(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)
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So you’re looking for a good time? Look no more: The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “On the Twentieth Century” is the best musical to hit Broadway since “On the Town.” Staged with hurtling éclat by Scott Ellis and featuring a jaw-droppingly virtuosic performance by the amazing Kristin Chenoweth, it’s a fluffy exercise in high-octaane pleasure, blessedly devoid of deep thought and certain to satisfy anyone not congenitally po-faced.
Originally produced in 1978, “On the Twentieth Century” is a musical version of the same stage play that Howard Hawks turned into the classic 1934 screwball comedy in which John Barrymore and Carole Lombard played a monstrously vain director (played here by Peter Gallagher) and the equally egomaniacal ex-protégée (Ms. Chenoweth) whom he is desperately seeking to sign for his next show. “Twentieth Century” didn’t and doesn’t need improving, but if you’re going to write a commodity musical, this is the way to do it: “On the Twentieth Century” sports a book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and a score by Cy Coleman, which is as close as it gets to a money-back guarantee of professionalism.
Coleman’s score is a knowing pastiche of old-fashioned over-the-top operetta, and Ms. Chenoweth, a full-fledged musical-comedy singer who also has rock-solid operatic chops up to and including a gleaming high C, was born to sing it. On top of all that, she’s a stage comedienne so accomplished that she can make you laugh without singing a note. It’s as if Beverly Sills and Carol Burnett were the same person….
“The Heidi Chronicles,” the 1988 play in which Wendy Wasserstein asked whether a woman can have it all, won it all. Not only did it run for 622 performances on Broadway, but it nailed the trifecta, scooping up the Pulitzer Prize, the best-play Tony, and the New York Drama Critics Circle’s best-play award. Very often, though, that kind of clean-sweep consensus says more about the timeliness of a work of art than about its actual merits. I was struck by how poorly “The Heidi Chronicles” had aged when I saw the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s excellent 2006 production, and the new Broadway revival, directed by Pam MacKinnon and starring Elisabeth Moss, soon to be formerly of “Mad Men,” fails to make a compelling case for taking Wasserstein’s best-remembered play any more seriously today.
Now as then, “The Heidi Chronicles” is a sentimental exercise in punch-pulling that purports to take a tough-minded look at feminism and its discontents but never cuts close to the knuckle of genuine self-doubt. Ms. Moss plays the title character, an art historian born to Ivy League comfort who opts after modest, tenure-cushioned travail for single motherhood over unhappy romance. As did her creator, Heidi lives in a cultural cocoon that insulates her and her like-minded friends—she has no other kind—from the awkward necessity of considering the possibility that they might be wrong about…well, anything. Unlike true satirists, who rock the boat of complacency vigorously and heedlessly, Wasserstein settled for the safe teasing of the uneasy insider who flirts with heterodoxy (“’New Haven’ means ‘Yale’ in Eastern egalitarian circles”) but in the end wouldn’t dream of saying anything really hurtful about the objects of her glib, sitcommy spoofery….
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To read my complete review of On the Twentieth Century, go here.
To read my complete review of The Heidi Chronicles, go here.
Kristin Chenoweth in a scene from the Broadway revival of On the Twentieth Century:
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, nearly all perforamnces sold out, reviewed here)
• Les Misérables (musical, G, 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)
• The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
• Hamilton (historical musical, PG-13, closes May 3, moves to Broadway Aug. 6, reviewed here)
“Lots of writers have to have whole days or nights to get ready to write; they like to be by a fire, with absolute quiet, with their slippers on and a pipe or something, and then they’re ready to go. They can’t believe you can use five minutes here, ten minutes there, fifteen minutes at another time. Yet it’s only a question of training to learn that trick. If they had to do it that way, they’d be able to—the real writers, that is. I can pick up in the middle of a sentence and then go on. I wrote at night; sometimes I wrote at the office and then practiced law at home. My wife and I never went away on weekends. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone else try this method, but it worked for me.”
Louis Auchincloss, Paris Review interview (Fall 1994)
One advantage of middle age (yes, it has them) is that you’re still young enough to embrace new technologies, but old enough not to take them for granted. That’s how I feel about my iPod Classic, a replacement for the original iPod that I bought in 2004, three years after the device went on the market. Of all the shiny new gadgets that have entered my life during the past quarter-century, it is the one that has given me the most pleasure.
