors' Association. To read the text of the entire speech, go here:

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

Posted April 28, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Michael Ignatieff on exile

"It is an exile's prerogative to love an adopted home with an absence of irony that is impossible for a native."

Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Posted April 28, 9:00 AM

April 25, 2014

Cross-dress for success

In today's Wall Street Journal I review the last three shows of the 2013-14 Broadway season, Casa Valentina, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Cabaret. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Broadway's new motto is "All Transvestism, All the Time!" In addition to "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," "Kinky Boots" and "Matilda," three more shows in which cross-dressing figures prominently have just opened on the Great Sequined Way. Topping the list is "Casa Valentina," a history play by Harvey Fierstein about the Chevalier d'Eon Resort, a now-defunct Catskills hideaway (yes, it really existed) that catered to straight men who liked to dress up as women.

Casa4.jpgIt's been a long time since Mr. Fierstein, who now specializes in musical-comedy books, wrote a play, and longer still since he wrote a successful one. Given the subject matter of "Kinky Boots," his most recent effort, and "Torch Song Trilogy," the 1982 play about a drag queen that made him kind-of-sort-of famous, it would seem at first glance that he's well and truly stuck in a velvet-and-tulle rut. But "Casa Valentina" ends up being a lot more interesting than it looks at first glance, for certain of the guests at the Chevalier d'Eon, though they all claim not to be gay, turn out on closer inspection to be something other than straight--a revelation that transforms what started out as a comedy into a full-blown tragedy.

Mr. Fierstein isn't able to set a clear tone for "Casa Valentina," which lurches awkwardly from take-my-wife-please one-liners to stilted sermonizing to blackmail-powered melodrama. Nor has he figured out how to bring the play to a convincing close, instead letting it trail off irresolutely. But it's never boring...

Sixteen years ago, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," a 90-minute musical monologue by a gender-bent East German punk rocker with an iatrogenic microphallus (you can look it up), was an in-your-face piece of cutting-edge downtown theater. Now it's a period piece, the proof of which is that it has finally opened uptown in a commercial revival that features Neil Patrick Harris, an openly gay, universally liked network sitcom star.

Mr. Harris' winsome drag act reminded me of Alan Alda's perfomance as Shelly in the 2005 Broadway revival of "Glengarry Glen Ross": Though he's got the moves down pat, you come away suspecting that this Hedwig had to learn some of the four-letter words phonetically, if you catch my drift....

alancumming.jpgThe Roundabout Theatre Company has brought back its sleazed-up 1998 production of "Cabaret," co-directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall and starring Alan Cumming as a more-than-usually-androgynous Master of Ceremonies. Seeing as how the Mendes-Marshall revival of the 1966 John Kander-Fred Ebb musical about love and terror in Weimar Germany closed just 10 years ago, I'd call this re-revival an unabashed attempt by a non-profit theater company to mint some much-needed money. With the second Broadway revival of "Les Misérables" playing to near-full houses nine blocks south, though, why complain? It's a business.

I don't share in the general enthusiasm for Mr. Cumming's overcooked performance, which pales in intensity when compared to the diamond-hard detachment that Joel Grey, who created the role in the original stage production, brought to Bob Fosse's extraordinary 1972 film version, from which Messrs. Mendes and Marshall borrowed a thing or three. But Michelle Williams plays Sally Bowles, the shopworn diva of the Kit Kat Club, with a poignant blend of vulnerability and desperation...

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Posted April 25, 11:00 AM

Just how bad is school censorship?

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column I examine two very different events that both relate to the problem of school censorship. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Spring is here, which means that it's time once again for the American Library Association's annual top-10 list of "most frequently challenged books." These are the books that have drawn the largest number of formal complaints "requesting that materials be removed [from a library] because of content or appropriateness." Each time it comes out, enlightened readers hasten to snigger at those benighted members of the booboisie who dare to suggest that "Of Mice and Men" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," both of which have previously appeared on the list, might possibly be thought unsuitable for consumption by youngsters....

These 10 books inspired just 307 challenges last year. That's chump change in a country of 318 million people, a quarter of whom identify themselves as Republicans.

Furthermore, I'm struck by the fact that these books, as well as the other most frequently challenged titles of the 21st century, are for the most part--if I may say so--rather less than stellar in quality....

Do the classics get censored? Once in a while--but usually with different results. Consider, for example, the passionate protests that were inspired by the recent decision of New Hampshire's Timberlane Regional School District to cancel a Timberlane High School production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." The school board, according to Superintendent Earl Metzler, was "uncomfortable with the script...We felt there were parts in there that just weren't acceptable." But virtually all of the protesters were opposed to the cancellation....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Posted April 25, 10:05 AM

Almanac: George Eliot on spiteful caricature

"There is hardly any mental misery worse than that of having our own serious phrases, our own rooted beliefs, caricatured by a charlatan or a hireling."

George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical

Posted April 25, 9:00 AM

April 24, 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:
Act One (drama, G, too long for children, reviewed here)
Bullets Over Broadway (musical, PG-13, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
The Cripple of Inishmaan (serious comedy, PG-13, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Of Mice and Men (drama, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
A Raisin in the Sun (drama, G/PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Rocky (musical, G/PG-13, many 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:
The Heir Apparent (verse comedy, PG-13, extended through May 11, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK OFF BROADWAY:
London Wall (serious comedy, PG-13, newly extended through Apr. 26, reviewed here)

Posted April 24, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Joseph Conrad on nicknames

"A nickname may be the best record of a success. That's what I call putting the face of a joke upon the body of a truth."

Joseph Conrad, Nostromo

Posted April 24, 9:00 AM

April 23, 2014

Snapshot: Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free

New York City Ballet dances Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free in 1986. The score is by Leonard Bernstein:

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

Posted April 23, 10:00 AM

Almanac: George Meredith on caricature

"In fine, caricature is rough truth."

George Meredith, The Egoist

Posted April 23, 9:00 AM

April 22, 2014

The kid is alright

With the Broadway season thundering to a close, The Wall Street Journal has given me an extra column this week to cover all of the shows that are opening in time for the Tony Awards eligibility deadline. In today's paper I review the Broadway premieres of The Cripple of Inishmaan, Violet, and The Velocity of Autumn. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Granted that it's always a pleasure to see one of Martin McDonagh's plays performed on Broadway, why mount "The Cripple of Inishmaan" there just five years after the Atlantic Theater Company imported a flawless all-Irish staging by Galway's Druid Theatre that should have moved uptown but didn't? As the millennials say, because Daniel Radcliffe. In the absence of the presence of the former Harry Potter, this production of Mr. McDonagh's bitingly black 1996 comedy about the not-so-small cruelties of village life would never have transferred from London's West End to the Cort Theatre, no matter how good it might be--and it's very good. But so, too, is Mr. Radcliffe. He is, in fact, that rarest of birds, a child movie star who decided to turn himself into an adult stage actor, worked at his craft with modesty and dead-serious determination and has become an accomplished performer...

_68254703_cripple2.jpgIf you don't know "The Cripple of Inishmann," you won't have any doubts about Michael Grandage's production, in which Mr. Radcliffe plays a severely handicapped teenage boy who can no longer stomach the good-humored but thoughtless teasing of his neighbors (it says everything about them that they all casually refer to him as "Cripple Billy") and so removes himself to Hollywood to seek success in what the Irish call "fillums." Mr. Radcliffe is so far inside his character that it actually took the audience a few tantalizing seconds to realize who he was when he made his first entrance on Saturday night....

If, on the other hand, you were fortunate enough to watch the Druids at work, you'll see at once what's missing this time around. Mr. McDonagh's play is also a take-no-prisoners satire on the sentimental clichés of stage-Irishness, and Mr. Grandage, instead of emphasizing them ("Oi have me drunkard mammy to look after") in order to make them self-evidently ludicrous, has mostly chosen to play them straight...

The Roundabout Theatre Company has revived "Violet," the 1997 Brian Crawley-Jeanine Tesori musical about a North Carolina girl with an axe-scarred face (Sutton Foster) who rides a Greyhound bus to Oklahoma in the hope of being made beautiful by an Oral Roberts-type televangelist. It's a sweet, unpretentious little show that doesn't really belong on Broadway, but the wondrous Ms. Foster pours the whole of her soul into it, and her performance is radiant and true in all ways but one: She is the opposite of plain.

1.165821.jpgYes, the animating premise is that Violet's inner beauty makes her outwardly lovely for those with eyes to see, but one grows tired of seeing pretty people cast in stage and screen roles that require them to pretend to be unattractive--especially when the script specifies, as is the case here, that the character's disfigurement be invisible to the audience. Why not find an ordinary-looking but charismatic performer who can act beautiful?...

Eric Coble breaks the U.S. record for clichés per minute in "The Velocity of Autumn," his new cranky-codger two-character comedy. Near-senile old lady? Check. Estranged gay son with unfinished emotional business? Check. Hackneyed plot? Check. (Mom wants to go on living in her Brooklyn house, but the kids want to put her in a nursing home, so she barricades the front door, brandishes a Molotov cocktail and tells them to bring it on.) Tap-the-tendon punch lines interspersed with ephiphanic moments of pseudo-poetry? Check, check and octuple check....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Posted April 22, 11:00 AM

Lookback: how I became a critic

From 2004:

A reader wrote to ask if I'd consider posting a list of books and other works of art that had served as "turning points" in my life as a critic. I've never drawn up such a list, though I once wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review called "I've Got a Crush on You" (it's in A Terry Teachout Reader) in which I talked about several authors whose styles I'd emulated at different times in my life. But what gave me the idea to become a critic--and what inspired me to become the kind of critic I became?...

Read the whole thing here.

Posted April 22, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Macaulay on caricature

"The best portraits are those in which there is a slight mixture of caricature."

Thomas Babington Macaulay, "Machiavelli"

Posted April 22, 9:00 AM

April 21, 2014

A vision of joy

237_27922287192_3645_n.jpgAl Hirschfeld, who adored jazz, drew Louis Armstrong for the first time in 1939 and continued to do so repeatedly throughout his long and productive life. One of the last occasions was in 1990, thirteen years before Hirschfeld's death, when he did a portrait of the trumpeter called "Satchmo!" It is, in my opinion, the best of all possible Armstrong caricatures, one in which the joyous public figure whom the whole world loved is portrayed with a near-abstract simplicity of line that is not merely witty but beautiful.

I like "Satchmo!" so much that I used it as the last illustration in Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, accompanied by the following caption:

Many now feel ill at ease with the old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing entertainer portrayed in this 1990 caricature by Al Hirschfeld, but there was nothing false about Satchmo's unselfconscious smile.

Hirschfeld later turned "Satchmo!" into a limited-edition color lithograph that I saw when I went to the Margo Feiden Galleries six years ago to secure permission to reproduce the original drawing in my book, an experience that I blogged about here. I was bowled over by its richness and depth--it looked almost three-dimensional--and longed to buy a copy on the spot and add it to the Teachout Museum. Alas, the timing was financially unpropitious, and in due course I put the wild idea of owning a Hirschfeld out of my head.

That notion came back with full force, however, not long after Satchmo at the Waldorf opened in March. A fair amount of time had gone by since Mrs. T and I last added anything to our collection, and it seemed to both of us that the moment had arrived. I took a cab to the Margo Feiden Galleries last Thursday and returned home a few hours later with a pencil-signed copy of "Satchmo!" under my arm. I dropped it off at our framer over the weekend. We'll hang it in our New York apartment as soon as we decide on the right spot.

I can't imagine a more suitable way to celebrate the New York opening of Satchmo at the Waldorf, can you?

* * *

%285%29%20BEERBOHM%20PERCY%20GRAINGER%20xx.jpgLongtime readers of this blog will recall that "Satchmo!" is the second caricature to make its way into the Teachout Museum. It was preceded by a drawing of Percy Grainger by Max Beerbohm, which I acquired in 2004 and about which I blogged here and here:

Max makes a point of saying that a caricature should be executed in "the most beautiful manner," and while it's true that his Grainger caricature is very funny--especially the society ladies clustered around the piano, who range in size from wasp-waisted to preposterously portly--it's also quite beautiful indeed. The composition is cunningly balanced, the line deft and clear, the light touches of watercolor wash miraculously subtle.

I mention this because I recently learned, purely by chance, of the existence of an art gallery in London that deals in Beerbohm caricatures. While none of them is of anyone who is still widely remembered, many are striking in their own right. So if, like me, you love Max's work and long to hang a piece of it on your wall, go here to peruse the inventory.

Posted April 21, 11:00 AM

Just because: Buster Keaton on This Is Your Life

Buster Keaton is the guest on a 1957 episode of Ralph Edwards' This Is Your Life::

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

Posted April 21, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Max Beerbohm on caricature

"The most perfect caricature is that which, on a small surface, with the simplest means, most accurately exaggerates, to the highest point, the peculiarities of a human being, at his most characteristic moment in the most beautiful manner."

Max Beerbohm, "The Spirit of Caricature"

Posted April 21, 9:00 AM

April 18, 2014

All Hart

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column, I review three New York openings, Act One, Of Mice and Men, and The Library. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Moss Hart's "Act One" is the best Broadway memoir ever written, the stirring story of how a dirt-poor Bronx boy who grew up in a slum became a name-above-the-title playwright. The second half, which tells how the then-unknown Hart contrived to collaborate with George S. Kaufman, the Neil Simon of his day, on a 1930 comedy called "Once in a Lifetime" that made him rich and famous, is the stuff theatrical dreams are made of. Countless stage-struck youngsters have read it and resolved, however fleetingly, to do as he did.

6.198395.jpgIt's surprising that none of them ever tried to turn "Act One" into a play, but the failure of Dore Schary's lead-footed 1963 film version doubtless explains why so beloved a book took so long to find its way to the stage. Now James Lapine, who is to Stephen Sondheim what Hart was to Kaufman, has shouldered the task, both as writer and director. Unlike Schary, though, he's chosen to adapt all of "Act One," starting not with "Once in a Lifetime" but with Hart's sad childhood. The result is a thrillingly well-staged play that runs for two hours and 40 minutes but feels much shorter. Not only is "Act One" light on its theatrical feet, but it has the open-hearted impact of a melodrama--one that has the advantage of being true.

Part of what makes "Act One" so potent is that Mr. Lapine disdains all irony in describing Hart's rise to fame. His was an old-fashioned American-dream-come-true tale, and it doesn't embarrass Mr. Lapine in the least to dish it up on a pageant-like scale reminiscent of the spectacular stage version of "Nicholas Nickleby." (It would also have made a great musical.) "Act One" is played out on a triple-decker revolving stage designed by Beowulf Boritt that catapults the 22 members of the cast from the Hart family's tenement apartment to Kaufman's Manhattan townhouse with cinematic speed....

