Juno sings again

In today’s Wall Street Journal I report on two Chicago-area musical productions, TimeLine Theatre’s Juno and Writers’ Theatre’s Days Like Today. Here’s an excerpt.

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Marc Blitzstein’s theatrical career was launched with the big bang of “The Cradle Will Rock,” the pro-labor agitprop musical whose 1938 premiere came close to starting a riot. He never succeeded in building on his youthful triumph, though: “Regina,” his operatic version of “The Little Foxes,” ran for a paltry 56 performances, and “Juno,” in which Blitzstein took on the even more formidable challenge of carving a Broadway musical out of Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock,” was an even bigger flop that closed in just under two weeks. Nor has it ever been successfully revived, in New York or anywhere else, which makes TimeLine Theatre Company’s new production of “Juno” important by definition….

5368f5edc3f0d-timeline-theatre-company-s-juno-review-an-attempt-to-set-sean-o-casey-to-music-6The troubles with “Juno” are twofold. If you saw the Irish Repertory Theatre’s flawless 2013 revival of “Juno and the Paycock,” you won’t need to be reminded that O’Casey’s shatteringly black comedy about a ne’er-do-well braggart (played here by Ron Rains) and his despairing wife (Marya Grandy), is one of the greatest plays to come out of Ireland. Unfortunately, Joseph Stein’s book is so faithful to its source that “Juno” feels more like a play with music than a genuinely original show. In addition, Blitzstein’s songs, “For Love” and “I Wish It So” excepted, lack the expressive weight that so powerful a play demands. As a result, you come away wondering why he chose to write a traditional musical (albeit one with an unhappy ending) instead of giving “Juno and the Paycock” the full-fledged operatic treatment for which it cries out.

So why see “Juno” now? Because Mr. Bowling’s focused, intimate small-scale staging minimizes its palpable problems—and because Ms. Grandy’s quietly determined interpretation of the title role is as moving in its own way as was J. Smith-Cameron’s towering performance in the Irish Rep revival of the play….

Broadway musicals, like Hollywood movies, rarely seek to portray contemporary middle-class urban adult life in anything like a straightforward way. Stephen Sondheim showed how to do it with “Company,” but that 1970 hit has had few successors. Indeed, the only Broadway shows to come along in recent years that cover remotely similar ground are “If/Then” and “Next to Normal,” both of which I found to be prettified and narcissistic. So I’m happily surprised to report that Writers’ Theatre, which gave us “A Minister’s Wife” in 2009, has now premiered a second chamber musical, “Days Like Today,” that does what “If/Then” purports to do, and does it with immensely promising originality….

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Read the whole thing here.

Emily Berman sings “Where There Was Bone,” a number from Days Like Today:

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Setting the record straight

LITTLE ROCK NINELouis Armstrong rarely spoke out in public about civil rights, or any other political matter. In September of 1957, though, he denounced the racial situation in Little Rock, where Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas, had ordered the National Guard to surround Central High School in order to prevent nine black children from enrolling there. Even when the guardsmen were joined by a threatening mob of white segregationists, President Eisenhower initially refused to take action to enforce Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision ordering the desegregation of the public schools.

Armstrong was playing at the time in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Three days after Eisenhower met with Faubus, the trumpeter was interviewed there by Larry Lubenow, a local journalism student and part-time newspaper reporter. Lubenow asked him about Little Rock, and promptly wrote up Armstrong’s blunt, outspoken response for the Grand Forks Herald. His story was picked up by the Associated Press and appeared in newspapers all over the world:

Trumpet player Louis Armstrong said last night he had given up plans for a Government-sponsored trip to the Soviet Union because “the way they are treating my people in the South, the Government can go to hell.”

Here for a concert, Mr. Armstrong said President Eisenhower had “no guts” and described Gov. Orval E. Faubus of Arkansas as an “uneducated plow boy.”

He said the President was “two-faced” and had allowed Governor Faubus to run the Federal Government.

“It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” the Negro entertainer said.

Armstrong’s statement, and the controversy that arose from it, makes for one of the most revealing episodes in a long and endlessly fascinating life. Accordingly, I described it in considerable detail in Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, my 2009 biography, drawing on a wide range of primary and secondary sources, and it later became the basis for one of the most widely remarked scenes in Satchmo at the Waldorf, my one-man play about Armstrong and his life.

