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TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)


Saturday, October 7, 2006
    TT: On the job, 24/7

    Sidle over to the right-hand column and you'll find lots of fresh stuff, including several new Top Five and Out of the Past picks and a number of additions to "Sites to See." (The new blogs are marked with asterisks.)

    Alas, I've been too busy to hunt for new YouTube links, but I'll get around to it in the next couple of weeks. As always, I welcome your suggestions. In addition, please let me know if you should run across any dead links so that I can knock them off the list.

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, October 7, 2006 | Permanent link
Friday, October 6, 2006
    TT: Gypsies in our souls

    This has been a busy theatrical week, and so The Wall Street Journal kindly gave me extra space sufficient to review four revivals, two in New York and two in Minneapolis.

    For most readers, the big news will be the return to Broadway of A Chorus Line:

    Is it time to start feeling nostalgic for the ’70s? The producers of the first Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line,” which opened in 1975 and ran for 6,137 performances, clearly hope so. I’m part of their target market, for I saw the original road-show production some 30 years ago. It was my very first touring Broadway musical, and I remember it with undimmed affection. Alas, I didn’t see “A Chorus Line” again until two nights ago, when I caught a preview of the current revival. Naturally, I wondered how such show-stoppers as “Dance, Ten; Looks, Three” and “What I Did for Love” had held up. I rejoice to say that they’re as fresh as ever—and that they profit from the sumptuous singing and dancing of a superlative cast….

    Would that Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia had held up half so well:

    First performed in 1994 and filmed two years later, “subUrbia” is the story (not that there’s much of a story, but you know what I mean) of five suburban slackers who spend their days and nights hanging out in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, getting high and/or drunk and wallowing in alienation. Unlike the half-crazed freaks whom Mr. Bogosian portrayed with feral intensity in his one-man shows, their dialogue fails to ring true—it sounds scripted, not overheard—and the melodramatic hoops through which their creator puts them don’t add up to a plot….

    The news from Minneapolis, by contrast, is largely good, though I didn’t much care for the brand-new headquarters of the Guthrie Theater:

    I’m not an architecture critic, but I do spend a lot of time in theater lobbies, and this one didn’t do a thing for me: The low-ceilinged public areas are dark, oppressive and laid out with irksome illogic. Rarely can there have been a theater whose interior was less well suited to the purpose of making its occupants feel festive and expectant. The process of getting from the street to the Wurtele Thrust Stage, the largest of the three performance spaces, is so protracted—not to mention confusing—that I briefly had trouble focusing on the revival of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers that had lured me to town. Once I forgot the building and started thinking about the show, though, I very much liked what I saw….

    Last year’s Tony Award for regional theater went to Minneapolis’ Theatre de la Jeune Lune, an avant-garde troupe with a zany sense of humor. Its off-center adaptations of the classics are performed in a crumbling turn-of-the-century downtown warehouse that the company has converted into a flexible, characterful performance space full of the charm that somehow got left out of the new Guthrie.

    This fall Jeune Lune is presenting in alternating repertory its much-praised versions of two Moličre plays, The Miser and “Tartuffe” (which opens Oct. 19). David Ball’s hotted-up transformation of “The Miser” is so naughty that I don’t dare quote any of the best lines verbatim, but the results are still basically true to the sardonic spirit of the 1667 play on which it is based. Likewise Dominique Serrand’s staging, which is crammed full of baggy-pants mugging executed with the explosive energy of a ten-door farce….

    No free link. To read the whole thing, pick up a copy of today’s paper and turn to the “Weekend Journal” section, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you immediate access to the full text of my review. (If you’re already a subscriber, you’ll find it here.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 6, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: R.I.P.

    Gene Janson died on Wednesday, twenty minutes into a matinée performance of Remy Bumppo Theatre Company’s wonderful revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. (The Chicago Sun-Times story is here.) I saw the show, in which Janson played a terminally ill ex-president, during my recent visit to Chicago, and praised it extravagantly in last week’s Journal.

    Such deaths are far from unknown. I was sitting on the aisle at the Metropolitan Opera ten years ago when Richard Versalle collapsed and died during the opening night of a new production of Janacek’s Makropulos Case. Still, they’re rare—Versalle’s onstage death was the only one I’ve seen—and I have a feeling that their extreme rarity has something to do with the show-must-go-on ethic that infuses the theatrical profession. Nothing short of the physical equivalent of a bolt of lightning will stop most actors from finishing a performance once the house lights go down and the curtain goes up. This iron determination is a sign of their passionate belief in the enduring importance of theater. To the civilian it must seem a bit crazy, but it is out of such craziness that beauty is born.

    Our Girl in Chicago and I offer our condolences to Janson’s family, friends, and colleagues. We hope they find consolation in the knowledge that he died in the line of duty.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 6, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "There is no way to connect with simplicity when how complexity feels has been forgotten."

    John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 6, 2006 | Permanent link
Thursday, October 5, 2006
    TT: Uncommonly hopeful

    I’m getting a lot of e-mail about this posting. So far, this is is the letter I’ve liked best:

    I'm always a little amused when I catch someone—including myself—lamenting the supposed demise of "common culture." I think we all feel a sense of loss when younger generations don't recognize things we thought were important and lasting when we were their age. But we tend to take for granted the amazing amount that does get passed on. I'd bet, for instance, that a higher percentage of college kids recognize "West End Blues" today than in 1978...or 1938.

    I'd also bet that a very high percentage of contemporary high school kids could recognize over half of Levitin's list—probably way more than half if even a little prompting was provided.

    This is just anecdotal evidence, but about five years ago on a trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I heard a class of black second graders on a field trip provide perfect, spontaneous accompaniment for the Isley Brothers "Who's That Lady" when it came over the loudspeakers. Later the same day I saw two twelve-year-old white girls walking along singing "Stop In The Name of Love" and doing those old Supremes' hand motions while they walked. Granted those kids were in a museum, which implies that somebody cared about passing this stuff on, but then again, most kids have SOMEBODY in their life who fills that function. In the case of pop music, the general culture helps out more than usual, but even in areas like literature, painting, etc. it happens a lot more than we think.

    On the other hand, if somebody actually could kill off common culture, it would be the sort of person who is asked to explain rock and roll with six records and uses one of his picks on "Wonderful Tonight."

    (...Though I would love to know which record or six "explained" Elvis to the octogenarian scientist and therefore placed him well beyond the level of collective understanding thus far obtained by three generations of rock critics.)

    Anyway, long time reader who's never e-mailed before. It's a fun topic so I hope you get lots of feedback.

    How nice to find a ray of hope in my mailbox!

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, October 5, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Up to the nanosecond

    I got tagged with this meme on Tuesday. Turns out that I already answered it two months ago, and so did OGIC!

    Never let it be said that we’re not on our toes around here….

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, October 5, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: So you want to see a show?

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

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

    BROADWAY:
    Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
    The Drowsy Chaperone* (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
    Jay Johnson: The Two and Only* (one-ventriloquist show, G/PG-13, a bit of strong language but otherwise family-friendly, reviewed here)
    The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
    The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here)

    OFF BROADWAY:
    The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
    Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
    Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)

    CLOSING SOON:
    Seven Guitars (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, extended through Oct. 15)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, October 5, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “Wanda, do you have any idea what it's like being English? Being so correct all the time, being so stifled by this dread of, of doing the wrong thing, of saying to someone ‘Are you married?’ and hearing ‘My wife left me this morning,’ or saying, uh, ‘Do you have children?’ and being told they all burned to death on Wednesday. You see, Wanda, we'll all terrified of embarrassment. That's why we're so…dead. Most of my friends are dead, you know, we have these piles of corpses to dinner.”

    John Cleese, screenplay for A Fish Called Wanda

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, October 5, 2006 | Permanent link
Wednesday, October 4, 2006
    TT: Uncommonly tuneful

    How many of these songs do you know well enough to whistle?

    • “All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
    • “Back in Black”
    • “Blowin’ in the Wind”
    • “China Girl”
    • “Hot Fun in the Summertime”
    • “Hotel California”
    • “Instant Karma”
    • “Jailhouse Rock”
    • “Jolene”
    • “Light My Fire”
    • “Maria”
    • “Money”
    • “My Favorite Things”
    • “Over the Rainbow”
    • “Roxanne”
    • “Satisfaction”
    • “Sheep”
    • “Superstition”
    • “That’ll Be the Day”
    • “We Will Rock You”

    No, this isn’t a test. Here’s why I’m asking: Daniel J. Levitin uses these songs as illustrations in the opening chapters of his new book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (“For example, the main accompaniment to ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder is played on only the black keys of the keyboard”). Obviously, he's assuming that most of his readers will know most of the songs he cites. Is he right to do so?

    As I read This Is Your Brain on Music, I remembered the ear-training class I took thirty-one years ago as a freshman music major, in which we learned to recognize the various musical intervals by associating them with well-known pop tunes in which they figure prominently. That list of songs, like the ones found in Daniel Levetin’s book, assumed the existence of a common stock of musical reference—the musical equivalent of what E.J. Hirsch has dubbed “cultural literacy.”

    It happens that two of the songs used by my old teacher are also on Levetin’s list. I suspect that “Over the Rainbow” (octave) is still a safe choice in 2006, and I sincerely hope that “Maria” (tritone) is as well. But tastes have changed greatly since 1975, and I doubt that a modern-day ear-training instructor would be likely to use “Bali H’ai” to teach his charges how to recognize a major seventh.

    On the other hand, what would he use? Now that the common culture in which I grew up has been fractured beyond repair by postmodern multiculturalism, is it still possible to come up with a list of twenty pop songs that are familiar to a majority of Americans between the ages of fifteen and fifty?

    (For the record, I know fifteen of the songs on Levetin’s list well enough to hum them more or less accurately—but I’m not saying which ones.)

    While we’re on the subject, allow me to pass on another list gleaned from This Is Your Brain on Music. An octogenarian scientist who knew nothing about rock asked Levitin to “come over for dinner one night and play six songs that captured all that was important to know about rock and roll….The night before he called to tell me that he had heard Elvis Presley, so I didn’t need to cover that.”

    These are the songs he brought to dinner:

    • “Long Tall Sally,” Little Richard
    • “Roll Over Beethoven,” the Beatles
    • “All Along the Watchtower,” Jimi Hendrix
    • “Wonderful Tonight,” Eric Clapton
    • “Little Red Corvette,” Prince
    • “Anarchy in the U.K.,” the Sex Pistols

    I don’t know what I think of his list, but it inspired me to ask myself a related question: what six records would I play for someone who’d never heard any jazz and wanted to know what it sounds like? Back in 1999 I published a list of sixty-five “recorded masterpieces” of jazz in Commentary. I’d stand by it today—but six?

    Naturally, I had to try, if only for fun, though in the end I found it impossible to get the job done without throwing in a seventh side. Here are my picks:

    • “West End Blues,” Louis Armstrong (1928)
    • “King Porter Stomp,” Benny Goodman Orchestra, composed by Jelly Roll Morton and arranged by Fletcher Henderson (1935)
    • “A Sailboat in the Moonlight,” Billie Holiday with Lester Young (1937)
    • “Shaw ’Nuff,” Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker (1945)
    • “’Round Midnight,” Miles Davis with John Coltrane, composed by Thelonious Monk and arranged by Gil Evans (1956)
    • “Ramblin’,” Ornette Coleman (1959)
    • “Unquity Road,” Pat Metheny (1975)

    I invite your comment.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 4, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “Shakespeare’s plays are works of philosophy—philosophy not argued but shown.”

    Roger Scruton, Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 4, 2006 | Permanent link
Tuesday, October 3, 2006
    TT: Stiff competition

    Earlier today I sat on a rowing machine at the gym and watched with mounting amazement as the plasma TV screens above my head flashed the latest bulletins about Mark Foley and the shootings in Pennsylvania. The thought occurred to me that these must be hard times for the aspiring novelist, what with life constantly upping the ante on imagination, and no sooner did that thought flash through my mind than I found myself recalling these words of advice to the writer of fiction:

    The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make them appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.

    Flannery O’Connor said that—forty-nine years ago. Plus ça change….

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, October 3, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: The best we can do

    It occurred to me after writing this posting that I’d used the phrase “Man cannot live by masterpieces alone” in print before, so I Googled it. Sure enough, I found it in a review of Spider-Man that I published in Crisis four years ago. Some of what I wrote then is very much to the point now.

