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.

Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, most performances sold out last week, closes Mar. 29, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
It’s Only a Play (comedy, PG-13/R, closes June 7, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out last week, 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)

Between Riverside and Crazy (drama, PG-13, remounting of off-Broadway production, closes Mar. 22, original production reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
tn-500_10491194_10153122847231241_8885523760386422646_n.jpg.pagespeed.ce.n2Spft_DrMM_aEg0WHuUHamilton (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)

West Side Story (musical, PG-13, closes Mar. 15, reviewed here)

The Iceman Cometh (drama, PG-13, remounting of Chicago production, closes Mar. 15, original production reviewed here)

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Almanac: T.S. Eliot on self-importance

INK BOTTLE“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”

T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party (courtesy of Patrick Kurp)

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Caruso-Singing-into-a-Horn-300x175Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, just did an excellent “By the Book” interview with my old friend David Brooks. I liked the results so much that I decided to answer the same questions myself:

What books are now on your night stand? Trollope’s The Prime Minister and The Duke’s Children. I’ve been working my way through the Palliser novels, which I last read something like a decade ago. It’s nice to be back.

And what’s the last truly great book you read? It happens to be the one that I just finished reading, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which is one of the very few major novels that has been successfully filmed (my own negative opinion of novels-on-film is a matter of record). Still, the book’s the thing, and it is a bonafide masterpiece—James made simpler, I suppose, but completely successful on its own terms. Aside from everything else, I’d forgotten how funny Wharton is.

As I read The Age of Innocence, I found myself comparing Newland Archer to Felix Mendelssohn, a great artist who believed devoutly in the need to compose (and live) with decorum but who nonetheless boiled with secret and (I suspect) untidy musical passions. While we now know and love best the music that he wrote during his own age of innocence, there is much more to Mendelssohn than the Octet and Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, perfect though those youthful effusions are. Read all about it—and him—here.

10712749_10152783117682193_2197587920060438789_nWho is your favorite novelist ever? And your favorite who’s writing today? If we take “favorite” to be a purely personal judgment reflective of nothing but my individual taste, I’m increasingly inclined to say Anthony Powell. I can’t think of any contemporary novelist whose work means nearly as much to me (though I greatly admire V.S. Naipaul).

What are your reading habits–do you prefer electronic or print? Do you write in your books? Keep them or give away? I don’t read books electronically. I never write in printed books—I simply can’t bring myself to do it—and never give them away intentionally save as presents.

What’s your favorite genre to read? I don’t have a favorite genre, but I do have some favorite genre writers: P.G. Wodehouse, Rex Stout, Patrick O’Brian, Elmore Leonard, and the Sociopath Known as Richard Stark.

What’s your favorite book about the newspaper business? H.L. Mencken’s Newspaper Days, to which I paid tribute last year in National Review:

Nowhere has the experience of seeing your words in print for the first time been better described: “I was up with the milkman the next morning to search the paper, and when I found both of my pieces, exactly as written, there ran such thrills through my system as a barrel of brandy and 100,000 volts of electricity could not have matched.”

What do you consider to be the best book about American politics ever written? I’m with David: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, though to call it a book about American politics is like calling How to Cook a Wolf a book about food. It’s a book about human nature seen through the prism of politics (or vice versa!).

And what’s your favorite book by a political columnist? Mencken again: Notes on Democracy. To quote what I wrote about it in this space six years ago:

For all the inescapable limitations of Mencken’s damn-the-boobs point of view, Notes on Democracy, in addition to being among the most personal of his books, is also the most artfully written and least well known of his many essays on democracy and its discontents. If you’re feeling disillusioned with the wisdom of the masses–no matter what your reasons–you’ll find it grimly amusing and hugely diverting.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite book? Most beloved character? Incessant. I don’t remember having had a favorite book, but I do remember being wowed by the Scarlet Pimpernel once upon a time.

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be? W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson. As much as anything, it made me a biographer.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? Not a book but a poem, Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes.

