Sunday, July 31, 2016

Jason Bourne:
Tech, Texting, and Sub-text

Jason Bourne, a thrill-a-minute for sure, may be the first action film I've seen where the ratio of smart-phone use to firepower is something like 15:1.  A third of the movie is about opening a file.  The overall scheme concerns the CIA's plan to use a popular social media company to monitor every American all the time, which may require assassination of the company's scrupulous CEO.  Bourne uses phones to hack into fire alarms and to listen in to the car ahead of his.   The film turns on the axis of Bourne's relationship with the CIA tech director who tries to "bring him in," developed through reading files, studying screen shots, and sending text messages. They don't say more than ten lines to each other face-to-face in the whole movie. 

Tech provides more than plot points.  Throughout the movie, our hero's every move is monitored by the CIA on screens that serve the double purpose of giving the audience aerial views and animated street maps to comprehend chaotic action during car chase scenes through a riot in Athens and on the wrong side of the Las Vegas strip. An earlier generation of writers might have used a narrator, a Greek chorus, or flashing text cards, e.g., "Meanwhile, back in Berlin...."

Tech is part of what makes Jason Bourne a thrill for the mind as much as for the gut.  Because we get four or five different layers of views of every event -- live action, video screen, graphic diagrams, human conversation, text messages -- our minds are moving along several different tracks at once.

The few laughs in the grim world of Bourne come when Tommy Lee Jones exploits the subtext of a situation.  He can play friendly, charming, forgiving, warm -- but we know what he knows from screens and digital voices, and we know what the sly dog is covering up. 

Before seeing Bourne, I already had some experience with stories shaped by technology.  My drama students collaborate on original plays, and they love their cell phones. For a comedy we called Txt, written when "texting" was new, we projected text messages on a screen above the stage, finding humor in cute text-speak interpretations of the action. In our murder mystery Under the Surface, we had to explain why the missing character did not text her friends.  This year, tech was central to our four-character comedy Crash, which concerned a hacker's plot to turn a game designer's apocalyptic scenario real.

We also learned what Bourne's creators know, how easy it is to turn tech into magic. In our play, we needed a laptop at a Krispy Kreme to shut down America's power grid.  We needed only to say that we hacked the system and implanted a "worm," and our magic was plausible.  In Jason Bourne, when the CIA chief says that they must delete the files on a laptop in Berlin, the tech director says, "We can do it -- because they have a phone."  My friend Suzanne and I both said, "Huh???"  But the story rolled over our doubts at break-neck speed.

Smart phones are going to be the best thing for drama since Euripides discovered the deus ex machina.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Aurora Theatre Hits "the Heights"

[Photo collage (clockwise from top left): Felicia Hernandez as "Abuela Claudia," Diana Rodriguez as "Nina," Diego Klock-Perez as "Usnavi," Julissa Sabino as "Vanessa," Rodriguez, and Garrett Turner, who plays "Benny."]

On opening night for In the Heights at the Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville, Georgia, it took until the second-act song "Carnaval de Barrio" for the older white man in the red-striped short sleeved shirt in the front row to get into it.  But by then he was on board, laughing and clapping along with the beat, notwithstanding that the beat was calypso and that characters waved flags from Caribbean and Latin American countries of origin.

Earlier, he'd sat cross-armed and stony-faced.  Though I'm younger, even I remember Lawrenceville as a little place way the heck out from Atlanta.  Now it's just another exit for Atlanta commuters. So this guy looked like he'd awakened in a foreign land.  Sensitive to that feeling, the Aurora Theatre's producer had almost apologized to her opening night crowd of white, older season subscribers for doing a show about the hip-hop generation in Washington Heights.  But she said that there was no betrayal of the theatre's mission to "reflect the community," because an invited audience of local high school groups earlier that week had been thrilled to see themselves reflected on stage: This is the way we are, now.

She needn't have worried.  The show builds bridges from its first moments, to people like Mr. Red Shirt, to people who don't like musicals, to people who think they don't like new musicals, and to people like me, for whom hip-hop is as foreign as Spanish.

So it may suggest a metaphor that Washington Bridge takes center stage on a backdrop between two authentic-looking facades of apartment/shop buildings.  Designer Shannon Robert somehow packed the tall, narrow stage with four stories of workable windows, doors, fire escapes, and rolling window grate for the lead character's bodega, "just another dime-a-dozen mom-and-pop stop-and-shop."

Hip-hop aside, the opener is traditional as "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof.   Our guide to the neighborhood is bodega-owner "Usnavi," a young man whose "syntax is highly complicated / cuz [he] emigrated" from the Dominican Republic, land of his late parents, where he someday wants to return.  He tells us in rapid-fire, intricately rhymed lyrics about his neighbors as he interacts with their early-morning routines.  By the end of the first number, we know some twelve characters of consequence to the story.

We also know that we like these people.  A variety of characters younger, older, and older still wear fedora, or tight skirts, or pants sagging, or dress shirt buttoned and neck-tied.  But they all are friendly; they all more or less take care of each other;  they all banter with good humor.  Aurora Theatre has also found a cast of actors to embody them who can all dance, some with balletic strength and grace; one (Joseph Pendergrast) with acrobatic break-dancing skill; all with energy and precision.  The voices are all strong, enunciating the spoken verses, reaching the highs and lows, louds and softs of the sung ballads and anthems.  They made it look easy.  By the end, Mr. Red Shirt and I were in awe of these young actors (and a few older ones) for their skill, and, Lord knows, their stamina.

Composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (now world-famous for Hamilton) signals that he knows the Tradition early on.  At mention of the "A" train, Miranda's supple accompaniment accommodates a couple measures of Billy Strayhorn's tune for the Ellington band; moments later, telling us it's "too darn hot," Usnavi salutes "his man" -- or is it Miranda's man? -- Cole Porter.  Many of the characters sing full-throated Broadway songs.  Miranda gives a prominent role to the wandering "Piragua" man who sings his sales pitch for flavored ice cones like the street vendors in Porgy and Bess whose songs evoked daily life of the community.  Many of the songs in act one are of the "I want" type -- "Breathe" for "Nina," "Inutil (Useless)" for her father, "It Won't Be Long Now" for Vanessa, and everyone's verses in the song about winning the lottery, "96,000."  Other songs are little one-act plays with musically-heightened sung dialogue, in the manner of Stephen Sondheim, such as "Benny's Dispatch" (a love song wrapped inside instructions to taxi drivers), a Spanish lesson that turns erotic in "Sunrise," and the comic scene between Usnavi and his would-be lover Vanessa, "Champagne."   Even when Miranda repeats a phrase in the manner of a pop song with a hook, he never just repeats it, finding new applications for the phrase "Everything I Know," or for bilingual synonyms "inutil," "useless," and "powerless," even before the power goes out -- turning a plot incident into a thematic metaphor.

The YouTube program Musical Theatre Mash points out how In the Heights honors a tradition even older than classic American musicals, namely, Aristotle's three unities.  There's unity of place: Except when a shift in lights turns the street to the interior of a dance club, all the action takes place on one corner of one street.  Book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes also respects the classical unity of time, as the story unfolds over one 4th of July weekend. There's also a unity of action, as the characters who want so much in act one break through in act two, with the catalyst of a cataclysmic power outage.

Thanks to friend Susan for noticing an homage to Dorothy's "silver slippers" in the original book of The Wizard of Oz:  the character who realizes that what he sought elsewhere is right there at home is also wearing silver high-tops.

So, Mr. Red Shirt, the small town of Lawrenceville, and I, have heard the unfamiliar sounds of hip-hop in Lin-Manuel Miranda's distant neighborhood of Washington Heights, and it feels to us like home.

See my earlier reflection on Lin-Manuel Miranda's work, As If Hamilton Needed More Raves.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Every Minor Detail's a Major Decision:
Two Books on Sondheim and Company

At age 15, a boy has incredible capacity for absorbing trivial knowledge in his field of interest.  For some, it's sports statistics; for me, it was Broadway musicals, particularly those of Stephen Sondheim.  I got Craig Zadan's Sondheim & Co. in its first edition (1974), which told how Sondheim and his collaborators created shows from West Side Story to A Little Night Music.  I curled up in my stuffed chair to read it straight through.  But before Mom called for dinner, I'd absorbed more than backstage backstories; I'd learned a whole ethos of artistic collaboration that has motivated me ever since.

Zadan then was very young, but he'd co-produced the first of many star-studded tributes to Sondheim.  He interviewed Sondheim, librettists and directors of his shows,  as we'd expect.  He interviewed performers, as we'd hope.  But he also interviewed set designers, music publishers, orchestra conductors, poster designers, casting directors, and costumers.  Through all their perspectives, which sometimes contradict each other, we understand how, in Sondheim's own line from Sunday in the Park with George, "Every minor detail is a major decision. / Have to keep things in scale, / Have to hold to your vision."

Even forty-plus years later, every page is familiar to me.  If I open the book at random, I'm going to find a tidbit about the kind of imagination and sweating of details that went into making every moment of the show "hold to [their] vision."  Here are a few examples I selected from leafing through the second edition of the book, just now:

James Goldman, librettist for Follies, on the song "Who's That Woman?" in which a young chorus first mirrors then joins in with the chorus of older women at the reunion of Follies girls:  "The physical impression you got from that was anguishing. To see the decay of the flesh -- all those bright, young beautiful girls and their lovely bodies with all the sense of youth and the promise of what's to come contrasted against what actually became of it. That's devastating... and very movielike" (Zadan 141).

Patricia Birch, dance director for Pacific Overtures, on staging "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea," Sondheim's opener that explains 19th century Japanese society: "In the middle of it, there was a little puddle of people moving straight at us.   And I had always had the image from the minute I started that these were the people on the island of Japan.  Of course, the thing with Steve's numbers is that he gives you so many images to work from, so you're not just building something for the sake of building something" (216).

Michael Bennett, dance director for Company, on requesting Sondheim to write about how much all the married couples like their single friend Bobby in a song that would repeat so much that it becomes "grating": "[Steve] then wrote 'What Would We Do Without You?'  And [in the number] I'm not saying that all these married couples aren't sincere about caring for Bobby in the show, but you need more than friendships or it becomes the old song and dance routine.  The only thing that Steve and I had any disagreement on ... was the tug-of-war in that number [as couples vie for Bobby's attention]. ...I felt that's where Bobby was. I thought it worked" (123).

Jonathan Tunick, orchestrator of Follies, is praised by Sondheim for his work on the song "In Buddy's Eyes":  The actress Dorothy Collins says in the song "that everything is just wonderful and she's ... so happily married. Nothing in the lyric, not a word tells you that maybe it isn't true. [But] there is something in the orchestration.  ... Jonathan has orchestrated it so that every phrase in the song which refers to her husband is dry, all woodwinds.  Whenever she refers to herself, it's all strings again" (157).  Tunick explains how he closed that song with "a penetrating cold sound... a combination of muted trumpets and sometimes bells."