While I was working on Pops, an important new source became available: Larry Lubenow himself, who had long since left journalism and was living in Cedar Park, Texas. (He died there earlier this month.) David Margolick tracked him down in Texas and interviewed him, and on September 23, 2007, fifty years after Armstrong spoke out about Little Rock, Margolick published an op-ed piece in the New York Times called “The Day Louis Armstrong Made Noise” in which he retold the tale from Lubenow’s point of view, supplying previously unavailable details about the encounter. It was an amazing find, one of the most significant pieces of Armstrong-related research in the years since the trumpeter’s death.

LITTLE ROCK CLIPBecause Margolick’s story was published in a family newspaper, he used a fairly transparent euphemism to describe the colorful language that Armstrong had actually used to describe Faubus and John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state. (If you’ve read Pops or seen Satchmo at the Waldorf, you know what he really said.) Margolick had interviewed Lubenow a few days earlier in a public presentation sponsored by New York’s Louis Armstrong House Museum and Archive, so I got in touch with Michael Cogswell, who runs the museum, and asked him to put me directly in touch with Lubenow. Cogswell gave me Lubenow’s e-mail address, and I wrote to him to confirm, among other things, that Armstrong had in fact used the “double-barreled hyphenated expletive” (it was a favorite of his) that I assumed he had used. He wrote back to assure me that I’d guessed right.

After consulting the tape of the Lubenow-Margolick interview, I incorporated what I’d learned into my account of what happened in 1957. Since the public interview and my own e-mail exchange with Lubenow were the primary sources for this part of my account, I summarized what I’d done as follows in my first source note:

A journalism student: Larry Lubenow, personal communication. Lubenow spoke for the first time in public about his interview with LA [i.e., Louis Armstrong] on Sept. 18, 2007, in a presentation sponsored by AA [i.e., the Louis Armstrong House Museum and Archive]. This account is based in part on the presentation.

I then cited in later notes the many contemporary newspaper accounts on which I also drew.

What is missing from this source note? David Margolick’s name, of course. Failing to mention him was an unintentional and innocent oversight, but I realize in retrospect that I should have done so, since it was Margolick who found Larry Lubenow, obtained his version of the encounter, and made it part of the historical record, subsequently incorporating the story into an important 2011 book about the Little Rock crisis called Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock.

My mistake was, to be sure, a tiny one, but an important one, enough so that Margolick got in touch with me and with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publishers of Pops, asking that it be rectified. We agreed to change the source note in the second printing of the paperback edition of Pops.

Alas, there hasn’t been one yet—the first printing has yet to sell out—and so the mistake remains unfixed. Margolick now thinks that we shouldn’t wait until the second printing, which is scheduled to take place some time next year, to correct my error. I agree.

I trust that nobody who read Pops in 2009 assumed that I was the person who originally tracked down Larry Lubenow. In fact, every Louis Armstrong scholar in the world was already well aware of Margolick’s discovery, since he published it on the op-ed page of the New York Times, which is widely circulated, two years before Pops came out. But I wouldn’t want anyone to suppose that I’d been trying to claim retrospective credit for what he did, and I deeply regret any impression to the contrary that may have been made by my original source note.

If you’re not a scholar, this may seem like a great deal of fuss to make over a couple of missing words in a footnote. But when it comes to the historical record, such words, as Mark Twain famously put it, sometimes constitute “the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” Since its publication five years ago, Pops has been widely accepted as the standard biography of Louis Armstrong. I’m proud of that achievement, and it’s important to me to ensure that everyone who helped make it possible receives proper credit. Chapter 11 of Pops wouldn’t have been the same without David Margolick. I sincerely apologize for having neglected to specifically credit him by name in my source notes, and I can assure him—and you—that all future printings of Pops will do so.

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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.

Bullets Over Broadway (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, all performances sold out last week, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
casa-valentina-photoCasa Valentina (drama, PG-13, closes June 29, reviewed here)
The Cripple of Inishmaan (serious comedy, PG-13, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, 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, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Of Mice and Men (drama, PG-13, 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)

The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

Damn Yankees (musical, G, closes June 21, reviewed here)

The Tempest (Shakespeare, G, closes June 15, reviewed here)

Act One (drama, G, too long for children, closes June 15, reviewed here)

M. Butterfly (drama, PG-13, closes June 8, reviewed here)

Henry IV, Parts One and Two (Shakespeare, PG-13, playing in rotating repertory, closes June 7 and 8, reviewed here)

A Loss of Roses (drama, PG-13, closes June 7, reviewed here)

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See me, hear me (cont’d)

Marks-Brantley-Teachout2-May2014From time to time I appear on Theater Talk, the long-running TV series in which Susan Haskins, Michael Riedel, and their guests survey the New York theater scene. In this week’s episode, I discuss the Broadway season just past in the company of two of my colleagues, Ben Brantley of the New York Times and Peter Marks of the Washington Post. As usual, we had fun talking about the shows we liked—and loathed.

