Georges Simenon, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien (trans. Linda Coverdale)
I turned sixty on Saturday. Mrs. T and I didn’t throw a party, though. That might have been fun, but we were staying at Florida’s Biltmore Hotel, which is surely enough of a celebration for any reasonable person, and we don’t know anybody who lives in Coral Gables.
Instead of having a couple of dozen friends over to mark the occasion, I spent the morning reading “Calvin and Hobbes” strips,, my latest enthusiasm. Then we went downstairs, ate a late and leisurely brunch consisting mainly of fresher-than-fresh fruit, and sat in the sun by the Biltmore’s famous pool, where I heard a bossa-nova cover version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” that made me giggle, though I actually rather liked it. Except for taking a single theater-related phone call at poolside, I did no work of any kind. In the evening we had a very nice dinner at Fontana, and that was that.
Turning sixty, I’m told, is a big deal. I can’t say that it feels especially big, though, nor do I feel nearly as old as I am, save on the too-frequent occasions when I have trouble pulling a name out of my hat. (I’ve reached the time of life when I forget the names of old friends who are standing next to me, waiting patiently to be introduced to new ones.) George Bernard Shaw said it: “Any fool can be 60 if he lives long enough.”
It was a much bigger deal when I turned fifty. Not only had I come perilously close to dying just two months earlier, but I met the woman who became Mrs. T right around the same time. Everything that has happened to me since then is an outgrowth of those two encounters, the first with the imminent prospect of death and the second with the possibility of the more abundant life that I am now privileged to live for as long as it lasts.
How should I spend whatever is left of it? Cardinal Newman warns us to “use well the interval,” the unknown amount of time that separates every man from his inescapable appointment with the Distinguished Thing. In an attempt to take stock, I looked up what I wrote in this space on my fiftieth birthday, and found these words:
So what do I do next? Like many people, my life has been a series of goals, a things-to-do list, and at fifty I now find myself in the position, at once pleasing and disconcerting, of having accomplished most of them. As for the things I haven’t yet done, nearly all of them are things I’m no longer likely to do, assuming I ever was: I doubt, for instance, that I’ll learn a second language or write a novel or become a father. I could spend the rest of my life running in place, and I suppose that would be perfectly fine. Except that I know it wouldn’t. The time will come, if it hasn’t already, when I’ll want to try my hand at something new—and I haven’t the slightest idea what it might be.
Well, I didn’t learn a second language or write a novel or become a father, but I did do plenty of other unexpected things, the most surprising of which was that I started writing for the stage. Indeed, Dramatists Play Service, the publishers of Satchmo at the Waldorf, informed me last month that my first play is now tied for tenth place on its its Top Professional Licenses list. Satchmo, in other words, has become something of a hit.
As for meeting and marrying Mrs. T, I can’t begin to tell you what that has meant to me, so I won’t even try. Suffice it to say that I wouldn’t have dared to write Satchmo, much less The Letter, without the continuing inspiration of her presence. She is everything to me.
So…what do I do next?
Regular readers of this blog know the obvious answer to that question: I’ll be making my professional directing debut in May with Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production of Satchmo at the Waldorf. That’s a pretty unusual thing for a sixty-year-old man to do, and I can’t wait to plunge head first into the next chapter of my brand-new part-time career.
Right now, though, I’m more than content to sit in the sunshine, hit my deadlines, and think about how I want Satchmo to look and sound on stage when May 13 rolls around. Beyond that, I have no plans, and for the moment I don’t really feel that I need any. I suppose I could spend the rest of my life running in place, but I’m pretty sure I won’t. And if such should prove to be my fate, then at least I’ll be running in tandem—which is, after all, what matters most.
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The last scene of The Candidate, a 1972 film directed by Michael Ritchie, written by Jeremy Larner, and starring Robert Redford, Peter Boyle, and Melvyn Douglas:
Jimmy Durante sings “September Song” on The Jimmy Durante Show. The song is from the score of Knickerbocker Holiday, by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill. This episode was originally telecast on July 9, 1955:
(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)
“Memory is a great artist, we are told; she selects and rejects and shapes and so on. No doubt. Elderly persons would be utterly intolerable if they remembered everything. Everything, nevertheless, is just what they themselves would like to remember, and just what they would like to tell to everybody.”
Max Beerbohm, “No. 2, The Pines” (courtesy of Levi Stahl)
In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I review a show in Sarasota, Florida, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s revival of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
I also take note of the off-Broadway remount of Bedlam’s 2014 stage version of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, which I called “by far the smartest Jane Austen adaptation to come along since Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, and at least as much fun,” when I originally reviewed it in the Journal.
Here’s an excerpt.