Another book, Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies, is by Ted Chapin, who worked as director Hal Prince's personal assistant in 1971, beginning as Prince's team was preparing for its first rehearsals.  (For what I learned in a book about Hal Prince, link here.) Based on his journal from the time, he chronicles the anxieties of the performers and creators, the many revisions and experiments, and the mistakes.  Again, we see how much thought goes into every detail, and also how much grinding work:

Michael Bennett, dance director, explains to the cast why their entrances during the "Prologue" must be precisely choreographed and timed to the beat, even though it's not a "dance":  "The show is really about time and what it does to people, so we must establish that we are going to stop it at will, turn it back and twist it around whenever we desire. I realize that crossing on a count of eight can be tricky, but I want everyone to become so well drilled that it never looks like anyone is counting" (Chapin 58).  Weeks and nearly 200 pages later, Bennett is still re-staging the Prologue.

Hal Prince, director, decides after a dozen preview performances for audiences (and weeks of rehearsals and revisions) that the song "Can That Boy Fox Trot" isn't working and must be replaced, but Sondheim needs something to write about.  The character "Carlotta Campion," was played by the show's biggest "star" Yvonne De Carlo, whose career peaked in the 1950s when she played sultry beauties in Hollywood films.  More recently, she'd starred as  "Lily" in the campy TV series The Munsters, which had been cancelled.  The only reason she needed a song was that the audience would expect the biggest star to sing one.  Sondheim gets the assignment to write one on page 181; Sondheim shows up on page 234 with the finished manuscript of a new song "I'm Still Here," which Chapin has the task of typing.  He recreates for us what he was thinking as he typed:

I was astounded.  The song just kept delivering brilliant images of events and people from the 1930s and forties, all woven into a passionate and dramatic statement of survival.  Wow, I thought, and this from a fairly simple-minded character who had previously sung a clever song with one big double-entendre joke and some tossed-off quips about being a has been.  Now we're learning who she was, and it was really good.  ... In some ways the song seemed to be as much about Yvonne De Carlo herself as it was about Carlotta Campion ... which would add a layer of pathos to the performance....
Here, I'm sure that Chapin is thinking of these lines from Sondheim's lyric:

First, you're another sloe-eyed vamp,
Then someone's mother,
Then you're camp.
Then you career from career to career.
I'm almost through my memoir,
And I'm here.  (Sondheim, "I'm Still Here")

Chapin continues:
He had been observing her, I thought, and he must have taken in a lot of who Yvonne was to create a piece of material that would give such depth to her character in so emotional a way. (Steve later claimed that Joan Crawford, not Yvonne, was his inspiration.)  ... Little did I or any of us know then that it would become one of Sondheim's most performed songs, and one whose sentiments, first typed that day by a twenty-year-old gofer, would continue to have resonance for years to come.  (237)

According to Chapin, who got it from Yvonne, Hal Prince was so pleased to hear her sing it the first time that he cried (241).  To tell you the truth, I get choked up reading about this, too, just from the satisfaction of seeing how music, lyrics, character, actress, rehearsal process, pacing of the script, audience reactions, all come together for marvelous, memorable, lasting effect.

Chapin tells us how the cast gathered at a restaurant in Boston to hear Hal Prince read their first review, by Samuel Hirsch of the Boston Herald Traveler. 

There's a magic feeling [that] comes over you when a new musical opens and lets you know all's well within the first few minutes.  You sense it's going to be a special evening because the talents of the men and women who conceived it and who put it all together and are playing it with sure skill and good taste let you know immediately that you're watching something extraordinary take place.  (189)

Amen.  I'm grateful to Chapin for his in-depth look at the creation of Follies, and to Zadan for teaching me all those years ago that enjoying the show is only icing on the cake; perceiving the thought and work that went into making the show is what makes it "something extraordinary."

Monday, July 18, 2016

Film Noir Makes Me Happy:
Chinatown and LA Confidential

I watched Chinatown and LA Confidential again under ideal circumstances, i.e., in my friend Susan's darkened den on a summer night, cold martini in hand.  It's strange, though: both films concern sad people who dislike themselves for the disgusting or violent things they do.  So when we see a still photo from the films, or hear a lonely trumpet over brooding orchestra that reminds us of Jerry Goldsmith's music (he scored both titles), why do we go "ahhh," as if it were a snapshot of last summer at the beach?  Why do we look forward to revisiting their retro-noir landscapes?

First, there's the story for both movies, simple and uplifting. Sure, the plots concern misdeeds and betrayals so twisted that I still can't tell you for sure which woman had coffee at the fatal diner in LA Confidential, nor why that matters; nor can I say of Chinatown whether the victim's wife witnessed his murder.  But the story, as opposed to plot, is simple: when a cynical man arrives at a place where the truth is worse than he thought, he finds there a wise woman who needs his help.  For her sake, he takes action with newfound passion for justice.  What could be more uplifting?  LA Confidential gives us three such men, though only two live to the finale.

It occurs to me just now that the story of descent through stages of darkness to bring a woman up to the light shares a lot with Ovid and Dante.  So this basic story may also stir us from deep down in our collective unconscious. 

Reasons two and three for taking pleasure from such on-screen misery comprise a matched set.  We're caught up in artifice as dazzling as a Busby Berkeley musical number, while being flattered that we're in the know, seeing the world as it really is. 

The artifice begins with the baroque intertwining of plot lines, but also involves a lusciousness of style that we respond to on several different levels.  A thoughtful essay by Jake Hinkson at considering "retro-" v. "neo-" noir, places both films in a broader context:

Retro-noirs can certainly be done well—Chinatown and LA Confidential are about as good as movies have a right to be—but they come with certain pitfalls. Like all period pieces, they erect an additional layer of unreality between their story and the audience, a fabricated distance of time. There’s something distracting when a modern star slips on a fedora and fires up a Lucky Strike. This ties into another problem with Retro-noirs: they have to negotiate the pull between being a reenactment of another time period and a reenactment of the movies of another time period.  (Hinkson)

Hinkson feels uneasy about the unreality, but not I:  The unreality of it is part of the fun, no less than seeing chorines tapping on the tiers of a wedding cake.