    * * *

    Criticism, it seems, is a risky business. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, several reviewers who panned Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones received death threats via e-mail, along with sundry other communications of somewhat lower voltage. This one caught my eye: "The mere fact that you actually get payed [sic] to write movie reviews is the last shred of proof I need to rule out the existance [sic] of God."

    Not wanting to shake anybody’s faith, I decided I could live without seeing Attack of the Clones, but I went out of my way to catch Spider-Man. The tug of nostalgia proved irresistible: I have fond memories of reading "Spider-Man" comic books as a boy. More recently, I taught a course in criticism at a large Eastern university this past year, and I was struck by how many of my students were interested in writing about today’s comics and had smart things to say about them. Having praised Ghost World last year, I figured I should give Spider-Man at least as fair a shake.

    On top of all this, I felt it was time to make a preemptive strike on snobbery. The other day I gave a talk about movies to a roomful of priests, one of whom asked me if I reviewed only "highbrow" movies. Considering that I’d just showed them Comanche Station, a Randolph Scott Western, the question seemed a bit odd, but I happily explained that I liked and wrote about all kinds of movies. In fact, my guess is that I’ve spent more time watching popular movies than art films—and gotten more pleasure out of them, too….

    Spider-Man is a movie to which you can safely send the kids, and even accompany them without sentencing yourself to two hours’ worth of agonized squirming. But I’d never pretend for a moment that it’s anything more than a piece of pretty good, morally unobjectionable trash, and as I left the theater, I couldn’t help but ask myself: is unobjectionable trash really the best we can hope for out of American popular culture circa 2002?

    "As if you could kill time without injuring eternity," Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, a book I judged to be a masterpiece not long after I put aside my comic books. I know better now, and I also know that there is a great deal to be said for pure frivolity. Man cannot live by masterpieces alone, not even bona fide ones.

    On the other hand, take a look at this list of non-highbrow movies released a half-century ago: The African Queen, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Big Sky, Five Fingers, The Greatest Show on Earth, High Noon, Hangman’s Knot, Kansas City Confidential, The Lusty Men, Monkey Business, The Narrow Margin, Pat and Mike, The Quiet Man, Ride the Man Down, Singin’ in the Rain, and Son of Paleface. The only things these films have in common are that they were all made in Hollywood and that I happen to like them. Not one opened in an art house (though several are now regarded as classics and can be seen on museum series). If they are representative of what Americans regarded as routine movie-house fare in 1952, then what does that say about America in 2002? Nothing very good, I fear.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, October 3, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “An important part of every writer’s task is to use proper names judiciously. Shakespeare’s names—Ophelia, Prospero, Caliban, Portia, Bottom, Titania, Malvolio—summon character and plot, and also seem to light up regions of the human psyche, so that we can say, knowing what we mean and without other words to express it, ‘I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.’ And what poem makes greater use of a name than the one from which I have just quoted?”

    Roger Scruton, Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, October 3, 2006 | Permanent link
Monday, October 2, 2006
    TT: WhoseTube? ArtsTube!

    In case you missed it, The Wall Street Journal posted a free link over the weekend to my "Sightings" column about YouTube and the fine arts:

    YouTube, like the other new Web-based media, is a common carrier, a means to whatever ends its millions of users choose, be they good, bad, dumb or ugly. You can use it to watch mindless junk—or some of the greatest classical and jazz musicians of the 20th century....

    To read the whole thing, go here.

    If you've followed the Journal's link to this site in order to check out my list of YouTube fine-arts links, go to the right-hand column and scroll down until you see Satchmo's name.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, October 2, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Points north

    I went to Minneapolis-St. Paul for the first time two years ago to give a lecture at Minnesota Public Radio, but I had to fly back to New York the next day. Last Friday I returned at last, this time to see plays at Theatre de la Jeune Lune and the Guthrie Theater, and I made a point of staying for two nights, which gave me a bit of time to look around. (I would have had still more time were it not for the fact that the streets of Minneapolis appear to have been designed for the purpose of repelling boarders and confusing tourists.)

    I started things off with a repeat visit to Minnesota Public Radio, where I had lunch with a roomful of producers from American RadioWorks, the documentary unit of American Public Media, whose programs include A Prairie Home Companion and Saint Paul Sunday. They wanted to talk to me about the possibility of doing a show based on my Louis Armstrong biography, so I spent an hour regaling them with Satchmo stories. I don’t know what will come of it—maybe nothing—but they sure are smart.

    Afterward I drove across town through appallingly heavy traffic to a anonymous-looking suburban office building that houses one of the most remarkable corporate art collections in America. As regular readers of this blog won't need to be reminded, I have a special affection for American modernism—that’s what the Teachout Museum is all about—and a collector who shares my interest in what I think of as Phillips Collection-style art arranged for me to be given a private tour of the headquarters of the Regis Corporation, on whose walls hang hundreds of museum-quality paintings by such artists as Paul Cadmus, Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Arnold Friedman, Marsden Hartley, Alfred Maurer, Fairfield Porter, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, George Tooker, John Twachtman, and Neil Welliver. Seventy-five of the best pieces are currently on display at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in a show called Villa America: American Moderns, 1900-1950, but there was plenty of equally good stuff left behind for me to see, and I spent two and a half ecstatic hours poking my head into offices and goggling.

    I had almost as much fun visiting the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on Saturday afternoon. The permanent collection lacks the focus and consistent excellence of, say, Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum or the nonpareil Cleveland Museum of Art, but it’s still pretty damned impressive. I was delighted to make the acquaintance of Rembrandt’s Lucretia, Chardin’s Attributes of the Arts, John Peto’s quietly haunting Reminiscences of 1865, Sargent’s Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight, a lovely double portrait by Berthe Morisot, one of John Twachtman’s most subtle landscapes, a spectacular pair of large-scale paintings by Bonnard and Vuillard, and an exquisite little 1942 Morandi still life of whose existence I was previously unaware.

    I also drove out to the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum, but that was a waste of time. The stainless-steel building, which opened in 1993, is one of Frank Gehry’s celebrated exercises in postmodern rococo, pointlessly flamboyant on the outside and unexpectedly unmemorable within. The friend who put me in touch with the Regis Corporation had assured me that the permanent collection of American modernists was worth seeing, but next to none of it was on display, so that was that. I came away with the decided impression that the Weisman, like so many of the showy temples to art designed by starchitects in recent years, is less a museum than a hollow outdoor sculpture whose interior decoration is of secondary importance.

    I had dinner with Lileks before heading over to Jeune Lune to see The Miser. We’d never met, but I felt at once as though I’d known him for years, a now-familiar byproduct of blogging. (I felt the same way when I met Maud.) He’s shorter than I expected—for some reason I thought he'd be tall and gangly—and his speaking voice is both resonant and pleasingly pitched, so much so that I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that he’d spent a good many years in the radio business. We dined on beef tenderloin at Mission American Kitchen, a restaurant I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone passing through town, and we spent at least as much time laughing as we did eating.

    I would have liked to stick around for a few more days, but I have a deadline to hit and four shows to see between now and Sunday, so I packed my wonderful carry-on bag and flew back to New York yesterday afternoon, having promised a number of Minneapolitans and St. Paulists that I’d be back as soon as possible. Would that I could say when! A woman told me the other day that she had too many friends and was going to prune the roster so she could spend more time with the ones she liked best. I know what she meant, but I can’t imagine doing any such thing. In fact, I’ve met a half-dozen out-of-towners in recent months whom I liked enormously and would be happy to add to my circle of intimates if they were to move to New York. Travel has done that for me—and so, too, has blogging. Of course I know the world is full of awful people, but for some lucky reason I keep on meeting the nice ones.

    UPDATE: Here’s Lileks’ side of it.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, October 2, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Often I think writing is a sheer paring away of oneself leaving always something thinner, barer, more meager."

    F. Scott Fitzgerald, letter to Frances Scott Fitzgerald (April 27, 1940)

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, October 2, 2006 | Permanent link
Saturday, October 1, 2005
    TT: Bryan v. Darrow

    Here’s a taste of my latest “Sightings” column in the “Pursuits” section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal:

    Talk about timely: "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial," a docudrama about the Scopes trial that is L.A. Theatre Works' first show to go on the road, opens Oct. 11 at Humboldt University in Arcata, Calif., mere weeks after a judge in Harrisburg, Pa., began hearing arguments over whether the theory of intelligent design should be taught alongside the theory of evolution in local classrooms. You can't pay for publicity like that. It's a gift from ... er, Charles Darwin? Well, someone, anyway….

    "Inherit the Wind" is a work of fiction loosely based on the Scopes trial, one that takes huge liberties with the facts in order to make Bryan and the fundamentalists of Tennessee look like gargoyles and morons. Yet millions of unsuspecting playgoers know what they "know" about the Scopes trial from having seen it. Will those who see or hear "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial" be better served, factually speaking?

    The answer is yes, mostly. The bulk of Mr. Goodchild's script is drawn from the official trial transcript. To be sure, the scene-setting (deck-stacking) narration leaves no doubt as to which side enlightened minds should root for, blandly informing us that religious fundamentalism circa 1925 was linked "in spirit if nothing else" to "the ultra-conservative and violent Ku Klux Klan." But the trial itself is heard as it happened, and is all the more dramatic for being true….

    No link, alas. To read the whole thing, pick up a copy of the Saturday Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal.

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, October 1, 2005 | Permanent link
Friday, September 30, 2005
    TT: Whoops, almost forgot

    In addition to my weekly drama column, I have a book review in today's Wall Street Journal. It's of Daniel Goldmark's Tunes for 'Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon:

    "Tunes for 'Toons," says Mr. Goldmark, an assistant professor of music history at Case Western Reserve University, is "a set of case studies rather than an all-encompassing history," for which reason he devotes whole chapters to Carl Stalling of Warner Bros. and Scott Bradley of MGM, who between them scored most of the major non-Disney animated shorts and thereby "helped establish the public's notion of what cartoon scores should sound like." Their sharply contrasting styles are described with well- informed clarity: Stalling used recycled pop songs in the collage-like manner of a silent-movie accompanist, while Bradley preferred through-composed scores with unmistakable touches of modernism….

    As usual, no link. You know what to do.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 30, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Read me on Saturday...

    "Sightings," the biweekly column about the arts in America that I'm writing for the new Saturday edition of The Wall Street Journal, will be in the "Pursuits" section of tomorrow's paper. Pick up a copy and take a peek, won't you?

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 30, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: ...and listen on Sunday

    Our Girl and I will be appearing this Sunday on Hello Beautiful!, Chicago Public Radio's weekly arts show. We'll be talking about Beyond Glory, Stephen Lang's one-man play about eight winners of the Medal of Honor, which we saw last weekend in Chicago (and which I reviewed in today's Wall Street Journal). Edward Lifson, the host, will also be interviewing Lang live in the studio and playing recorded sound bites from the production.

    If you live in the Chicago area, Hello Beautiful! airs Sundays at ten a.m. CDT (that's eleven a.m. EDT) on WBEZ, 91.5 FM. Listeners elsewhere can tune in via Web-based streaming audio by going here.

    (Should you miss us on Sunday morning, go here to access the Hello Beautiful! online audio library.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 30, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Look back in befuddlement

    I woke up at eleven-thirty this morning, having just finished my first full night's sleep in a week.

    Last weekend was wonderfully eventful, but Daffy, Our Girl's cat, inserted a claw into the inflatable bed on which I sleep when visiting Chicago, with predictable results. I was already tired (not to mention sore) by the time I got back to New York on Monday, and things spiraled from bad to worse with scary efficiency. Since then I've written three pieces, two for The Wall Street Journal and a much longer one for Commentary, and seen two performances, a full-evening bill of ballets by Christopher Wheeldon and a new play by Warren Leight, the author of Side Man. All this high-octane aesthetic activity revved my brain up to so frenzied a pitch that I couldn't turn it off, also with predictable results.

    Would that I could stand down today, but I have quite a bit of work to do this afternoon and another play to see tonight. The good news is that I don't have to file any more pieces until next Tuesday, and my schedule for the coming week is rather more reasonable (for me, that is). Among other things, I plan to sleep a lot!

    Anyway, that's what I've been up to this week in lieu of blogging. I knew you'd understand.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 30, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Above and beyond

    Yes, yes, I know, it's Friday, but the past week (almost past, anyway) was way more than I could handle, which is why I'm just now getting around to posting the weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. Sorry about that.