If you could meet any author, dead or living, who would be it be, and why? Max Beerbohm, the very sound of whose voice is infinitely enticing.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited? M.F.K. Fisher (whom I’d invite to choose the meal), Flannery O’Connor, and Dawn Powell.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: what book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing? Again, I’m with David: I can’t read Dickens, and I know it’s my fault. I’m allergic to his overegged prose style. I can’t remember the last book I put down unfinished, but that’s because I do it so frequently. Absent sufficient monetary compensation, I’m way too old to waste time finishing bad books. Ars longa, vita brevis.

tumblr_lyd8ynE6051r1bfd7o1_1280What’s the one book you wish someone else would write? A really good biography of Helen Frankenthaler.

Who would you want to write your life story? Nobody. Eeuuww. If there’s anything worth telling, I’ll put it in a play.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet? Seeing as how I made the following confession eight years ago in The Wall Street Journal, I’d say that’s a humiliatingly easy call:

I regret to admit that there are a good many great novels that I have yet to read, some of which are long enough to make me quail at the thought of taking them on so late in the game. I’ve never read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which is 388,000 words long, and one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2007 was to do so. I picked it up in January—and put it down again in February, having gotten only a quarter of the way through. Alas, I was too busy to stick with it.

What do you plan to read next? Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, which is in the same Library of America volume as The Age of Innocence. What could be handier?

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UPDATE: I finished The House of Mirth two days later. I liked most of it, especially the first part, but The Age of Innocence is much better.

André Eglevsky, Maria Tallchief and New York City Ballet dance the pas de deux from Scotch Symphony, a ballet by George Balanchine set to Felix Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony:

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Tweets in search of a context: the postmodern sitcom

imagesThe endless-loop Irony Lite of today’s sitcoms wears me out. It’s mostly nothing more than fast talking heavily sauced with needless-to-say-we-all-agree-about-everything attitude. And it’s not funny. Attitude is not humor. References are not humor. Sniggering is not humor. Above all, clubbishness is not humor. True humor doesn’t exclude—it includes. It reminds us, ever and always, that we, too, partake in the common dilemma. Even in farce, which hinges on the public humiliation of an unsympathetic person, we’re always thinking, “Oh, God, that might be me up there.” And cringing.

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John Cleese in a scene from an episode of Fawlty Towers:

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Snapshot: Marni Nixon appears on To Tell the Truth

TV CAMERAMarni Nixon, who dubbed the singing voices of Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, and Natalie Wood in the film versions of My Fair Lady, The King and I, and West Side Story, appears on To Tell the Truth in 1964:

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

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The quiet fever of Peggy Lee

My Commentary essay for March, which has been posted a few days early, is about Peggy Lee. Here’s an excerpt.

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Few things in the world of popular art are more dismaying than the spectacle of a beloved performer who goes on too long. The singer Peggy Lee was such a performer, and her decline was all the more pitiable for being so protracted. She made her last noteworthy recordings in 1975, when she was just 55 years old, and her one remaining venture of any consequence, an autobiographical Broadway show called Peg, was a shambles that closed in 1983 after only five performances. By then she had long since become a drug-dazed caricature of her younger self, and when she finally stopped singing 12 agonizing years later, her remaining fans heaved a collective sigh of relief.

10818472_10153086789592193_2663566614077023936_oLee lost her footing at the same moment other middle-aged pop singers such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett were successfully reinventing themselves as nostalgia acts, turning their backs on a now-alien contemporary music scene and interpreting the songs of their youth with undiminished artistic integrity. Her personal problems kept her from doing as they did, and Capitol, the label for which she had made most of her best albums, let them go out of print in the ’70s. As a result, a generation of music lovers grew up knowing only the obese, grotesquely costumed woman parodied as “Miss Piggy” on The Muppet Show. Small wonder that she spent her later years begging friends to “please don’t let people forget me.”

