Amy Herzog’s second coming

In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I report on the first installment of the Amy Herzog Festival currently being presented by Baltimore’s Center Stage, a revival of After the Revolution. Here’s an excerpt.

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amyherzog960x585_header.jpg__960x480_q85_crop_upscaleWhat does a young playwright have to do in order to be thought important? At 36, Amy Herzog appears to be well on her way to filling the bill. Though she has yet to make it to Broadway or win a Pulitzer, Herzog has written four plays that have been produced in New York and are currently being performed from coast to coast. Now Baltimore’s Center Stage, one of America’s leading regional companies, is mounting an “Amy Herzog Festival” in which her most successful plays, “After the Revolution” and “4000 Miles,” will be presented in repertory in productions directed by Lila Neugebauer. It’s the first time that the two plays, which share a central character and a common theme, have been done together.

Such an occasion is a clear sign of potential top-tier stature—and “After the Revolution,” the 2010 play that initially brought Ms. Herzog wider attention, is worthy of the treatment that Center Stage is giving it. Of all the new plays that I’ve reviewed in this space, “After the Revolution” is one of the half-dozen that impressed me most on first viewing, and it’s just as good the second time around.

Life is forever handing juicy plots to writers, but what they do with them is something else again. Ms. Herzog found out in 1999 that Julius Joseph, her father’s stepfather, had been a Soviet spy during World War II. (His code name was “Cautious.”) What she did with that knowledge was spin it into a play about a fictional “red-diaper” family whose senior members all have long-standing ties to the Communist Party. Emma Joseph (Ashton Heyl), the central character, is a priggish young political activist who is stunned by the revelation that Joe Joseph, her late grandfather, who lost his job in the ‘50s because of his party membership and became a progressive martyr, spied for the Russians and lied to Congress about it. Worse yet, the rest of her family, including Vera (Lois Markle), Emma’s beloved grandmother, knew all along—and lied to her about it…..

What is most striking about “After the Revolution” is that Ms. Herzog has dissected the follies of the Josephs not with splenetic outrage but with cool, crisp detachment. Her dialogue glitters with the knowing wit of a sharp-eyed observer familiar with all the ins and outs of the cozy milieu about which she writes. And while no one gets off easy, least of all the chokingly earnest Emma, Ms. Herzog makes us laugh at her characters instead of stooping to preachiness—which adds to the climactic force with which she finds them all, Emma included, guilty of complacency in the first degree.

Ms. Neugebauer, who directed the Signature Theatre Company’s excellent 2014 revival of A.R. Gurney’s “The Wayside Motor Inn,” has staged “After the Revolution” with identical skill. Under her sensitive guidance, Center Stage’s first-rate cast appears to be not an ensemble but a flesh-and-blood family whose members are joined at the hip by love and frustration—and anger….

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Read the whole thing here.

Scenes from Playwrights Horizon’s 2010 New York premiere of After the Revolution:

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Broadway’s forgotten jazzman

Today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column is about Cy Coleman, one of my favorite songwriters. Here’s an excerpt.

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Long after their passing, many of the key figures of the bygone era now known as the Golden Age of American Popular Song are still widely known by name—many, but not all. When you think of “I Got Rhythm,” you think of George Gershwin, but when you think of “Witchcraft,” you think of Frank Sinatra, whose finger-snapping 1957 record of that hipper-than-thou tune is featured on the soundtrack of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Yet Cy Coleman, who penned the music to “Witchcraft,” “Big Spender” and numerous other blue-chip standards, was one of the most consistently and deservedly successful songwriters of the postwar era. Between 1960 and his death in 2004, he wrote the scores for 11 musicals that made it to Broadway, where he worked with Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Bob Fosse, Neil Simon and Gwen Verdon. Most of these shows had long, lucrative runs, and one, “On the Twentieth Century,” has just hit big in its first Broadway revival.

By all rights, then, Coleman ought to be as well remembered as Gershwin or Richard Rodgers. So why is his name little known save to connoisseurs of Broadway musicals and popular song? How could so excellent an artist have fallen into the memory hole?…

Born in New York in 1929, Coleman was a musical prodigy who underwent rigorous classical training but shrugged it off to play piano in high-end hotel lounges and supper clubs. He was, in fact, the only golden-age songwriter to have started out as a full-time jazz instrumentalist, an experience that shaped his composing style. “Witchcraft” is one of many tunes by Coleman that are built out of the short, swinging rhythmic phrases that jazzmen call “riffs,” and he also employed the complex harmonies of modern jazz….

