Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sondheim Anthologies:
"You have to think the whole time!"

Thinking of putting on a show of Sondheim songs?  You're going to face people like my parents' friends.  They walked out on a fine production of Side by Side by Sondheim back in 1980. "It was terrible," they said. "You had to think the whole time!"

I'm thinking about this now because I recently saw the Atlanta premiere of Sondheim on Sondheim by Act 3 Productions, co-directed by Michelle Davis, Chris Ikner, musical director Laura Gamble, and choreographer Johnna B. Mitchell.  A portion of the audience whooped and cheered for all the showstoppers. A man was humming "Sunday" in the line for the restroom. But the woman behind me kept complaining, "I can't figure out what's going on. It's just overwhelming."  She thought she'd skip act two because she didn't know any of the songs listed in the program. 

Even knowing all the songs by heart, I have mixed feelings about this and the other anthologies.  I own recordings of them all and I've seen most of the ones pictured in my collage above.  With this Atlanta production fresh in my mind, I've got a few do's and don'ts -- mostly don'ts.  

Do sing your songs as if you are in intimate conversation.  It's good advice relayed by an observer to Barbara Cook's "master class," who writes that a young man had earned big applause for his performance.  She sat him down with her, knee to knee, held his hands, and had him sing the song directly to her.  The singer achieved new credibility and depth.  

In Sondheim on Sondheim last week, some of the performers got that right.  Michaele Postell delivered "In Buddy's Eyes" as if telling her mixed feelings to a sympathetic friend.  "Send in the Clowns," on the other hand, might have been just another pop ballad, performed straight to the audience with strong voice and energetic gestures -- but not to the lover who has just said "I'm sorry, but, it's over."  

Don't mash up the songs.  Yes, I and the whoopers do appreciate the ingenuity of intertwining two torch songs, but when the arrangers interrupt "Not a Day Goes By" at its climax to begin "Losing My Mind," they allow neither song room to breathe.   "A Weekend in the Country" was wonderful, staged during the first Carnegie Hall birthday anthology;  here we got so little of it in a medley with "Ever After" that both songs lost their punch.   Save the clever arrangements for tributes that attract the cognoscenti.  For the lady behind me, and for at least one of my own guests, all the mash-ups were puzzling. 

Don't do the songs without context.  Sweeney Todd's "Epiphany" was full of sound and fury, but -- you know the rest.  The audience was just puzzled. Who's "Mrs. Lovett?" Where are we?  What "chair?"  "Waiting Around for the Girls Upstairs" chills and thrills someone who knows what's going on, but how were the others to know that we're witnessing "ghosts?"  On the other hand, the pair of songs from Assassins were anchored in the world of that show, and got the laughs and chills they should.

That said, I cannot imagine a better provider of context than Sondheim's own interviews.  I have to confess that I found myself looking forward to Sondheim's commentary more than to the musical numbers.   In SOS, and in the documentary Six by Sondheim,  he's an engaging storyteller, giving us elegant thumbnails of each situation along with his thoughts about his intentions writing each song. He got the biggest laughs, and his anecdote about Hammerstein's last gift to him was among the most affecting moments.  (Read my review of Six by Sondheim)

Back in 1975, Ned Sherrin's clever patter gave Side by Side by Sondheim its forward movement, as each song exhibited proof of Sherrin's thesis that Sondheim was/is Broadway's most accomplished lyricist and one of its most adventurous composers. 

Don't contrive a whole new context for the songs.  Same reason:  When a man in tux sings "Hello, Little Girl" to a buxom maid in Putting it Together, the Little Red Riding Hood references are creepy- funny at first, but creepy-creepy by the time we get to specific references to crunching her bones.  For the same show, Sondheim re-wrote lyrics of "Now" from "A Little Night Music" to introduce a segment based on party games. It was an awesome stunt, but not nearly so exciting as the original "Now."

Don't take any of my advice too seriously.  "I'm Still Here" is performed way, way, way out of context in Six by Sondheim,  and it's the single most memorable bit in the movie.  A young hipster turns inside-out this anthem for an aging woman, aiming the lyrics at women of different ages in his audience.  The effect is in their facial expressions as they recognize themselves in the lyric.

Craig Lucas's Marry Me A Little breaks all my rules, creating an artificial new context for all the songs, often mashing them together.  I've never seen the show, but I understand the two characters never meet, except in mind.  Do the young man and woman face each other when they seem to be singing to a partner?   Yet, judging just from the two recordings, I sense that it's a funny, sometimes raunchy, often touching anthology.  It may help that these songs are all "lost" songs that never lived in context for most of us.

Do try.  We actors know, Sondheim writes material that brings out the best in us.  If the production gives us the right context, if the staging doesn't detract, if we don't settle for generalized feelings in songs that typically move through a spectrum of thoughts and emotions -- then we may spark new interest in the uninitiated.  Sondheim never writes for people who'd rather not think.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Atticus Finch and Superman: Who Owns Them?