It isn't surprising that "Of Mice and Men" works better on the stage than the page. John Steinbeck always envisioned his dialogue-intensive book as (in his phrase) "a play that can be read or a novel that can be played," and the fable-like tragedy of George (James Franco), an itinerant California farm worker, and Lennie (Chris O'Dowd), the simple-minded, pitifully innocent near-giant with whom he travels from job to job, gains immeasurably from theatrical presentation. The trick is to do it simply, and Anna D. Shapiro's staging leaves nothing to be desired in that department. Todd Rosenthal's windblown set is as plain as a tumbleweed, and the supporting cast, led by the matchless Jim Norton (he plays Candy, the aging field hand whose dog gets shot), leads us to the inescapable disaster with hard authenticity.

If only Mr. Franco, one of Hollywood's top teen heart-throbs, had had the modesty to realize that Broadway is the wrong place to make your professional stage debut! While he doesn't embarrass himself, his acting is flat and unmodulated by comparison with that of his infinitely more accomplished colleagues...

Steven Soderbergh, who claims to have given up making movies, has now directed an Off-Broadway play by one of his cinematic collaborators. Scott Z. Burns' "The Library" is a fictional docudrama about the aftermath of a high-school shooting. The premise is juicy: One of the survivors (Chloë Grace Moretz) is accused by another survivor (Daryl Sabara) of having told the shooter where several of her fellow students were hiding. And Mr. Burns doesn't fall into the trap of preaching a ripped-from-the-headlines sermon: While the last scene does get a bit portentous, "The Library" steers clear of banal point-making. But he never breaks through the smooth quasi-factual surface of the desperate situations that he portrays, and so "The Library," for all its evident seriousness of purpose, feels more like an unusually well-written "Law & Order" episode than a full-fledged play.

Though he has next to no stage experience, Mr. Soderbergh already has a firm grasp of the demands of his new medium...

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

The theatrical trailer for the 1963 film version of Act One:

Posted April 18, 11:00 AM

Almanac: Paul Hindemith on teaching

"Myself, I cannot compose all the time. I don't get ideas just sitting around waiting for them. They come from somewhere, and I get them teaching."

Paul Hindemith (quoted in the Harvard Crimson, Nov. 29, 1949)

Posted April 18, 9:00 AM

April 17, 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:
Bullets Over Broadway (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
A Raisin in the Sun (drama, G/PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Rocky (musical, G/PG-13, 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)
The Heir Apparent (verse comedy, PG-13, closes May 4, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON OFF BROADWAY:
London Wall (serious comedy, PG-13, newly extended through Apr. 26, reviewed here)

Posted April 17, 11:00 AM

Almanac: Paul Hindemith on creation and irrationality

"The ultimate reason for his humility will be the musician's conviction that beyond all the rational knowledge he has amassed and all his dexterity as a craftsman there is a region of visionary irrationality in which the veiled secrets of art dwell, sensed but not understood, implored but not commanded, imparting but not yielding. He cannot enter this region, he can only pray to be elected one of its messengers."

Paul Hindemith, A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations

Posted April 17, 9:00 AM

April 16, 2014

Snapshot: Glenn Gould plays Hindemith

Glenn Gould plays the fugue from Paul Hindemith's Third Piano Sonata:

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

Posted April 16, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Paul Hindemith on composition

"The road from the head to the hand is a long one while one is still conscious of it. The man who does not so control his hand as to maintain it in unbroken contact with his thought does not know what composition is. (Nor does he whose well-routined hand runs along without any impulse or feeling behind it."

Paul Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition

Posted April 16, 9:00 AM

April 15, 2014

First time's a charm

061633B.jpgI first heard the music of Benjamin Britten in 1975, a year before he died. I was a sophomore music major at William Jewell College, a school not far from Kansas City. Some long-forgotten magazine piece--probably a review in High Fidelity or Stereo Review, to both of which I subscribed--had made me curious about him, so I drove to a mall in Independence and bought an LP whose first side contained a performance of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings by Peter Pears, Barry Tuckwell, and the London Symphony Orchestra. Britten himself was the conductor. The recording was made in 1963, twenty years after the piece was written, and hearing it for the first time that evening was one of the most consequential musical encounters of my youth.

The Serenade starts off with a mysterious-sounding unaccompanied horn solo, followed by a setting of part of The Evening Quatrains, a lyric by Charles Cotton, a near-forgotten seventeenth-century English writer. Britten cut the poem in half and called his shortened version "Pastoral":

The day's grown old; the fainting sun
Has but a little way to run,
And yet his steeds, with all his skill,
Scarce lug the chariot down the hill.

The shadows now so long do grow,
That brambles like tall cedars show;
Mole hills seem mountains, and the ant
Appears a monstrous elephant.

A very little, little flock
Shades thrice the ground that it would stock;
Whilst the small stripling following them
Appears a mighty Polypheme.

And now on benches all are sat,
In the cool air to sit and chat,
Till Phoebus, dipping in the West,
Shall lead the world the way to rest.

Pastoral.jpgRarely in my life have I been so instantaneously overwhelmed as I was by "Pastoral," though a few more years would go by before I attained sufficient musical sophistication to be able to fully understand why it had hit me so hard. It doesn't look like much on the page, just a simple tune shared by the singer and horn player, accompanied by four-part string chords. Yet those deceptively uncomplicated-looking chords are anything but straightforward. Here as in his other middle-period masterpieces, Britten used tonal harmony with a piquant freshness and sense of surprise that were all his own.

"I need more chords," Aaron Copland complained to Leonard Bernstein toward the end of his composing career. "I've run out of chords." To listen to "Pastoral" is to realize that there will always be enough chords. All you have to do is know where to look.

These opening bars remind me of something that Britten said a year after he recorded the Serenade:

What is important in the arts is not the scientific part, the analyzable part of music, but the something which emerges from it but transcends it, which cannot be analyzed because it is not in it, but of it. It is the quality which cannot be acquired by simply the exercise of a technique or a system: it is something to do with personality, with gift, with spirit. I quite simply call it--magic: a quality which would appear to be by no means unacknowledged by scientists, and which I value more than any other part of music.

Back then I was still grabbing at classical music with both hands, and few weeks passed without my making a major discovery of some kind or other, most of which turned out before long to be...well, something less than major. But I was certain that my discovery of the magical "Pastoral" was more than just another passing fancy. It spoke to me, as did the rest of the Serenade, with a directness and immediacy not unlike the miraculous sensation of falling in love at first sight (something that had yet to happen to me). I knew beyond doubt that whoever Benjamin Britten was, his music would henceforth play an important part in my life--and so it did, and does.

m2LZ7ZDxHyjK_rhZ2rKrO2g.jpgYears later Britten's 1963 recording of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings would become one of the very first compact discs that I bought. Not only do I still have that CD, but I played it for Mrs. T last night, and she was as thunderstruck by her first hearing of the Serenade as I was thirty-nine years ago.

"Why haven't you played this for me until now?" she asked.

"I guess I just didn't think to," I replied with a touch of embarrassment. "But I'm glad I finally got around to it."

* * *

Ian Bostridge,
Radovan Vlatkovic, and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra perform the prologue and "Pastoral" from Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings:

Posted April 15, 11:05 AM

Lookback: why authors should always be modest

From 2004:

I finished my breakfast and strolled over to the neighborhood Barnes & Noble to see whether A Terry Teachout Reader was on sale yet. It wasn't in New Non-Fiction, so I climbed the stairs to the arts section in search of something to read. There I found three copies of the Teachout Reader shelved under Jazz/Blues, meaning that no one at Barnes & Noble had bothered to look at the contents of my book. Only a year ago, I was basking in the red-carpet treatment at that very same store, including an evening reading and deluxe placement for The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. Now I'm relegated to Jazz/Blues (though at least I got what booksellers call "face-out" placement, meaning that the front of the dust jacket is visible). As Robert Mitchum says in The Lusty Men, "Chicken today, feathers tomorrow."...

Read the whole thing here.

Posted April 15, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Paul Hindemith on technique

"The true work of art does not need to wrap any veil of mystery about its external features. Indeed the very hallmark of great art is that only and above the complete clarity of its technical procedure do we feel the essential mystery of its creative power."

Paul Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition

Posted April 15, 9:00 AM

April 14, 2014

Inner direction

Apropos of the off-Broadway transfer of Satchmo at the Waldorf, Laura Lippman recently said something that caught my eye: "I think you have to have such confidence to be a theatre critic and write a play. He's really opened himself up."

rowlandson24.jpgThis reminds me of an oft-quoted passage from Boswell's Life of Johnson:

His tutor, Mr. Jorden, fellow of Pembroke, was not, it seems, a man of such abilities as we should conceive requisite for the instructor of Samuel Johnson, who gave me the following account of him. "He was a very worthy man, but a heavy man, and I did not profit much by his instructions. Indeed, I did not attend him much. The first day after I came to college I waited upon him, and then staid away four. On the sixth, Mr. Jorden asked me why I had not attended. I answered I had been sliding in Christ-Church meadow. And this I said with as much nonchalance as I am now talking to you. I had no notion that I was wrong or irreverent to my tutor." BOSWELL: "That, Sir, was great fortitude of mind." JOHNSON: "No, Sir; stark insensibility."

As it happens, I did give some thought to what Laura said in the weeks and months before The Letter, my first operatic collaboration with Paul Moravec, opened in Santa Fe in 2009. In fact, I wrote a piece about it for the Los Angeles Times in which I pointed out that "I'm submitting myself for approval--not just from my fellow critics but from the people who read my reviews each week" and admitted to finding the experience "both terrifying and exhilarating. I've never set foot inside a casino, but I can't help but think that this must be what it feels like to place a big bet."

That, however, was strictly retrospective, at least as regards my colleagues. It simply didn't occur to me to think about what the critics would say about The Letter while I was writing it, much less to suppose that it was somehow courageous of me to offer myself up to them as a potential target. Nor did I think about it at all with regard to Satchmo at the Waldorf before the show came to New York--and that was solely because I knew that the reviews of Satchmo would necessarily have an effect on the length of its run. Until that finally became an issue, I never thought about them at all.

The truth is that I rarely spend much time thinking about what other people think of me. Of course I want my friends to like me, and I try to conduct myself in such a way as to earn their liking and their trust. But when it comes to my work, my internal compass was set long ago, and whether or not it's accurate, I don't feel that I have much choice in middle age but to follow it. I think what I think, and I trust my eye and ear. Were it otherwise, I couldn't function: I'd always be second-guessing myself.

This doesn't mean that I didn't take the counsel of my collaborators on Satchmo at the Waldorf with the utmost seriousness, just as I take very seriously the suggestions of my editors at The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and elsewhere. When it came to Satchmo, I knew that I was doing something that was new to me, and that I'd be a fool not to listen closely to the experienced professionals with whom I had the good fortune to collaborate, and do what they suggested if it made sense to me (which it usually did).

critic-Ratatouille-300x300.jpgWhen it comes to reviews, on the other hand, I try to take the advice that I give to others, which is the same advice given by André Previn in No Minor Chords: "It is perfectly correct to disregard all the bad reviews one gets, but only if at the same time, one disregards the good ones as well." As Dr. Johnson told Boswell on another occasion, there's an end on't. Sure, I love getting good reviews, but I do my best not to take them to heart. As for the pans, of which I've gotten my share over the years, I ignore them. Either way, nobody has ever said anything about me in print, good or bad, that I can quote from memory. (You might be surprised to know how many artists can rattle off a perfectly remembered phrase from a bad review that came out a decade ago.)

David Mamet, I gather, takes his reviews way too seriously, though he's capable (or was) of being funny about it. When New York held a "Best of Anything" contest back in the Eighties, he entered the following as "Best Review": "I never understood the theater until this night. Please excuse everything I've ever written. When you read this, I'll be dead. Signed, Clive Barnes." That made me laugh out loud when I first read it, and it still makes me smile. Even so, I've never felt that way about a critic--not yet, anyway.

One last remark from the ever-relevant Dr. Johnson: "It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends." Anybody who gets reviewed should keep that wise counsel firmly in mind.

Posted April 14, 11:05 AM

Just because: Paul Hindemith conducts Brahms

Paul Hindemith conducts the Chicago Symphony in a 1963 performance of Brahms' Academic Festival Overture:

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

Posted April 14, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Paul Hindemith on inspiration

"If we cannot, in the flash of a single moment, see a composition in its absolute entirety, with every pertinent detail in its proper place, we are not genuine creators."

Paul Hindemith, A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations

Posted April 14, 9:00 AM

April 11, 2014

Bulletproof on Broadway

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I review two New York openings, Bullets Over Broadway and The Heir Apparent. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

How good can a jukebox musical be? As good as "Bullets Over Broadway," Woody Allen's new stage version of his 1994 film, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman ("The Producers"). The book is funny, the staging inventive, the cast outstanding, the sets and costumes satisfyingly slick. All that's missing is a purpose-written score, in place of which we get period-true arrangements of pop songs of the '20s and '30s. Does that matter? It did to me--a lot--but I doubt that many other people will boggle over the absence of original songs from "Bullets Over Broadway." Except for a flabby finale, it has the sweet scent of a box-office smash....

Zach-Braff-Helene-Yorke-a-011.jpgMs. Stroman hasn't rung the bell on Broadway since "Young Frankenstein," but she remains peerless when it comes to comic choreography, and "Bullets" overflows with clever dances, including a feature for Heléne Yorke set to a 1927 double-entendre ditty called "I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll" that's as naughty as you'd expect. Here and elsewhere, the gorgeously brassy Ms. Yorke steals the show from her better-known colleagues, but she has plenty of competition...

What about the score? Glen Kelly has written additional lyrics whose purpose is to integrate the musical sequences more smoothly into the plot, but the dramatic fit is never tight, and it doesn't help that so many of the songs, in particular "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You?" and "Up a Lazy River," are so very familiar in their own right. Because of this, the momentum falters whenever the actors start to sing, though Ms. Stroman usually manages to get things moving again in reasonably short order....

"The Heir Apparent," David Ives' English-language version of Jean-François Regnard's "Le Légataire universel," is the latest of his brilliant "translaptations" (his word) of classic French verse comedies, in which Mr. Ives recasts the original text in briskly contemporary iambic pentameter and tinkers with the plot at will. It's as elegantly wrought as its predecessors, "The Liar" (after Pierre Corneille's "Le Menteur") and "The School for Lies" (after Moliére's "The Misanthrope"). Classic Stage Company, which brought "The School for Lies" to New York three years ago, has now done the same thing with "The Heir Apparent," in which M. Regnard and his translaptator tell the cautionary tale of Geronte (Paxton Whitehead), a miser whose impecunious nephew (Dave Quay) endeavors by any means necessary to become his sole legatee, aided and abetted by Geronte's scruple-free manservant (Carson Elrod). Mr. Ives' couplets glitter with close-packed virtuosity: "That pillar of the church, that foe of whoredom,/That undisputed lord of bedroom boredom." The cast is perfect, and John Rando's staging is a slapsticky riot....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

A scene from the original 2011 production of The Heir Apparent by the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C.:

Posted April 11, 11:05 AM

TCM at 20

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column I take note of an important cultural anniversary. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Twenty years ago next Monday, Turner Classic Movies went on the air, and the lives of film buffs were instantly improved almost beyond recognition. TCM is a basic cable channel owned by the Turner Broadcasting System that shows old movies, most of them released prior to 1970, around the clock. Some are familiar, others obscure, but all are uncut, uncolorized, uninterrupted by commercials and otherwise unaltered. No other enterprise has done more to make such films widely accessible to the general public....