The style of noir dialogue is easy to parody because it encompasses both Shakespearean eloquence and Pinter's theatre of menace.  In LA Confidential, when "Exley" asks "Lynne" what she sees in detective "Bud White," she answers in six or seven lines in a row that begin the same way and build to a devastating punchline: it's a soliloquy in verse.  Police Captain Dudley Smith delivers a memorable address on police ethics, comprised all of rhetorical questions. Then, because the world of film noir is so layered with lies and menace, even mundane lines have ironic implications, such as the simple statement, "He used to be a cop. Ha!"

While all this style washes over us, we're buying the noir line that this is Truth, the way our world really works.  In both Chinatown and LA Confidential, the trail of the killers leads upward to the highest echelon of LA society and government.  That gives us a feeling that this game matters.

The noir view is oddly comforting, too, in the way that conspiracy theories help some people to cope with randomness in the world.  So Secretary of State Clinton said she didn't exchange any classified emails on her private server, but investigators found the notation "C" for "confidential" beside portions of emails: Do we want to know that a figure on the world stage skims her emails the way regular people do?  Yet, having studied histories of Presidents Johnson and Nixon a few years ago, I found,  "Sensitive to criticism, paralyzed by the fear of failure, prone to miscommunication, careless of facts that don't go with our preconceptions: that's all of us, even Presidents, Vice-Presidents, and Cabinet officials" (from my blog post Half Way with LBJ).

The world is messy.  But film noir is neat and stylish.  At the end of a week of news that's hard to take, the world of Chinatown and LA Confidential is dark but beautiful.

Of related interest:
See Black, White, and Noir, my reflection on crime novels by Walter Mosley and Ross McDonald, and a reflection on the complete Philip Marlowe series by Raymond Chandler, It's About the Driver, not the Drive.

For more on international leaders who were just as lost as anybody else, see How Little We Knew How Little They Knew: Nixon and Kissinger, and Partners Across Party Lines: The Presidents' Club.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Slow Motion Emotion:
John Adams's Christian Zeal and Activity

A recorded bit of twangy sermon loops over strings that stretch one verse of a hymn to ten minutes.  Add the title Christian Zeal and Activity, and it seems like a recipe for ironic comment on That Old Time Religion.  But John Adams' composition is a lesson in how music and text can combine to powerful emotional effect.

[I base my comments on the recording in 1986 by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Edo de Waart, included on the album The Chairman Dances. Photo: The album and the composer.  I've written about Adams many times.  Find links at my article Thanks to and From Composer John Adams. ]

In his memoir Hallelujah Junction, Adams tells how he wrote the piece in 1973 to be the middle portion of a suite he called American Standard.  Under the influence of "experimental music," he made room for chance in the composition.  Adams admits that a lot of the "experiments" he and his contemporaries tried "seriously pushed the boredom envelope" (Adams 85), and he doesn't have much good to say about the outer movements of his triptych, but the middle movement was more successful (75). Adams taped a late-night radio call-in show for the premier recording (produced by Brian Eno); but he later created the tape collage "Sermon" that Edo de Waart used for this marvelous recording.

The music sounds long before we hear the spoken words.  We can discern the tune and chord changes of Sir Arthur Sullivan's martial hymn "Onward, Christian Soldiers," once we realize that the string orchestra takes over a minute to play even one phrase.  (I might still not know except that my friend Jean named the tune 30 years ago, under sixty seconds.) Silence follows each phrase.  Under the melody, Adams lets some of the voices push ahead or lag behind, blurring the chords and prolonging tense dissonances.   

Adams himself describes how "the individual SATB voices ... float apart from one another like slow bubbles rising in a dense liquid."  The piece "never quite climaxes," according to commentary on the website for WNYC radio, "but instead remains suspended in a state of wonderment."  That's a great description: In our age when "slow" means "sad" or "boring," Adams gives us "wonderment" in his pensive, shifting, arching lines.

Adams "composes" the taped sermon just as musically.  The preacher's voice is inherently musical, with wide variety in pitch and contrasting dynamics.  He tells how Jesus, healing those who were "afflicted of the devil" was "drawn to a man who had a withered hand."  In his collage, Adams takes some of the high notes as a first theme, "draw-awn to a withered hand" and "I believe this story has a meaning for us right here in this year in which we live, right now."  When the preacher drops pitch and volume to caution us, "No one can forgive sins but God,"  Adams plays around with that phrase awhile, for contrast.  Then Adams mixes them up as Mozart would do in the development portion of a classic sonata, an effect intended to create tension.

But Adams also uses the meanings of the words to build tension. The preacher asks, "Why would Jesus have been drawn to a withered hand?"  Adams repeats the phrase and overlaps it with echoes until we're all anxious to know the answer, which comes at last in silence:  "Well, a withered hand can't hold on to anything."  What follows is a gentle coda of material from the sermon that we haven't heard before, as the preacher himself seems caught up in the emotion of the miracle.

On the San Francisco Symphony's recording The Chairman Dances in 1986, this was a slow piece among show pieces. The title number and Short Ride on a Fast Machine are orchestral head-bangers that I played on my Walkman to keep me focused driving on I-10 to Houston for the premier of Nixon in China, 1987.

I didn't get much out of Christian Zeal then, but this year it has overcome me with strong feelings.  It's hard to say exactly what those feelings are.  It's something about a recognition how deeply we need each other, an assurance in the "community" of voices in the string orchestra that we can search and find together, and that we can heal and be healed by love.  It's something about what we hold on to, and what we let go.

