Jan 31, 2008

A Web Quiz Would Never Lie


I was already sold anyway, but according to this, it would be wrong for me not to vote for Obama.

Pitch "Jump"


From Warmowski, this priceless Van Halen train wreck, summed up here:

So what happens when you’re Van Halen, the last song in your set list is the million-seller “Jump” with its synthesizer-keyboard opening…and the recording you’re using to play back the synth is accidentally run at 48K instead of 44.1K?

Ouch. If you're wondering what the fuss is about, you can really hear it at about the 1:50 mark, and again at 3:00. It makes Stockhausen sound like Schubert.

Jan 30, 2008

Fabulous "Fabrik"


I must second this Times rave for the beguiling Fabrik, which plays a bit like the Muppets doing a Nazi-era docu-fable as conceived by Ernst Lubitsch. What's not to like?

Jan 29, 2008

Simonized


I used to have a quick and easy answer for those who asked about my musical influences/favorites: Elvis Costello and Paul Simon. That was true for quite a number of years, essentially from high school on. I'm dating myself here, but when Graceland came out, I was a freshman in college, and its wide acclaim made me feel vindicated, as if the world was finally (re)discovering the guy whose previous five solo records (Hearts and Bones, anyone?) I'd kept close to my vest for several happily solitary years.

Though the peripatetic, over-achieving Costello has captured my attention more consistently in the years since, and my taste has skewed away from Simon's softer-edged pop inflections, I'm fascinated to learn that BAM will host three programs of Simon's music under the rubric Love in Hard Times: The Music of Paul Simon, throughout the month of April. The first will be a concert staging of The Capeman, Simon's misbegotten Broadway show of 1998, which I couldn't bring myself to see (and whose cast album I've barely spun, sorry to say, though I relish some of its deep-dish doo-wop flavors).

The other two will cover his world-music and "American" periods. Joining him in the former concert will be a trio of artists I love in their own right--Milton Nascimento, Hugh Masekela, and David Byrne--and the former will include Olu Dara, The Roches, and Brooklyn-based band Grizzly Bear.

If Simon has reached the retrospective stage of his career, in other words, he almost couldn't be doing it better.

(One weird grace note: Apparently "Visa Signature" cardholders have special "advanced access." Now where have I heard this before [scroll to bottom of post]?)

Jan 28, 2008

John S. Becker, S.J., 1925-2008


Fr. Becker wasn't just a beloved high school English teacher and inveterate punster. He was also, for all intents and purposes, my first journalistic editor. At the monthly high school paper The Round-Up (now in an online version), for which he served as sage advisor, I covered the school's theater department (even for shows I was working on), started a pretentious literary supplement with poems and short stories, and wrote features and editorials about faculty and students (I also "covered" Brophy's football games without bothering to attend them, which in turn led to the only time I was almost beat up for something I wrote).

As both a teacher and advisor, Fr. Becker was a gnomic, solitary figure with a squinting smile and quietly exacting standards. He once glimpsed the copy of Brideshead Revisited I toted around most of my sophomore year and declared, "I knew there was something I liked about you, Kendt." He elaborated: "That's the best novel in the English language." The best novel "in the American language," he added, was Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, which I promptly and gratefully devoured.

I cannot lay my disgraceful love of punning entirely at Fr. Becker's feet, but I would remiss in memorializing him without mentioning his most-repeated signature phrase. It was typically delivered as a deadpan reply to a query from a student along the lines of, "Would you like me to turn it in on Friday?"

Fr. Becker would say, without a trace of a wink but with a certain twinkle behind the eye: "I'd be like a firefly in the rain."

It was left to the attentive student to do a double-take and inquire what Fr. Becker meant (I knew of a few students who were too intimidated or baffled to ask, thus depriving themselves of the punchline).

The priest's reply happens to sum up how I feel now, looking back fondly on him and his idiosyncratic tutelage: "De-lighted."

UPDATE: My ever-sensitive iPod just played one of Fr. Becker's favorite songs.

Sweeney Floyd

The dim-wit barber of Mayberry.

Jan 25, 2008

Super Adventures

In the midst of the Tom Cruise train wreck last week, I was impressed by this fascinatingly even-handed piece by Dana Goodyear about "Chateau Scientology" on Franklin Ave. in Hollywood. As a longtime L.A. resident, I can attest to the odd magnetism of the Celebrity Centre's grounds, directly across the street from a bustling street nightlife and a fine 92-seat theater, onto which a date and I once wandered many years ago and lingered in a pictureseque gazebo before getting weirded out and skedaddling.