10408555_10153242545047193_1080456165539913500_nThen as now, jazziness signified cultural sophistication, and most of Coleman’s hits featured the like-minded lyrics of Carolyn Leigh, who in “Witchcraft,” “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “I Walk a Little Faster” and “I’ve Got Your Number” wrote eloquently of the ins, outs, ups and downs of big-city romance: “Oh, yes, you’ll brag a lot,/Wave your own flag a lot,/But you’re unsure a lot,/You’re a lot like me.” Coleman’s heavily syncopated tunes fit her sexy sentiments like a bespoke sharkskin suit….

Coleman’s musical sophistication made it possible for him to jump from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway, where he proved equally adept at writing theatrical songs that propel the plot of a musical instead of telling self-contained stories. He made the switch just in time, a few years before rock shoved aside golden-age pop to become the lingua franca of American popular music. Though Coleman did all he could to come to terms with the new music, he neither liked nor understood it….

Broadway, which also had no use for rock, kept Coleman afloat and made him rich—but at a high price. He increasingly turned away from jazz, opting instead to become a stylistic chameleon…

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Read the whole thing here.

The first episode of Playboy’s Penthouse, a 1959 TV variety series hosted by Hugh Hefner. Cy Coleman, the first guest, sings and plays “Witchcraft,” accompanied by Charlie Shavers on trumpet:

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So you want to see a show?

Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, nearly all performances sold out, reviewed here)
It’s Only a Play (comedy, PG-13/R, closes June 7, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, most performances sold out, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)
7.208146On the Twentieth Century (musical, G/PG-13, all performances sold out, closes July 5, contains very mild sexual content, reviewed here)

The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, closes May 3, reviewed here)
Hamilton (historical musical, PG-13, closes May 3, moves to Broadway Aug. 6, reviewed here)

Both Your Houses (political satire, G/PG-13, closes Apr. 12, reviewed here)
The Matchmaker (romantic farce, G, closes Apr. 11, reviewed here)

Lives of the Saints (six one-act comedies, PG-13/R, reviewed here)

Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)

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Philip Glass half-full

UnknownMy monthly essay for Commentary, this one for the April issue, is now available on line. It’s occasioned by the publication of Words Without Music, Philip Glass’ autobiography:

For all its manifold beauties, the classical music of the 20th century has yet to become popular in America. One sign of its failure to make a deeper mark on our culture is that except for Aaron Copland, the only American classical composer whose name is reasonably well known outside musical circles is Philip Glass. His deliberately repetitive compositional style is familiar enough to have been parodied on The Simpsons and South Park. In this sense, the doyen of musical minimalism is to classical music what Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol are to the visual arts: He is the one American composer about whom it is possible to make a joke in the expectation that educated people who are not musicians will get it.

Yet despite his own cultural ubiquity, Glass’s pieces are not all that widely performed in this country. While his stage works have been produced by the Metropolitan Opera and other major houses, his instrumental music has yet to be taken up other than sporadically by any world-class soloist, conductor, or ensemble. It is no secret that virtuoso performers loathe his music, which they regard as monotonous and devoid of interpretative challenges. As a result, it is mostly known from the performances and recordings of modern-music specialists and his own Philip Glass Ensemble, as well as from its use in such films as The Thin Blue Line and The Truman Show.

But whatever the long-term prospects for Glass’s music may be, no one now doubts its historic significance. One reason musical modernism finally collapsed under its own weight in the 1970s was that Glass and his like-minded contemporaries refused to kowtow to the anti-tonal regime of the postwar avant-garde musical monopoly. As a result, there is no longer a “mainstream” classical-music style. Instead, all compositional styles—including the minimalism of Glass, John Adams, and Steve Reich—are deemed equally acceptable.

At 78, Glass has come of late to be seen as something of an elder statesman of American music. It stands to reason that so august and consequential a figure should finally have gotten around to writing his memoirs. What is more, Words Without Music: A Memoir is an engaging, even charming book, one of the most readable autobiographies ever written by a classical composer. And no matter what you think of its author’s music, the story that he tells therein will be of much interest to anyone who wants to know how the dogmatic modernism of the ’50s and ’60s gave way to the antinomian postmodernism of the ’70s and after—though whether or not the book converts any of its skeptical readers to the Gospel According to Philip Glass is another matter entirely….

Read the whole thing here.

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Snapshot: Van Cliburn plays Schumann-Liszt

TV CAMERAVan Cliburn plays Franz Liszt’s transcription for piano of Schumann’s “Widmung” at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition:

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

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Almanac: Anthony Burgess on music and morality

INK BOTTLE“Music is a purer art because it has no direct relationship to human events. It’s totally outside the field of moral judgment. That’s why I prize it.”

Anthony Burgess (quoted in the New York Times, Nov. 26, 1993)

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The sloth aquatic

dddI scarcely ever see movies when they’re new—my day job keeps me too busy—and so I only just caught up last night with Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which I thought as poignant and exquisitely wrought as the music by Benjamin Britten that is used to such miraculously apposite effect on the soundtrack of the film.