501073d0dee26.preview-620.jpgI doubt I'm the only viewer who routinely flicks through the coming month's fare and earmarks a half-dozen films at a time for future recording. I am, in short, an ardent fan--but I wonder what the future holds in store for the channel that made Robert Osborne, TCM's host-in-chief, a star. Will it continue to prosper? Or is TCM's business model flawed in ways that could lead to its decline and fall?

To answer these questions, it's necessary to reflect on the way in which TCM transformed the culture of film in America. By 1994 the VCR had made it possible for most Americans to view movies in their living rooms, but few video stores carried a wide-ranging inventory of older films, nor were they shown other than sporadically on television. If you wanted to see or study the great films of the past, you usually had to buy your own copies. Then TCM came along and changed everything, quickly became indispensable to movie lovers everywhere.

That's still true. Most of the old movies that I watch in any given week come from TCM. But the rise of on-demand TV is changing the viewing habits of film buffs. Why wait for TCM to show "Grand Hotel" next Thursday when Amazon Instant Video will stream it to your iPad right now for $1.99?...

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Posted April 11, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Ivy Compton-Burnett on plots

"As regards plots I find real life no help at all. Real life seems to have no plots."

Ivy Compton-Burnett, "A Conversation Between I. Compton-Burnett and M. Jourdain"

Posted April 11, 9:00 AM

April 10, 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)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
A Raisin in the Sun (drama, G/PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Rocky (musical, G/PG-13, 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:
London Wall (serious comedy, PG-13, closes Apr. 20, reviewed here)

Posted April 10, 11:00 AM

Almanac: Edward Albee on fiction

"Fiction is fact distilled into truth."

Edward Albee (quoted in the New York Times, Sept. 16, 1966)

Posted April 10, 10:00 AM

April 9, 2014

Split decision

14.jpgNot long ago I was introduced to an audience as an "intellectual." Though I didn't beg to differ, I entered, as I always do, a silent demurrer. To me, an intellectual is a person who is primarily interested in ideas. What I am, at least to my own way of thinking, is an aesthete, a person who is primarily interested in artistic beauty.

It's also true, though, that I probably spend more time thinking about non-artistic ideas than your average aesthete, if there is such a thing. I just finished reading a book about Brian Friel's plays and am about to start reading a biography of Lincoln. My impression is that most eggheads don't jump around like that: they're usually one thing or the other. And even within the realm of art, I range more widely afield than is typically the case. I'm as likely to be reading about (say) George Balanchine or Milton Avery or Emmanuel Chabrier as I am about a playwright, or any other kind of wordsmith.

I've been that way for as long as I can remember, and I understood early on that it was a peculiar way to be. What's more, my whole life has been shaped by this peculiarity. For a long time I expected to be a musician when I grew up, but I finally figured out that while I had enough talent to pursue music as a career, it would be a mistake for me to do so. To be a successful performing musician requires a singlemindedness of artistic purpose that I've never had. While I loved playing music, I'm sure I would have found it frustrating to do that and nothing else, just as I found it frustrating later on when I spent a few years paying the rent by writing newspaper editorials, mostly about foreign policy. The job didn't bore me in the least, and I think I did it pretty well, but it didn't fulfill me, either.

After a lifetime of puzzling over this bifurcation in my nature, I've decided that it arises from the fact that even though I'm a fundamentally verbal person, I spent much of my youth making and thinking about music, the least verbal or representational of art forms. As Igor Stravinsky famously said in Expositions and Developments, music is "supra-personal and super-real and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions." He was exaggerating for effect, but at bottom he meant what he said, and I think he was more or less right.

Paul%20Cezanne%2C%20The%20Garden%20at%20Les%20Lauves%2C%20c.1906%2C%20oil%20on%20canvas%2C%2026%20x%2032%20in%20%28Phillips%20Collection%29.jpgThe fact that I came to music so early, and immersed myself in it so fully, undoubtedly explains why I happily embraced the other non-verbal forms of expression that I encountered later on. Abstract art and plotless dance made immediate sense to me, the same kind of sense that music had previously made. And while I get little or nothing out of the "abstract" prose of writers like Gertrude Stein, my tastes in the verbal realm also appear in some cases to bear a recognizable relationship to my musical inclinations. I tend not to care for plays of ideas--Ibsen bores me stiff--whereas I have a special liking for playwrights and filmmakers who, like Chekhov and Jean Renoir, care more about mood than plot. By the same token, I scarcely ever worry about whodunit when I read a mystery. It's the characters and their quirks that carry me from page to page, just as my own biographies concentrate more on personality than ideas.

I hasten to point out that this is a general preference, not an iron disposition. I love the plays of Bertolt Brecht, for instance, and I have a more than casual interest in constitutional law, about which I've read far more than you'd expect of a card-carrying aesthete. But I incline as a rule to the mode of thought and feeling implied by T.S. Eliot's remark that Henry James had "a mind so fine that no idea could violate it." All history, especially the history of the twentieth century, argues against placing ideas in the saddle and allowing them to ride mankind. Too often they end up riding individual men and women into mass graves. As Irving Babbitt pointed out:

Robespierre and Saint-Just were ready to eliminate violently whole social strata that seemed to them to be made up of parasites and conspirators, in order that they might adjust this actual France to the Sparta of their dreams; so that the Terror was far more than is commonly realized a bucolic episode. It lends color to the assertion that has been made that the last stage of sentimentalism is homicidal mania.

That's one of many reasons why I choose not to call myself an intellectual. "How many intellectuals have come to the revolutionary party via the path of moral indignation, only to connive ultimately at terror and autocracy?" Raymond Aron asked in The Opium of the Intellectuals (a book that John Coltrane, of all people, can be seen reading in a little-known snapshot). To be sure, musicians do tend as a group to take an innocent view of human possibility, but you rarely see them escorting anyone to the guillotine. They're too busy trying to make everything more beautiful, one thing at a time.

Posted April 09, 11:05 AM

Snapshot: Lawrence Tibbett sings Pagliacci

From the 1935 film Metropolitan, Lawrence Tibbett sings the prologue from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci:

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

Posted April 09, 11:00 AM

Almanac: Shakespeare on music

Preposterous ass, that never read so far
To know the cause why music was ordain'd!
Was it not to refresh the mind of man,
After his studies or his usual pain?

William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

Posted April 09, 10:00 AM

April 8, 2014

Mack the Butter Knife

Because of the crush of New York openings this month, The Wall Street Journal has given me an extra drama column today in which to review the Atlantic Theater Company's revival of The Threepenny Opera and the New York premiere of Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Anybody who feels like sticking it to capitalism couldn't do better than to revive "The Threepenny Opera," the 1928 Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill masterpiece whose murderous anti-hero justifies his criminal career by asking this pointed question: "What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?" By coupling such sentiments with a jaunty, sharp-cornered score that is equally indebted to early jazz and modern classical music, Brecht and Weill pulled the pin on a theatrical time bomb that has been going off at regular intervals ever since. Marc Blitzstein's English-language adaptation, which opened Off Broadway in 1954, ran there for six years, and "The Threepenny Opera" has since been mounted three times on Broadway. No pre-"Oklahoma!" musical has had a more enduring stage life--proof that American theatergoers like nothing better than to be told what greedy bastards they are.

ThreepennyOpera_web_select_03.jpgThe economy being the way it is, I suppose it was high time for somebody to tell once more the tale of Mack the Knife and his crooked cohorts. Hence the Atlantic Theater Company's Off-Broadway revival of Blitzstein's pungently singable version, directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke. But Ms. Clarke, who came to fame as one of the founders of Pilobolus Dance Theatre and has since specialized in dance-driven performance-art works, is less at home with words. Not only do the dialogue scenes lack bite, but the staging is unfocused (too much stylized group movement, not enough here's-who's-talking clarity).

While I've never heard a "Threepenny" production that was better sung or played, the rough edges of Weill's score have been blunted in the process. It doesn't help that the cast is for the most part both smooth-faced and pretty-voiced...

Will Eno is the male Sarah Ruhl, a postmodern semi-surrealist who specializes in coyly metatheatrical comedies. Such flyweight folk cannot but prosper in the age of Irony Lite, and "The Realistic Joneses," which has moved to Broadway after a run at the Yale Repertory Theater, is surely destined for similar success there and elsewhere.

The cast consists of two married small-town couples, both named Jones, who live next door to one another. Bob and Jennifer (Tracy Letts and Toni Collette) are older and sadder, John and Pony (Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei) younger and seemingly more frivolous, but they're all stuck in the same leaky boat. Bob and John, it turns out, are both afflicted with an "irreversible and degenerative nerve disease" called Harriman Leavey Syndrome (yes, it's fictional) that is gradually gnawing away at their language skills and motor functions, and Jennifer and Pony are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with their slow but inexorable disintegration.

That's a familiar but nonetheless promising premise for a black comedy. Unfortunately, Mr. Eno, as is his wont, has swathed it in cute repartee...

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Lotte Lenya sings "Pirate Jenny" in G.W. Pabst's 1931 film version of The Threepenny Opera:

Posted April 08, 11:30 AM

Lookback: some thoughts on the answering machine

From 2004:

"The only modern inventions that have been of any real use to me are the typewriter and the Pullman car," H.L. Mencken told a reporter for Life in 1946. Kurt Andersen asked me the other day whether I thought Mencken would have taken to blogging. I think it's possible (just), but I'm absolutely sure he would have bought an answering machine. I've used one for the past quarter-century, and I can't imagine how I ever got through the day without it. I even bought my septuagenarian mother her first answering machine...

Read the whole thing here.

Posted April 08, 11:00 AM

Almanac: Kierkegaard on music

"Music exists only in the moment of its performance, for if one were ever so skillful in reading notes and had ever so lively an imagination, it cannot be denied that it is only in an unreal sense that music exists when it is read. It really exists only being performed. This might seem to be an imperfection in this art as compared with the others whose productions remain, because they have their existence in the sensuous. Yet this is not so. It is rather a proof of the fact that music is a higher, or more spiritual art."

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Posted April 08, 10:00 AM

April 7, 2014

Surprise, surprise!

This is the other difficult season, the time of year when every drama critic in New York is complaining about having to see too much stuff in too short a span of time. I saw three shows on consecutive days last weekend, and I'll be going to and writing about nine Broadway shows and one off-Broadway show between now and the April 23, after which I take a train to Washington, D.C., and start my summer theater travels.

despair.jpgMy job, of course, is to keep all of those plays and musicals straight in my head, if only for long enough to write my reviews. And it is, as I have regular occasion to say, a great job, the best one I know. But forced consumption, even of the finest art, is bad for the soul--and forced consumption of fair-to-middling art, which is what you often get on Broadway, wreaks even more psychic havoc. Years ago, when I was covering music for the Kansas City Star, I reviewed so many fair-to-middling classical concerts that something happened to me that I'd previously thought impossible: I burned out. After I gave up that line of work and moved to another city, two full years went by before I voluntarily went to another public performance of classical music.

From then on I deliberately diversified my critical life, and the problem of burnout vanished, never again to recur. I did much the same thing a year or so after becoming the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal in 2003: I started getting out of town and reviewing regional theater. The Journal expects me to cover all Broadway openings, but otherwise I'm on my own, meaning that I pick the shows I see. That keeps me fresh--except in April, when I'm tied to the Broadway tracks.

Even then, my lot is infinitely more tolerable than that of a movie critic. I used to write a monthly column about film for Crisis, but I shut it down nine years ago. One of the reasons why I gave it up was that I'd gotten too busy doing other things, but another, equally compelling reason was that I'd discovered that new American movies no longer interested me other than occasionally. As I wrote in my valedictory column:

What makes me especially sad is that the first few years of this column (which I started writing in 1998) were a wonderful time for film in America, a time that now seems to have passed....I find myself less interested in writing about film, not because my love for the medium has diminished but because American filmmakers are now making so few movies worth seeing. These things happen in the arts--ballet and modern dance have also been going through a similarly bad patch--and rather than continue to rail against the self-evident each month, I've decided to till greener pastures.

Nothing that's happened since then has made me want to resume the drudgery of seeing two or three new films each month, and it appears that a fast-growing number of my fellow Americans are coming to feel the same way.

Theater is different, if only because so much of a critic's time on the aisle is spent watching new productions of old plays. While many American theater companies have lately grown less adventurous in choosing older plays to revive, it's still easy enough for me to find shows that I not only want to see but, in many cases, long to see. My tentative reviewing plans for the summer, for instance, include:

• The U.S. premiere of Conor McPherson's English-language adaptation of August Strindberg's The Dance of Death

• An extremely rare revival of Juno, Marc Blitzstein's musical version of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock

• A production of The Tempest staged by Teller, with songs by Tom Waits

• A Canadian revival of J.B. Priestley's When We Were Married, which I've never seen or read

With such shows on my plate, I'll have no trouble toughing out whatever Broadway has in store for me in the next three weeks. That said, I'm well aware of the spiritual dangers of getting stuffed up with less stimulating fare. Few things can blunt a critic's sensibility quite so comprehensively as mediocrity. If I were only allowed to write about Broadway...well, I might go mad.

39615.player.jpgIf, on the other hand, I were only allowed to write about Shakespeare, I'd do my best to remember the wise counsel of Neville Cardus, one of my favorite classical music critics. As I wrote in the Journal in 2002:

Cardus...spent World War II in Australia. Most Aussies then were well behind the cultural curve, and Cardus learned to his dismay that the centerpiece of the first concert he was to review for the Sydney Morning Herald was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the "Mona Lisa" of classical music. What could he possibly say about a warhorse he'd heard at least a hundred times?

That night, though, he glanced around the concert hall and realized that at least half ot the audience had never before heard a performance of Beethoven's Fifth. "To those Australians, in the Sydney Town Hall, the Fifth Symphony was a revelation," he later recalled. "I found this a tremendous inspiration....the concert was for me an illumination and living proof that there are no hackneyed masterpieces, only hackneyed critics."

That's good advice--sometimes hard to take, but essential to keep in mind, just as it's important to remember that the muse descends on her schedule, not yours. I had no idea when I went to see the new Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun, a familiar play that I'd already reviewed twice in the Journal, that the production would hit me as hard as it did.

C.S. Lewis said it: you must always be ready to be surprised by joy. Even on Broadway. And I am.