    In today's column I report on three shows, two in Chicago and one in New York. The Chicago shows are Stephen Lang's Beyond Glory, now playing at the Goodman Theatre, and Barbara Gaines' new staging of The Merchant of Venice, now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater:

    “Beyond Glory” has toured the U.S. in the past year, but it hasn't come anywhere near New York. It ought to. Broadway and Off Broadway have seen some hugely impressive one-person performances in the past couple of seasons, foremost among them Jefferson Mays in “I Am My Own Wife,” Heather Raffo in “Nine Parts of Desire” and Sir Anthony Sher in “Primo.” This show is that good….

    Adapted by Mr. Lang from the book by Larry Smith, it consists of eight first-person monologues by recipients of the Medal of Honor, given for “gallantry and intrepidity…above and beyond the call of duty.” You can't get much more military than that. But Mr. Lang's one-man play is no simple-minded piece of flag-waving. It is an unsparingly direct portrait of men at war, pushed into narrow corners and faced with hard choices. It is also one of the richest, most complex pieces of acting I've seen in my theatergoing life….

    Ms. Gaines' “Merchant” grapples head-on with the chief problem the play poses for today's audiences, which is that Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock is widely felt to be openly (if not merely) anti-Semitic. It does so by underlining every reference to Shylock's Jewishness, to the point where the incessant repetition of the word “Jew” shrieks as shrilly as fingernails on a chalkboard. Not that the man himself is spared: Mike Nussbaum plays Shylock as a smug semi-gentleman in a three-piece suit whose elegant cut cannot conceal his raging bloodlust. Yet the more savagely he is treated by the other characters—to the point of being beaten and spat upon in a dark alley—the more intelligible his hateful longings start to seem….

    I also saw Playwrights Horizons' production of James Lapine's Fran's Bed, starring Mia Farrow:

    Like most of Mr. Lapine's work, “Fran's Bed” is more than a little bit glib, but it isn't heartless, and he tucks a thought-provoking twist that took me completely by surprise into the very last scene. As for the acting, it's first-rate: Ms. Farrow is focused and exact, and Heather Burns and Julia Stiles, who play her daughters, are perfectly sisterly….

    No link. To read the whole thing, of which there's plenty more, pick up a copy of today's Wall Street Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal. A few quick keystrokes will give you immediate access to the paper's complete contents, which include lots of arts coverage and other cool stuff.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 30, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Annual salary (including $3,000 in expenses) paid to Edmund Wilson in 1943 for writing a weekly book review for The New Yorker: $13,000

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $147,356.17

    (Source: Lewis M. Dabney, Edmund Wilson)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 30, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "I believe in mess, tears, pain, self-abasement, loss of self-respect, nakedness. Not caring doesn't seem much different from not loving."

    Tom Stoppard, The Real Thing

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 30, 2005 | Permanent link
Thursday, September 29, 2005
    OGIC: Meet me on 21st Street

    Our ArtsJournal colleague Tyler Green is excited about the upcoming Sean Scully show at Washington's Phillips Collection. I recently stumbled on a Journal of Contemporary Art interview with the artist and was absorbed. He has many provocative things to say and says them with eloquence and urgency.

    Click through to see some of his luminous paintings as well as the full interview:

    When I was young I was extremely political. We talked about this the other night. I don't think there is such a thing as effective political art. There is only art that is politicized. You either do politics or you do not. I wasn't interested in pretending to be political while I was an artist. There is another aspect to it. I came from an Irish background and started out life as an immigrant. I went to a convent school and I was yanked out because my parents had a big argument with them and I was put into a state school, which was full of emptiness and violence. In other words, I moved from something very exotic and difficult, but rich and full of mystery and the belief in another reality, in a reality that we couldn't see, that we could only imagine, into something that dealt with just what you could see. What you could imagine did not even seem to be a question. I found the banality of it crushing and the shock profoundly disturbing. I think at that point, taking all of those things into account, at some early moment in my life I decided I was going to be an artist.

    Reminds me of Mary McCarthy's romance with her Catholic schooling. There's also this:

    Davis: Did Warhol ruin art?

    Scully: No, I don't think Warhol ruined art because I don't find Warhol that important. You have to be very important to be able to ruin art.

    After the Phillips, the Scully show goes to Fort Worth, Cincinnati, and the Met.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, September 29, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Advance paid to Edmund Wilson by W.W. Norton in 1939 for The Wound and the Bow: $800

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $10,496.64

    (Source: Lewis M. Dabney, Edmund Wilson)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 29, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Imagine a Nazi masterpiece, if you can. At the bottom of that pit lies some truth, about art and life. But it is an elusive truth."

    Tom Stoppard (quoted in the New York Times, Feb. 20, 1984)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 29, 2005 | Permanent link
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
    TT: Still struggling

    So far, this week's schedule has proved to be a bit more than I can chew without choking. I'll try to blog today, but you probably won't see me again until tomorrow.

    Sorry.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 28, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Weekly alimony paid to Mary McCarthy by Edmund Wilson in 1945: $60

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $630.29

    (Source: Lewis M. Dabney, Edmund Wilson)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 28, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    SEPTIMUS: When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.

    THOMASINA: Then we will dance. Is this a waltz?

    Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 28, 2005 | Permanent link
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
    OGIC: Down at heels

    Monday was a pretty bad day. First I had to send Terry off, to return who knows when, and then, in my excitement for one of our first truly autumnal days, I unwittingly donned what soon revealed themselves to be cruel shoes. It was a small catastrophe. I've just redressed the backs of my heels and am headed to bed, pausing only to share with you a blog entry that actually managed to make me laugh through some of the pain. The first line is a grabber:

    Ah, to be young enough that it is still possible to lose one's shoe in a tree.

    Today seemed to be the day for precocious kids on the web. This also appeared, in the Slate diary of writer-director Judd Apatow, who will always be held in esteem around these parts for having executive-produced Freaks and Geeks:

    My daughter Maude was 5 when she realized that Barney had only one expression. She couldn't stop laughing when she noticed this. She ran around the living room with this psychotic Barney smile which never changed, and then started saying, "I'm happy. I'm sad." She laughed some more and then screamed, "Help me! I don't know how to feel."

    Stop being so knowing and adorable, children. You're making your elders feel prematurely obsolete.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, September 27, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    i waved my hope around like a cheap flag
    whose colors had faded
    whose emblem was laughable.

    Erin McKeown, "Love in 2 Parts"

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, September 27, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Sparring with wakefulness

    I didn't know how tired I was until I got back to my Manhattan apartment, spent a long time grappling with my accumulated snail mail, fell into bed for what was supposed to be a brief, refreshing nap...and awoke five hours later. I think I'll call it a day. Instead of trying to write, I'll sit and contemplate the newest addition to the Teachout Museum, an exquisite little Vuillard etching that came in the mail while I was in Chicago. (The online image only suggests the fineness of detail.) I knocked it down for a price so modest that I'm still giggling.

    A hell of a week lies before me—three deadlines, three plays, a night at the ballet, and a drunken birthday bash for a friend—but comparatively normal blogging will resume tomorrow, somehow....

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 27, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Commissioning fee paid to Henri Matisse by Dr. Albert C. Barnes in three installments between 1930 and 1933 for painting The Dance, a mural installed at the Barnes Foundation: $30,000

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $406,389.23

    (Source: Hilary Spurling, Matisse the Master)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 27, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "It's hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it's true."

    Stephen King, On Writing

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 27, 2005 | Permanent link
Monday, September 26, 2005
    TT: Smiles of a late summer night

    Our Girl and I have been tearing around Chicago for the past two days, looking at plays, taping radio shows, and eating too well. (I'm using her computer, which is why this posting is signed with her name.) The only cloud on the horizon is that I'll be returning to New York first thing this morning, sigh.

    More later, perhaps even later today. Normal blogging will resume tomorrow. Until then, see you in Manhattan!

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, September 26, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Weekly salary paid to John Coltrane by Thelonious Monk in 1957 for playing tenor saxophone in Monk's quartet: $100

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $679.61

    (Source: Lewis Porter, JazzTimes, October 2005)

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, September 26, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Not all, but too many of the best writers, composers, and artists of our time begin to be acclaimed only when they no longer have anything to say and take to performing instead of stating. This is how they first become accessible to broad taste, which is lazy taste, and by the same token to the processes of publicity and consecration. As long as they were trammeled up in the urgency of getting things said they were too difficult, too 'controversial.'"

    Clement Greenberg, Hofmann

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, September 26, 2005 | Permanent link
Friday, October 1, 2004
    TT: Exit, stage left

    By the time most of you read these words, I'll be in Chicago, spending the next four days hanging out with Our Girl in Chicago and going to see four plays (I added one at the last minute) and an opera, about which more after I return. Wish me retrospective luck with the flight!

    We might blog on Monday, or possibly even later tonight (don't count on the latter, though). On the other hand, we might not. You never can tell. Either way, I'll be back on Tuesday.

    Incdientally, I've been updating the right-hand column while waiting for my car to arrive. Much more to come after I return to New York next Tuesday, but some new items are already in place.

    Enjoy. And have a nice weekend. Our Girl and I definitely will.

    P.S. No, I haven't been reading my blogmail this week. I was too busy writing. But I'll empty the bag as soon as I return to New York.

    (Well, on second thought, maybe I'll do it on Wednesday. But I will do it. I swear.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 1, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Of politicians and prostitutes

    (I bet that title got your attention!)

    Time again for my Friday Wall Street Journal drama column. This week I went out to the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey to see Of Thee I Sing, and was thereby made happy:

    “Of Thee I Sing” is about politics like “Animal House” is about higher education. Written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, who also collaborated on the Marx Brothers’ “Animal Crackers,” it’s a light-hearted, light-minded satire of life in our nation’s capital back in the long-lost days when vice presidents were nobodies (“We put a lot of names in a hat, and this fellow lost”) and ordinary people had better things to do than parse stump speeches. The operetta-like score, by George and Ira Gershwin, pokes similarly gentle fun at the foibles of the elected class, and there’s even a class-A ballad, “Who Cares?,” to leaven the loaf.

    “Of Thee I Sing” hasn’t been revived on Broadway since 1951 (in fact, this was the first time I’d ever seen a staged performance of the show), and I wondered whether it might be hopelessly dated. The answer is that it’s dated, but not even slightly hopeless. Though American politics has changed beyond recognition in the past 70 years, you’ll still be charmed by the goofy tale of John P. Wintergreen (Ron Bohmer), an amiable hack who is catapulted into the White House by promising that if elected, he’ll marry the winner of an Atlantic City beauty contest….

    I wondered briefly whether director Tina Landau (“Floyd Collins”) might make the mistake of trying to wrench “Of Thee I Sing” into modern times. Again, be cool: Ms. Landau’s high-spirited staging, simply but ingeniously designed by Walt Spangler, is entirely faithful to the letter and spirit of the show….

    The Oldest Profession, on the other hand, didn’t even come close to doing it for me:

    Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, it’s politics as usual at the Peter Norton Space, where the Signature Theatre Company has launched a season-long survey of the plays of Paula Vogel, who won her Pulitzer in 1998 for “How I Learned to Drive.” First up is “The Oldest Profession,” a naggingly obvious piece of sermonry about five superannuated Upper West Side prostitutes who run afoul of the Reagan Revolution. (The ladies, we’re told, got their start in Storyville, New Orleans’ legendary red-light district, which was shut down in 1917, meaning that they would all have had to be near-octogenarians in 1980, when the action of the play is set. That’s pretty old to still be hooking anything other than lap rugs.) Reduced to penury by the aging of their clientele and the heartlessness of supply-side economics, they die off one by one, each working girl serving up a feeble cabaret turn as she ascends to the Great Whorehouse in the Sky. Did I say blah blah blah?...

    I also put in a plug for Rose Rage:

    Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Rose Rage” is playing at the Duke on 42nd Street through Oct. 17. Edward Hall’s marathon adaptation of Shakespeare’s three “Henry VI” plays (five and a half hours, including a dinner break) is set in the locker room of a Victorian slaughterhouse, a spectacular visual metaphor for what can happen when politics degenerates into violence. I saw “Rose Rage” in the Windy City last January and found it thrilling, especially the shockingly malevolent performance of Jay Whittaker as Richard III. He’s at the Duke, together with the rest of the Chicago cast. Don’t be deceived by the running time—“Rose Rage” goes by like a shot.