I also know that for years at Back Stage West, we printed innumerable ads for the getting-into-the-business seminars at Celebrity Centre, and received a fair amount of complaints that these were simply church recruiting events (which a Scientology spokesperson admits they are in Goodyear's story).

Amazingly enough given the Scientologists' reputation for litigation and reprisal, I Goodyear had experienced no repercussions--until, that is, she received a copy of the Church's magazine Celebrity at her home, though she never gave the Church her home address.

My only run-in with the Church, apart from a few phone calls to a legal rep when I wrote this story, was even odder. To promote a gig by my erstwhile rock band in the late '90s, I sent out a postcard that whimsically employed an image of L. Ron Hubbard playing a bass guitar (found on this site). I didn't identify the image as such, and its provenance was lost on most of the recipients of the postcard. But apparently someone on my mailing list worked for the Church and recognized the photo, because I promptly received a cease-and-desist letter! I promised not to use the image again, but I also saved the letter and put the lawyer on my band's mailing list. Fair play, I'd say.

Jan 16, 2008

The Rep Rap

I'm glad to see that a discussion about the lack of resident and/or rotating repertory companies in contemporary American theater has been taken up, spurred in part by Mike Daisey's recent Under the Radar show How Theater Failed America (which I regrettably missed). I'm also gratified to see that in their discussions around the topic, Isaac Butler and Scott Walters, in their own different ways, link this lack of local autonomy to the lack of that sense of community which theater is ideally supposed to reflect and create.

That's at least part of the reason I'm so excited that Bill Rauch, founding artistic director of Cornerstone, has taken over the nation's only remaining (and thriving) resident acting company, Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Bill's first season there begins in a few weeks, and it looks exciting. But he didn't start Oregon's practice of employing upwards of 70 actors on steadily improving 10-month contracts for decades now. Having witnessed the results firsthand for several seasons around the recent turn of the century, I can say that the sense of connection between audience and performers is palpably different than in most of the regional theaters I've covered (and that includes, with a large number of exceptions, many of the New York shows I've seen, though on this point I should defer to colleagues who've been around NY longer). And it resonates exactly with the way I hear Brits glow about both the grind and the grandeur of rep (along with a handful of Americans who enjoyed the glory days of the Guthrie or ACT), and it resonates also with the way the best of L.A.'s tiny, barely-paying theaters, in my experience, created a islands of community in an often unforgiving cityscape, and needless to say in lieu of remuneration.

The other reason is that, as anyone who's read this blog for a while probably knows, Cornerstone and OSF are two of my favorite companies anywhere, and though they wouldn't be the first two theaters I would put side by side in my mind, the match-up of Bill and OSF increasingly seems intuitively right, and is a credit to both of them (and, if I may preen for a moment, feels like a mutually reinforcing vindication of my taste).

The links go deeper and stranger, if you'll indulge me an entirely personal digression. I recently found out that my birth mother's mother is originally from Medford, the nearest big town to Ashland, Ore., and the site of the nearest airport, into which I've flown many a time. My birth mother has told me that her mother used to tell her tales of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. That gave me a bit of a tingle down the spine.

Weirder, perhaps, if not as eerie, is that on my recent, entirely non-business trip to Mexico, one of the chaps who co-ran a lovely b&b I stayed at happened to be Craig Hudson, founding director of Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland, who still spends about half his time in Oregon and knows the Festival and its personalities very well. What are the odds? It is a small, synchronicitous world at times--the theater world, I mean.

Jan 15, 2008

Separated at Birth?

This priceless post, comparing Republican presidential candidates to classic Buffy villains (h/t Matt Yglesias), made me realize who John McCain keeps reminding me of, physically: It's late-career Charlie Chaplin, strangely enough. Given how poorly Chaplin's last starring role, in A King in New York, went over, I guess it's not a comparison the Senator from my home state will want to own.

Golden Time


One of the events I treasured most last year, or any year, was the Golden Festival, hosted by the awesome brass band Zlatne Uste. This Balkan music blowout at Good Shepherd School on 207th and Broadway featured bands playing on three floors all night (and a dance workshop the night before, for those who want to master the more involved time signatures). I had a great time trying not to get stepped on and standing in line for authentic food and beer, and it's also where I happened to discover and meet one of my favorite musicians. So I've awaited this year's festival eagerly--eagerly enough to schedule my recent Mexican vacation around the date of the fest. I won't make it to the dance workshop (I'll be at a show by one of my favorite songwriters), but Golden Fest? With the proverbial bells on.

Jan 11, 2008

High ¨Five¨

I´m in the lovely town of Taxco sitting at a hotel computer with a slightly wonky keyboard, but I thought I´d keep the blog up to date with this exciting link to my Time Out feature on Slaughterhouse-Five. Back next Monday.