Posted April 07, 11:05 AM

The latest on Satchmo at the Waldorf (cont'd)

laura.jpg• Laura Lippman, the best-selling crime novelist of whose writing I am a fan of very long standing, recently gave an interview to Leah Harper of the Guardian for that paper's "On My Radar" series. It contains a list of her current "cultural highlights," and one of them, to my great surprise and absolute delight, was Satchmo at the Waldorf:

This is a one-man play written by the Wall Street Journal 's theatre critic, Terry Teachout. I think you have to have such confidence to be a theatre critic and write a play. He's really opened himself up. He wrote a terrific biography of Louis Armstrong, aka Satchmo, and this play just recently opened...I'm really keen to see it.

Read the whole thing here.

• Dana Tyler's WCBS interview with John Douglas Thompson and me aired on Sunday, and I was quite pleased with the results:

Posted April 07, 11:00 AM

Just because: a 1965 episode of The Celebrity Game

A 1965 episode of The Celebrity Game, a TV show hosted by Carl Reiner. The guests include Gypsy Rose Lee, Oscar Levant, Lee Marvin, Sal Mineo, and Mickey Rooney:

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

Posted April 07, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Hermann Hesse on classical music

"The human attitude of which classical music is the expression is always the same; it is always based on the same kind of insight into life and strives for the same kind of victory over blind change. Classical music as gesture signifies knowledge of the tragedy of the human condition, affirmation of human destiny, courage, cheerful serenity."

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

Posted April 07, 9:00 AM

April 4, 2014

A blazing tale of hurt and hope

In today's Wall Street Journal I review the new Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun and the Broadway transfer of If/Then. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Walter Lee Younger, the central character in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," is described in the stage directions as "a lean, intense young man in his middle thirties." When Sidney Poitier created the role in 1959, he was 32 years old. Denzel Washington, the star of the play's second Broadway revival, is 59.

End of story? No--though it might easily have been.

First, the indisputably good news: "A Raisin in the Sun" is one of the best American dramas of the 20th century, a perfectly composed, profoundly moving history play about a black family in the Eisenhower era whose frustrated members, trapped in a dingy Chicago tenement, long for a better life. This production is directed by Kenny Leon, who also staged the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson's "Fences" in which Mr. Washington previously starred. Mr. Leon is an inspired craftsman who creates the illusion that he's merely staying out of the way of a good script. What he does, of course, isn't nearly that simple, but you'll never catch yourself noticing this or that clever touch. All that's visible is the finished product, a piece of storytelling as plain and true and beautiful as a well-laid brick wall.

AR-AF530_RICHAR_G_20140327175252.jpgMr. Leon is blessed to be working with LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who plays Lena, Walter Lee's mother, with a harsh-tongued bluntness that conceals infinite depths of fierce love. Sophie Okonedo and Anika Noni Rose match her excellence as Ruth and Beneatha, Walter Lee's wife and younger sister, and the smaller parts are played with like authority....

Mr. Washington, though he looks good, also looks his years, so much so that the script has been quietly and pointlessly altered to make him say he's 40, not 35....

It is the strongest possible tribute to the integrity of Mr. Leon's staging that it rises above this obvious falsity. No, you won't quite believe what you're seeing, but you won't care, either. This is still a great production of a great play...

"If/Then" is a new Broadway musical by Brian Yorkey (who wrote the book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (who wrote the music). Their last show, "Next to Normal," which bagged three Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize, was about a suburban mom who suffers from a bad case of bipolar disorder. In "If/Then," Idina Menzel plays Elizabeth, a 38-year-old divorcée who moves back to New York after 12 years in Phoenix, then chooses between two incompatible directions in life--at which point the results of both of her possible choices are played out simultaneously onstage.

If, like me, you found "Next to Normal" to be an unpleasingly prettified portrayal of manic depression, stay away from "If/Then," in which the authors fawn over the travails of New York's verbal class and explicitly invite the audience to sneer at those benighted rubes who feed the family at Olive Garden. This is the kind of show whose self-satisfied authors take it for granted that its viewers will chortle at the mere mention of Phoenix....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

A scene from the 1961 film version of A Raisin in the Sun, starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, both of whom created their roles in the original 1959 Broadway production:

Posted April 04, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Lorraine Hansberry on loneliness

"Eventually it comes to you: the thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely."

Lorraine Hansberry, journal entry, May 1, 1962

Posted April 04, 9:00 AM

April 3, 2014

Moving right along

"So, will Gordon Edelstein be tinkering with the show this week?" Mrs. T asked me the day after Satchmo at the Waldorf opened.

I laughed. "Gordon's already rehearsing his next show in New Haven," I explained. "He's done with Satchmo." And so he is: he hasn't come back to see it since opening night.

tn-500_satchmocurtwm20147560.jpgMrs. T, who is the least theatrical of people, was surprised by this news, but I wasn't. A job's a job, and Gordon, though he was deeply and passionately involved in the protracted process that brought my first play to New York, has since moved on. He directed a lot of shows before Satchmo, and he'll direct a lot of shows after Satchmo. Even John Douglas Thompson, though he'll be appearing in the triple role of Louis Armstrong, Joe Glaser, and Miles Davis for (I hope!) some time to come, will sooner or later hang up his costume and depart to play other roles.

What about me? I went back to see Satchmo a couple of times after it opened, but I wasn't there last week and won't be there this week. I, too, have a day job, one that requires much of me, especially in the spring. Even so, it wouldn't be quite right to say that I've "moved on" from Satchmo at the Waldorf. In fact, I'm in a bit of a creative stall. I'm not working on a new book--though I have one in mind--or an opera libretto. I do have a second play in the works, but I haven't even looked at the script of Breaking and Entering since December, when it was given a reading in Massachusetts. For the moment I'm seeing three or four Broadway shows each week, keeping up with my usual deadlines, and planning my summer theater travel. That's more than enough to keep me busy, at least for now.

Could it be that the opening of Satchmo overwhelmed me? I doubt it, since I've opened shows in the past without any obvious ill effects. On the other hand, it's definitely true that opening a show is different from publishing a book. Books don't have opening nights, and there's rarely a moment when you suddenly look up and say to yourself, Hey, my book is out!

Because of this, my memories of the publication of my various books tend to be blurry. Some I remember because of people that they brought into my life. (I met Our Girl in Chicago, who later became my closest friend, when she was answering the phone a quarter-century ago for the editor of my first book.) Others I remember because of particular events: a grueling author tour, a joyful book party. But do I remember turning in any of my manuscripts, or seeing a finished copy in a brick-and-mortar bookstore for the first time? No.

sfletter111109.jpgNot so my opening nights. I've had five so far, three operas and five productions of Satchmo at the Waldorf, and I can picture each one with perfect clarity. What's more, I know why I remember them so well: a theatrical opening night is a moment of fruition and catharsis, a point in time when months, even years of concentrated labor are finally made manifest in front of an audience. It's rather like an explosion, and if you're lucky, it ends with a symbolic explosion of applause. If you don't remember that kind of experience, you're dead inside.

So it may be that I'm still getting over the sheer intensity of the explosion that was the opening-night performance of Satchmo at the Waldorf--and if so, I'm all right with that. Like I said, I've got enough to do. For now.

Posted April 03, 11:00 AM

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)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
Rocky (musical, G/PG-13, 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:
London Wall (serious comedy, PG-13, closes Apr. 20, reviewed here)

Posted April 03, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Lord Harewood on love

"It's quite possible I believe to love without understanding, hard to understand without loving."

The Tongs and the Bones: The Memoirs of Lord Harewood

Posted April 03, 9:00 AM

April 2, 2014

The latest on Satchmo at the Waldorf (cont'd)

BkJaPWjCQAAA82H.jpg• Dana Tyler of WCBS talked to John Douglas Thompson and me about Satchmo at the Waldorf yesterday morning. The interview (which was great fun) will air this Sunday at eight a.m. on CBS 2 News Sunday.

• This week's New York Times "In Performance" video features a scene from Satchmo in which John switches from Louis Armstrong to Joe Glaser and back again--a superbly vivid demonstration of his virtuosity, which continues to astonish me each time I see the show.

You can view the video by going here.

• Finally, Satchmo has been nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award, presented by the Off-Broadway League, in the "Outstanding Solo Show" category. My heartfelt congratulations to John, Gordon Edelstein, and all of our indispensable colleagues. ("I hope you sleep O.K. with this," a friend wrote. I didn't!)

To read the Hollywood Reporter's story about this year's Lortel nominations, go here. The winners will be announced on May 4. Alas, I already have plans to see a show in Connecticut, but I'll be there in spirit.

Posted April 02, 11:30 AM

CONSTANT LAMBERT: A POLYMATH'S PRODIGAL GIFTS FORGOTTEN

"He was a powerfully individual composer, an amazingly talented conductor and one of the most quotable critics ever to put pen to paper. So why haven't you heard of him?..."

Posted April 02, 10:40 AM

Snapshot: Jean-Pierre Rampal plays Debussy

Jean-Pierre Rampal plays Debussy's "Syrinx" on TV in 1957:

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

Posted April 02, 10:00 AM

Almanac: Lord Harewood on happiness

"When I started to see the analyst, I had a powerful feeling of guilt about my whole situation, and could not believe it was right to eliminate this feeling. My talks with him put it into perspective, until I was nearer to accepting it. 'In this life you pay for everything, for every happiness,' he said."

The Tongs and the Bones: The Memoirs of Lord Harewood

Posted April 02, 9:00 AM

April 1, 2014

Lookback: on hanging a new piece of art

From 2004:

It happens that I've just acquired a new piece for the Teachout Museum, a copy of Fairfield Porter's Broadway, the 1971 color lithograph I chose at your recommendation to adorn the dust jacket of A Terry Teachout Reader. It hasn't arrived yet, but I'll have to shift some other pieces around when it does, so I opted to do a bit of preparatory puttering. Since I'm going to hang Broadway over the mantelpiece, the place of honor, I moved the Wolf Kahn monotype that currently occupies that space to a spot over the living-room closet. That's where I'd hung my copy of William Bailey's aquatint Piazza Rotunda, not very happily, so I took down the Porter poster that hangs over the door to my office and put Piazza Rotunda there.

No doubt all this sounds boring, perhaps even precious, but hanging the art you own is an inescapable part of owning it, and it's surprising--astonishing, really--how completely the look and feel of my living room have been altered simply by switching a couple of prints....

Read the whole thing here.

Posted April 01, 10:00 AM

Man at work

I did a fair amount of work on the blog this morning, updating the top-five and Out of the Past modules and pruning the "About Terry's Play and Opera Libretti" and "About Terry's Books" modules to make them more concise and easily navigable. If you're curious, take a look at the right-hand column.

Posted April 01, 9:15 AM

Almanac: Lord Harewood on criticism

"Every creative artist who goes before the public takes something private with him, something vulnerable that can be crushed and wounded."

The Tongs and the Bones: The Memoirs of Lord Harewood

Posted April 01, 9:00 AM

CD

Ray Charles, Brother Ray: The Genius (Frémeaux, three CDs). An exceptionally well-chosen, well-annotated, and wide-ranging French anthology of Charles' 1949-1960 recordings, originally issued in 2011 and now available as an import, that puts his formidable musical achievements in crystal-clear historical perspective (TT).

Posted April 01, 8:29 AM

FILM

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. This 1943 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is a complex, near-epic study of the English national character, cunningly disguised as a wartime propaganda flick. Roger Livesey is breathtakingly good as a quintessential "old boy" who can't come to grips with how World War II has changed his beloved country. Colonel Blimp is one of David Mamet's favorite movies, and when you see the Criterion Collection's beautifully restored home-video version, you'll understand why (TT).

Posted April 01, 8:21 AM

MUSICAL

Rocky (Winter Garden, 1634 Broadway). Believe it or not--and it definitely surprised me--the musical version of Rocky turns out to be a very impressive show, staged with immense panache and soaring physicality by Alex Timbers. The performances are consistently strong and the score, by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, is generally good and occasionally outstanding. Absolutely not for bros only (TT).

Posted April 01, 8:13 AM

BOOK

Mark Harris, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (Penguin, $29.95). A carefully researched, grippingly readable account of the military careers of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler, all of whom volunteered to serve in World War II and made training and propaganda films about the war for the U.S. government--often placing their lives at risk to do so (TT).

Posted April 01, 8:08 AM

SAD AS HELL

"Few friendships have been more intimate--or less likely--than that of Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote Marty and Network, and Bob Fosse, the director and choreographer of the film version of Cabaret and the original Broadway production of Chicago. Beyond the bare fact of their both having been in show business, it is hard at first glance to see what they had in common. Chayefsky was an idealistic, sexually inhibited New York Jew full of angry political passions that infused much of his later work; Fosse was an apolitical sensualist from the Midwest who sloughed off his Methodist background to lead a life in which sex and drugs played almost as large a part as dance. Yet the two men were close, so much so that Fosse, at Chayefsky's request, danced a soft-shoe at his friend's funeral..."

Posted April 01, 7:37 AM

BOOK

Stephen Lloyd, Constant Lambert: Beyond the Rio Grande (Boydell, $64). The first full-length biography of the jazz-influenced composer-conductor-critic who wrote Music Ho! and was--or should have been--England's Leonard Bernstein. If you only know him as the model for Hugh Moreland in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, this superbly thorough biography will tell you the whole sad story (TT).

Posted April 01, 12:00 AM

e="application/atom+xml" title="Atom" href="http://www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight/atom.xml" /> About Last Night: April 2014 Archives

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April 2014 Archives

April 1, 2014

BOOK

Stephen Lloyd, Constant Lambert: Beyond the Rio Grande (Boydell, $64). The first full-length biography of the jazz-influenced composer-conductor-critic who wrote Music Ho! and was--or should have been--England's Leonard Bernstein. If you only know him as the model for Hugh Moreland in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, this superbly thorough biography will tell you the whole sad story (TT).

SAD AS HELL

"Few friendships have been more intimate--or less likely--than that of Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote Marty and Network, and Bob Fosse, the director and choreographer of the film version of Cabaret and the original Broadway production of Chicago. Beyond the bare fact of their both having been in show business, it is hard at first glance to see what they had in common. Chayefsky was an idealistic, sexually inhibited New York Jew full of angry political passions that infused much of his later work; Fosse was an apolitical sensualist from the Midwest who sloughed off his Methodist background to lead a life in which sex and drugs played almost as large a part as dance. Yet the two men were close, so much so that Fosse, at Chayefsky's request, danced a soft-shoe at his friend's funeral..."

BOOK

Mark Harris, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (Penguin, $29.95). A carefully researched, grippingly readable account of the military careers of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler, all of whom volunteered to serve in World War II and made training and propaganda films about the war for the U.S. government--often placing their lives at risk to do so (TT).

MUSICAL

Rocky (Winter Garden, 1634 Broadway). Believe it or not--and it definitely surprised me--the musical version of Rocky turns out to be a very impressive show, staged with immense panache and soaring physicality by Alex Timbers. The performances are consistently strong and the score, by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, is generally good and occasionally outstanding. Absolutely not for bros only (TT).