    No link. Do the usual, or the other thing.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 1, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Lady into tree

    On Thursday I took Sarah (who is soooo cool, as is her new Baltimore Sun mystery column) to see New York City Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’ Daphne, composed in 1938 but only just now receiving its New York stage premiere. Many of my critical colleagues have been unenthusiastic about Stephen Lawless’ direction and Ashley Martin-Davis’ set design, Alex Ross in particular, but I found both to be serviceable, if not what they should have been. I don’t think it’s excessively literal-minded, for example, to think that when you’re staging an opera that ends with a beautiful woman turning into a laurel tree, you ought to make some effort to suggest such a transformation! On the other hand, Elizabeth Futral was wonderful in the title role—she’s as good an actress as she is a singer, and I’ve never understood why she isn’t a full-fledged star—and George Manahan coaxed surprisingly impressive sounds out of New York City Opera’s inconsistent but well-intentioned pit orchestra.

    I can see why Daphne has never found a secure place in the standard repertoire. The length is a bit on the awkward side (an hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission), the myth-based plot a bit on the befuddling side. But Strauss’s score is a beauty, the gateway to the welcome depouillement of his middle-period style that made possible the radiantly autumnal lyricism of Metamorphosen and the Four Last Songs, and to see it enacted on stage, even in a problematic production, is the best way to get to know it.

    Perhaps Daphne isn’t quite so awkward in length as it once seemed, at least for today’s clock-watching operagoers. The curtain went up at 7:30 and came down at 9:15, allowing plenty of time for a leisurely dinner after the show. (We had Indian food at Sapphire, which I also recommend.) That’s short enough to make Daphne worth your while purely as a fling, and if you love late Strauss as much as I do, you obviously can’t afford to miss it.

    Only one more performance, alas, this Sunday at 1:30. You know what to do.

    (If you've never heard any of Richard Strauss’ later music, go here right now and order this CD. I promise you won’t be sorry.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 1, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: It ain't necessarily so

    Lileks held forth the other day on A.J. Liebling, one of my favorite writers:

    I suppose I should blush for not reading him sooner, since he’s one of those names journalists throw around to prove that the scribbler’s craft can produce true artists. He wrote for the New Yorker in the 30s, 40s and 50s, and was one of those chroniclers of the demi-monde of gyms and bars. Or so the reputation has it. Well, I’ve been dipping through Just Enough Liebling, and I don’t get it. I just don’t. Part of the problem is that he writes long detailed pieces about food, and food writing bores me. (Unless I am the one doing the writing.) The attention to gustatory detail can seem unseemly, after a while. All that talk of sauces and obscure drizzles and precious pates and brash herbs - please. It's just dinner. There's a difference between describing the charms of one's first love and going on and on about the interesting pattern of moles on a hooker's back….

    Not so, not so! But I can see how he was led astray: Just Enough Liebling, the just-published anthology of Liebling’s essays, leaves out much of his best work and includes too much of the other kind. I filed a review for next week’s Weekly Standard a couple of days ago, so I don’t want to jump the gun on myself, but to Lileks and any other skeptics out there I say: wait until my piece comes out, then make up your minds.

    I’ll post a link if there’s a free one. Otherwise, I’ll tell you what I said when the time comes. In the meantime, keep your Lugers holstered.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 1, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Words to the wise

    The Lascivious Biddies, whom I recently had occasion to describe as “New York’s hippest girl group” (watch this space for details), will be throwing a CD release party at Joe’s Pub on Saturday, October 9, at 9:30. I wrote the liner notes for their new album, Get Lucky (nice title, huh?), and here’s a tantalizing snippet thereof:

    I like smart music, the kind that doesn’t tell you everything it knows the first time you hear it. I like uncategorizable music that can’t be squeezed into smug little pigeonholes. I like serious music that isn’t afraid to be funny—and vice versa. If that’s what you like, too, then you’ve come to the right band, and the right album. Or, to put it another way, you just got lucky.

    Start with the witty sound of the Lascivious Biddies, a knowing blend of chirpy girl-group pop and the smooth swing of a King Cole-style jazz trio (piano, guitar, bass, no drums). Lee Ann Westover’s sly, edgy lead vocals ride atop a chiming cushion of close harmony, with Deidre Rodman and Amanda Monaco weaving piano and electric guitar together so deftly that you can’t always tease them apart, and Saskia Lane laying down shapely bass lines that tie each song together like a well-wrapped Christmas package. On paper, it’s a quirky, unexpected mixture, but when you first hear it for yourself, the results sound so utterly natural that you never stop to wonder why nobody ever tried it before.

    The songs—most of them by the Biddies themselves, with a couple of shrewdly chosen covers thrown in for contrast—are as unobtrusively unpredictable as the way in which they’re performed. Some, like “Famous,” take a coolly detached look at the idiosyncrasies of New York life (“I wanna be famous/Tabloids will print what I eat/I wanna be famous/Who I do will be news on the street”). Others offer wry reminders that many New Yorkers, including two of the Biddies, hail from points west, and know better than to write them off as flyover country: “I know a girl named Betty who wears patent-leather shoes/She just moved from Missouri and she’s feeling kinda bruised.” Ever and always, their collective point of view is that of four big-city women who take a tough-minded, sharply contemporary view of men: sometimes affectionate, sometimes dismissive, always disillusioned….

    If any of that makes you curious, go hear them, and tell ’em I sent you.

    To hear samples from Get Lucky, go here.

    For more information about Joe’s Pub, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 1, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “Revision is just as important as any other part of writing and must be done con amore.”

    Evelyn Waugh, letter to Nancy Mitford, March 31, 1951

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 1, 2004 | Permanent link
Thursday, September 30, 2004
    TT: In and out

    I’ve been meaning to say something about Galley Cat, Nathalie Chicha’s new blog about the book business, which went live a week or two ago and was promptly installed on “About Last Night”’s “Sites to See” list. Nathalie is, of course, the mastermind behind Cup of Chicha, long one of my daily stops in the 'sphere. Now she’s relocated from Iowa to New York and launched this new for-profit blog, which I read no less faithfully—it’s a super-smart piece of work. For now Cup of Chicha is in a state of semi-suspended animation as Nathalie gets used to the daily deadlines at Galley Cat, but I have no doubt that she’ll soon be back to her usual sharp-tongued, quick-witted business at the same old stand. In the meantime, check out her new digs.

    I’ve also been meaning to note with unsnarky sadness that The Minor Fall, the Major Lift, better known as Mr. TMFTML, has logged off for good. Why, I don’t know, though he claims (sort of) to have burned out. Whatever the real reason, his decision to stop blogging has severely diminished the gaiety of nations. For all his self-imposed anonymity, he was one of the blogosphere's strongest and most distinctive personalities, and I can only hope that he decides in due course to re-emerge in the Old Media under his own name, there to wreak havoc on the slow-witted, make flattering accusations about innocent bystanders (we still get hits from that damn posting), and generally punch holes in the envelope of polite discourse.

    Me, I miss him already. A lot.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 30, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Out of the barrel (almost)

    As of ten minutes ago, I'm deadline-free. The last of my outstanding pieces is finished and e-mailed. I still have urgent pre-Chicago errands to run this afternoon, but I should be back in time to do a little blogging before heading off to the opera with Sarah. If not, I'll post after I get home tonight.

    Later.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 30, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "There is a simple law governing the dramatization of novels: if it is worth doing, it can't be done; if it can be done, it isn't worth it. Trash can be just as trashy on the stage as in an armchair, but when an artist has conceived of something as a novel, let those who think they know a reason why his matter should not be married to his manner forever hold their peace."

    John Simon, Acid Test

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 30, 2004 | Permanent link
Wednesday, September 29, 2004
    TT: And one to grow on

    I just finished my P.G. Wodehouse review, signed off on my Washington Post column, and read proof on my Johnny Mercer essay and A.J. Liebling review. One more piece to go and I'm out of the barrel and ready to head for Chicago. OGIC has been sending me hourly messages describing all the cool stuff we're going to do when I get there. Needless to say, one or both of us will tell you all about it as it happens.

    I may write some postings tonight, or I might get a head start on tomorrow's piece. In addition, I'm reliably informed that Our Girl is on the verge of reappearing. At any rate, you'll be hearing more from us shortly, or at worst mediumly.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 29, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Manifesto in a nutshell

    You will find in the flap copy for my new Balanchine book this sentence:

    He blogs about the arts at www.terryteachout.com.

    I wonder if that's a dust-jacket first? It is for me, anyway: I locked up the flap copy for A Terry Teachout Reader too soon to mention "About Last Night." At any rate, I think being a blogger is something to brag about (I also mention it on my business card). In for a penny....

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 29, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Incidentally

    I haven't said this for ages, so I will: if you're a regular reader of "About Last Night," tell a friend about us. We had a good year, and we'd like to have a better one.

    I can't help but think that there are lots of people out there who'd enjoy reading a blog like this, but don't yet know that it exists. For that matter, there are still lots of people out there who don't know what a blog is. What better way for them to dive into the pool than to become daily communicants of "About Last Night"? (Besides, I've got a new book coming out, and I need all the help I can get.)

    Spread the word, if you would. Our Girl and I will be more than grateful.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 29, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: The continuing struggle

    Yes, I’m still knocking out pieces—on tap for today is a review of Robert McCrum’s Wodehouse—but the post-vacation me is keeping an even strain, and so far I show no immiment signs of blowing any fuses prior to my departure for Chicago on Friday. Keep your fingers crossed.

    When I’m really busy, one of my cunning new sanity-maintenance techniques is to spend my off hours (or, in this case, minutes) reading a book that’s totally unrelated to the pieces I’m writing. This time around it’s Richard Osborne’s Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music, the best biography ever written of an orchestral conductor, and an incredibly good read even if you’re not a Karajan fan. It’s full of tasty nuggets, two of which I want to pass on to you before I return to the grindstone. First, a snippet that will be making its way sooner or later into my next book:

    Karajan was obsessed by rhythmic accuracy. He once told the Vienna Philharmonic that he was going to hear a concert by Louis Armstrong. “Imagine!” he exclaimed. “Two hours of music, and never once will it slow down or speed up by mistake.”

    The second is a remark about Karajan made by his first wife: “Certainly, he was not a man who would do anything foolish for a woman.”

    You can say a lot about Herbert von Karajan, and Osborne does—his book is 851 pages long—but in the end, I doubt you could say anything about his personality more revealing than that.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 29, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Among the amphibians

    I saw my first opera of the season on Tuesday, New York City Opera’s revival of Mark Morris’ production of Rameau’s Platée, and except for a few loose musical screws this time around, what I said about the New York premiere in the New York Daily News still goes:

    I don't know about you, but I go to the opera to have a good time, and I've never had a better one than on Tuesday, when New York City Opera and the Mark Morris Dance Group teamed up to present the long-overdue New York premiere of Morris' madcap production of Jean-Philippe Rameau's "Platée." In the hands of Morris, costume designer Isaac Mizrahi and set designer Adrianne Lobel, this little-known French opera has become a "Lion King"-like festival of frivolity and poetry, full of matchless singing and dancing.

    Composed in 1745 in honor of the marriage of King Louis XV's son, "Platée" is one of those tales in which the gods decide to amuse themselves by interfering with the lives of unsuspecting mortals—except that the "mortals" in question happen to be swamp creatures. This version is set in a seedy midtown bar and (no fooling) a giant terrarium, but it is faithful to the fanciful spirit of the original, in which flashy operatic arias and extended dance suites are woven seamlessly together into a baroque vaudeville.

    The title role, sung and acted to perfection by character tenor Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, is a female frog of unrivaled ugliness, turned by Morris into a dumpy, lovesick Frog Queen whom Marx Brothers buffs will recognize as bearing a suspiciously close resemblance to Margaret Dumont. The gorgeously dressed dancers play animals of various sorts…

    Though "Platée" is a costume show par excellence, it is also crammed full of inventive dancing, mostly comic but sometimes sweetly lyrical. Translated into English, it would run forever on Broadway…

    You still have six more chances to see Platée, at this Saturday’s matinee and on October 6, 8, 10 (also a matinee), 14, and 16. Don’t wait until the last minute to get tickets—this show sells out.

    (Warning: don't take your kids to this one unless they're fully briefed on the birds and the bees!)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 29, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "It is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth."

    Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 29, 2004 | Permanent link
Tuesday, September 28, 2004
    TT: Let 'em eat acrylics

    From the New York Daily News, by way of our invaluable host, artsjournal.com:

    Mayor Bloomberg had little sympathy yesterday for New Yorkers who find the new $20 admission to the Museum of Modern Art a bit steep.

    "Some things people can afford, some things people can't," said Bloomberg, whose estimated personal fortune is $4.9 billion.

