Dec 5, 2008

Brother David

I'm pre-sold on anything Elvis Costello does—take it or leave it, the guy's work is like a family member in my life—so of course I tuned into Spectacle, his new Sundance talkfest. The premiere with Elton John was, for me, must-watch TV, even with Sir Elton's digressive ramblings and Elvis' professorial clucking, and musical performances that were decidedly ragged. If it doesn't quite promise to be the musical version of Inside the Actors Studio (and would we really want that?), with EC in charge it looks to be a warm and informed forum for musical advocacy, at least.

To wit, though I was happy to see the always-worth-plugging Leon Russell and Laura Nyro get due props, I was gobsmacked to witness the finale: A mini-tribute to the late, great David Ackles, a Leonard Cohen-ish singer/songwriter whom Costello has championed before and whose exposure on Spectacle this week, and endorsement by the likes of Sir Elton, may be the high watermark of his fame thus far.

One comment by Costello struck home bittersweetly for me: that with Ackles' acting and theatrical background (he had been a child actor), he might have had the kind of success in the theater that Sir Elton has had. This struck me in particular because I had the good fortune to meet Ackles years ago, before I knew of his pedigree or his famous fans, when we were both members of the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in Los Angeles (not affiliated with New York's BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, and since renamed). That makes us sound more like colleagues than we really were; in fact, he served as a mentor on a troubled short musical of mine, and I'm sorry to say that the only real time I spent with him was a brief meeting at his ranch in Tujunga when, in his mentor role, he was on hand to mediate a dispute between my librettist and my lyricist, who weren't speaking to each other. As the composer caught between these two warring wrtiers, I was worried the project wouldn't happen at all. Ackles, with a singular empathy for all sides, defused the tension and graciously assured us all that the show would go on. And so it did.

I only recall hearing him present one song in the workshop—a wry, Randy Newman-ish tune from the point of view of William Randolph Hearst regarding the title subject of Ackles' musical, Sister Aimee, about the great L.A.-based preacher Aimee Semple McPherson.

I've learned some of this from a fan website for Ackles, who is much more known and loved in the U.K. than over here. Here's hoping that these two famous, bespectacled Brits will help put Ackles' distinctive work back on the map, and keep it from staying, as his moving, mysterious signature song has it, "Down river...locked away."

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