FILM

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. This 1943 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is a complex, near-epic study of the English national character, cunningly disguised as a wartime propaganda flick. Roger Livesey is breathtakingly good as a quintessential "old boy" who can't come to grips with how World War II has changed his beloved country. Colonel Blimp is one of David Mamet's favorite movies, and when you see the Criterion Collection's beautifully restored home-video version, you'll understand why (TT).

CD

Ray Charles, Brother Ray: The Genius (Frémeaux, three CDs). An exceptionally well-chosen, well-annotated, and wide-ranging French anthology of Charles' 1949-1960 recordings, originally issued in 2011 and now available as an import, that puts his formidable musical achievements in crystal-clear historical perspective (TT).

Almanac: Lord Harewood on criticism

"Every creative artist who goes before the public takes something private with him, something vulnerable that can be crushed and wounded."

The Tongs and the Bones: The Memoirs of Lord Harewood

Man at work

I did a fair amount of work on the blog this morning, updating the top-five and Out of the Past modules and pruning the "About Terry's Play and Opera Libretti" and "About Terry's Books" modules to make them more concise and easily navigable. If you're curious, take a look at the right-hand column.

Lookback: on hanging a new piece of art

From 2004:

It happens that I've just acquired a new piece for the Teachout Museum, a copy of Fairfield Porter's Broadway, the 1971 color lithograph I chose at your recommendation to adorn the dust jacket of A Terry Teachout Reader. It hasn't arrived yet, but I'll have to shift some other pieces around when it does, so I opted to do a bit of preparatory puttering. Since I'm going to hang Broadway over the mantelpiece, the place of honor, I moved the Wolf Kahn monotype that currently occupies that space to a spot over the living-room closet. That's where I'd hung my copy of William Bailey's aquatint Piazza Rotunda, not very happily, so I took down the Porter poster that hangs over the door to my office and put Piazza Rotunda there.

No doubt all this sounds boring, perhaps even precious, but hanging the art you own is an inescapable part of owning it, and it's surprising--astonishing, really--how completely the look and feel of my living room have been altered simply by switching a couple of prints....

Read the whole thing here.

April 2, 2014

Almanac: Lord Harewood on happiness

"When I started to see the analyst, I had a powerful feeling of guilt about my whole situation, and could not believe it was right to eliminate this feeling. My talks with him put it into perspective, until I was nearer to accepting it. 'In this life you pay for everything, for every happiness,' he said."

The Tongs and the Bones: The Memoirs of Lord Harewood

Snapshot: Jean-Pierre Rampal plays Debussy

Jean-Pierre Rampal plays Debussy's "Syrinx" on TV in 1957:

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

CONSTANT LAMBERT: A POLYMATH'S PRODIGAL GIFTS FORGOTTEN

"He was a powerfully individual composer, an amazingly talented conductor and one of the most quotable critics ever to put pen to paper. So why haven't you heard of him?..."

The latest on Satchmo at the Waldorf (cont'd)

BkJaPWjCQAAA82H.jpg• Dana Tyler of WCBS talked to John Douglas Thompson and me about Satchmo at the Waldorf yesterday morning. The interview (which was great fun) will air this Sunday at eight a.m. on CBS 2 News Sunday.

• This week's New York Times "In Performance" video features a scene from Satchmo in which John switches from Louis Armstrong to Joe Glaser and back again--a superbly vivid demonstration of his virtuosity, which continues to astonish me each time I see the show.

You can view the video by going here.

• Finally, Satchmo has been nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award, presented by the Off-Broadway League, in the "Outstanding Solo Show" category. My heartfelt congratulations to John, Gordon Edelstein, and all of our indispensable colleagues. ("I hope you sleep O.K. with this," a friend wrote. I didn't!)

To read the Hollywood Reporter's story about this year's Lortel nominations, go here. The winners will be announced on May 4. Alas, I already have plans to see a show in Connecticut, but I'll be there in spirit.

April 3, 2014

Almanac: Lord Harewood on love

"It's quite possible I believe to love without understanding, hard to understand without loving."

The Tongs and the Bones: The Memoirs of Lord Harewood

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)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
Rocky (musical, G/PG-13, 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:
London Wall (serious comedy, PG-13, closes Apr. 20, reviewed here)

Moving right along

"So, will Gordon Edelstein be tinkering with the show this week?" Mrs. T asked me the day after Satchmo at the Waldorf opened.

I laughed. "Gordon's already rehearsing his next show in New Haven," I explained. "He's done with Satchmo." And so he is: he hasn't come back to see it since opening night.

tn-500_satchmocurtwm20147560.jpgMrs. T, who is the least theatrical of people, was surprised by this news, but I wasn't. A job's a job, and Gordon, though he was deeply and passionately involved in the protracted process that brought my first play to New York, has since moved on. He directed a lot of shows before Satchmo, and he'll direct a lot of shows after Satchmo. Even John Douglas Thompson, though he'll be appearing in the triple role of Louis Armstrong, Joe Glaser, and Miles Davis for (I hope!) some time to come, will sooner or later hang up his costume and depart to play other roles.

What about me? I went back to see Satchmo a couple of times after it opened, but I wasn't there last week and won't be there this week. I, too, have a day job, one that requires much of me, especially in the spring. Even so, it wouldn't be quite right to say that I've "moved on" from Satchmo at the Waldorf. In fact, I'm in a bit of a creative stall. I'm not working on a new book--though I have one in mind--or an opera libretto. I do have a second play in the works, but I haven't even looked at the script of Breaking and Entering since December, when it was given a reading in Massachusetts. For the moment I'm seeing three or four Broadway shows each week, keeping up with my usual deadlines, and planning my summer theater travel. That's more than enough to keep me busy, at least for now.

Could it be that the opening of Satchmo overwhelmed me? I doubt it, since I've opened shows in the past without any obvious ill effects. On the other hand, it's definitely true that opening a show is different from publishing a book. Books don't have opening nights, and there's rarely a moment when you suddenly look up and say to yourself, Hey, my book is out!

Because of this, my memories of the publication of my various books tend to be blurry. Some I remember because of people that they brought into my life. (I met Our Girl in Chicago, who later became my closest friend, when she was answering the phone a quarter-century ago for the editor of my first book.) Others I remember because of particular events: a grueling author tour, a joyful book party. But do I remember turning in any of my manuscripts, or seeing a finished copy in a brick-and-mortar bookstore for the first time? No.

sfletter111109.jpgNot so my opening nights. I've had five so far, three operas and five productions of Satchmo at the Waldorf, and I can picture each one with perfect clarity. What's more, I know why I remember them so well: a theatrical opening night is a moment of fruition and catharsis, a point in time when months, even years of concentrated labor are finally made manifest in front of an audience. It's rather like an explosion, and if you're lucky, it ends with a symbolic explosion of applause. If you don't remember that kind of experience, you're dead inside.

So it may be that I'm still getting over the sheer intensity of the explosion that was the opening-night performance of Satchmo at the Waldorf--and if so, I'm all right with that. Like I said, I've got enough to do. For now.

April 4, 2014

Almanac: Lorraine Hansberry on loneliness

"Eventually it comes to you: the thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely."

Lorraine Hansberry, journal entry, May 1, 1962

A blazing tale of hurt and hope

In today's Wall Street Journal I review the new Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun and the Broadway transfer of If/Then. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Walter Lee Younger, the central character in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," is described in the stage directions as "a lean, intense young man in his middle thirties." When Sidney Poitier created the role in 1959, he was 32 years old. Denzel Washington, the star of the play's second Broadway revival, is 59.

End of story? No--though it might easily have been.

First, the indisputably good news: "A Raisin in the Sun" is one of the best American dramas of the 20th century, a perfectly composed, profoundly moving history play about a black family in the Eisenhower era whose frustrated members, trapped in a dingy Chicago tenement, long for a better life. This production is directed by Kenny Leon, who also staged the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson's "Fences" in which Mr. Washington previously starred. Mr. Leon is an inspired craftsman who creates the illusion that he's merely staying out of the way of a good script. What he does, of course, isn't nearly that simple, but you'll never catch yourself noticing this or that clever touch. All that's visible is the finished product, a piece of storytelling as plain and true and beautiful as a well-laid brick wall.

AR-AF530_RICHAR_G_20140327175252.jpgMr. Leon is blessed to be working with LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who plays Lena, Walter Lee's mother, with a harsh-tongued bluntness that conceals infinite depths of fierce love. Sophie Okonedo and Anika Noni Rose match her excellence as Ruth and Beneatha, Walter Lee's wife and younger sister, and the smaller parts are played with like authority....

Mr. Washington, though he looks good, also looks his years, so much so that the script has been quietly and pointlessly altered to make him say he's 40, not 35....

It is the strongest possible tribute to the integrity of Mr. Leon's staging that it rises above this obvious falsity. No, you won't quite believe what you're seeing, but you won't care, either. This is still a great production of a great play...

"If/Then" is a new Broadway musical by Brian Yorkey (who wrote the book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (who wrote the music). Their last show, "Next to Normal," which bagged three Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize, was about a suburban mom who suffers from a bad case of bipolar disorder. In "If/Then," Idina Menzel plays Elizabeth, a 38-year-old divorcée who moves back to New York after 12 years in Phoenix, then chooses between two incompatible directions in life--at which point the results of both of her possible choices are played out simultaneously onstage.

If, like me, you found "Next to Normal" to be an unpleasingly prettified portrayal of manic depression, stay away from "If/Then," in which the authors fawn over the travails of New York's verbal class and explicitly invite the audience to sneer at those benighted rubes who feed the family at Olive Garden. This is the kind of show whose self-satisfied authors take it for granted that its viewers will chortle at the mere mention of Phoenix....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

A scene from the 1961 film version of A Raisin in the Sun, starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, both of whom created their roles in the original 1959 Broadway production:

April 7, 2014

Almanac: Hermann Hesse on classical music

"The human attitude of which classical music is the expression is always the same; it is always based on the same kind of insight into life and strives for the same kind of victory over blind change. Classical music as gesture signifies knowledge of the tragedy of the human condition, affirmation of human destiny, courage, cheerful serenity."

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

Just because: a 1965 episode of The Celebrity Game

A 1965 episode of The Celebrity Game, a TV show hosted by Carl Reiner. The guests include Gypsy Rose Lee, Oscar Levant, Lee Marvin, Sal Mineo, and Mickey Rooney:

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

The latest on Satchmo at the Waldorf (cont'd)

laura.jpg• Laura Lippman, the best-selling crime novelist of whose writing I am a fan of very long standing, recently gave an interview to Leah Harper of the Guardian for that paper's "On My Radar" series. It contains a list of her current "cultural highlights," and one of them, to my great surprise and absolute delight, was Satchmo at the Waldorf:

This is a one-man play written by the Wall Street Journal 's theatre critic, Terry Teachout. I think you have to have such confidence to be a theatre critic and write a play. He's really opened himself up. He wrote a terrific biography of Louis Armstrong, aka Satchmo, and this play just recently opened...I'm really keen to see it.

Read the whole thing here.

• Dana Tyler's WCBS interview with John Douglas Thompson and me aired on Sunday, and I was quite pleased with the results:

Surprise, surprise!

This is the other difficult season, the time of year when every drama critic in New York is complaining about having to see too much stuff in too short a span of time. I saw three shows on consecutive days last weekend, and I'll be going to and writing about nine Broadway shows and one off-Broadway show between now and the April 23, after which I take a train to Washington, D.C., and start my summer theater travels.

despair.jpgMy job, of course, is to keep all of those plays and musicals straight in my head, if only for long enough to write my reviews. And it is, as I have regular occasion to say, a great job, the best one I know. But forced consumption, even of the finest art, is bad for the soul--and forced consumption of fair-to-middling art, which is what you often get on Broadway, wreaks even more psychic havoc. Years ago, when I was covering music for the Kansas City Star, I reviewed so many fair-to-middling classical concerts that something happened to me that I'd previously thought impossible: I burned out. After I gave up that line of work and moved to another city, two full years went by before I voluntarily went to another public performance of classical music.

From then on I deliberately diversified my critical life, and the problem of burnout vanished, never again to recur. I did much the same thing a year or so after becoming the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal in 2003: I started getting out of town and reviewing regional theater. The Journal expects me to cover all Broadway openings, but otherwise I'm on my own, meaning that I pick the shows I see. That keeps me fresh--except in April, when I'm tied to the Broadway tracks.

Even then, my lot is infinitely more tolerable than that of a movie critic. I used to write a monthly column about film for Crisis, but I shut it down nine years ago. One of the reasons why I gave it up was that I'd gotten too busy doing other things, but another, equally compelling reason was that I'd discovered that new American movies no longer interested me other than occasionally. As I wrote in my valedictory column:

What makes me especially sad is that the first few years of this column (which I started writing in 1998) were a wonderful time for film in America, a time that now seems to have passed....I find myself less interested in writing about film, not because my love for the medium has diminished but because American filmmakers are now making so few movies worth seeing. These things happen in the arts--ballet and modern dance have also been going through a similarly bad patch--and rather than continue to rail against the self-evident each month, I've decided to till greener pastures.

Nothing that's happened since then has made me want to resume the drudgery of seeing two or three new films each month, and it appears that a fast-growing number of my fellow Americans are coming to feel the same way.

Theater is different, if only because so much of a critic's time on the aisle is spent watching new productions of old plays. While many American theater companies have lately grown less adventurous in choosing older plays to revive, it's still easy enough for me to find shows that I not only want to see but, in many cases, long to see. My tentative reviewing plans for the summer, for instance, include:

• The U.S. premiere of Conor McPherson's English-language adaptation of August Strindberg's The Dance of Death

• An extremely rare revival of Juno, Marc Blitzstein's musical version of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock

• A production of The Tempest staged by Teller, with songs by Tom Waits

• A Canadian revival of J.B. Priestley's When We Were Married, which I've never seen or read

With such shows on my plate, I'll have no trouble toughing out whatever Broadway has in store for me in the next three weeks. That said, I'm well aware of the spiritual dangers of getting stuffed up with less stimulating fare. Few things can blunt a critic's sensibility quite so comprehensively as mediocrity. If I were only allowed to write about Broadway...well, I might go mad.

39615.player.jpgIf, on the other hand, I were only allowed to write about Shakespeare, I'd do my best to remember the wise counsel of Neville Cardus, one of my favorite classical music critics. As I wrote in the Journal in 2002:

Cardus...spent World War II in Australia. Most Aussies then were well behind the cultural curve, and Cardus learned to his dismay that the centerpiece of the first concert he was to review for the Sydney Morning Herald was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the "Mona Lisa" of classical music. What could he possibly say about a warhorse he'd heard at least a hundred times?

That night, though, he glanced around the concert hall and realized that at least half ot the audience had never before heard a performance of Beethoven's Fifth. "To those Australians, in the Sydney Town Hall, the Fifth Symphony was a revelation," he later recalled. "I found this a tremendous inspiration....the concert was for me an illumination and living proof that there are no hackneyed masterpieces, only hackneyed critics."