    "MoMA is a private institution. It's not a city institution. And they have a right to set their own pricing policies."

    Over the past five years, the city funneled $65 million in taxpayer money to help fund MoMA's expansion.

    Despite the taxpayers' contribution, Bloomberg - who was in last week's Forbes 400 list of richest Americans - said the city should not be involved in "pressuring" private groups about fees. Besides, he said, there are plenty to choose from. "If you can't afford [admissions] at any one, you can go to another one," he said.

    Ed Skyler, Bloomberg's press secretary, later offered a tamer response. "MoMA is a great institution, and it would be incredibly disappointing if this increase prevented people from enjoying it," he said.

    MoMA will reopen Nov. 20. The price of an adult ticket, which was $12, will now be $20. Ruth Kaplan, a spokeswoman for MoMA, noted that admission is free from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays.

    MoMA’s price hike, and its potential effects on the culture of museumgoing in America, will be discussed endlessly in the art world in the weeks and months to come, and rightly so. But I think we can all agree on one thing: Mayor Bloomberg just earned himself a swift kick in the crotch for his personal contribution to the ongoing debate. (Not in the head—that wouldn’t hurt him one bit.)

    P.S. From the Floor has a thoughtful discussion of what the MoMA price hike might mean over the long haul. It's definitely worth a look.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 28, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Report from mid-air

    I'm still hacking away at those pre-Chicago deadlines (two down, three to go), but I'm also out and about. On Saturday I saw Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession, about which I’ll be writing in this Friday’s Wall Street Journal. Last night Supermaud and I finally caught up with Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry’s screen version of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, which filled me full of half-formed notions I don’t have time to think through just yet (though I will, I will—be patient). Tonight I’ll be at New York City Opera for the opening of the company’s revival of Mark Morris’ wonderful staging of Rameau’s Platée, and on Thursday I’ll have my first chance to see Elizabeth Futral (whom I adore) in their new production of Richard Strauss’ Daphne, to which I’m taking Sarah, who’s celebrating the launch of her Baltimore Sun mystery column (hooray!) by spending a few days flitting around the Big Apple. Whew!

    In short, I’m on the fly and then some, and I’ve still got to get those pieces written so that I can spend the weekend going to plays in Chicago with Our Girl. Hence I’ll be standing mute for the rest of today, and you’ll forgive me, right?

    P.S. Yes, I know, the Top Fives are also sorely in need of updating. Wednesday night, maybe....

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 28, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    Lights are bright,
    Pianos making music all the night,
    And they pour champagne
    Just like it was rain.
    It's a sight to see,
    But I wonder what became of me.

    Crowds go by,
    That merry-making laughter in their eye,
    And the laughter's fine,
    But I wonder what became of mine.

    Life's sweet as honey,
    And yet it's funny,
    I get a feeling that I can't analyze.
    It's like, well, maybe
    Like when a baby
    Sees a bubble burst before its eyes.

    Oh, I've had my fling,
    I've been around and seen most ev'rything,
    But I can't be gay
    For along the way
    Something went astray,
    And I can't explain,
    It's the same champagne,
    It's a sight to see,
    But I wonder what became of me.

    Johnny Mercer, "I Wonder What Became of Me"

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 28, 2004 | Permanent link
Monday, September 27, 2004
    TT: Sinking in

    I’ve had the whole weekend to get used to looking at All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine. I’m still not used to it yet.

    When you first get your hands on a copy of your newest book, the initial rush of excitement quickly gives way to anxiety. Is everything right? Strange and inexplicable things can go wrong with a book between the time you sign off on the second-pass proofs and the time it rolls off the presses. It’s been said that the very first thing an author invariably sees when he opens his latest book is a typographical error. In my case, this has yet to happen, but something did go wrong with the first printing of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, a comparatively small production glitch that nobody noticed but the managing editor and me, and though it was insignificant, it took me an hour or so to get over the shock. So I flipped quickly through All in the Dances to see if anything similar had happened, and once I established that the first printing was gremlin-free, I relaxed and reveled.

    I’ve shown All in the Dances to everyone I’ve seen since it arrived via messenger last Friday afternoon, and their reactions have been identical to mine. It’s a beautiful piece of work, perfectly designed, invitingly small and slender, with dust-jacket photos that make you want to sit down, open it up, and start reading at once. Alas, I haven’t been able to oblige anybody yet, but Harcourt assures me that a box of author copies is headed my way.

    Which reminds me: I dedicated All in the Dances to the thirty people I’ve taken to see their first Balanchine ballets in the seventeen years since I saw my first Balanchine ballet. One of them, Nancy LaMott, whom I took to A Midsummer Night’s Dream not long after we met, is no longer with us, but the others (including Our Girl in Chicago, who is making her second appearance to date on the dedication page of one of my books) are all alive, well, and in for a little surprise come November 1. Alas, it’s a double-edged surprise, for they’re going to have to buy their own copies. I know that’s kind of crass, but there’s nothing I can do about it: I only get twenty free copies, and I can’t very well give them away to some dedicatees and not others! I’m hoping that the thrill of seeing their names on the dedication page will make up for having to purchase a copy (which the proud author will happily sign, of course). And yes, I live in fear that I inadvertently left somebody out….

    I should mention that Harcourt is already starting to arrange promotional appearances for All in the Dances. If you live in or near New York City, pencil me in for November 16, when I’ll be speaking at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square at 7:30 (the address is 33 E. 17th St.). I’m appearing jointly with Bob Gottlieb, whose Balanchine book comes out the same week as mine, and Robert Greskovic, dance critic of The Wall Street Journal, will serve as moderator-interlocutor-referee. Do come—I think it’ll be fun.

    Now I really have to get down to work. I wrote a 4,000-word essay for Commentary about Johnny Mercer over the weekend, and I have four more pieces due between now and Friday morning, when I fly to Chicago to visit Our Girl and see three plays and an opera. Blogging is likely to be sporadic as a result, though I don’t plan to vanish altogether—there’s too much stuff on my mind.

    For the moment, though, I must attend to my drama column for this Friday’s Journal, so I’ll see you all later.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 27, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Show business is a bit like guys that say, 'You know, that hooker really likes me.'"

    Jay Leno (quoted in Bill Carter, The Late Shift)

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 27, 2004 | Permanent link
Saturday, October 4, 2003
    TT: A reminder

    In case you're joining us late (a week late, but who's counting?), I took up the posting slack during my hard-drive crisis by inviting Our Girl in Chicago, my guest-blogger-on-Fridays, to chime in at will while I was preoccupied with the current crisis. Apparently not everybody noticed that "About Last Night" had grown a second head, even though our postings are signed at the end (mine read "terryteachout," hers "ourgirlinchicago"). So until everybody gets with the program, we're going to put our respective initials in the headlines, too, as per above.

    Once again, I'm badly behind on the blogmail, for reasons that will be obvious to any of you who have suffered a hard-drive crash. Next week isn't going to be easy, since I have to reconstitute my e-mail address book, reinstall a couple of applications, write three pieces, see two plays, and finish proofreading and indexing A Terry Teachout Reader. But I'll start cleaning up the mail before week's end, and OGIC and I will make sure you always have something toothsome to read while you're waiting.

    Now I'm off to Massachusetts (or Connecticut, or someplace like that) to give a speech about H. L. Mencken. Thanks for your patience, and don't forget to tell your friends about "About Last Night," open for business 24/7 at www.terryteachout.com.

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, October 4, 2003 | Permanent link
Friday, October 3, 2003
    Almanac

    "Mummy was easily found in the drawing-room, listening to, or apparently keeping quiet during, a Miles Davis record. Gilbert presided at the gramophone, which faithfully rendered that tiny, elementary universe of despair and hatred."

    Kingsley Amis, Girl, 20

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 3, 2003 | Permanent link
    Our long national nightmare is over

    This posting is brought to you by my newly repaired iBook, with all data intact except for my e-mail address file, which so far I haven't been able to find.

    Once again, if you are a regular correspondent through my personal e-mail address (as opposed to the blog), please send me an e-mail ASAP so that I can reconstruct as much of my address file as possible.

    That excepted, praise be!

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 3, 2003 | Permanent link
    Saith the preacher

    I've been looking through the bound galleys of The George Gershwin Reader, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. I flipped through the bibliography and found a piece of mine, "The Fabulous Gershwin Boys," published in the Washington Post 11 years ago. Nothing unusual about that, except...I don't remember writing it. In fact, I don't remember anything about it. I suppose it must have been a book review, but of what? Beats me.

    You may not find this surprising for somebody who writes a lot of stuff, but I do. I'm not saying that I could sit down and write out a bibliography of my published pieces. Far from it. When I put together A Terry Teachout Reader out of my clip files last year, I was startled by how many articles I'd forgotten. Still, I recognized all of them as soon as I saw them on the page, and their contents came back to me instantly. Yet I have no memory whatsoever of having written a piece about George and Ira Gershwin for the Washington Post 11 years ago. That's a definite sign of something or other, though I'd rather not think about what.

    Incidentally, I'm quite prepared to be twitted for my vanity in having riffled through that bibliography in search of myself. I have an excuse of sorts: I have to check books I might possibly review to make sure they don't mention me invidiously, which would create a conflict of interest were I then to write about them. (Yes, this has happened.) But the truth is simpler: I get a kick out of seeing my name in books I didn't write. I may be 47, but in my heart I'm still a 20-year-old baby writer who marvels at the mysterious spectacle of his own name in print. I still remember the first time I turned up in The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, back in my undergraduate days. You have to be a natural-born library wonk to regard that as a great event, but I sure did.

    The real sign that you've become a low-grade personage, I suppose, is when you pop up in other people's memoirs. (This has happened to me twice.) Which reminds me of a funny story that I won't bother to check because I like the way I remember it. Bill Buckley is supposed to have sent Norman Mailer a copy of his latest book, in which Mailer was mentioned. In the index, next to Mailer's name, Buckley scribbled in the margin, "Hi!"

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 3, 2003 | Permanent link
    Back to the spaceship

    As I noted here last week, almost everybody has weighed in against Chicago's new Soldier Field—so much so that the temptation to buck the trend must have been all but irresistible to New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp. So what do you get when an irresistible urge hits an unmistakable eyesore? An explosion of jargon-rich apologetics.

    I call this type of design parabuilding: it is the modern tick on the postmodern host.…Here modernity erupts with the jubilance of a prodigal returned.

    As for those who have lamented the way the new design caters to the relatively few who will enter the stadium, at the expense of taxing the senses of the many who have to drive by it every day, Muschamp directs them to take their medicine and like it:

    …implicit in such criticisms is the assumption that the city should somehow operate outside the economic system we have developed for ourselves in the post-cold-war world. Perhaps it should. Until that dubious prospect is realized, however, we shouldn't expect our architects to do more than aestheticize the actual urban condition.

    I think I'd prefer it if he just came out and called all of us who hate it philistines.

    (By the way, neither the photos accompanying this story nor the live shots that appeared on "Monday Night Football" effectively convey how alarmingly the new bowl dwarfs and impinges on the old colonnade. There are gorgeous views of the stadium available, for sure; it just happens that the commonly accessible views are not among them.)

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, October 3, 2003 | Permanent link
    Not soon forgotten

    Bob Dylan has posted a tribute to Johnny Cash on his website. "If we want to know what it means to be mortal," he says, "we need look no further than the Man in Black." And he reminisces: "In '55 or '56, 'I Walk the Line' played all summer on the radio, and it was different than anything else you had ever heard." (Link via Boston Phoenix Media Log.)

    Dylan's memory has a close echo in "I Walk the Line (Revisited)," Rodney Crowell's joyful homage to his ex-father-in-law that appears on his 2001 album "The Houston Kid":

    I'm back on board that '49 Ford in 1956 / Long before the sun came up way out in the sticks / The headlights showed a two-rut road way back up in the pines / The first time I heard Johnny Cash sing, I Walk the Line.

    The best thing about this track, though, is the surprise cameo.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, October 3, 2003 | Permanent link
    Waveringly?

    I was glad to receive this response to my recent post comparing Walter Scott to Stephen King:

    Scott was no great stylist, but he was vastly more popular and influential in his own time than any novelist is today. Scott's stories caught the imagination of whole continents, whereas the most one can say about King is that he's very popular for a writer, and even he can't match the likes of Dr. Atkins in sales of individual books. I would suggest that the nearest analog to Scott in today's world would be George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg. Both have created other worlds in which a good number of the inhabitants of this world have gone to immerse themselves, and both have spawned scores of less talented imitators. Both have occasionally approached a more enduring art, they will be remembered for their popular work. And they will be remembered perhaps less for what they said than for their subsequent influence, which is not precisely true for a Dickens or a Fellini.

