That’s the phrase dancers use to describe a performance that is…well, a bit erratic. It’s one of my favorite pieces of professional argot, not to mention a pretty good way to sum up the past week and a half. I’ve been all over the place, seen all sorts of things, written far too many pieces, and hung out with some of my favorite people–including two bloggers whom I was meeting for the first time, even though I already “knew” them well from cyberspace.
Here are some snapshots from the maelstrom:
• It all started two Wednesdays ago when I went to a press preview of Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, a new jukebox musical that I loathed, very much in contrast to the collective opinion of the audience and–as it turned out–most of my colleagues.
• No, I didn’t care for the music, but that’s not the main thing wrong with the show. After all, I don’t like the music in Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do, either, but I adored the movie. So what’s the problem? I’ll start with an e-mail that a smart friend sent to me after reading my review:
my youth in the mid-60s was spent at jones beach with other families who had very little, eating pb&j sandwiches with ears pressed to transistor radios radio counting down the top 20. the four seasons were nyc’s stick-ball answer to the beatles and the beach boys and the energy level was very new york back then (63-68-ish). the four seasons compared to the beatles and beach boys was almost race music. it was pure subway. now, with sinatra dead and tony all but a wax museum piece (when was he not), seems valli is perfectly poised to become the patron saint of all things mall….
Jersey Boys tells you all this, but it doesn’t show you any of it, because it isn’t a play but a string of first-person monologues separated by occasional stretches of stilted dialogue (just like Lennon, which was even worse). That’s why it’s so dead on stage. Even a one-person show, which in a sense is all in the telling, has to find a way to break free of mere narration–otherwise it never comes to life. There’s a reason why we call a show a show.
• On Thursday morning I arose at 4:45 and caught a six a.m. train to Washington for the winter meeting of the National Council on the Arts, which began at nine. I slept all the way down and arrived on time (well, almost).
Our closed sessions are strictly confidential, so I can’t tell you anything about what we discussed on Thursday. Instead, I’ll fast-forward to the Washington Ballet performance I attended that evening at Kennedy Center, accompanied by my friend Ali. She’d never seen George Balanchine’s Serenade, which opened the program. I looked at her when it was over, and I’m fairly sure I saw a tear or two. Then she smiled. “Couldn’t we just see that one twice more instead of the other pieces on the program?” she asked. I know how she felt. I remember my first Serenade, which I saw eighteen years ago from the cheap seats of New York’s City Center, courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem. It had the same effect on me. It has the same effect on everyone.
• The next morning I returned to the Old Post Office to join my fellow council members for a public session. Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, always makes sure that our meetings include some kind of performance–even if it’s nothing more than the playing of a suitable record–so we started the day by listening to Louis Armstrong’s 1933 recording of Basin Street Blues, thereby paying tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the determination of the survivors to bring art back to New Orleans. It was a lovely, utterly appropriate moment.
Midway through the meeting we paused to make the acquaintance of Wayne Henderson, a guitar maker from a very small town in Virginia (pop. 7, or so he says) who is the subject of Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument, a new book by Allen St. John. Henderson, a short, shy, unassuming man, is an NEA National Heritage Fellow. He played “Wildwood Flower” and “Black Mountain Rag” on one of his own handmade guitars, and as I listened, I delighted in the fact that my government had had the wisdom to pay official homage to so deserving an artisan.
At meeting’s end Dana noted the death of Shirley Horn, one of last year’s NEA Jazz Fellows, who had been buried the day before in Washington. Then we listened in silence to her recording of “If You Love Me.” The silence grew thick as an early-morning fog as she sang the last verse:
When at last our life on earth is through,
I will share eternity with you.
If you love me, really love me,
Let it happen, I won’t care.
I was thinking about the haircut I’d gotten in New York earlier in the week. The barber tied a dark blue apron around my neck, and it seemed as if all the freshly trimmed hair falling on it was either gray or white. So here it is at last, the distinguished thing, I told myself with an invisible shrug of pretended indifference to the all too visible evidence of the downward slope. Of course there are worse things than being on the verge of your fiftieth birthday–starting, needless to say, with the alternative–but that doesn’t make it any cheerier to contemplate, or easier to explain to younger friends still full of great expectations and innocent of grim foreknowledge. In middle age you find yourself saying goodbye to all that, a dream at a time, until one day the winds grow colder/And suddenly you’re older….
“The one hundred fifty-sixth meeting of the National Council on the Arts is now adjourned,” Dana said softly, and banged his gavel once. A half-hour later I was on a train bound for New York.
• A few hours after that, I was sitting on the aisle at Brooklyn’s BAM Harvey Theater, getting ready to watch Propeller perform Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, accompanied by another young friend who was unexpectedly understanding of the night thoughts churning around inside the head of a tired critic with miles to go before he slept.
“Omigod, Terry, you look awful,” she said. “Aren’t you getting any sleep? Are you going to make it through the week in one piece?”
“Oh, sure. I always do, don’t I? I have this, you know,” I replied, waving one hand at the stage. “It’s what I live off. It’s just about the only illusion you get to hang onto. Friends die, marriages end, staircases grow steeper–but we still have that perfect world down there, and we can live in it for a couple of hours at a time. You’d be surprised how much it helps.”
All at once I heard Shirley Horn’s soft, slow, thick-grained voice in my mind’s ear, and sighed. “Ah, Elly, do you have any idea what I’m talking about?”
“Kind of,” she said, putting her unlined hand atop mine and giving it a comforting pat.