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August Wilson’s ten “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays, in which he chronicled the black experience in America, haven’t been done nearly often enough in New York since his death in 2005. Only three of them have ever been revived on Broadway. Fortunately, they long ago became staple items in the repertories of America’s regional theaters, and I seek them out whenever I’m on the road. That’s what brought me back to Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, a Florida company that performs black-themed musicals and plays for a largely white audience (Sarasota County, its home base, is only 4% black). I liked what Westcoast Black did with Charles Smith’s “Knock Me a Kiss” last January, and I’m even more impressed by its version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Wilson’s 1984 history play about a real-life blues singer of the Twenties (played by Tarra Conner Jones) who outlived her popularity. This small-scale staging, directed by Chuck Smith and performed in the company’s black-box theater, is one of the best-acted Wilson revivals I’ve seen in recent seasons, and the acting gains in impact from being viewed in so compact a space….
Not much seems to happen in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” until the end of the evening. Rainey and her band (Robert Douglas, Kenny Dozier, Patric Robinson and Henri Watkins) come to a dingy recording studio in Chicago to cut a few tunes. The musicians arrive early, sit around the rehearsal room, swap stories and share a joint. At length Rainey and her entourage show up. After a snarling who’s-in-charge-here skirmish with her manager (Stephen Emery) and the producer of the session (Terry Wells), both of whom are white, Rainey finally gets down to business, makes the records and stalks out. That’s when the bomb goes off…
You can’t write a play in this way without a preternaturally keen ear, and Wilson’s ability to quarry glittering nuggets of folk poetry out of the everyday speech of common men (“Levee would complain if a gal ain’t laid across his bed just right”) remains unrivaled. But you can’t stage such a play effectively without actors who can deliver the dialogue in a completely spontaneous-sounding way—and a director who knows how to weld them together into a true ensemble. In this production, Mr. Smith and his cast have hit the high C of absolute authenticity….
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To read my review of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, go here.
To read my original review of Sense & Sensibility, go here.
Ma Rainey’s 1927 Paramount recording of “‘Ma’ Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The session that produced this 78 side is portrayed in August Wilson’s play:
“When everything’s working right, you become transfixed by the notes and chords and the beautiful spaces in between. In the center of it, with the drums, bass and guitar all around you, the earth falls away and it’s just you and your crew creating this forward motion, this undeniable, magical stuff that can move ten thousand people to snap free of life’s miseries and get up and dance and scream and feel just fine.”
Donald Fagen, Eminent Hipsters
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.
• An American in Paris (musical, G, too complex for small children, reviewed here)
• The Color Purple (musical, PG-13, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Fun Home (serious musical, PG-13, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Hamilton (musical, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• The King and I (musical, G, perfect for children with well-developed attention spans, reviewed here)
• Matilda (musical, G, reviewed here)
• Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, closes Sept. 4, reviewed here)
• Noises Off (farce, PG-13, many performances sold out last week, closes March 6, reviewed here)
• On Your Feet! (jukebox musical, G, reviewed here)
• The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
• The Flick (serious comedy, PG-13, too long for young people with limited attention spans, reviewed here)
Bob Elliott, who died yesterday at the age of ninety-two, was the longer-lived member of Bob & Ray, a much-loved comedy team whose subtle, at times near-surrealistic routines were developed for radio and never sounded quite right anywhere else. Alas, they first won fame (of a sort) in the waning days of network radio, and so they spent the rest of their lives as fish out of water, never quite connecting with the public at large but attracting a small but intensely loyal cadre of passionate fans, myself very much among them, who loved their oddly tilted brand of humor.
In 1970 they cheated obscurity by putting together a warmly reviewed two-man show called The Two and Only that ran for five months on Broadway and was, thank God, recorded in its entirety. The time-and-place line in the program was utterly characteristic of their sense of humor: “The setting is quite cluttered. Time: the following Tuesday.”
Whitney Balliett wrote beautifully about them in The New Yorker three years later:
Bob & Ray invented, dreamed up the lines for, and then played, mainly on radio and television, a surrealistic Dickensian repertory company, which chastens the fools of the world with hyperbole, slapstick, parody, verbal nonsense, non sequitur, and sheer wit, all of it clean, subtle and gentle…Bob & Ray’s humor turns on their faultless timing and on their infinite sense of the ridiculous. It is also framed by that special sly, dry, wasteless vision of life perfected during the last couple of centuries by middle-class New Englanders.
Ray died in 1990, but Bob soldiered on, co-starring with Chris Elliott, his son, in the short-lived but fondly remembered sitcom Get a Life and doing, as was his wont, this and that. He was one of the last remaining ties to the long-gone golden age of network radio. I will miss him very much.
UPDATE: A friend writes to pass on his favorite Bob & Ray line. It, too, is wonderfully characteristic: “You’re not trying to slip the old rubber peach to a gullible kid, are you, Mr. Science?”
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Bob & Ray perform two of their routines, “Most Beautiful Face Contest Winner” and “Four Leaf Clover Winner,” on TV:
Bob & Ray appear on Late Night with David Letterman