    I'm not trying to be snobbish about this—I'm a great fan of popular culture. But there is a difference between the novels of King and Ishiguro, just as there is a difference between the music of The Beatles and Benjamin Britten. Perhaps the crux of it has to do with the one being immediately enjoyable, while the other requires an investment of time and energy to be fully appreciated. These questions are easier to answer when faced with something that is obviously of superior quality and is immediately enjoyable (e.g., Beethoven's 9th, Apocalypse Now or Anna Karenina), but I don't see that anything on this level is being produced today, which is why we are so stymied when faced with the question of to whom we should give a literary award.

    The first point, about Scott, sounds about right. I'm certain, anyway, that the comparison I drew works out a whole lot better as an answer to the question "who in the 19th century was like King?" than as an answer to "who today is like Scott?" For an answer to the latter question, jumping from literature to film is unquestionably a smart move, and gives a much truer sense of the magnitude of Scott's impact on his contemporaries and his literary inheritors.

    As for the second point, yes. Absolutely. These differences exist, and they matter, and recognizing them matters. I didn't mean to suggest we lump together Stephen King and Kazuo Ishiguro. What my reader is describing, though, are individuals' experiences of cultural works. What I find satisfying about the giving of this award to King has to do with his wider, if shallower, impact on many readers (an impact made intelligently and imaginatively, in my opinion, or we wouldn't even be having this conversation). They're two distinct sorts of writing achievements, and it makes sense to me to recognize both.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, October 3, 2003 | Permanent link
    Sand castles

    I’ve been reading a new biography of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and wondering how many people under the age of 50—or 60, for that matter—recognize their names. Regular New York theatergoers know, of course, that there’s a Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on 46th Street (Beauty and the Beast is playing there), but who among them knows how that house got its name? Yet the Lunts were still widely known well into the Sixties as the most distinguished husband-and-wife acting team in the modern history of the English-language theater, capable of selling out a show merely on the strength of their choosing to act in it.

    How do such formidable reputations vanish so quickly and completely? Well, one answer is that the theater itself is no longer a major part of the American cultural conversation. (If you doubt it, ask a friend who doesn’t live in New York to name a living American playwright.) Another is that Lunt and Fontanne starred in only one feature film, the stagy, now-forgotten The Guardsman, and acted on TV just twice. For whatever reason, they felt their gifts were best displayed in the theater, and so they neglected to leave behind a permanent record of their work. Time was when actors could etch their names into the collective consciousness solely by appearing on stage, but with the invention of film, that time ended forever. Katharine Cornell was as famous as the Lunts, shunned film and TV as they did, and now is no less forgotten. The only reason why Ruth Draper is remembered is because she was shrewd enough to make audio recordings of her self-written monologues, the existence of which kept her memory green even during the long years when they were out of print. (They’re now available on CD, and can be ordered here.)

    Which brings us to the last of the Lunts’ fateful mistakes. Unlike Draper or their good friend Noël Coward, they weren’t writers, and unlike other better-remembered actors, they were notorious for appearing almost exclusively in custom-tailored two-cylinder vehicles unworthy of their great gifts. (The only play they introduced that has held the stage was Coward’s Design for Living.) As Kenneth Tynan, that shrewdest of drama critics, once remarked, "I wish the Lunts would test themselves in better plays. I wish I even felt sure that they knew a good script when they saw one. As things are, they have become a sort of grandiose circus act; instead of climbing mountains, they are content to jump through hoops." Rarely have more damning words been written about more talented people.

    For all these reasons, it strikes me as a bit odd that Alfred A. Knopf took the trouble to publish Margot Peters’ Design for Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne: A Biography. (That's what I call a high-colonic title.) Mind you, it’s not a bad book, but there have been other biographies of the Lunts, and the only thing that distinguishes this one, so far as I can tell, is that it makes explicit mention of the long-standing rumors that both Lunt and Fontanne were homosexual, albeit without a shred of verifiable accompanying evidence. That seems a rather weak reed on which to hang a well-meaning but breathlessly written theatrical biography. Yes, I read it, but only because Knopf sent me a unsolicited review copy and I was desperate for diversion in the midst of more arduous literary chores.

    Is there anything so evanescent as what happens on a stage? Paintings last for centuries, the written word for millennia, but performances and productions not captured on film or videotape are gone before they’re over. I’ve long suspected that this was why Jerome Robbins, who abandoned the ballet business to become the richest and most successful musical-comedy director of his generation, started making ballets again in 1969. His productions (especially Gypsy) were praised to the skies by some of the most knowledgeable critics who ever lived. But except for Peter Pan, which NBC taped for TV in 1960, they all vanished into thin air, whereas New York City Ballet performs every ballet Robbins thought worth preserving on a regular rotating basis—while Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne are barely more than names on a marquee.

    This story has no moral, incidentally, unless it’s the one that starts Vanity, vanity. But, then, that’s a pretty good all-purpose moral, isn’t it?

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 3, 2003 | Permanent link
    Hit and miss

    I reviewed two newly opened plays in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. The first is Little Shop of Horrors, a Broadway revival of the 1982 off-Broadway musical, now running at the Virginia Theatre:

    I don’t mind admitting that I came to the theater with malice aforethought. Broadway, after all, plays it so safe these days that I wouldn’t have been entirely disappointed had this safer-than-safe cash cow gone belly up. Instead, it turned out to be a zippy romp, staged and sung to the hilt. Hunter Foster and Kerry Butler are completely charming as Seymour and Audrey, two Skid Row florists brought together by Audrey II, a jumbo Venus flytrap that dines on human blood. Douglas Sills is suitably slimy as Orin, the pain-loving dentist who snorts a little too much laughing gas and ends up as plant food. Audrey II is winsomely monstrous, Scott Pask’s comic-book sets are just right, and even if you don’t especially care for ’50s rock (which I don’t), the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken songs are genial enough. So what’s not to like? Nothing, really, except that the music is TOO DAMN LOUD….

    The second is Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events, a play about 9/11 now running at Playwrights Horizons:

    How did "Recent Tragic Events" exasperate me? Let me count the ways. For openers, it stinks of cutesy-wutesy postmodernism. Aside from that stupid sock puppet, Mr. Wright bashes us in the face with such trickery as a bell that rings whenever the plot takes what the playwright wrongly supposes to be an unexpected turn (David Ives, call your lawyer) and a chummy stage manager who talks to the audience (Thornton Wilder, call your executor). Stripped of these devices, "Recent Tragic Events" boils down to a feeble sketch about how four vapid sitcom-type characters are transformed by an unimaginable catastrophe. Mr. Wright, a graduate of United Theological Seminary who now writes for "Six Feet Under," doubtless considers this to be deep thinking (the play’s epigraph is a loooooooong quote from Schopenhauer). I suppose it is, too—six feet deep, to be exact….

    As usual, no link, so to read the whole review, march to the nearest newsstand and buy a copy of the Journal. "Weekend Journal," the section in which my theater column appears, is well worth your while, with or without me.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 3, 2003 | Permanent link
    Almanac

    "Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out."

    John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, October 3, 2003 | Permanent link
Thursday, October 2, 2003
    Fourteen lines, 12 tones, one staircase

    This morning's Wall Street Journal has a fascinating story (no link, damn it) about the making of sitcoms, whose producers turn out to be as tightly rule-bound as lawyers who specialize in jury selection. I especially liked this paragraph:

    Sitcom producers discovered long ago that living rooms offer a ready excuse for characters to gather, and the staircase lets characters enter and exist while talking. Writers are loth to monkey with what works: This fall, 67% of sitcoms on ABC, CBS and NBC feature a living room with a sofa and staircase.

    I'm a classicist, I believe in rules, but...

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, October 2, 2003 | Permanent link
    Elbow room

    On Tuesday night, I went to see Recent Tragic Events, the new play about 9/11 that opened Sunday at Playwrights Horizons (about which more in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal and here on "About Last Night"). Early in the evening, I noted with astonishment that the two principal characters not only were fans of the novels of Anthony Trollope (one plausibly, the other not) but thought The Way We Live Now to be his best book. It so happens that (1) I think so, too, (2) I happened to be rereading The Way We Live Now that very evening, and (3) I had a copy of it in my shoulder bag. Since Recent Tragic Events is about coincidences, I was pleased to be experiencing a big fat juicy one of my own.

    I’m one of those benighted souls who prefers Trollope to Dickens, though "prefers" is a weak way of putting it, since I don’t like Dickens at all and have been more than mildly addicted to Trollope for a good many years. I don’t know what caused me to re-read The Way We Live Now this week (other than the long arm of coincidence), but I usually pick it up once a year. In fact, I like it so much that I wore out my original paperback copy and am now the proud owner of an elegant little "World’s Classics" miniature edition printed in 1962 on Bible paper and small enough to fit easily in the palm of one hand—unusually compact for a 960-page novel that is Trollope’s longest.

    I like a lot of things about The Way We Live Now, among them the sheer festiveness with which it catalogues the moral disintegration of Victorian London. Trollope was a moralist of sorts, and The Way We Live Now is a vivid document of his change-and-decay-in-all-around-I-see brand of conservatism, but he was too fascinated by the spectacle of human nature not to tell his angry tale with the lip-smacking gusto of a man who knew that a big crook is still big.

    I also like the dazzling concision with which so naturally expansive a writer is capable on occasion of making his points. At one point, Trollope describes the frankly cynical way in which Lord Nidderdale, an impecunious young noble, woos Marie Melmotte, the daughter of the aforementioned crook. Nidderdale is looking to marry money, and makes no bones about it. Says Trollope: "I doubt whether Lord Nidderdale had ever said a word of love to Marie Melmotte,—or whether the poor girl had expected it. Her destiny had no doubt been explained to her." That second sentence is perfect.

    Another aspect of The Way We Live Now that I admire more and more as I grow older is directly related to Trollope’s expansive tendencies. As a young reader, I particularly admired short, polished novels written from a tightly focused point of view. I still do—I think The Great Gatsby is the great American novel by an extra-long shot—but I’ve also learned to love the baggy inclusiveness of the triple-decker novel. The Way We Live Now is crammed full of characters, situations, and subplots, to all of which Trollope pays affectionate attention. If you judge novels solely by their neatness, you’ll find this one way too messy. I used to feel that way, but now I revel in the panache with which Trollope riffles through his snapshots of the various strata of London society. He’s out to show us the biggest possible picture, and like Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities, he succeeds with a vengeance.

    One advantage of so amply proportioned a novel is that it leaves its readers room to grow. When I first read The Way We Live Now, more than a decade ago, I was completely caught up in the story of Augustus Melmotte, the brazen swindler who cons his way into Parliament. At the time, I was writing editorials for the New York Daily News (and, not coincidentally, had just read The Bonfire of the Vanities), and Melmotte, logically enough, seemed to me the book’s most convincingly realized character. I still think he’s pretty damned impressive, but now that I’ve settled into an uneasy middle age, I find myself far more interested in Roger Carbury, the fortysomething squire who rejects the mad hurly-burly of Melmotte’s corrupt world, falls in unrequited love with a sweet young girl who doesn’t reciprocate his ardor, and does his best to do the right thing by her even though it breaks his heart. When I was 35, Carbury’s dilemma struck me as stagy—rather too Victorian, if you know what I mean. Now that I’m 47, I find it both believable and deeply moving.

    That’s the great thing about the large-scale novel of society and manners. Precisely because its canvas is so wide and varied, it can be seen from many different points of view, and so is less likely to go dead on you over time, the way art collectors speak of certain of their paintings as having gone "dead on the wall." It’s not that I can readily imagine getting tired of The Great Gatsby or Black Mischief or Enemies, a Love Story, but who knows? After all, I might live a very long time (and would like to). Ivy Compton-Burnett confessed in old age that she no longer read Jane Austen because she knew her novels so well from frequent reading that they no longer held her attention. I can’t imagine ever saying such a thing about The Way We Live Now.

    So when Heather Graham, the star of Recent Tragic Events, announced in her best party-girl voice that The Way We Live Now was her favorite novel, I giggled to myself. That wasn’t the most unlikely-sounding thing about Recent Tragic Events, but it definitely ranked in the top ten. I’m not saying that leggy young blondes can’t appreciate Trollope. Stranger things have happened…just not to me.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, October 2, 2003 | Permanent link
Wednesday, October 1, 2003
    Fortune cookie

    This is the inaugural installment of a recurring feature by OGIC that, like Terry's "Almanac," will provide profound or funny or otherwise arresting words—something I'd like to find in my next fortune cookie. Or, who knows, maybe something I have found in a fortune cookie. It will appear not daily, but as frequently or infrequently as fortune sees fit.