When I went off to college forty-one years ago, I carted along my record collection, crammed into a four-foot-long metal traveling case that my father built for me in his basement workshop. My iPod now contains many times more music than did that cumbersome box, all of it packed neatly onto a hard drive small enough to slip into my shirt pocket. At present it holds 5,372 “songs” ranging in length from Ned Rorem’s “O You Whom I Often and Silently Come” (twenty-seven seconds) to Willem Mengelberg’s 1928 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the Concertgebouw Orchestra (forty-four minutes). In between can be found examples of every possible kind of music: Bach and the Bad Plus, Fred Astaire and T-Bone Walker, Hank Williams and the Dixieaires, Steely Dan and Lana Del Rey.
Thanks to my iPod, I carry the whole history of music with me wherever I go, and can listen to any part of it whenever I choose. If I wish, I can push a button and hear Sergei Rachmaninoff playing his Paganini Rhapsody, or listen to a 1908 performance of “Unto Brigg Fair” by Joseph Taylor, the English folksinger from whom Percy Grainger collected that song three years earlier. Having launched my writing career on a manual typewriter, I continue to find no difficulty whatsover in marveling at the mere existence of the ingenious little device that allows me to do so.
The ubiquity of recorded music has been much lamented by any number of wise men. I understand and appreciate their reservations, which Benjamin Britten summed up eloquently in 1964:
One must face the fact today that the vast majority of musical performances take place as far away from the original as it is possible to imagine: I do not mean simply Falstaff being given in Tokyo, or the Mozart Requiem in Madras. I mean of course that such works can be audible in any corner of the globe, at any moment of the day or night, through a loudspeaker, without question of suitability or comprehensibility. Anyone, anywhere, at any time, can listen to the B minor Mass upon one condition only—that they possess a machine. No qualification is required of any sort—faith, virtue, education, experience, age. Music is now free for all. If I say the loudspeaker is the principal enemy of music, I don’t mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study, or as an evoker of memories. But it is not part of true musical experience. Regarded as such it is simply a substitute, and dangerous because deluding. Music demands more from a listener than simply the possessions of a tape-machine or a transistor radio. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the program perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts. It demands as much effort on the listener’s part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener.
In truth, I think Britten was mostly right. Among other unfortunate things, the ubiquity of recorded music has largely killed off the amateur back-porch music-making that was one of the joys of my youth. But that was well on the way to happening long before the invention of the laptop computer and its offshoots. And if we are more passive listeners today, then we also have access to an infinitely wider and more varied range of listening possibilities than we did when I was young.
In any case, it doesn’t really matter whether he was right: the deed is done, and only a self-consciously curmudgeonly fool would bemoan the results. To borrow a line from V.S. Naipaul, the world is what it is. Far better, then, to seize what it offers and make the most of it—and that, for me, includes the iPod. Two days ago I downloaded a recording of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet that was made by Shostakovich and the Beethoven Quartet in Moscow in 1940, one month after they gave the premiere of that masterpiece. Do I regret being able to do so? Not in the slightest—any more than I regret being able to go to YouTube and watch videos of Britten performing his own music.
It was with much bemusement that I learned last year that Apple had finally stopped manufacturing the iPod Classic. It is now officially obsolete, superseded by iPads and smartphones and various other shiny do-it-all gadgets, none of which I own. I continue instead to rely on my trusty iPod, my increasingly dilapidated MacBook, and my positively ancient flip phone, and for the present I see no compelling reason to replace any of them. Sooner or later, of course, I’ll discard them all and lurch into a new technological age, though not quite yet, life being complicated enough as is. But when I do, I hope that I continue to feel some sliver of the shivery thrill that I felt the first time I downloaded a song from iTunes. One should never get used to miracles.
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Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten perform Britten’s arrangement of “O Waly Waly.” This performance was taped in front of an audience at the BBC’s Riverside Studios in 1964:
In 2004 I had my first glimpse of Sondheim’s work at a Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of A Little Night Music that swept me off my feet and left me in tears (this, I find, is happening a lot more often the older I get, and bears no necessary relation to the quality of the movie/book/play/sporting event). A few months later, in New York, Terry took me to see an all-stops-pulled-out production of Sweeney Todd at City Opera, and several months after that we saw a tiny, black-box-theater version of Todd back here in Chicago. I guess I got lucky–every one of these stagings was played with talent and conviction, and after spending half a life unaware of the force that is Sondheim, I was half in love….
Read the whole thing here.