Since I don’t have the time or energy to expound at length on Moonrise Kingdom, I thought I’d instead reprint the only thing I’ve ever written about Anderson, my 2005 Crisis review of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It is, I think, to the point, albeit a bit obliquely so.

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Wes Anderson’s latest film, like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums before it, is both distractingly quirky and more than a little bit precious, but beneath its clever-clever surface you’ll find real intelligence—and real feeling. It is, in fact, a deeply serious film disguised as a parody, though I can’t see how anyone but a critic could fail to get the point. The most immediate and unlikely object of Anderson’s satire is, of all people, Jacques Cousteau. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a middle-aged oceanographer-filmmaker-celebrity for whom the living is no longer easy. His increasingly dull documentaries have fallen from favor with moviegoers, and Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon), his slightly crooked producer, is unable to raise the money for him to make another. Worse yet, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), Zissou’s wealthy, blasé wife, is on the verge of leaving him for his hated rival Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). His once-settled life, in short, is on the verge of unraveling. Then Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a clean-cut young airline pilot, shows up without warning on his doorstep, claiming to be his long-lost illegitimate son, with Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a pregnant British journalist whose mission is to expose Zissou as an over-the-hill hack, arriving on the very next boat….

In addition to this scrambled gumbo of deliberately familiar plot devices, Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming) have upped the satirical ante yet another notch by casting The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou as something closely resembling a Spinal Tap-style “mockumentary,” albeit with a twist: Zissou and the crew of his ship, the Belafonte, are themselves in the process of making a movie about their daily lives. Hence The Life Aquatic is a doubly self-reflexive exercise in postmodernism, a real film about a nonexistent one.

Regular readers of this column don’t need to be reminded that I loathe postmodernism. The difference is that Anderson has here enlisted postmodern irony in the service of underscoring a quintessentially postmodern problem: the way in which postmodern man uses irony to insulate himself from feeling. As we learn in the course of The Life Aquatic, Zissou was once an idealistic young man who loved the sea for its own sake; then he chose to use it as a means to fame and fortune, and his love curdled and grew sour. By trading cynically on his youthful passion, Zissou has lost touch with his inner life. Not only does he now make voyages solely in order to film them, but he lives for the same reason: Everything he does is fodder for his movies. Hence the boredom bordering on paralysis that has him in its grip, which is, as any proper theologian will instantly recognize, a classic symptom of accidie, the deadly sin of spiritual sloth.

hero_EB20041223REVIEWS41201010ARIt makes perfect sense that Anderson has chosen Bill Murray to play Zissou. Though his acting is narrowly limited in range, Murray is a kind of comic genius when it comes to embodying accidie on screen. Twice before, in Groundhog Day and Lost in Translation, he has played terminally disillusioned characters whose souls are deadened by sloth, and done it brilliantly. He does the same thing—no less brilliantly—in The Life Aquatic, playing a contemporary cynic whose feelings are so thickly encased in a shell of irony that it’s depressing just to look at him. Everyone else in The Life Aquatic is cunningly cast (especially the amazing Cate Blanchett, that best of all possible actress-chameleons), but it’s Murray’s performance that is the film’s moral center. Is he too deeply mired in sloth to be resurrected by the prospect of love? Though we laugh at his deliciously exaggerated ennui, we still want to know the answer—and hope against hope that it’s the right one.

Part of what makes The Life Aquatic so interesting is that it, too, embodies in a larger way the problem faced by Zissou, whose dark night of the soul is so carefully wrapped in multiple layers of irony and whimsy that you catch yourself wondering whether Anderson might suffer from a touch of the same spiritual disorder as does his character. The virtuosity with which Anderson spoofs so many different varieties of cinematic triteness is marvelous to behold, but it’s also a way of avoiding the need to be unequivocal about the spiritual point he so clearly wishes to make. Yet for all its slippery indirection, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissoustill manages to get its point across, not only subtly but with a smile. I’ll take postmodern subtlety over political point-making any day of the week.

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The theatrical trailers for Moonrise Kingdom and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou:

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Lookback: on taking time off

LOOKBACKFrom 2005:

An old friend of mine used to take every Friday night off without fail. He’d come home from work, retire to his study, eat dinner from a tray, and spend the whole evening listening to his huge, meticulously organized collection of 78s, through which he worked his way in strict alphabetical order every few years. No matter what else was happening in the world, however dire it might be (or seem to be), he shut the shop down one night a week and disappeared from the world. I spent many Friday nights with him in the last two years of his life, and I enjoyed them not only because he was a great listener, but also because spending the evening with him prevented me from spending it in an aisle seat or a noisy nightclub, or at my desk….

Read the whole thing here.

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