Judging a book by its coverage, Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee's first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, portrays Atticus Finch in a different way.  I hear that the novel concerns grown-up Jean Louise Finch finding herself disillusioned upon a return trip home.  Should we now dig under the surface of Mockingbird for the "real" -- racist, mean-spirited -- Atticus Finch?


Some characters, icons of the culture, take on a life of their own.   They exist in a Platonic sense, as ideals that we all more - or - less share.  The creators of a new Superman movie or comic book can explore the character, give a new angle on him, trim him down or buff him up, but cannot touch the essence of him without exciting the same kind of passion I've heard about Watchman.  A priest I know got into it with me over Man of Steel because Superman at the end [SPOILER ALERT] kills his nemesis.  The priest said, that's not how the real Superman does it.

But, of course, Superman was once just the idea of a couple of Jewish teens in New York, and he was a wise-cracking brute who didn't fly, but "leaped over buildings in a single bound."  That character developed through decades of work by new artists and writers in comics, directors and actors in media.  At age 11, when Mom and Dad gave me a hardback anthology of Superman comics, I found historical interest in those original stories, but I saw them as a kind of primitive first approach to the character I'd grown to love in the 1960s.

So let it be with the Atticus presented in this newly published work.  Let him be a sign of Harper Lee's development.  As my friend Susan Rouse pointed out, every twenty-something who goes away to college returns home to find a whiff of something rotten to disdain.   Mockingbird is the work of a more mature woman.  Let this earlier version of Atticus show us how racial prejudice has long been a part of the fabric of American culture, underlying thoughts and deeds of people who were (are?) otherwise fair-minded.   Let us be thankful that Harper Lee, maturing under an editor's mentorship, stripped away the parts that weren't the "real" Atticus.

And let us be confident that generations of trial and error, argument and adulation, prequels and sequels, additions and revisions, will only deepen our appreciation of the real Superman and the real Atticus.

[I developed these ideas in earlier articles:  "Superman Returns": Myth or Merchandise? and So, How Did You Like "Man of Steel?  I reflect on To Kill a Mockingbird as the World's Last English Teacher to Read TKM.]


Thursday, July 09, 2015

Chet and Bernie Close to the Bone:
Scents and Sensibility

Riding shotgun in Bernie Little's Porsche convertible to confront some bad guys, our narrator Chet "the Jet" places a reassuring paw on Bernie's knee, causing the car to lurch forward "in a way that never gets old."  In spite of his worries, Bernie laughs, and Chet, our canine narrator, considers, "Life couldn't be any better than this.  So why not just keep driving and never ever stop?  I tried to think of a good reason" (282).

Chet keeps up an internal monologue that never gets old.  Chet made me smile on every page, and I often laughed out loud, as when he explains how to open a locked door, "something Bernie and I had been working on.  You slide the bolt open with your paw and then get a steak tip: that's all there is to it.  Give it a try sometime" (186).  After this, the eighth book in the series, why shouldn't Chet and Bernie just keep going and never ever stop?

Still, author Spencer Quinn signals early on that this series may be reaching a climax.  For the first time, Bernie's neighbors, the Parsons (and little dog Iggy), are integral to the plot, bringing the story literally close to home.  Their sorrow and humiliations feel real, as Bernie investigates their son's ties to kidnapping, drug dealing, murder, and, incidentally, the uprooting of legally protected cacti.  A corrupt policeman named Mickles, who calls Bernie his "nemesis," shows up early and often, leading us to expect some kind of final showdown.  There are moments of doubt when Bernie wonders aloud if he's suffering early onset dementia, and the signs are there.   

Then, there's the emergence of Shooter, a puppy who looks and smells a lot like our narrator.  Longtime readers of the series will remember the night this puppy was conceived, but Chet has no such memory, only a sense of responsibility for the little guy.   To escape a dangerous situation, Chet takes a "less gentle approach" to making Shooter follow him, "although [Shooter] did most of his following from in front."  Chet reflects, "My less gentle approach had taken something out of me, kind of strange" (260).  Is Spencer Quinn laying the groundwork for "Chet and Bernie: The Next Generation?"

Scents and Sensibility cuts closer to the emotional bone than any of these novels since The Dog Who Knew Too Much got deep into the agonies of a bullied adolescent.  Characters we learn to like turn up dead; relationships we enjoy are at stake.  As sometimes happens in these books, Chet is separated from Bernie, and we come close to losing hope.  But, then, Chet pulls us through, as when he fails in "way beyond two" attempts to escape -- "When it comes to numbers, I stop at two," he explains -- and he crawls back to shelter:  "[I]t didn't mean I'd stopped trying to be free.  I was just taking a break.  We took breaks at the Little Detective Agency, just another feature of our business plan" (250).