Jan 4, 2008

Off to DF


The "holidays" were just a warm-up. My real vacacion begins tomorrow south of the border. I can't wait. Back on the 14th. Till then...insert appropriate Spanish-language farewell.

Jan 3, 2008

Karmic Debt

When you review theater, it seems, you can accrue a big one. In a spirit of generosity, I'm not going to bother to link to my one-star Time Out review of the still-running Off-Broadway play Pied-a-Terre, but I will offer this entertaining blast from my critical past, which I recently stumbled upon in the thickets of the Interweb. Favorite quote:
While two wasted hours in a theatre typically feel like crawling through broken glass, I found this show oddly, perhaps morbidly cheering; it brought to mind the classic Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episodes that skewered such misbegotten vanity projects as Manos, the Hands of Fate or Soul Taker. Digging for Fire isn't just bad; it's fascinatingly terrible.

I sincerely wonder what became of those involved in the play in question, a romantic comedy about urban planning, and whether if, in some future life, I'll be making this review up to them (or if they'll be repaying me those two hours).

"Bubble" Bounces Back

One of my oldest friends from AZ, Cinco Paul, had the relative misfortune to have as his first major screenwriting credit the misbegotten film comedy Bubble Boy. But he's having the last laugh, or rather the first in a series of fresh laughs, by turning the film, which featured the not-yet-star-minted Jake Gyllenhaal and Marley Shelton, Swoosie Kurtz, and Stephen Spinnella (surely grateful to be unrecognizable as a freak-show Chicken Man), into a frothy, winking musical. I've heard a bit of it, and it's very funny, in ways and places the movie just wasn't. I wish I could make it to the musical's workshop bow, at the Scherr Forum in Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza Feb. 7-8, if only to see how they're going to stage the title character's cross-country journey in said bubble. Tickets can be had for a mere $10 by calling (818) 665-6366.

Happily Haunted



Stephen Sondheim has said that his first exposure to classical music was through the sweeping orchestral scores of old Hollywood films, and no work of his own shows the traces of that cinematic inspiration more than his brilliant, bloody operetta Sweeney Todd. Indeed, Sondheim has even singled out a particular film, a little-seen 1945 potboiler called Hangover Square, about a crazed, murderous composer in early 20th-century London, as a direct influence. The score is by Bernard Herrmann, but for my money I hear the influence of Herrmann's Hitchcock scores more pronouncedly in Sweeney. Here's a suite from Hangover...







...and the opening theme of Pyscho, which, with its tightly wound major-minor-seventh dissonances, seems closer to Sweeney's mood to me.

In an important sense, then, Tim Burton's new Gothic, Grand Guignol horror-movie adaptation of Sweeney Todd feels like a kind of a homecoming. Indeed, the instrumental score seems so at home onscreen (abetted by Jonathan Tunick's souped-up and revivified orchestrations), and Dante Ferretti's production design and the mostly spot-on casting do so much of the storytelling so breathtakingly well, that the singing, I hate to say, almost feels superfluous. It's an impression only heightened by the relatively weak voices of all but Edward Sanders' extraordinary Toby and the young lovers (whose roles, alas, have been trimmed to their merest plot functions--an imbalance that hobbles the film's second half).

Still, this is a fascinating, often thrilling exercise, unlike any other movie musical ever made or likely to be made again. The oft-noted intimacy of film pays big dividends: For as many lyrics as were snipped (and missed), there were a few I'd never quite registered before, particularly Mrs. Lovett's plaintive, heartbreaking, "I love you, I love you," in her nearly final moments with a freshly enraged Sweeney. This was one case where the quality of the singing voices didn't matter as much as the tightness of the two-shot filled by a pair of masterful film actors, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, who could have had booming careers in the silent era. (They're that good, really.)

If I didn't have such a weak stomach for the over-the-top bloodletting (and, perhaps worse, the relentless spectacle of bodies toppling head-first onto the killing floor, or burning alive), I'd gladly pay full-price to see it again soon. Until I do see it again, though, I'm happily haunted by Sondheim's score, which, even in the artfully trimmed form used in the film, remains such a marvel of leitmotivic construction that I can't think of one tune from it without thinking of another, and another--"By the Sea" makes me think of all of Mrs. Lovett's music, and vice versa, while "Poor Thing" seems to lead inexorably to "Ladies and Their Sensitivities" and on to "Pretty Women" and on to "Epiphany," and so on. Few scores in any medium are so richly and finely interwoven--apart, perhaps, from the best of Bernard Herrmann.