YouTube gives us several pictorial accompaniments for this recording.  The one with Legos is sweet.

Adams, John. Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life. New York: Farrar, Staus and Giroux, 2008.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Art Doesn't Have to Be Great to be Good

Much as I long for it, time off from teaching is dangerous time for me.  I feel restless, listless, useless, all around less.  Two appointments had fallen through; I thought of blogging, but felt I had nothing to say;  I'd already walked my dog twice and Mom's dog Sassy, too; the news was depressing.  So I opened up Dean Koontz's novel The City where I'd left off last night.  I was just thinking to myself, "For an adult supernatural suspense thriller, this is a nice Young Adult novel," when I got sucked in.  Now my heart's pumping, and I'm thinking about a half dozen things at once.

Here's what got to me:

Koontz's narrator remembers touring an art museum at age ten, led by his buddy's cute 17-year-old sister.   He's "chilled to the bone" seeing "The Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius (Dutch, d. 1654).  He explains:

The finch is restricted to the box by a fine-link chain ... at most two feet in length, allowing it to test its wings and fly only to change its position on the box....  The cruelty of the finch's captivity... tortures your heart....(393 in Kindle)

But more than this, our narrator is disturbed by "something in its posture" that shows "stoic suffering."  Then, our narrator focuses on the bird's eye (see detail; it can be enlarged):

[In the right eye] glimmered a liquid drop of light, a simple bit of mastery that convinced me that this painted bird could indeed see.  Its stare was direct but more than merely direct.  There was a depth to the eye, as if not only the bird looked through that eye at its keeper, but as if all of nature looked and saw and knew the extreme cruelty of this imprisonment. (394)

Eyes are a motif in this novel: a cruel woman's lifeless staring eyes in a nightmare, a derelict toy's fabric eye that seems to follow our hero around, the lens of a spy camera that snapped a photo of the boy while he slept, and the cutout of a model's eyes sent to him as a warning that he's being watched.  The boy has kept these things to himself, and he feels guilty for lies to his loving mother.  Koontz taps into that and more with the next bit about God, not only Creator of Nature, but in nature, too: "[T]hrough that moist and feeling eye, the Maker of the keeper watched... and saw and loved the keeper for his potential, but mourned his cruelty... and it regarded me... saw me and knew the good and bad in me."

This leads at last to an epiphany about himself:  "Like the bird, I was chained, and the links in the chain were my lies, so that I was both bird and keeper, chained and endangered by my own actions."

So I'd just been thinking that this novel was okay, a little didactic, a little too sweet.  The man who wrote these passages is still being a little didactic, a little too sweet, but now I don't care.  Bring it on! I feel energized and involved, and my worries and annoyances have receded.

Art doesn't have to be great to be good. 

Friday, July 08, 2016

Ann Cleeves' Vera Stanhope:
Silent Voices and Harbour Street

Detective Vera Stanhope, we read, "was large and shambolic, with bare legs and blotchy skin.  She never wore make-up. Vera looked poor"(SV 46).  She huffs and puffs up a stairway in pursuit of a suspect; at home, alone, she drinks herself into a stupor at the end of a frustrating day's investigations. She sometimes sees herself through others' eyes: "ageing, ugly, slow.  Felt their pity" (SV 216).

In the series of novels by detective writer Ann Cleeves, Vera has intelligence, intuition, a remarkable ability to gain the confidences of witnesses, and prickly relationships with her underlings.  There's Holly, privileged, younger, prettier, fitter, ambitious; Vera savors moments when she can set Holly down a peg.  There's Charlie, a slovenly middle-aged man who drinks too much, but doggedly gets the information she asks him to find.  And then there's Joe, handsome, young, ambitious, father of two young daughters. His wife Sal, frequently mentioned but never encountered in the two books I've read, resents Vera's hold on her husband.  For her part, Vera takes perverse pleasure in keeping him at work early and late, to take him home for a drink and planning session long after work is over.

Cleeves tells her stories in third person through the perceptions of Vera and Joe mostly,  occasionally through Holly.  We get to know the victims deeply through the detectives' interviews with suspects.

In another series of crime novels, Cleeves has made locations in the remote Shetland Islands into a pervasive character alongside the human ones (see my Crime Fiction page); more than halfway through Silent Voices, though, I had no sense of where we were.  In fact, I had to look at Cleeves' website to learn that the Vera novels are set in Northumberland, a wide area bordering Scotland on the east shore of Great Britain.

In the Vera books, we do get to know the social substructure of peculiar neighborhoods.  In Silent Voices, it's a village bookended by a power couple in a big house at one end, a cottage with the town's pariah at the other.  In Harbour Street, a murder on the commuter train leads us to a boarding house, only residence remaining on a street of small-scale industry and boarded-up businesses. 

The fun in these novels is in the interplay of Vera and her detectives, and in the slow uncovering of the victim's past.  Events from two to twenty years ago have impacts on the investigations, giving the stories texture.  I have to admit that Cleeves has trouble with the denouement in every one of her novels that I've read.  After combing out so many possible motives and means from the cast of characters, Cleeves has trouble tying all the loose ends together.  In each of these books, there's a connection and motivation that I just don't buy.   

That makes five per cent of a novel that's a chore to read, ninety-five per cent that draws me on, chapter after chapter.

The two novels by Ann Cleeves are Silent Voices (2010) and Harbour Street (2014). I read the novels on Kindle.

Racism is about Fear before it's about Hate

Three mornings in a row, we've awakened to live recordings of fatal confrontations between police and black men broadcast by eyewitnesses via social media.  This morning, it's attacks by a sniper "mad at police" during a peaceful protest of the previous two shootings. Tuesday night in Baton Rouge, police who responded to an anonymous report of a black man brandishing a gun pinned Alton Sterling down and shot him.  Wednesday night, an officer in St. Paul who pulled Philando Castile over for a faulty tail light shot him repeatedly while the driver followed the officer's instructions to produce identification. 