That's good advice--sometimes hard to take, but essential to keep in mind, just as it's important to remember that the muse descends on her schedule, not yours. I had no idea when I went to see the new Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun, a familiar play that I'd already reviewed twice in the Journal, that the production would hit me as hard as it did.

C.S. Lewis said it: you must always be ready to be surprised by joy. Even on Broadway. And I am.

April 8, 2014

Almanac: Kierkegaard on music

"Music exists only in the moment of its performance, for if one were ever so skillful in reading notes and had ever so lively an imagination, it cannot be denied that it is only in an unreal sense that music exists when it is read. It really exists only being performed. This might seem to be an imperfection in this art as compared with the others whose productions remain, because they have their existence in the sensuous. Yet this is not so. It is rather a proof of the fact that music is a higher, or more spiritual art."

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Lookback: some thoughts on the answering machine

From 2004:

"The only modern inventions that have been of any real use to me are the typewriter and the Pullman car," H.L. Mencken told a reporter for Life in 1946. Kurt Andersen asked me the other day whether I thought Mencken would have taken to blogging. I think it's possible (just), but I'm absolutely sure he would have bought an answering machine. I've used one for the past quarter-century, and I can't imagine how I ever got through the day without it. I even bought my septuagenarian mother her first answering machine...

Read the whole thing here.

Mack the Butter Knife

Because of the crush of New York openings this month, The Wall Street Journal has given me an extra drama column today in which to review the Atlantic Theater Company's revival of The Threepenny Opera and the New York premiere of Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Anybody who feels like sticking it to capitalism couldn't do better than to revive "The Threepenny Opera," the 1928 Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill masterpiece whose murderous anti-hero justifies his criminal career by asking this pointed question: "What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?" By coupling such sentiments with a jaunty, sharp-cornered score that is equally indebted to early jazz and modern classical music, Brecht and Weill pulled the pin on a theatrical time bomb that has been going off at regular intervals ever since. Marc Blitzstein's English-language adaptation, which opened Off Broadway in 1954, ran there for six years, and "The Threepenny Opera" has since been mounted three times on Broadway. No pre-"Oklahoma!" musical has had a more enduring stage life--proof that American theatergoers like nothing better than to be told what greedy bastards they are.

ThreepennyOpera_web_select_03.jpgThe economy being the way it is, I suppose it was high time for somebody to tell once more the tale of Mack the Knife and his crooked cohorts. Hence the Atlantic Theater Company's Off-Broadway revival of Blitzstein's pungently singable version, directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke. But Ms. Clarke, who came to fame as one of the founders of Pilobolus Dance Theatre and has since specialized in dance-driven performance-art works, is less at home with words. Not only do the dialogue scenes lack bite, but the staging is unfocused (too much stylized group movement, not enough here's-who's-talking clarity).

While I've never heard a "Threepenny" production that was better sung or played, the rough edges of Weill's score have been blunted in the process. It doesn't help that the cast is for the most part both smooth-faced and pretty-voiced...

Will Eno is the male Sarah Ruhl, a postmodern semi-surrealist who specializes in coyly metatheatrical comedies. Such flyweight folk cannot but prosper in the age of Irony Lite, and "The Realistic Joneses," which has moved to Broadway after a run at the Yale Repertory Theater, is surely destined for similar success there and elsewhere.

The cast consists of two married small-town couples, both named Jones, who live next door to one another. Bob and Jennifer (Tracy Letts and Toni Collette) are older and sadder, John and Pony (Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei) younger and seemingly more frivolous, but they're all stuck in the same leaky boat. Bob and John, it turns out, are both afflicted with an "irreversible and degenerative nerve disease" called Harriman Leavey Syndrome (yes, it's fictional) that is gradually gnawing away at their language skills and motor functions, and Jennifer and Pony are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with their slow but inexorable disintegration.

That's a familiar but nonetheless promising premise for a black comedy. Unfortunately, Mr. Eno, as is his wont, has swathed it in cute repartee...

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Lotte Lenya sings "Pirate Jenny" in G.W. Pabst's 1931 film version of The Threepenny Opera:

April 9, 2014

Almanac: Shakespeare on music

Preposterous ass, that never read so far
To know the cause why music was ordain'd!
Was it not to refresh the mind of man,
After his studies or his usual pain?

William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

Snapshot: Lawrence Tibbett sings Pagliacci

From the 1935 film Metropolitan, Lawrence Tibbett sings the prologue from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci:

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

Split decision

14.jpgNot long ago I was introduced to an audience as an "intellectual." Though I didn't beg to differ, I entered, as I always do, a silent demurrer. To me, an intellectual is a person who is primarily interested in ideas. What I am, at least to my own way of thinking, is an aesthete, a person who is primarily interested in artistic beauty.

It's also true, though, that I probably spend more time thinking about non-artistic ideas than your average aesthete, if there is such a thing. I just finished reading a book about Brian Friel's plays and am about to start reading a biography of Lincoln. My impression is that most eggheads don't jump around like that: they're usually one thing or the other. And even within the realm of art, I range more widely afield than is typically the case. I'm as likely to be reading about (say) George Balanchine or Milton Avery or Emmanuel Chabrier as I am about a playwright, or any other kind of wordsmith.

I've been that way for as long as I can remember, and I understood early on that it was a peculiar way to be. What's more, my whole life has been shaped by this peculiarity. For a long time I expected to be a musician when I grew up, but I finally figured out that while I had enough talent to pursue music as a career, it would be a mistake for me to do so. To be a successful performing musician requires a singlemindedness of artistic purpose that I've never had. While I loved playing music, I'm sure I would have found it frustrating to do that and nothing else, just as I found it frustrating later on when I spent a few years paying the rent by writing newspaper editorials, mostly about foreign policy. The job didn't bore me in the least, and I think I did it pretty well, but it didn't fulfill me, either.

After a lifetime of puzzling over this bifurcation in my nature, I've decided that it arises from the fact that even though I'm a fundamentally verbal person, I spent much of my youth making and thinking about music, the least verbal or representational of art forms. As Igor Stravinsky famously said in Expositions and Developments, music is "supra-personal and super-real and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions." He was exaggerating for effect, but at bottom he meant what he said, and I think he was more or less right.

Paul%20Cezanne%2C%20The%20Garden%20at%20Les%20Lauves%2C%20c.1906%2C%20oil%20on%20canvas%2C%2026%20x%2032%20in%20%28Phillips%20Collection%29.jpgThe fact that I came to music so early, and immersed myself in it so fully, undoubtedly explains why I happily embraced the other non-verbal forms of expression that I encountered later on. Abstract art and plotless dance made immediate sense to me, the same kind of sense that music had previously made. And while I get little or nothing out of the "abstract" prose of writers like Gertrude Stein, my tastes in the verbal realm also appear in some cases to bear a recognizable relationship to my musical inclinations. I tend not to care for plays of ideas--Ibsen bores me stiff--whereas I have a special liking for playwrights and filmmakers who, like Chekhov and Jean Renoir, care more about mood than plot. By the same token, I scarcely ever worry about whodunit when I read a mystery. It's the characters and their quirks that carry me from page to page, just as my own biographies concentrate more on personality than ideas.

I hasten to point out that this is a general preference, not an iron disposition. I love the plays of Bertolt Brecht, for instance, and I have a more than casual interest in constitutional law, about which I've read far more than you'd expect of a card-carrying aesthete. But I incline as a rule to the mode of thought and feeling implied by T.S. Eliot's remark that Henry James had "a mind so fine that no idea could violate it." All history, especially the history of the twentieth century, argues against placing ideas in the saddle and allowing them to ride mankind. Too often they end up riding individual men and women into mass graves. As Irving Babbitt pointed out:

Robespierre and Saint-Just were ready to eliminate violently whole social strata that seemed to them to be made up of parasites and conspirators, in order that they might adjust this actual France to the Sparta of their dreams; so that the Terror was far more than is commonly realized a bucolic episode. It lends color to the assertion that has been made that the last stage of sentimentalism is homicidal mania.

That's one of many reasons why I choose not to call myself an intellectual. "How many intellectuals have come to the revolutionary party via the path of moral indignation, only to connive ultimately at terror and autocracy?" Raymond Aron asked in The Opium of the Intellectuals (a book that John Coltrane, of all people, can be seen reading in a little-known snapshot). To be sure, musicians do tend as a group to take an innocent view of human possibility, but you rarely see them escorting anyone to the guillotine. They're too busy trying to make everything more beautiful, one thing at a time.

April 10, 2014

Almanac: Edward Albee on fiction

"Fiction is fact distilled into truth."

Edward Albee (quoted in the New York Times, Sept. 16, 1966)

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)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
A Raisin in the Sun (drama, G/PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Rocky (musical, G/PG-13, 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:
London Wall (serious comedy, PG-13, closes Apr. 20, reviewed here)

April 11, 2014

Almanac: Ivy Compton-Burnett on plots

"As regards plots I find real life no help at all. Real life seems to have no plots."

Ivy Compton-Burnett, "A Conversation Between I. Compton-Burnett and M. Jourdain"

TCM at 20

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column I take note of an important cultural anniversary. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Twenty years ago next Monday, Turner Classic Movies went on the air, and the lives of film buffs were instantly improved almost beyond recognition. TCM is a basic cable channel owned by the Turner Broadcasting System that shows old movies, most of them released prior to 1970, around the clock. Some are familiar, others obscure, but all are uncut, uncolorized, uninterrupted by commercials and otherwise unaltered. No other enterprise has done more to make such films widely accessible to the general public....

501073d0dee26.preview-620.jpgI doubt I'm the only viewer who routinely flicks through the coming month's fare and earmarks a half-dozen films at a time for future recording. I am, in short, an ardent fan--but I wonder what the future holds in store for the channel that made Robert Osborne, TCM's host-in-chief, a star. Will it continue to prosper? Or is TCM's business model flawed in ways that could lead to its decline and fall?

To answer these questions, it's necessary to reflect on the way in which TCM transformed the culture of film in America. By 1994 the VCR had made it possible for most Americans to view movies in their living rooms, but few video stores carried a wide-ranging inventory of older films, nor were they shown other than sporadically on television. If you wanted to see or study the great films of the past, you usually had to buy your own copies. Then TCM came along and changed everything, quickly became indispensable to movie lovers everywhere.

That's still true. Most of the old movies that I watch in any given week come from TCM. But the rise of on-demand TV is changing the viewing habits of film buffs. Why wait for TCM to show "Grand Hotel" next Thursday when Amazon Instant Video will stream it to your iPad right now for $1.99?...

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Bulletproof on Broadway

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I review two New York openings, Bullets Over Broadway and The Heir Apparent. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

How good can a jukebox musical be? As good as "Bullets Over Broadway," Woody Allen's new stage version of his 1994 film, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman ("The Producers"). The book is funny, the staging inventive, the cast outstanding, the sets and costumes satisfyingly slick. All that's missing is a purpose-written score, in place of which we get period-true arrangements of pop songs of the '20s and '30s. Does that matter? It did to me--a lot--but I doubt that many other people will boggle over the absence of original songs from "Bullets Over Broadway." Except for a flabby finale, it has the sweet scent of a box-office smash....

Zach-Braff-Helene-Yorke-a-011.jpgMs. Stroman hasn't rung the bell on Broadway since "Young Frankenstein," but she remains peerless when it comes to comic choreography, and "Bullets" overflows with clever dances, including a feature for Heléne Yorke set to a 1927 double-entendre ditty called "I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll" that's as naughty as you'd expect. Here and elsewhere, the gorgeously brassy Ms. Yorke steals the show from her better-known colleagues, but she has plenty of competition...

What about the score? Glen Kelly has written additional lyrics whose purpose is to integrate the musical sequences more smoothly into the plot, but the dramatic fit is never tight, and it doesn't help that so many of the songs, in particular "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You?" and "Up a Lazy River," are so very familiar in their own right. Because of this, the momentum falters whenever the actors start to sing, though Ms. Stroman usually manages to get things moving again in reasonably short order....

"The Heir Apparent," David Ives' English-language version of Jean-François Regnard's "Le Légataire universel," is the latest of his brilliant "translaptations" (his word) of classic French verse comedies, in which Mr. Ives recasts the original text in briskly contemporary iambic pentameter and tinkers with the plot at will. It's as elegantly wrought as its predecessors, "The Liar" (after Pierre Corneille's "Le Menteur") and "The School for Lies" (after Moliére's "The Misanthrope"). Classic Stage Company, which brought "The School for Lies" to New York three years ago, has now done the same thing with "The Heir Apparent," in which M. Regnard and his translaptator tell the cautionary tale of Geronte (Paxton Whitehead), a miser whose impecunious nephew (Dave Quay) endeavors by any means necessary to become his sole legatee, aided and abetted by Geronte's scruple-free manservant (Carson Elrod). Mr. Ives' couplets glitter with close-packed virtuosity: "That pillar of the church, that foe of whoredom,/That undisputed lord of bedroom boredom." The cast is perfect, and John Rando's staging is a slapsticky riot....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

A scene from the original 2011 production of The Heir Apparent by the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C.:

April 14, 2014

Almanac: Paul Hindemith on inspiration

"If we cannot, in the flash of a single moment, see a composition in its absolute entirety, with every pertinent detail in its proper place, we are not genuine creators."

Paul Hindemith, A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations

Just because: Paul Hindemith conducts Brahms

Paul Hindemith conducts the Chicago Symphony in a 1963 performance of Brahms' Academic Festival Overture:

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

Inner direction

Apropos of the off-Broadway transfer of Satchmo at the Waldorf, Laura Lippman recently said something that caught my eye: "I think you have to have such confidence to be a theatre critic and write a play. He's really opened himself up."

rowlandson24.jpgThis reminds me of an oft-quoted passage from Boswell's Life of Johnson:

His tutor, Mr. Jorden, fellow of Pembroke, was not, it seems, a man of such abilities as we should conceive requisite for the instructor of Samuel Johnson, who gave me the following account of him. "He was a very worthy man, but a heavy man, and I did not profit much by his instructions. Indeed, I did not attend him much. The first day after I came to college I waited upon him, and then staid away four. On the sixth, Mr. Jorden asked me why I had not attended. I answered I had been sliding in Christ-Church meadow. And this I said with as much nonchalance as I am now talking to you. I had no notion that I was wrong or irreverent to my tutor." BOSWELL: "That, Sir, was great fortitude of mind." JOHNSON: "No, Sir; stark insensibility."

As it happens, I did give some thought to what Laura said in the weeks and months before The Letter, my first operatic collaboration with Paul Moravec, opened in Santa Fe in 2009. In fact, I wrote a piece about it for the Los Angeles Times in which I pointed out that "I'm submitting myself for approval--not just from my fellow critics but from the people who read my reviews each week" and admitted to finding the experience "both terrifying and exhilarating. I've never set foot inside a casino, but I can't help but think that this must be what it feels like to place a big bet."