I've heard a crime novelist on NPR -- Elmore Leonard, I think -- say that "you can kill off anyone you like, but don't kill the dog: the readers will never forgive you."  (Author David Rosenfelt offered the same advice at his website back in 2004.)  I'm not spoiling anything to say that, when I put this book down, I immediately did what Bernie does just before the glorious mayhem of the final showdown:  I knelt by my dogs to give them both a big hug.

[See reflections on the whole Chet and Bernie series, and on other series as well, at my Crime Fiction page.]

Friday, July 03, 2015

Justice and Love: Christian Democracy

Writing the majority opinion in the Obergefell decision, Justice Kennedy concluded that "marriage embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, sacrifice and family," and that, in marriage, two people "become something greater than they once were."

Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee called the ruling "unjust" because it contravenes the wills of voters in certain states. Perhaps Huckabee doesn't recall how the first Republican President campaigned on the principle that human rights aren't up for vote.  Regardless, Huckabee went on to cite Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call in the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to resist "unjust" laws.

In his "letter," really a scholarly essay, King addresses fellow clergymen who thought his challenges to Jim Crow ordinances recklessly provocative.  Citing ancient church fathers Augustine and Aquinas, King writes that an unjust law is no law at all. To judge a law's "justness," King uses, not votes, not even the Bible, but human dignity as the measure, writing, "Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust." Because King goes on to specify laws that deny common rights to a class of citizens, I wonder if Huckabee has read King's "letter." (I'm not alone. See "Mike Huckabee Should Read..." at The Daily Kos.

To "uplift" a human personality is one definition of "love." That's how Christian psychologist M. Scott Peck wrote of love in The Road Less Traveled, as one's exertion to encourage and assist in the growth of another.  This definition of "love," focused on action instead of feeling, is most practical for covering Jesus' strongest mandates to "love your neighbor as yourself" and to "love your enemy."  Justice Kennedy's emphasis on love's power to make individuals "something greater than themselves" shows his use of "love" to be compatible.  King advises breaking laws in a "loving" manner, eschewing violence, refusing to be baited into anger, accepting the consequences.  In another context, he wrote how this loving resistance would, in Peck's terms, assist in the growth of his opponents:

Do to us what you will and we will still love you.... But be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will [so] appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory. (King, Christmas sermon, December 1967)

King, by imagining love for an individual opponent expanded to encompass a society, anticipates the use made of the word "justice" by the Center for Public Justice (, an evangelical Christian think tank that influenced my thinking back when it and I were young, around 1980.  One of their publications argued from Scripture that "justice" is to society what "love" is to the individual, and both are God's mandate. 

For CPJ, a truly Christian democracy in America would reject our Founders' blithe faith, which was never a faith in the Apostle's Creed, but faith in "reason."  From George Washington to The Federalist Papers, our founders trusted that reasonable legislators could in any case reach agreement on what constituted "the common good."  But the CPJ recognizes that "reasonable" people of good will often start from different premises, both cultural and religious. To require the individual Roman Catholic, Native American, Jew, Muslim, atheist, or Evangelical Christian to set aside their worldviews when making political choices is unloving; to run politics in such a way that people of the dominant worldview needn't take into account voices in the minority is unjust.

Here's a succinct statement of purpose from an essay called "What distinguishes the Center for Public Justice?":
No nation or state may claim to have instituted God's rule in a way that justifies casting out or treating unfairly citizens who disagree with the government-established faith. On biblical terms we believe that God's purposes revealed in and through Jesus Christ call for neither church-governed societies nor governments that give a privileged public place to Christians. Rather, a Christian-democratic approach recognizes that God through Christ is upholding and renewing human responsibility on earth, including the responsibility to govern. And since ...Christ did not call his disciples to try to establish God's kingdom by force, human governance requires the just and equal treatment of all citizens. (Link to this essay at the CPJ website)

On the issue at hand, even reasonable Christians of good will disagree.  (See the web site Religious Tolerance for an even-handed survey of Bible-based responses to homosexuality.)   In fact, I disagree with the position on same-sex marriage outlined at CPJ's web site.

Although the CPJ reaches a different conclusion than I do, their approach is nonetheless the best way to ensure a truly democratic society.  As my friend philosophy professor Susan Rouse points out, "There's a lot more to being a democratic society than voting.  Even Stalin was re-elected."  In a nutshell, here's the CPJ's critique and their answer:
Politics [in the US today] often amounts to little more than interest-group competition among diverse groups, each seeking its own goals. Too little attention is given to the soundness of public institutions, to the art of long-term constitutional statecraft, and to the common good of the republic as a whole. ...The Center believes that the public good of the American commonwealth, which is shared by all citizens, can flourish only when governed by standards that transcend interest-group competition. (link)
I'm so often put off by the ugly competition among the parties in America.   Now that I've re-discovered the CPJ, I'll look to them for some level-headed, long-range, loving responses to the issues of the day.