In the St. Paul incident, we hear the participants immediately after the officer fired the shots, streamed live on Facebook by the driver's girl friend.   The policeman, distraught, gun still pointed, tries to justify himself to himself: "I told him to keep his hands visible!" he screams.  The girl friend, in measured, level tone, reminds the officer that he himself had ordered Castile to produce ID.  Castile had also informed the officer that he was carrying a gun and was licensed to do so.  

This is all so painful, and it's bringing forward an aspect of racism that I believe has been absent from most discussion I hear:  an irrational deep-seated fear of black men.  L.A. attorney Constance Rice (cousin of former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice), spoke most clearly on this fear during an interview broadcast on NPR's Morning Edition December 5, 2014.  [Photo: Rice with LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, 2007.  E. Charbonneau, WireImage, via Getty.]

I interviewed over 900 police officers in 18 months and they started talking to me, it was almost like a therapy session for them.... They would say things like, "Ms. Rice I'm scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I'm really scared of them. Ms. Rice, you know black men who come out of prison, they've got great hulk strength and I'm afraid they're going to kill me. Ms. Rice, can you teach me how not to be afraid of black men." 

We'd heard this fear in the testimony of officer Darren Wilson about why he shot teenager Michael Brown:  "When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding Hulk Hogan…that's just how big he felt and how small I felt from grasping his arm."

We find this fear implied in our history and literature going way, way back.  While we think that white racists have seen blacks as "sub" human, the shadow side has always been a racist fear that blacks are "super" human.   The two ideas aren't contradictions:  We still stay "he's an animal" or "he's a beast" when we describe either someone remarkably powerful or, on the other hand, someone savage and dangerously uncivilized.  Back in 1860, Mississippi's articles of secession repeated as well-known fact that only black people had the physical stamina to endure exertion in hot weather.  White men avoided direct physical competition with black boxers, baseball players and basketball players.  We laughed about it in the title of a movie, White Men Can't Jump, which suggests that black men accept the compliment.   But, as we're seeing, even "complimentary" racism is dangerous and irrational.

Of course, there's the connotation of "animal" as a super-potent sexual creature.  "Animal magnetism" was a euphemism for sexual attraction during the prissier half of the 20th century.  As far back as Shakespeare's Othello, English-speaking men have feared that a black man is irresistible to a white woman.

I have a personal story about white men's deep-seated belief of black men's irresistible "animal" power. I'll never forget driving down Ponce De Leon Avenue in Atlanta back in 1975.  My passenger was a mild-mannered middle-aged white man.  We worked alongside friendly black men every day at my dad's factory.  When he was recuperating from a broken leg, I had to drive him through town.  Suddenly he swore, spluttered, twisted and climbed, cast and all, over his seat and into the back to slam his palm on the rear window. It was awhile before I could understand what he said about what had set him off:  he'd seen a white woman and black man walking together.

We hear all that in the words of Darren Wilson, and in the quivering voice of the officer in St. Paul.  These officers, who may have not one shred of conscious racial animus, still believe, deep down, that they face an implacable entity such as we see in movies, a Hulk, a Terminator, a powerful animal or killing machine for which one bullet is never sufficient.    

Rice's prescription, practiced over years in L.A., is to go beyond "community policing," for police to be involved with the population they serve in collaborative effort to solve community problems:

You have to be able to step into the frightened tennis shoes of black kids; black male kids in particular. You have to be able to step into the combat boots of scared cops, and racist cops, and cruel cops, and good cops.
Let's also acknowledge the racism that doesn't "hate," that doesn't "disrespect," but kicks in during confrontations when reason and civility are most important. 

NPR Staff. "Civil Rights Attorney On How She Built Trust With Police." NPR Morning Edition. December 5, 2014.  

Morgan, Piers,  "This farce in Ferguson: Darren Wilson is the first 6ft 4in, 210lb five-year-old in history."  Daily Mail Online.  25 November 2014.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Deep Diva: Barbara Cook's Memoir
Then and Now

Barbara Cook's 2007 album No One is Alone ended with "Make Our Garden Grow" from Candide, the show that put her front and center among Broadway ingenues of the 1950s.  But she was not merely reprising an old hit.  At 78, she couldn't be sure that ten more years of concerts and even a Broadway show lay ahead. Her trademark silvery voice had grown a bit husky, her range a bit lower than it used to be.  She sang Leonard Bernstein's setting of these words by poet Richard Wilbur:
You've been a fool, and so have I;
But, come, I'll be your wife.
And let us try
Before we die
To make some sense of life.
The music for this anthem is stately, with wide yearning intervals, glancing dissonances, and a rising bass line, all expressing the calm resignation and hope articulated in the lyrics.
We're neither pure nor wise nor good;
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house, and chop our wood,
And make our garden grow.
After one verse, we hear Cook no more.  Kelli O'Hara takes the soprano solo, a young actress who exudes warmth and intelligence - a new generation's Barbara Cook.   Has any diva ever ceded the finale to someone else?  Cook's generous passing of the torch hit me so hard that I waited ten years to hear the album again this week.  The occasion is the release of her memoir Barbara Cook: Then and Now, written with Tom Santopietro (Harper Collins Books; Kindle edition), in which she makes some sense of her own life.