That, however, was strictly retrospective, at least as regards my colleagues. It simply didn't occur to me to think about what the critics would say about The Letter while I was writing it, much less to suppose that it was somehow courageous of me to offer myself up to them as a potential target. Nor did I think about it at all with regard to Satchmo at the Waldorf before the show came to New York--and that was solely because I knew that the reviews of Satchmo would necessarily have an effect on the length of its run. Until that finally became an issue, I never thought about them at all.

The truth is that I rarely spend much time thinking about what other people think of me. Of course I want my friends to like me, and I try to conduct myself in such a way as to earn their liking and their trust. But when it comes to my work, my internal compass was set long ago, and whether or not it's accurate, I don't feel that I have much choice in middle age but to follow it. I think what I think, and I trust my eye and ear. Were it otherwise, I couldn't function: I'd always be second-guessing myself.

This doesn't mean that I didn't take the counsel of my collaborators on Satchmo at the Waldorf with the utmost seriousness, just as I take very seriously the suggestions of my editors at The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and elsewhere. When it came to Satchmo, I knew that I was doing something that was new to me, and that I'd be a fool not to listen closely to the experienced professionals with whom I had the good fortune to collaborate, and do what they suggested if it made sense to me (which it usually did).

critic-Ratatouille-300x300.jpgWhen it comes to reviews, on the other hand, I try to take the advice that I give to others, which is the same advice given by André Previn in No Minor Chords: "It is perfectly correct to disregard all the bad reviews one gets, but only if at the same time, one disregards the good ones as well." As Dr. Johnson told Boswell on another occasion, there's an end on't. Sure, I love getting good reviews, but I do my best not to take them to heart. As for the pans, of which I've gotten my share over the years, I ignore them. Either way, nobody has ever said anything about me in print, good or bad, that I can quote from memory. (You might be surprised to know how many artists can rattle off a perfectly remembered phrase from a bad review that came out a decade ago.)

David Mamet, I gather, takes his reviews way too seriously, though he's capable (or was) of being funny about it. When New York held a "Best of Anything" contest back in the Eighties, he entered the following as "Best Review": "I never understood the theater until this night. Please excuse everything I've ever written. When you read this, I'll be dead. Signed, Clive Barnes." That made me laugh out loud when I first read it, and it still makes me smile. Even so, I've never felt that way about a critic--not yet, anyway.

One last remark from the ever-relevant Dr. Johnson: "It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends." Anybody who gets reviewed should keep that wise counsel firmly in mind.

April 15, 2014

Almanac: Paul Hindemith on technique

"The true work of art does not need to wrap any veil of mystery about its external features. Indeed the very hallmark of great art is that only and above the complete clarity of its technical procedure do we feel the essential mystery of its creative power."

Paul Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition

Lookback: why authors should always be modest

From 2004:

I finished my breakfast and strolled over to the neighborhood Barnes & Noble to see whether A Terry Teachout Reader was on sale yet. It wasn't in New Non-Fiction, so I climbed the stairs to the arts section in search of something to read. There I found three copies of the Teachout Reader shelved under Jazz/Blues, meaning that no one at Barnes & Noble had bothered to look at the contents of my book. Only a year ago, I was basking in the red-carpet treatment at that very same store, including an evening reading and deluxe placement for The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. Now I'm relegated to Jazz/Blues (though at least I got what booksellers call "face-out" placement, meaning that the front of the dust jacket is visible). As Robert Mitchum says in The Lusty Men, "Chicken today, feathers tomorrow."...

Read the whole thing here.

First time's a charm

061633B.jpgI first heard the music of Benjamin Britten in 1975, a year before he died. I was a sophomore music major at William Jewell College, a school not far from Kansas City. Some long-forgotten magazine piece--probably a review in High Fidelity or Stereo Review, to both of which I subscribed--had made me curious about him, so I drove to a mall in Independence and bought an LP whose first side contained a performance of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings by Peter Pears, Barry Tuckwell, and the London Symphony Orchestra. Britten himself was the conductor. The recording was made in 1963, twenty years after the piece was written, and hearing it for the first time that evening was one of the most consequential musical encounters of my youth.

The Serenade starts off with a mysterious-sounding unaccompanied horn solo, followed by a setting of part of The Evening Quatrains, a lyric by Charles Cotton, a near-forgotten seventeenth-century English writer. Britten cut the poem in half and called his shortened version "Pastoral":

The day's grown old; the fainting sun
Has but a little way to run,
And yet his steeds, with all his skill,
Scarce lug the chariot down the hill.

The shadows now so long do grow,
That brambles like tall cedars show;
Mole hills seem mountains, and the ant
Appears a monstrous elephant.

A very little, little flock
Shades thrice the ground that it would stock;
Whilst the small stripling following them
Appears a mighty Polypheme.

And now on benches all are sat,
In the cool air to sit and chat,
Till Phoebus, dipping in the West,
Shall lead the world the way to rest.

Pastoral.jpgRarely in my life have I been so instantaneously overwhelmed as I was by "Pastoral," though a few more years would go by before I attained sufficient musical sophistication to be able to fully understand why it had hit me so hard. It doesn't look like much on the page, just a simple tune shared by the singer and horn player, accompanied by four-part string chords. Yet those deceptively uncomplicated-looking chords are anything but straightforward. Here as in his other middle-period masterpieces, Britten used tonal harmony with a piquant freshness and sense of surprise that were all his own.

"I need more chords," Aaron Copland complained to Leonard Bernstein toward the end of his composing career. "I've run out of chords." To listen to "Pastoral" is to realize that there will always be enough chords. All you have to do is know where to look.

These opening bars remind me of something that Britten said a year after he recorded the Serenade:

What is important in the arts is not the scientific part, the analyzable part of music, but the something which emerges from it but transcends it, which cannot be analyzed because it is not in it, but of it. It is the quality which cannot be acquired by simply the exercise of a technique or a system: it is something to do with personality, with gift, with spirit. I quite simply call it--magic: a quality which would appear to be by no means unacknowledged by scientists, and which I value more than any other part of music.

Back then I was still grabbing at classical music with both hands, and few weeks passed without my making a major discovery of some kind or other, most of which turned out before long to be...well, something less than major. But I was certain that my discovery of the magical "Pastoral" was more than just another passing fancy. It spoke to me, as did the rest of the Serenade, with a directness and immediacy not unlike the miraculous sensation of falling in love at first sight (something that had yet to happen to me). I knew beyond doubt that whoever Benjamin Britten was, his music would henceforth play an important part in my life--and so it did, and does.

m2LZ7ZDxHyjK_rhZ2rKrO2g.jpgYears later Britten's 1963 recording of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings would become one of the very first compact discs that I bought. Not only do I still have that CD, but I played it for Mrs. T last night, and she was as thunderstruck by her first hearing of the Serenade as I was thirty-nine years ago.

"Why haven't you played this for me until now?" she asked.

"I guess I just didn't think to," I replied with a touch of embarrassment. "But I'm glad I finally got around to it."

* * *

Ian Bostridge,
Radovan Vlatkovic, and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra perform the prologue and "Pastoral" from Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings:

April 16, 2014

Almanac: Paul Hindemith on composition

"The road from the head to the hand is a long one while one is still conscious of it. The man who does not so control his hand as to maintain it in unbroken contact with his thought does not know what composition is. (Nor does he whose well-routined hand runs along without any impulse or feeling behind it."

Paul Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition

Snapshot: Glenn Gould plays Hindemith

Glenn Gould plays the fugue from Paul Hindemith's Third Piano Sonata:

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

April 17, 2014

Almanac: Paul Hindemith on creation and irrationality

"The ultimate reason for his humility will be the musician's conviction that beyond all the rational knowledge he has amassed and all his dexterity as a craftsman there is a region of visionary irrationality in which the veiled secrets of art dwell, sensed but not understood, implored but not commanded, imparting but not yielding. He cannot enter this region, he can only pray to be elected one of its messengers."

Paul Hindemith, A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations

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:
Bullets Over Broadway (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
A Raisin in the Sun (drama, G/PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Rocky (musical, G/PG-13, 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)
The Heir Apparent (verse comedy, PG-13, closes May 4, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON OFF BROADWAY:
London Wall (serious comedy, PG-13, newly extended through Apr. 26, reviewed here)

April 18, 2014

Almanac: Paul Hindemith on teaching

"Myself, I cannot compose all the time. I don't get ideas just sitting around waiting for them. They come from somewhere, and I get them teaching."

Paul Hindemith (quoted in the Harvard Crimson, Nov. 29, 1949)

All Hart

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column, I review three New York openings, Act One, Of Mice and Men, and The Library. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Moss Hart's "Act One" is the best Broadway memoir ever written, the stirring story of how a dirt-poor Bronx boy who grew up in a slum became a name-above-the-title playwright. The second half, which tells how the then-unknown Hart contrived to collaborate with George S. Kaufman, the Neil Simon of his day, on a 1930 comedy called "Once in a Lifetime" that made him rich and famous, is the stuff theatrical dreams are made of. Countless stage-struck youngsters have read it and resolved, however fleetingly, to do as he did.

6.198395.jpgIt's surprising that none of them ever tried to turn "Act One" into a play, but the failure of Dore Schary's lead-footed 1963 film version doubtless explains why so beloved a book took so long to find its way to the stage. Now James Lapine, who is to Stephen Sondheim what Hart was to Kaufman, has shouldered the task, both as writer and director. Unlike Schary, though, he's chosen to adapt all of "Act One," starting not with "Once in a Lifetime" but with Hart's sad childhood. The result is a thrillingly well-staged play that runs for two hours and 40 minutes but feels much shorter. Not only is "Act One" light on its theatrical feet, but it has the open-hearted impact of a melodrama--one that has the advantage of being true.

Part of what makes "Act One" so potent is that Mr. Lapine disdains all irony in describing Hart's rise to fame. His was an old-fashioned American-dream-come-true tale, and it doesn't embarrass Mr. Lapine in the least to dish it up on a pageant-like scale reminiscent of the spectacular stage version of "Nicholas Nickleby." (It would also have made a great musical.) "Act One" is played out on a triple-decker revolving stage designed by Beowulf Boritt that catapults the 22 members of the cast from the Hart family's tenement apartment to Kaufman's Manhattan townhouse with cinematic speed....

It isn't surprising that "Of Mice and Men" works better on the stage than the page. John Steinbeck always envisioned his dialogue-intensive book as (in his phrase) "a play that can be read or a novel that can be played," and the fable-like tragedy of George (James Franco), an itinerant California farm worker, and Lennie (Chris O'Dowd), the simple-minded, pitifully innocent near-giant with whom he travels from job to job, gains immeasurably from theatrical presentation. The trick is to do it simply, and Anna D. Shapiro's staging leaves nothing to be desired in that department. Todd Rosenthal's windblown set is as plain as a tumbleweed, and the supporting cast, led by the matchless Jim Norton (he plays Candy, the aging field hand whose dog gets shot), leads us to the inescapable disaster with hard authenticity.

If only Mr. Franco, one of Hollywood's top teen heart-throbs, had had the modesty to realize that Broadway is the wrong place to make your professional stage debut! While he doesn't embarrass himself, his acting is flat and unmodulated by comparison with that of his infinitely more accomplished colleagues...

Steven Soderbergh, who claims to have given up making movies, has now directed an Off-Broadway play by one of his cinematic collaborators. Scott Z. Burns' "The Library" is a fictional docudrama about the aftermath of a high-school shooting. The premise is juicy: One of the survivors (Chloë Grace Moretz) is accused by another survivor (Daryl Sabara) of having told the shooter where several of her fellow students were hiding. And Mr. Burns doesn't fall into the trap of preaching a ripped-from-the-headlines sermon: While the last scene does get a bit portentous, "The Library" steers clear of banal point-making. But he never breaks through the smooth quasi-factual surface of the desperate situations that he portrays, and so "The Library," for all its evident seriousness of purpose, feels more like an unusually well-written "Law & Order" episode than a full-fledged play.

Though he has next to no stage experience, Mr. Soderbergh already has a firm grasp of the demands of his new medium...

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

The theatrical trailer for the 1963 film version of Act One:

April 21, 2014

Almanac: Max Beerbohm on caricature

"The most perfect caricature is that which, on a small surface, with the simplest means, most accurately exaggerates, to the highest point, the peculiarities of a human being, at his most characteristic moment in the most beautiful manner."

Max Beerbohm, "The Spirit of Caricature"

Just because: Buster Keaton on This Is Your Life

Buster Keaton is the guest on a 1957 episode of Ralph Edwards' This Is Your Life::

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

A vision of joy

237_27922287192_3645_n.jpgAl Hirschfeld, who adored jazz, drew Louis Armstrong for the first time in 1939 and continued to do so repeatedly throughout his long and productive life. One of the last occasions was in 1990, thirteen years before Hirschfeld's death, when he did a portrait of the trumpeter called "Satchmo!" It is, in my opinion, the best of all possible Armstrong caricatures, one in which the joyous public figure whom the whole world loved is portrayed with a near-abstract simplicity of line that is not merely witty but beautiful.

I like "Satchmo!" so much that I used it as the last illustration in Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, accompanied by the following caption:

Many now feel ill at ease with the old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing entertainer portrayed in this 1990 caricature by Al Hirschfeld, but there was nothing false about Satchmo's unselfconscious smile.

Hirschfeld later turned "Satchmo!" into a limited-edition color lithograph that I saw when I went to the Margo Feiden Galleries six years ago to secure permission to reproduce the original drawing in my book, an experience that I blogged about here. I was bowled over by its richness and depth--it looked almost three-dimensional--and longed to buy a copy on the spot and add it to the Teachout Museum. Alas, the timing was financially unpropitious, and in due course I put the wild idea of owning a Hirschfeld out of my head.

That notion came back with full force, however, not long after Satchmo at the Waldorf opened in March. A fair amount of time had gone by since Mrs. T and I last added anything to our collection, and it seemed to both of us that the moment had arrived. I took a cab to the Margo Feiden Galleries last Thursday and returned home a few hours later with a pencil-signed copy of "Satchmo!" under my arm. I dropped it off at our framer over the weekend. We'll hang it in our New York apartment as soon as we decide on the right spot.

I can't imagine a more suitable way to celebrate the New York opening of Satchmo at the Waldorf, can you?

* * *

%285%29%20BEERBOHM%20PERCY%20GRAINGER%20xx.jpgLongtime readers of this blog will recall that "Satchmo!" is the second caricature to make its way into the Teachout Museum. It was preceded by a drawing of Percy Grainger by Max Beerbohm, which I acquired in 2004 and about which I blogged here and here:

Max makes a point of saying that a caricature should be executed in "the most beautiful manner," and while it's true that his Grainger caricature is very funny--especially the society ladies clustered around the piano, who range in size from wasp-waisted to preposterously portly--it's also quite beautiful indeed. The composition is cunningly balanced, the line deft and clear, the light touches of watercolor wash miraculously subtle.