    "On the way back to Tourves we drive past it again, Mont Sainte-Victoire. It looks bald, formidable, remote. It looks like it would kill you if you tried to paint it."

    Robert Cohen, Slate "Diary"

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 1, 2003 | Permanent link
    Slouching towards freedom

    Felix Salmon has posted some provocative thoughts about blog timeliness, custom-tailored for "About Last Night":

    One of the greatest things about blogs in general is that they're much more personal than, say, the Wall Street Journal. Updating a website shortly after midnight every day is not personal: it's mechanical. It also mitigates against the kind of impulsive postings which might not go down in internet history but which help to build community: the things which give your audience an idea of who you are and what makes you tick. "Ohmigod I just heard George Plimpton died," maybe followed by a personal anecdote, is not exactly newspaper material, but it's perfect for a weblog….

    So the upsides to publishing on an as-and-when basis are many: your site stats increase, your readers become more loyal (if only because they visit you more often), your blog becomes more blog-like and less like a daily newspaper column, and it also, when it wants or needs to, becomes more timely. What are the downsides? For you, I'd say the main one would be that blogging would become more of a full-time occupation. At the moment, you might be doing your regular job during the day and then settling down in the evenings to do the blog, maybe after having mulled a number of different possible topics in the back of your head over the course of the day. If you change posting habits then you might find yourself blogging during hours of the day in which you had intended to do something else.

    That said, no-one's going to mind if you don't update between the hours of nine and five, or if you do so only very occasionally. Do what works best for you, because that, I can guarantee you, is going to be what works best for your readers. I would only urge you not to sit on blog postings for hours after you've written them, just because you want to wait until a certain hour before you post. I simply cannot see why that does either your or your readers any favours at all.

    This hit me where I live. I spent a lot of time (three years, off and on) thinking about the nature of blogging before I decided to launch "About Last Night," and I worked out a lot of things in my head in advance of the first day’s postings. But blogging really is a new medium, with its own indigenous properties and natural laws, and after actually doing it for two months I’m only just beginning to grasp some of them. What Felix Salmon is saying may well be obvious to people who came to blogging first, as opposed to people with a long history of print-media journalism, with its deadline-driven timetables (to which I am a slave, as all of you who’ve been reading my recent postings will be all too aware). But it wasn’t obvious to me—at least not until my hard drive crashed and I found it impossible to keep to the kind of clockwork schedule I simply took for granted was as necessary on line as off.

    I think I may already have been starting to realize some of this on my own. I’d noticed, for example, that the traffic for this site is lowest in the mornings—the very time I took for granted that most people would read it, the way they do a newspaper. Instead, the numbers start to spike upward around one p.m. on the East Coast, and you can see them continue to climb as the lunch hour moves across the continent. Had I expected that? No. Did it change my posting habits? No. It took a computer-related disaster to jolt me out of my print-based routine, and even then I felt odd, almost guilty, because I wasn’t hitting at the same time every day.

    Old habits die hard, even when they’re ill-suited to new circumstances. I suspect this is especially true for middle-aged people who are stumbling into a brand-new conceptual world pioneered by younger folk. (As I remarked in this space a couple of weeks ago, advancing age brings wisdom and inflexibility in equal measure.) The trick is to see what’s under your nose, and what I seem to be seeing, thanks in part to Felix Salmon, is that the whole point of blogging is to do things your way, at your own pace, secure in the knowledge that the 24/7 nature of the medium will allow other people to do exactly the same thing.

    As it happens, I was talking about all this yesterday with Our Girl in Chicago, who is considerably younger than I am and thus has found it easier to adapt to the intrinsic nature of the medium. In addition, we’re both enjoying joint blogging very much (an idea I got from 2 Blowhards, by the way), and it occurred to us at roughly the same time that this is no coincidence. Two-headed blogs are not only easier to keep in motion, but the unpredictable alternation of the two voices makes for a serendipitous variety of tone and topic that I find appealing. Yet that, too, is something you won't find in newspapers and magazines, whose fixed periods of publication are antithetical to free conversational interplay.

    As I announced on Monday, "About Last Night" will be updated on what Felix Salmon calls an "as-and-when" basis for the duration of the current computer crisis. But I now suspect that is likely to become a permanent arrangement once my iBook is up and running. Once again—and not for the first time—what initially seemed like a major disaster has actually had the effect of dynamiting an arbitrary routine and making me rethink the way I do things.

    So here’s to the unforeseen…up to a point.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 1, 2003 | Permanent link
Tuesday, September 30, 2003
    Almanac

    "If one plays good music people don't listen, and if one plays bad music people don't talk."

    Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 30, 2003 | Permanent link
    Age of improvement

    In The Guardian, Philip Pullman laments the encroachment of overly mechanistic approaches on the teaching of writing to schoolchildren.

    Colby Cosh sympathizes. He is "a bit alarmed, though, that Pullman's memories of outstanding pedagogic moments have no relation to technique—only self-expression," and reminds us that "one never does master the truly imperative matters of technique: the art of the comma, the command of the cornucopial English vocabulary, the dreaded parts of speech." And knowing when the time is ripe to coin a smart new word!

    In fact, a quick trip to Webster's reveals the pre-coined "cornucopian," which sounds vaguely, um, zodiacal. And "cornucopious" would be redundant. Scoresheet says: Cosh 1, Webster 0, OGIC 0.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, September 30, 2003 | Permanent link
    Scratch one nightmare

    The techies just called. My iBook is repaired, with all data intact!

    Here's how busy I am: I have so many deadlines hitting in the next 48 hours that I probably won't have time to pick it up until tomorrow or the next day. (I have to sit here and write instead of going downtown to the computer hospital.) But at least I know it's fixed, with all data intact. Did I mention that I didn't lose any data?

    Please don't expect an instantaneous return to normal around these parts, but between Our Girl and me, we'll do our best to keep you panting for more.

    As I explained yesterday, it'll be a few days before I can start to check my blogmail again, but once I do, I'd be interested in knowing whether you prefer the old magazine-style package of early-morning posts or are equally happy with intermittent postings throughout the day, so long as they add up to a daily diet of comparable caloric value. Your thoughts?

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 30, 2003 | Permanent link
    Elsewhere

    This is the most haunting 9/11-related post I've run across. It's been lodged in my mind ever since I saw it on September 21. I meant to link to it right away, but forgot in the welter of pre-trip and hard-drive confusion. I remembered just now.

    I'll be thinking of it when I go to see Recent Tragic Events later tonight. Anyone who dares to make art about 9/11 has to make it at least as eloquent as these few plain-spoken lines.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 30, 2003 | Permanent link
    True confessions

    (1) It's been an open secret for several months now, but I'm one of the judges for this year's National Book Awards (I'm on the nonfiction panel). Our short list of nominees will be announced on October 7. We think we picked a very nice bunch of books.

    (2) No, I didn't have anything to do with Stephen King's lifetime achievement award. I found out about it the same way you did.

    (3) No, I don't have an opinion about the award, because I've never read anything by Stephen King (I don't much care for tales of horror). OGIC thinks you ought to have read at least some of his stuff before making up your mind about its quality (see below). I agree.

    Fair enough?

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 30, 2003 | Permanent link
    Saved by the cavalress

    I wrote until 7:44 this morning, then fell into bed for a quick nap before arising to polish the piece I'd written. Suddenly, I remembered the blog. What could I post about save my own exhaustion? But Our Girl in Chicago, God bless her, came riding in to save the day, or at least the morning. Thanks, friend. We'll try to get a mailbox set up for you as soon as possible (but until further notice, do what she says!).

    As for the Adventures of Me, well, I wrote 2,500 words last night and early this morning, and now I'm going to polish them, and after that I'm going to write my "Second City" column for this Sunday's Washingon Post, and then I'm going to go see Heather Graham in Recent Tragic Events at Playwrights Horizons, accompanied by a noted blogger, and then...I'm probably going to go to bed and get something like a full night's sleep. Maybe. In between these events I'll pick up my freshly repaired iBook (I hope!), and at some point or two or three I'll post a little something for your delectation. And I might have lunch. And tomorrow I'll do it all over again, except for the part about having written all night.

    In the meantime, scroll down if you haven't already and see what OGIC has to say. It's got to be better than anything I have to say right now.

    Now excuse me while I go edit some copy.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 30, 2003 | Permanent link
    Oops from OGIC

    I was mistaken when I said last week that you could email me at "ourgirlinchicago…." That email address is a mere flimsy fiction.

    However, I don't think Terry will mind if you write to me via his Arts Journal address—just make it easy on the poor guy and put "OGIC" in the subject line, would you?

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, September 30, 2003 | Permanent link
    Scaring up a little history

    Ever since the National Book Foundation announced that they would bestow their annual achievement award on Stephen King—and especially since Harold Bloom announced his ire about this—I've been plotting a response. Defenses of King have popped up in the meantime, for instance here and here. I couldn't tell whether this was a defense or not (the author plays both sides of the fence). None of them quite captured what is for me the essence of the case against Bloom.

    Tonight, however, I found the response that entirely discharges me of the need to write what I think, because it perfectly reflects what I think. Needless to say, it's excellent! At his blog Easily Distracted, Timothy Burke notes the obvious but under-remarked fact that Harold Bloom has read little of King's work, if any:

    The most important point is that…qualitative judgements are hard to make, not easy. They're the meat-and-potatoes business of literary criticism. They require a lot of laying of philosophical and intellectual foundations to make in general (which Bloom has done, though in ways I profoundly disagree with) but also a lot of labor in each and every specific case, which Bloom has not done.

    And he proceeds to the gist of the matter:

    The culture which matters most is not merely the culture that aesthetes praise as worthy, but the culture which indures, inspires, circulates, and is meaningful and memorable for many people, to the widest audiences. Sometimes that involves the adroit manipulation of archetypical themes and deep tropes of the popular culture of a particular time and place, and King does both of those things. I don’t know how he’ll be read a century from now, but I do know that in this time and place he not only tells a damn fine story (most of the time: even I would regard some of his work as hackwork) but manages to say some important things about consumerism, family, childhood, apocalyptic dread, obsession and many other resonant, powerful themes of his day and age.

    This is a vastly greater level of articulation than I had approached in my thinking about this, which had gotten only about as far as invoking two nineteenth-century giants, Scott and Dickens. I once contemplated writing a dissertation about the careers of Sir Walter Scott and Henry James, which pretty quickly proved impracticable though the contemplating was great fun (a sad truism about dissertations). I remember musing that if such a comparative study were to extend into the twentieth century, the most logical place for it to lead would be, full-circle-wise, to King, a hugely popular and prolific storyteller like the Author of Waverley, with frequent recourse to the supernatural and a bead on, as Burke notes above, the "resonant, powerful themes of his day and age."

    Scott was not consistently good and certainly is not regarded today with anything like the respect accorded the likes of James or George Eliot. But he thought up, and vividly put down, the stories that most captured the collective nineteenth-century imagination (and not just in England, either). He may be just the figure to shed some literary-historical light on King's achievement, whether you're inclined to understand it as artistic, commercial, or something in between.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, September 30, 2003 | Permanent link
Monday, September 29, 2003
    Almanac

    "Nothing is so poor and melancholy as an art that is interested in itself and not in its subject."

    George Santayana, The Life of Reason

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 29, 2003 | Permanent link
    Elsewhere

    I’m only just starting to catch up with my fellow bloggers. Here are some things that caught my eye.

    Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes shares two of my own pet peeves—and tells me something I didn’t know:

    What is it with galleries and price lists? Why are the prices of work on display a state secret? In New York the law dictates that galleries must have a list of the prices of the work on view available for anyone who comes into the gallery. (Yes, NYC galleries frequently ignore the law. I don't know what the law is in other states.) At one San Francisco gallery last week getting a list of works in the show (which included prices) was something that required a gallery staff meeting. Absurd. Can you imagine the same policy being in effect at Wal-Mart?…

    When the Hirshhorn started its "Gyroscope" hanging by just saying no to wall text, nearly every critic who wrote about the show (me included) was thrilled that the art was allowed to talk without curatorial trap-flapping. Sadly wall text has crept into the show: There is now a tedious biographical wall text about Giorgio Morandi in the previously brilliant Morandi gallery. God forbid anyone would just happily look at the paintings and then Google the artist when they get home.