"I've Been a Fool..."
She could be a fool indeed, but she had the wisdom to stop in her tracks, reassess her life, and change on the instant.  During a visit to New York at age 20, Cook decided not to return to Atlanta with her grasping, possessive mother.  In the fifteen years or so that followed, she built her reputation on Broadway in Flahooley, Candide, the smash hit Music Man, a superior revival of The King and I, and the beloved She Loves Me. She married an actor who coached her for years and was father to her son Adam.

By the time of Hair, opportunities for ingenues had dried up on Broadway.  Disappointments in marriage and the end of her affair with a married man deepened an alcohol-fueled depression, with food addiction.  Despite a load of self-doubt and about 150 extra pounds, Cook took the offer from music director Wally Harper to produce a one-woman show at Carnegie Hall in 1975 that launched a new career as cabaret artist. Within the next year, she awoke in a panic from a night of drinking, grasped the connection between alcohol and her frequent anxiety attacks, and never took another drink.

Cook bitterly regrets that she never convinced Harper to recognize his own drinking problem.  He died in 2004.  (Personal note: I joined Harper and Cook for a reception onstage following their concert at Georgia Tech's Ferst Center, November 1, 2003.  Harper and I talked Sondheim.)  Another theme in her memoir is the fact that Harper never expressed love or even appreciation directly to Cook, though he fulfilled her dream of seeing her name on an old-fashioned marquee with flickering bulbs: he arranged for the sign to lower during a song at Carnegie Hall in 2001.   "He couldn't say 'I love you' to me, but he expressed that love through the gift of that wonderful sign." (2941)

When her adult son came out to her as gay, she cried a week, sorry for herself because she'd thought he'd "plug" her into a normal family life at last, until she sat up and realized, "Adam wasn't here to plug me into anything.  I was here to help him be Adam -- as fully as possible." (2731)  She caught herself thinking of her son as a part of herself, the same thing her mother had done to her; and she stopped.

Singing the Story
Reviewing Barbara Cook's program of songs at Feinstein's in 2012, Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote, "In each [ballad] she located its universal sweet spot and extended herself as if she were telling her own personal stories of happiness and loss."

In her memoir, Cook tells how she learned to convey her personal story in performances of songs.  She learned from watching masters of song.  In the early 1950s, a friend brought Cook to the Gold Key Club after hours, when Judy Garland sometimes stopped by to sing for friends. "[L]istening to Judy taught me how a song must contain a beginning, a middle, and an end -- that it should possess an unbroken line both musically and lyrically, while taking the listener on an emotional journey." (818).  Without much of a singing voice, Mabel Mercer "communicated the richness of good lyrics, the subtext lying beneath the surface" and would "lay into" consonants as other singers wouldn't do. (827)  From listening to Sinatra, she learned to "sing like you talk."

Aside from some TV work, Cook didn't make it on screen. About the film version of  The Music Man, she thinks Shirley Jones was good, but the whole thing was "too clean": "the horses never s--- in those streets," she writes (1790).    She tells of auditioning for a movie role alongside the unknown actress Joanne Woodward.  "She was terrible," Cook thought.  "She wasn't doing anything."  But the director called Woodward a real film actress.  There's a lesson about acting on screen.

She's still learning.  Commenting on her performance of the Rodgers and Hart song "He Was Too Good to Me" in the 1975 concert, she writes, "I sing the song much better, with greater depth of feeling.... I can't sing like I sang ten years ago, or even five years ago, but ... I probe more deeply into the lyric now and have a lot more courage to keep going, deeper and deeper." (2417)  She tells of leading master classes for aspiring singers. She hears people who "want you to know right away that they can SING, in capital letters.  They come on singing like machines." She humanizes them.  "You are enough," she assures them. "You don't need to [look or sound] like anybody else." (3176) I've read, not in this memoir, that she listens to the song once, then seats the singer across from her, knee to knee, takes the singer's hands, and says to sing to her as if telling a personal story.

Of course, in a showbiz memoir, we expect to get some dishing on celebrities.  Generally, though, Cook doesn't speak ill of others, even the dead ones.  She writes of good relationships with her ex-husband, right on up to his death, and with both her ex-lover, and his wife.  She regrets never completing a letter of gratitude for his helping her to recognize her own intellect and curiosity; he died with Alzheimer's.  Sometimes you gain and lose at the same time, she comments.

She does give us the spectacle of Leonard Bernstein's "sweeping in" to Candide auditions wearing a "long, green, loden cape lined in red satin" and black patent-leather loafers. Cook's comment? "Wow!" (1197).

While she does complain that actress Elaine Stritch had to be the center of attention, she lauds Stritch's skills and kindness.  Cook and co-stars figured Stritch had some reason of her own to be wearing a shower cap one day, until Stritch interrupted rehearsal to say, "This is what I love about show business. I walked in here forty-five minutes ago with a shower cap on my head and nobody said a goddamned thing!"  Cook substituted for Stritch at the Cafe Carlyle, explaining that Stritch had joined the cast of A Little Night Music.  "But you're not missing much," Cook told the audience.  "This is the point of the show where she drops the names of all the famous people she's f----d." Cook assured the crowd that she'd f----d a lot of people herself, only they weren't famous (2845).

Cook accepted a role in the musical adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie under development at the Royal Shakespeare Company before she discovered that none of the people involved had any idea what they were doing.  It's hard to believe her story how the designer, told that the show was to resemble Grease, understood that it was to be set in Greece, complete with drapery and helmets.  The director Terry Hands, taking the mistake for serendipity, staged the show as a Greek Tragedy (2866).  The show is a byword for musical calamity, but Cook still singles out the girl in the title role for superb ability, professionalism, and unselfish effort.