I mention this because I recently learned, purely by chance, of the existence of an art gallery in London that deals in Beerbohm caricatures. While none of them is of anyone who is still widely remembered, many are striking in their own right. So if, like me, you love Max's work and long to hang a piece of it on your wall, go here to peruse the inventory.

April 22, 2014

Almanac: Macaulay on caricature

"The best portraits are those in which there is a slight mixture of caricature."

Thomas Babington Macaulay, "Machiavelli"

Lookback: how I became a critic

From 2004:

A reader wrote to ask if I'd consider posting a list of books and other works of art that had served as "turning points" in my life as a critic. I've never drawn up such a list, though I once wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review called "I've Got a Crush on You" (it's in A Terry Teachout Reader) in which I talked about several authors whose styles I'd emulated at different times in my life. But what gave me the idea to become a critic--and what inspired me to become the kind of critic I became?...

Read the whole thing here.

The kid is alright

With the Broadway season thundering to a close, The Wall Street Journal has given me an extra column this week to cover all of the shows that are opening in time for the Tony Awards eligibility deadline. In today's paper I review the Broadway premieres of The Cripple of Inishmaan, Violet, and The Velocity of Autumn. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Granted that it's always a pleasure to see one of Martin McDonagh's plays performed on Broadway, why mount "The Cripple of Inishmaan" there just five years after the Atlantic Theater Company imported a flawless all-Irish staging by Galway's Druid Theatre that should have moved uptown but didn't? As the millennials say, because Daniel Radcliffe. In the absence of the presence of the former Harry Potter, this production of Mr. McDonagh's bitingly black 1996 comedy about the not-so-small cruelties of village life would never have transferred from London's West End to the Cort Theatre, no matter how good it might be--and it's very good. But so, too, is Mr. Radcliffe. He is, in fact, that rarest of birds, a child movie star who decided to turn himself into an adult stage actor, worked at his craft with modesty and dead-serious determination and has become an accomplished performer...

_68254703_cripple2.jpgIf you don't know "The Cripple of Inishmann," you won't have any doubts about Michael Grandage's production, in which Mr. Radcliffe plays a severely handicapped teenage boy who can no longer stomach the good-humored but thoughtless teasing of his neighbors (it says everything about them that they all casually refer to him as "Cripple Billy") and so removes himself to Hollywood to seek success in what the Irish call "fillums." Mr. Radcliffe is so far inside his character that it actually took the audience a few tantalizing seconds to realize who he was when he made his first entrance on Saturday night....

If, on the other hand, you were fortunate enough to watch the Druids at work, you'll see at once what's missing this time around. Mr. McDonagh's play is also a take-no-prisoners satire on the sentimental clichés of stage-Irishness, and Mr. Grandage, instead of emphasizing them ("Oi have me drunkard mammy to look after") in order to make them self-evidently ludicrous, has mostly chosen to play them straight...

The Roundabout Theatre Company has revived "Violet," the 1997 Brian Crawley-Jeanine Tesori musical about a North Carolina girl with an axe-scarred face (Sutton Foster) who rides a Greyhound bus to Oklahoma in the hope of being made beautiful by an Oral Roberts-type televangelist. It's a sweet, unpretentious little show that doesn't really belong on Broadway, but the wondrous Ms. Foster pours the whole of her soul into it, and her performance is radiant and true in all ways but one: She is the opposite of plain.

1.165821.jpgYes, the animating premise is that Violet's inner beauty makes her outwardly lovely for those with eyes to see, but one grows tired of seeing pretty people cast in stage and screen roles that require them to pretend to be unattractive--especially when the script specifies, as is the case here, that the character's disfigurement be invisible to the audience. Why not find an ordinary-looking but charismatic performer who can act beautiful?...

Eric Coble breaks the U.S. record for clichés per minute in "The Velocity of Autumn," his new cranky-codger two-character comedy. Near-senile old lady? Check. Estranged gay son with unfinished emotional business? Check. Hackneyed plot? Check. (Mom wants to go on living in her Brooklyn house, but the kids want to put her in a nursing home, so she barricades the front door, brandishes a Molotov cocktail and tells them to bring it on.) Tap-the-tendon punch lines interspersed with ephiphanic moments of pseudo-poetry? Check, check and octuple check....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

April 23, 2014

Almanac: George Meredith on caricature

"In fine, caricature is rough truth."

George Meredith, The Egoist

Snapshot: Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free

New York City Ballet dances Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free in 1986. The score is by Leonard Bernstein:

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

April 24, 2014

Almanac: Joseph Conrad on nicknames

"A nickname may be the best record of a success. That's what I call putting the face of a joke upon the body of a truth."

Joseph Conrad, Nostromo

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:
Act One (drama, G, too long for children, reviewed here)
Bullets Over Broadway (musical, PG-13, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
The Cripple of Inishmaan (serious comedy, PG-13, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Of Mice and Men (drama, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
A Raisin in the Sun (drama, G/PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Rocky (musical, G/PG-13, many 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:
The Heir Apparent (verse comedy, PG-13, extended through May 11, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK OFF BROADWAY:
London Wall (serious comedy, PG-13, newly extended through Apr. 26, reviewed here)

April 25, 2014

Almanac: George Eliot on spiteful caricature

"There is hardly any mental misery worse than that of having our own serious phrases, our own rooted beliefs, caricatured by a charlatan or a hireling."

George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical

Just how bad is school censorship?

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column I examine two very different events that both relate to the problem of school censorship. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Spring is here, which means that it's time once again for the American Library Association's annual top-10 list of "most frequently challenged books." These are the books that have drawn the largest number of formal complaints "requesting that materials be removed [from a library] because of content or appropriateness." Each time it comes out, enlightened readers hasten to snigger at those benighted members of the booboisie who dare to suggest that "Of Mice and Men" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," both of which have previously appeared on the list, might possibly be thought unsuitable for consumption by youngsters....

These 10 books inspired just 307 challenges last year. That's chump change in a country of 318 million people, a quarter of whom identify themselves as Republicans.

Furthermore, I'm struck by the fact that these books, as well as the other most frequently challenged titles of the 21st century, are for the most part--if I may say so--rather less than stellar in quality....

Do the classics get censored? Once in a while--but usually with different results. Consider, for example, the passionate protests that were inspired by the recent decision of New Hampshire's Timberlane Regional School District to cancel a Timberlane High School production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." The school board, according to Superintendent Earl Metzler, was "uncomfortable with the script...We felt there were parts in there that just weren't acceptable." But virtually all of the protesters were opposed to the cancellation....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Cross-dress for success

In today's Wall Street Journal I review the last three shows of the 2013-14 Broadway season, Casa Valentina, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Cabaret. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Broadway's new motto is "All Transvestism, All the Time!" In addition to "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," "Kinky Boots" and "Matilda," three more shows in which cross-dressing figures prominently have just opened on the Great Sequined Way. Topping the list is "Casa Valentina," a history play by Harvey Fierstein about the Chevalier d'Eon Resort, a now-defunct Catskills hideaway (yes, it really existed) that catered to straight men who liked to dress up as women.

Casa4.jpgIt's been a long time since Mr. Fierstein, who now specializes in musical-comedy books, wrote a play, and longer still since he wrote a successful one. Given the subject matter of "Kinky Boots," his most recent effort, and "Torch Song Trilogy," the 1982 play about a drag queen that made him kind-of-sort-of famous, it would seem at first glance that he's well and truly stuck in a velvet-and-tulle rut. But "Casa Valentina" ends up being a lot more interesting than it looks at first glance, for certain of the guests at the Chevalier d'Eon, though they all claim not to be gay, turn out on closer inspection to be something other than straight--a revelation that transforms what started out as a comedy into a full-blown tragedy.

Mr. Fierstein isn't able to set a clear tone for "Casa Valentina," which lurches awkwardly from take-my-wife-please one-liners to stilted sermonizing to blackmail-powered melodrama. Nor has he figured out how to bring the play to a convincing close, instead letting it trail off irresolutely. But it's never boring...

Sixteen years ago, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," a 90-minute musical monologue by a gender-bent East German punk rocker with an iatrogenic microphallus (you can look it up), was an in-your-face piece of cutting-edge downtown theater. Now it's a period piece, the proof of which is that it has finally opened uptown in a commercial revival that features Neil Patrick Harris, an openly gay, universally liked network sitcom star.

Mr. Harris' winsome drag act reminded me of Alan Alda's perfomance as Shelly in the 2005 Broadway revival of "Glengarry Glen Ross": Though he's got the moves down pat, you come away suspecting that this Hedwig had to learn some of the four-letter words phonetically, if you catch my drift....

alancumming.jpgThe Roundabout Theatre Company has brought back its sleazed-up 1998 production of "Cabaret," co-directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall and starring Alan Cumming as a more-than-usually-androgynous Master of Ceremonies. Seeing as how the Mendes-Marshall revival of the 1966 John Kander-Fred Ebb musical about love and terror in Weimar Germany closed just 10 years ago, I'd call this re-revival an unabashed attempt by a non-profit theater company to mint some much-needed money. With the second Broadway revival of "Les Misérables" playing to near-full houses nine blocks south, though, why complain? It's a business.

I don't share in the general enthusiasm for Mr. Cumming's overcooked performance, which pales in intensity when compared to the diamond-hard detachment that Joel Grey, who created the role in the original stage production, brought to Bob Fosse's extraordinary 1972 film version, from which Messrs. Mendes and Marshall borrowed a thing or three. But Michelle Williams plays Sally Bowles, the shopworn diva of the Kit Kat Club, with a poignant blend of vulnerability and desperation...

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

April 28, 2014

Almanac: Michael Ignatieff on exile

"It is an exile's prerogative to love an adopted home with an absence of irony that is impossible for a native."

Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Just because: Rudyard Kipling gives a speech

A rare 1933 sound film of Rudyard Kipling speaking at a luncheon of the Royal Society of Literature for visiting members of the Canadian Authors' Association. To read the text of the entire speech, go here:

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

Rounded with a sleep

97690103_134847046100.jpgMost people outlive their parents, but few anticipate doing so. Even when it was agonizingly clear that my mother was dying, I never said to myself, Soon I'll never see her again. It may be that the finality of death is harder to grasp than any of life's other hard realities. Whatever the reason, I didn't expect the sharp jolt that briefly shook me when my sister-in-law e-mailed me a photo of the twin graves in which my parents are buried, marked by a single bronze tablet that shows, for the first time, the dates on which they both died.

My mother, who occasionally visited the cemetery where she now rests, once confessed to me that it made her sick to her stomach when she first saw her name on that tablet, which my father had prudently purchased long before the fact, arranging for the two of them to be buried next to his own mother. I have no such well-laid plans: I intend to donate as many of my organs as can be usefully harvested, and I don't care what happens to the rest of me after that. But it was important to my parents that they arrange in advance for the disposal of their remains, and being basically conventional people, they did the customary thing.

I wonder if either of them guessed how often I'd think about them after they were gone. Not surprisingly, I did so when my first play opened in New York, knowing that the occasion would have meant the world to them. But it's the routine occasions, not the special ones, that mean the most to me. I think of my mother, for instance, whenever I take a cab down to the theater district to see a show, that being the time when I usually called her--as I did most days--to chat about whatever might be on our minds. I think of my father, by contrast, whenever I happen to see Perry Mason on TV, for he loved nothing more than to guess who did it midway through each episode, if not sooner. (He usually got it right, too.)

713.jpegToday is my beloved brother's birthday, so it stands to reason that our parents should be on my mind. It is a source of ceaseless pleasure to me--as well as a modest amount of friendly envy--that David and Kathy now live in the house where the two of us grew up. While our shared childhood wasn't perfect, it was mostly very happy. We owe that happiness to Bert and Evelyn Teachout, who spent the whole of our time in that house doing all that was in their power to prepare us for whatever life might hold in store outside it.

I've been reading Michael Ignatieff's biography of Isaiah Berlin, who made this observation thirteen years before his death in 1997:

As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any. I do not at all ask what it is, but I suspect it has none and this is a source of great comfort to me. We make of it what we can and that is all there is about it.

We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep, says Prospero in The Tempest. My parents made of their little lives what they could, and they didn't ask what it meant, either. Perhaps it was because they already knew the answer: they built a house and raised two sons whom they loved with all their hearts. That was dream enough for them. I would never pretend that every night I slept under their roof was free of shadows, but I never doubted for a moment that they loved me. Nor do I doubt that the new owners of 713 Hickory Drive feel the same way.

April 29, 2014

Almanac: Michael Ignatieff on living vicariously

"The advantage of vicariousness, of course, is that you do not risk a mistake; you can watch other people making them for you."

Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Lookback: on being edited

From 2004:

I worked as a magazine and newspaper editor for many years before becoming a full-time freelance writer, and on one never-to-be-forgotten occasion I edited a piece so extensively that had it been a screenplay, I would have received an on-screen credit. When the piece won a major magazine award a few months later, I smiled wryly, as did my colleagues, yet it never occurred to any of us to blow the whistle on the writer. He "wrote" the piece, and that, so far as we were concerned, was that.

One reason why I kept my mouth shut is that I've been the beneficiary of superior editing on innumerable occasions, never that extensive but at times...well, quite substantial.

Read the whole thing here.

April 30, 2014

Almanac: Isaiah Berlin on received opinion

"Isaiah told a long story about the death of the Spanish poet Lope de Vega. Assured that he was now finally at death's door, de Vega was able to confess one final (for a poet) sacreligious thought: 'Alors, Dante m'embête'--'Well, then, Dante bores me.'"

Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Snapshot: the making of Peter Grimes

From a 1945 British Pathé newsreel, preparations for the premiere of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes:

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

It's true! It's true!

As you may have already heard, I've won a Bradley Prize. Here's part of what The Wall Street Journal had to say about it:

We're delighted to report that our colleague and artistic polymath Terry Teachout has been named one of the winners of the 2014 Bradley Prize.

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, based in Milwaukee, offers the awards each year to as many as four individuals for their distinguished contributions to American institutions, free enterprise and other causes that the late Bradley brothers championed. The recognition comes with a cash prize of $250,000 and will be presented in Washington, D.C., on June 18. Additional winners will be named in the coming weeks.

Our readers know Terry as our drama critic and cultural essayist in his biweekly "Sightings" column. He is also a man of many artistic parts, as a playwright, biographer and opera librettist. "Satchmo at the Waldorf," his first play, is currently running at New York's Westside Theatre. His books include "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington," "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong" and "The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken." He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012 and has served on the National Council on the Arts.

"Terry Teachout has distinguished himself, not just as a first-rate journalist, but as a supporter of the arts," said Michael W. Grebe, president and CEO of the Bradley Foundation. "His work as a biographer and a playwright is critical to advancing and preserving America's artistic and cultural tradition."...

Read the whole thing here.

I'm flabbergasted--and humbled. And, yes, it's true: Mrs. T and I really have decided to use part of the prize money to buy a new toaster. We need one.

About April 2014

This page contains all entries posted to About Last Night in April 2014. They are listed from oldest to newest.

March 2014 is the previous archive.

May 2014 is the next archive.

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

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