    Megan McArdle (who blogs at Asymmetrical Information) wrote a provocative piece for Tech Central Station about what ought to be built—or not—at Ground Zero:

    If I were in charge of the site, I would make it a simple sheet of grass, with flat stones set into the earth to mark the outlines of the missing buildings. There would be no other memorial on the site but the shape of what was absent; if you must have a statue or some such, you can put it next to the site of 7 World Trade Center, which is already being rebuilt. But on the site itself, just a grassy space, with enough room for people to reconstruct the site in their imaginations if they wish—and enough room for those who don't so wish to sit on the grass and enjoy life's short moments in the sun….

    Are we "letting the Confederacy win" because there are no longer farms at Gettysburg? We don't have to show the South they haven't licked us by painstakingly reconstructing a reasonable facsimile of what was there before; we showed them that by winning the war. It is losers who have to put a good face on things and pretend that nothing has changed, because their puffed-up ego is all they have left. If we smash al-Qaeda, I don't think we need to be afraid to show the world that the loss of more than 3,000 innocent lives has caused us unutterable pain.

    And the indispensable Erin O’Connor of Critical Mass tells a few hard truths about her profession:

    I have often had occasion to say to students that the things that draw them to advanced literary study—a love of learning, a love of literature, a deep desire to share those loves with students through teaching—are not the things that drive most English professors, and have next to nothing to do with what they would be expected to do in graduate school and beyond. The student who enters grad school intent on becoming a traditional humanist is the student who will be labelled as hopelessly unsophisticated by her peers and her professors. She will also be labelled a conservative by default: she may vote democratic; may be pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, and anti-gun; may possess a palpably bleeding heart; but if she refuses to "politicize" her academic work, if she refuses to embrace the belief that ultimately everything she reads and writes is a political act before it is anything else, if she resists the pressure to throw an earnest belief in an aesthetic tradition and a desire to address the transhistorical "human questions" out the window in favor of partisan theorizing and thesis-driven advocacy work, then she is by default a political undesirable, and will be described by fellow students and faculty as a conservative. She will become untouchable, mockable, and literally unsupportable. She will have a hard time finding people to work with, a harder time getting good letters of recommendation, and may feel that she is being drummed out of the work she is called to do by people who are using that work for profoundly other, self-serving ends.

    What would we do without blogs?

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 29, 2003 | Permanent link
    Crossed digits

    The computer wizards say I should have my iBook back some time tomorrow. Alas, I'm so fraught with urgently pressing deadlines that it may take a full day before I have enough time to make the switch (and I haven't yet heard how much data was lost in the crash). But I'm hopeful.

    "About Last Night" will stay on the same as-it-happens posting routine for the remainder of the week. Our Girl in Chicago hasn't had a chance to return to the fray yet, but she should be back some time in the next 24 hours or so. I checked the site meter for last Friday and saw that traffic actually went up during her tenure! (Very slightly, yes, but up is up.) I'm glad you liked her. I sure do.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 29, 2003 | Permanent link
    Look, leap, listen

    Apropos of my most recent posting on Zankel Hall and its critics, I got this e-mail last week from Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker. I couldn't post it until now because of the black smoke coming out of the hard drive of my iBook:

    A friendly riposte re: Zankel. Is it fair to judge the acoustics on the basis of the preview concert alone? I'd be especially wary of measuring the hall's suitability for amplified music solely on the basis of the Kenny Barron Quintet's brief performance. Yes, their full show that weekend was noisy and unfocused. But Omar Sosa was another matter—cool, crisp sound. Perhaps Mr. Barron simply didn't have an adequate setup.

    I've Zankled nine times so far, and my perceptions keep changing. The subway noise, which annoyed me last week, is bothering me less. The acoustics are still weird, but I'm discovering that the aisle seats in the orchestra, where the critics are clumped, are among the worst. Best are the middle seats of the orchestra and the side seats in the balcony. The problem is that the stage lacks a good reflective shell behind it—"revenge of Merkin Hall," I heard one composer say—so the sound seems to gel only in certain places. A couple of butt-ugly buffers on the side might help. However, to judge from comments overheard, casual listeners are totally unperturbed by all these issues. They like the place. So do I.

    As for the multi-culti programming, I think you're overlooking the hall's usefulness as a filter for those who are baffled by the sheer superfluity of choices out there. BAM has long functioned in the same way—as a taste agent that people have grown to trust. The opening weekend worked because we trusted John Adams, the man responsible for the programming, and he put on a briliant tour of the musical horizon. The reliance on Nonesuch in the opening season is another canny use of the filter function. The crucial question is whether Zankel can maintain this level of interest, or whether it will devolve toward classical Dullsville.

    Looking back over my original postings, I don't think I was quite so categorical in my comments on the acoustics as Alex implies, but beyond that I think he is talking a good deal of sense. I have no doubt that everybody's perceptions of Zankel Hall will change over time and with further exposure—or, to put it another way, we'll all get used to the place, and come to see at least some of its characteristic features not as unpleasant surprises but as...well, characteristic features. This is even true of a phenomenon so seemingly "objective" as acoustics, and it'll be even truer as more artists perform with amplification, thereby creating a sonic track record for the managers to draw on.

    For what it's worth (though I can't name names), I recently had a chat with a jazz musician slated to perform in the hall later this season who came away from Brad Mehldau's concert feeling considerable anxiety about the acoustics—especially as they affect drummers. Time will tell, and it will also tell whether Zankel is able to establish itself as a center for consistently imaginative programming or will deteriorate into "classical Dullsville." I like Alex's point about halls serving as filters and trustworthy "taste agents" for the public—though of course that doesn't happen very often.

    In retrospect, I fear that I was writing too much as the jaded insider who's Heard It All. It's true that the people who book concert-hall performances in New York rarely surprise me anymore, but then it's my business to know what's going on. In any case, I'm obliged to Alex for reminding me of some things that seem to have slipped my mind in the usual rush to judgment. Blogging has a way of doing that to you, but it also makes it possible for you to think twice, and three and four times, in public. I hope I'll have thought a lot more times than that about Zankel Hall before I'm finally done.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 29, 2003 | Permanent link
    Thomas Crown, call your office

    I just got back from the press view of the Metropolitan Museum's El Greco retrospective, which opens next Tuesday and will be up through Jan. 11. It's the first major museum retrospective of El Greco's work in 20 years, and if I may be so bold as to use a word tarnished by excessive handling, it is awesome. At the same time, the scale of the show is unexpectedly reasonable: it contains 70 pieces, a surprisingly modest number for a blockbuster-type show, small enough that you can see the individual paintings rather than being steamrollered by them. The wall labels are informative and (mostly) unobtrusive, and to my amateur's eye the show was quite effectively hung.

    The curatorial emphasis is on El Greco's modernity (several of the labels contain miniature reproductions of El Greco-influenced paintings by Cézanne, Picasso, and Jackson Pollack), an approach which is at the same time obvious and appropriate. Even now, you can't help but be struck by the non-realistic distortions of El Greco's late devotional paintings, which all but quiver with a harrowing, desperate intensity that leaps across the intervening centuries to speak directly to those of us born in what W.H. Auden so famously called the Age of Anxiety. (I always think of El Greco in connection with Don Carlo Gesualdo, the Italian composer of Renaissance madrigals whose harmonic extremism similarly breathes the air of modern times.) Yet the show isn't locked into its own preconceptions: in fact, the gallery I liked best was devoted to secular portraits, including an exquisite cardboard miniature on loan from the Hispanic Society of America.

    It makes no sense to speak of "highlights." This retrospective is so rich that one comes away feeling as if all the museums of the world had been stripped of their very best El Grecos solely for the delectation of the connoisseurs of New York and London (where "El Greco" will travel next February). Still, I know which painting I would have stuck In the Bag had the guards been looking the other way. Two different versions of "The Adoration of the Name of Jesus" (catalogue nos. 22 and 23) hang side by side in the third gallery, one a medium-large oil on canvas whose festive colors and crowded composition put me in mind of Florine Stettheimer's designs for the first production of the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts. The other is a much smaller version of the same scene which El Greco may have painted in order to hang in his own studio. It's more immediate, more arresting, more concentrated. That one wins the blue ribbon, at least as far as I'm concerned. I mean to go back several times to look at it, though there are several other works with which I want to spend more time, including the three show-stopping icons displayed in vitrines in the first gallery (one of which will only be on display for the first six weeks of the exhibition, all the more reason to go early and often).

    What about crowds? Well, the press view was jammed, so I'm assuming that the public will be coming in droves, especially since you don't need a special ticket (your regular Met admission fee lets you in whenever the museum is open). But I wouldn't be altogether surprised if "El Greco" doesn't draw quite so many visitors as, say, the Met's Vermeer-and-friends exhibition of a few years ago, if only because El Greco is not, to put it mildly, an easy artist.

    I'll update you on the crowd situation once the show has been open for a few weeks. For the moment, I'd do my best to go on a weekday morning if at all possible. But even if you have to see it on a Sunday afternoon, make "El Greco" your very first priority. You won't find it comfortable, but you'll never forget it.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 29, 2003 | Permanent link
    Not even close to normal

    Boy, have things been complicated around here. As Our Girl in Chicago warned you on Friday, my hard drive crashed on Wednesday night, a few hours before I had to catch a plane to Raleigh to spend a long weekend looking at Carolina Ballet (about which much more later). My poor iBook is now in the hands of somebody competent, and I am now back in New York, blogging on a verrrry sloooow borrowed PowerBook and attempting to catch up with several tons of accumulated e-mail.

    Given the technical difficulties likely to prevail around here for at least a few more days, not to mention the fact that I have four pieces due between now and Friday, all of which must be written on my verrrry sloooow borrowed PowerBook, there'll be some changes made in "About Last Night." To wit:

    For the rest of the week, I'll be posting entries not in my usual exqusitely well-organized magazine-type style (i.e., five or six items posted shortly after midnight), but whenever I can grab a few spare minutes to write and publish something on the fly.

    During that time, Our Girl in Chicago, without whom Thursday and Friday simply wouldn't have happened, will chime in whenever the spirit moves her, in addition to doing all of Friday's postings. (She's way cool, isn't she?)

    Now for some housekeeping details, aimed mainly but not exclusively at those readers who know me personally:

    (1) For the moment, I don't have access to my address files, meaning e-mail and snail mail. If you are someone with whom I communicate regularly via e-mail, please send me a quick note (not through the blog, please) so that I will have your address. (And don't assume that I have your telephone number, either!)

    (2) Like I said, this computer is sloooow, so I won't be making any serious attempt to answer my blogmail until next week, if then. Sorry.

    Thanks very much for your patience during the continuing crisis. I'll do my best to make sure "About Last Night" remains readable throughout the week. Among other things, I'll be reporting to you on the latest from Carolina Ballet as soon as I get my feet back on the ground, plus a running account of my adventures in playgoing (I've got two shows on tap for this week), a sneak peak at the Metropolitan Museum's El Greco retrospective, and pretty much whatever else I can knock out in between deadlines.

    As for the witty and beautiful Our Girl in Chicago, allow me to quote from one of the 200-odd e-mails that awaited me on my return from North Carolina:

    great move re chicago girl. doesn't matter who it is. just the notion that some r. crumb-like wonderwoman in a mini is pounding out arts criticism from chi while llistening to san-fran rock is enough to keep 'em coming.

    Heh heh heh.

    Catch you later today.

    P.S. Send me an e-mail ASAP, Our Girl. I don't even have your address!

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 29, 2003 | Permanent link
    In the bag (believe it or not!)

    Hard drive or no hard drive, it's time again for "In the Bag," the game that challenges you to admit what you like, as opposed to what you'd like other people to think you like.

    The rules: you can put any five works of art into your bag before departing for a desert island, but you have to decide right this second. No dithering: the body snatchers are banging on your front door. No posturing: you have to say the first five things that pop into your head, no matter how embarrassing they may sound. What do you stuff in the bag?

    Here are my picks, as of this second:

    BOOK: David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

    SCULPTURE: Constantin Brancusi, Portrait of Nancy Cunard (Sophisticated Young Lady)

    POP ALBUM: Liz Phair, Whip-Smart

    PLAY: Noël Coward, Present Laughter

    STANDARD: Rodgers and Hart, Glad to Be Unhappy (as sung by Wesla Whitfield)

    How about you?

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 29, 2003 | Permanent link

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