The episode will air on New York’s Channel 13 at one a.m. on Saturday (i.e., late Friday night). It will then be replayed on CUNY-TV throughout the weekend and on Monday, after which it will be archived for web-based viewing. I’ll link to it then.

For more information, including other air times in the New York area, go Theater Talk.

Take a look.

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A backstage visit to Satchmo at the Waldorf

satchmofeat15John Douglas Thompson, the illustrious star of Satchmo at the Waldorf, my first play, which is currently running off Broadway at New York’s Westside Theatre, is the subject of a new thirty-shot Playbill photo essay in which he is seen preparing to give a performance. If you’ve never been backstage at a New York show—or even if you have—I think you might find it interesting to be a fly on the wall as John gets ready to go in front of an audience and deliver what one drama critic called “a tour de megaforce.”

To look at it, go here.

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One thing at a time

tumblr_lidg5hXNgk1qagrc1o1_500I’m not particularly obsessive by nature, but I do have a very orderly mind, a trait that Mrs. T alternately regards as endearing and exasperating. Hence I was delighted to learn that Penguin has embarked on a uniform paperback edition of Georges Simenon’s seventy-five Maigret novels, all of which will be freshly translated and published in chronological order.

I’ve dipped a toe into the Maigret novels on more than one occasion, and I’ve also read and liked (if that’s the word) a few of Simenon’s shockingly black romans durs, of which New York Review Books has lately reprinted a selection. In addition, I’ve read Patrick Marnham’s The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon, a highly readable biography of a vain, opportunistic man who by all accounts appears to have been a singularly unattractive character.

I know enough of Simenon’s work, in short, to be impressed by it, and in particular to understand the enduring appeal of the Maigret novels and their principal character, which Julian Symons aptly summarized in Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, his justly admired 1972 study of the mystery story and its close relations:

The Maigret stories stand quite on their own in crime fiction, bearing little relation to most of the other work done in the field. (Simenon is not much interested in crime stories, and has read few of them.) The bases of the stories are often slight, almost anecdotal. There are no great feats of ratiocination in them, and the problems they present are human as much as they are criminal. The ambience of the stories is wonderfully real, the characters are true and often memorable, yet we are not often emotionally moved by them. Maigret’s detached sympathy becomes our own, and like him we do not care to dig too deeply into the roots of crime, we are ready to move on to another case. Simenon is an undoubted master of the crime story, but his mastery rests primarily in the creation of Jules Maigret….He is one of the most completely realized characters in all modern fiction.

Why, then, haven’t I read more Maigret novels? In part because there are so many of them, making it hard to know where to dive in—but also because they’ve been reprinted virtually at random over the years. Because I have an orderly mind, I’m reflexively disinclined to fish at random in so monstrously large an oeuvre. I like to know where to start, and I like, when possible, to begin at the beginning and proceed from there.

chales-laughton_maigret-21Heretofore I couldn’t do that without going to a great deal of trouble, but Penguin has now simplified the task, and I plan to get started during our visit to Stonington by reading the first Maigret novel, Pietr-le-Letton, originally published in 1931, which is variously known in English as The Strange Case of Peter the Lett and Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett but which David Bellos has now correctly translated as Pietr the Latvian.

And what will I gain by beginning at the beginning? I can’t say yet. Very possibly nothing. But that’s my usual way of doing things, and since you can’t consume all of the art in the world simultaneously, I find it as good a way as any to go about accumulating aesthetic experience without falling victim to the meaningless randomness that is the curse of autodidacticism. You can chew through whole shelves of books without becoming educated in the process. On the other hand, the prig with a too-orderly mind needlessly deprives himself of valuable experience, and while I try to strike a happy medium between these two extremes, I have no doubt that I tend to err on the former side.

Perhaps it would have been better for me, spiritually speaking, to pick five Maigret novels out of a hat and read them at a single go. But I didn’t, and now, at the age of fifty-eight, I’m about to find out what I’ve been missing all these years. I’ll keep you posted.

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The Man on the Eiffel Tower, a 1949 film starring and directed by Burgess Meredith in which Charles Laughton plays Inspector Maigret. The film was shot on location in Paris:

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