None of the baby boomers who watched Lee serve up limply pandering cover versions of pop-rock songs on TV in the late ’60s and early ’70s could have known that she was once an artist of the highest caliber, a peer of Sinatra who in certain ways surpassed him. A balladeer of hushed sensitivity, she was also at home in the hard-swinging world of jazz, and though her coolly glamorous, carefully sculpted public persona had much to do with her success, no one in or out of the music business ever doubted her profound musicality or perfect taste.

Why, then, did she lose her way? James Gavin has done much to answer that question in Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee, a mostly sympathetic but nonetheless very frank biography whose subtitle is indicative of its tone and approach. Gavin’s book is more concerned with Lee’s private life and public image than her music, and the tale that he tells is a sad one, the story of an unhappy woman whose neurotic insecurities grew so extreme that they eventually made it impossible for her to fully exploit her unique talents….

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Read the whole thing here.

Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra sing a duet version of “Nice Work if You Can Get It” on The Frank Sinatra Show in 1957:

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Lookback: a visit to Arlington National Cemetery

LOOKBACKFrom 2005:

It’s no place for the flippant–Arlington has a way of making the overheard remarks of ironically inclined visitors sound shameful–but it has much to offer the aesthete, even the soul-deadened kind to whom patriotism is no more than gold-braided bigotry. The simple marble headstones
 that mark most of the graves are at once ruthlessly functional and timelessly handsome, both individually and en masse, just as the changing of the guard
 at the Tomb of the Unknowns is all but balletic in its poised, precise clarity. Next to such pure classicism, the bronze plaque that honors the astronauts who died in the Challenger explosion seems almost sentimental, as much a symbol of its times as the marble tablets are of theirs….

Read the whole thing here.

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The song is ended

81AJbKi+8jLApropos of my rave Wall Street Journal review of Hamilton, I have an essay about American Musicals, the Library of America’s new two-volume anthology of musical-comedy libretti, in the latest issue of the Weekly Standard:

What is America’s greatest contribution to the arts? Time was when many, perhaps most, people would have pointed to the Broadway musical as the likeliest candidate for admission to the pantheon. Theatergoers around the world have long rejoiced in the delights of the genre, including some whom one might well have thought too snobbish to admit its excellence. (Evelyn Waugh, who had next to no use for anything made in America, saw the London production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate a half-dozen times, pronouncing it, according to one biographer, “ingenious and admirable.”) But big-budget musical comedy has been in increasingly steep decline since the 1970s, and 10 long years have gone by since The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the last homegrown musical to be wholeheartedly embraced by audiences and critics alike, made it to Broadway.

Since then, we’ve seen a parade of what I call “commodity musicals,” the slavishly literal throwaway stage versions of hit movies that now dominate Broadway, as well as a number of highly imaginative small-scale musicals that, to date, have failed to draw large-scale crowds. But the old-fashioned school of Oklahoma! family musical appears to be all but gone for good, killed off by the disintegration of the common culture that made it possible in the first place. Now that Broadway-minded songwriters no longer have a universal musical language on which to draw, it isn’t possible to write a show with genuine broad-gauge audience appeal. It says everything about the desperate state of the American musical that the last theatrical song to become an enduringly popular hit, Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” was written in 1973.

That’s what makes the publication of American Musicals so timely. These two volumes contain the unabridged scripts of 16 “classic” shows written between 1927 and 1969, the period now usually regarded as the “golden age” of the Broadway musical. The table of contents is itself a capsule history of the genre at its peak: Show Boat (1927), As Thousands Cheer (1933), Pal Joey (1940), Oklahoma! (1943), On the Town (1944), Finian’s Rainbow (1947), Kiss Me, Kate (1948), South Pacific (1949), Guys and Dolls (1950), The Pajama Game (1954), My Fair Lady (1956), Gypsy (1959), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Cabaret (1966), and 1776 (1969). Unlike their successors, these shows have retained their popularity. Twelve have returned to Broadway in the past decade, and two are playing there as I write. If there is a core musical-comedy repertory, this is it….

Read the whole thing here.

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