Cook and Sondheim
Cook mentions Stephen Sondheim frequently in her memoir, although she had no professional contact with him until very late in her career.  Early in the book, telling how her mother explicitly blamed three-year-old Barbara for "giving" the pneumonia that killed her infant sister, Cook comments, after Sondheim, that "children will listen" and internalize the careless messages of their parents.  She relays Sondheim's judgement that Meredith Wilson's "Rock Island" for The Music Man was one of the best opening numbers of any musical, ever.

A few years into her second career, Sondheim met her in the street and asked, "Why don't you ever sing my stuff?"   She had come close, in 1971, auditioning for the role of "Sally" in Follies, but she was deemed "too good looking" for the role of a woman on the edge of breakdown.  One reason she never sang Sondheim, she admits, is that she didn't care about the characters in Sondheim's breakthrough musicals Company and Follies, and she was repelled by Sweeney Todd.   She tells us that her opinions have been revised.  She also speculates that Wally Harper, whose hopes of seeing a musical of his own on Broadway never panned out, envied Sondheim's success (3007).

But that all changed with Sondheim's invitation to her to play "Sally" for a two-night staged reading of Follies in Avery Fischer Hall in 1985, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic.  Sondheim himself has written of hearing her perform "In Buddy's Eyes" for the first time, turning it from a "throwaway" bit of exposition into a showstopper.  Heart-stopper is more like it:  The moment is captured on the video documentary about the show.  Her own explanation?  Cook has said that she took the character at her word.  That's going against the grain, for the lyric and orchestration give numerous clues that "Sally" is trying to believe a lie.  That's why it's so effective when Cook sings, without irony, "In Buddy's eyes, / I'm young, I'm beautiful" and "All I ever dreamed I'd be / The best I ever thought of me / Is every minute there to see / In Buddy's eyes."

After that, Cook and Harper worked songs from Follies into her act.  Around the time that others had celebrated Sondheim's 70th birthday in 2000, Harper had the idea for a program of songs that Sondheim had written, alongside songs that Sondheim listed in an article for The New York Review of Books, "Songs I Wish I'd Written."  The show and its recording, Mostly Sondheim, solidified Cook's reputation as a premier interpreter of the master's works. 

Ten years later, she performed on Broadway again in the revue Sondheim on Sondheim, finding, as Holden wrote, "the sweet spot" in each song to make it feel real, and personal to her. 

"We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good; / We'll do the best we know." Barbara Cook cares about integrity, learning, and generosity: The best she knows is as good as it gets.

Of related interest:
I've blogged recently about She Loves Me, the musical that starred Barbara Cook in 1963. 
See my Stephen Sondheim page for articles about his musicals mentioned here.

Friday, July 01, 2016

She Loves Me: Live Stream from Broadway

She Loves Me! was streamed live last night, from Broadway, to my laptop. The audience was cheering up there at Studio 54; down here on my screened-in deck north of Atlanta, we had crickets, real crickets, but I burst into applause myself.   Thanks,

[Photo collage (clockwise from upper left): Laura Benanti as "Amalia," Zachary Levi as "Georg," Jane Krakowski as "Ilona," and Gavin Kreel as "Kodaly"]

She Loves Me, with book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, was originally directed in 1963 by Harold Prince.  Since then, as if by law, everyone must use the words "charming" and "jewel box of a musical" to describe it, and must express regret that it got lost among brassier and more epic shows of its time, including something by Bock and Harnick the next year called Fiddler on the Roof.  Duly noted.

These days, it's also necessary to mention that the plot has been borrowed many times, most recently for the film You've Got Mail.  Two intelligent single people,  anonymously engaged in passionate correspondence through a newspaper "lonely hearts" ad,  set up a date to meet, each afraid of disappointment.  The woman, "Amalia," sings...

Will he like the girl he sees?

If he doesn't, will he know enough to know

That there's more to me than I may always show?

Will he like me?

Will he know that there's a world of love

Waiting to warm him?

How I'm hoping that his eyes and ears

Won't misinform him.   ("Will He Like Me?" from She Loves Me)
Unknown to Amalia, "he" is her co-worker "Georg," with whom she shares healthy mutual animus. No spoiler alert needed, here:  Very early in the play, one of the other clerks at the parfumerie observes that the two of them are very attracted to each other; they just don't know it, yet.  Complications ensue, including a subplot featuring flirty Ilona and her suave cad of a lover Kodaly.  The end is never in doubt, but we all enjoy Amalia's shock when she sings, "Right before my eyes, / A man that I despise / Has turned into a man I like!"

The set for this show was mostly the parfumerie where all the characters are employed, which opened up like a jewel box indeed, set in the center of a town in Hungary, early twentieth century.  The gentle pastel colors fit the gentleness of the story.

"Fit" is key, here.  Performed live, there's this miracle of precision-for-purpose that excites in the way that qualifies certain moments in sports as "legendary", only these performers have to do it every night!  Zachary Levi as "Georg," singing, "She loves me!" loses his hat when he cartwheels, then kicks it up into his hand on the last beat of the rhyming last word of the song: What a risky move, but it nails this moment of exuberant emotion, and it earns a payoff in warmth and appreciation from us.  The show crackles with moments like this that fall into place with the naturalness of Sheldon Harnick's rhymes.

Films of musicals can't be this good:  musicals' charm and power derive from the synergy of all its components clicking together.  There must be that element of risk and that warm interaction between audience and performer.   Here's hoping that this Broadway - in - HD program will take off the way the Metropolitan Opera's HD-live series has done for the past ten years, to widen the appeal of this great art form world-wide. 

[By coincidence, I've just read the memoir by Barbara Cook, who originated the role of "Amalia," and who introduced me to the songs "Will He Like Me?" "Dear Friend," and "Ice Cream" during her 1975 comeback concert at Carnegie Hall.  Read "Deep Diva," my impressions of her book.]