Aug 31, 2011

Bjørn Again


St. Vincent's new video "Cruel" is catchy and disturbing in roughly equal measure, but what caught my eye is the fine, understated actor playing her husband. The bearded fellow is Bjørn Johnson, whose work I relished in many small Los Angeles theater productions over the years, particularly at Open Fist, where he made a fine, thoroughly unsentimental Macheath in their excellent 2005 production of Threepenny Opera (using Jeremy Sams' razor-sharp translation), and at the Boston Court, in which an uncharacteristically beardless Bjørn emerged impishly from an onstage trunk (if memory serves) in Chuck Mee's Summertime. (A rather vapid description of the video shoot, courtesy the singer, is here.) Since I don't watch episodic TV much at all anymore, I no longer have the pleasure of stage-talent-spotting in that venue, so it's always nice to see some favorite thesps pop up in unexpected venues. (Speaking of which, has this ad given you pause lately?)

Aug 26, 2011

Friday Links

Readings from around the Intertubes:
*None of whom I've "worked for," incidentally. My entire career in the American theater consists of music for a handful of productions in sub-100-seat theaters in L.A. and NY, and one bit of stunt casting at the Taper in '99.

Aug 22, 2011

Running With It


Photo by Anne Cusack for the Los Angeles Times

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity continues its nationwide sweep, all the more remarkable because of its exceptional staging demands (real wrestling moves, multimedia), with its upcoming run at L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse. Three things I didn't have room for in my Los Angeles Times feature:
  • Playwright Kristoffer Diaz delineated three types of wrestling fans: There are marks, or "nine-year-olds who think it's all real"; =smarts, the rest of the world that realizes that, as Kris put it, "If it's on TV, it's scripted"; and smarks, those who appreciate that it's showbiz and follow the narrative behind the curtain, the real-life intrigue of the WWE, its politics, its semiotics. Frankly, that sounds like most contemporary political punditry.
  • Where did this third-generation Nuyorican from Yonkers get the Scandinavian spelling of his first name? Kris: "This is the story that may or may not be true. It's from my father, so I have to take it with a grain of salt because he lies—in a good, fun, happy, jokey way. Allegedly he wanted to name me Alejandro and my mom wanted to name me Christopher. The compromise he came up with, thinking that he was being brilliant, is that she could pick the name if he could pick the spelling. He picked Kristoffer, spelled like Kris Kristofferson, thinking she would be like, 'No, that's dumb,' and that they would have to go and pick something else. And she was like, 'Yeah, I like it,' and they ran with it. That story may or may not be true, but I love it."
  • I liked this quote: "My wife makes fun of me a little bit; when I'm writing I usually have the television on with no sound, sometimes the radio on—usually music with no words, instrumental—and then on my computer I usually have files for at least two different plays open, Facebook is open, Twitter is open, gmail is open. Sometimes I sort of have to break down and turn everything off and be in the room by myself, walk around and talk. But a lot of the time, I have everything on, and I work in very small bursts: 10 minutes on this thing, and then check Facebook. There's something about movement and overload of information, that kind of quickness and multitasking and multi-focus, that I think is really important...It's always said that we have short attention spans, but I think we have massive attention spans—I think the ability to focus and remember and concentrate on multiple things at once, is something totally new."

Aug 17, 2011

A Keeper From Hunka

My fellow blogger/dad/theater writer, George Hunka, has a thoughtful and encouraging post about the value of reading plays vs. seeing them staged.
That a written drama only comes alive on the stage is one of those truisms that could stand debunking. Certainly something comes alive on the stage during a theatrical performance; call it a play if you wish; but it is not always the drama that is embodied in its originary form on the page. There is no such thing as a fool-proof play that reveals itself regardless of the strength or the weakness of the production in the theatrical experience. I have read many plays that I have subsequently seen in performance, and vice versa, and my experience proves this rule: no production brings out all the dimensions of a good drama; a production may further illuminate some of these dimensions, but no production will illuminate all. And for someone whose concern with theatre extends beyond what may be seen at a local stage, this armchair reader is forced to read those plays that interest him in book form — he can’t just sit around and wait for a local company to produce one of these plays, for that may never happen...

The sensitive reader of the drama will hear the voices and see the movements of the personae on the stage of his own mind: every reader a director. This is also true for listening to recorded opera: as one listens, one may see the Ring in one’s own mind either as realistic as Peter Hall’s or as abstract as Patrice Chereau’s — and any combination of the two approaches.

Aug 16, 2011

The Relevant "West Side" Quote

As I mentioned in my recent post about the Sondheim/Porgy and Bess rumble, I knew I'd seen quotes in which he'd spoken frankly about West Side Story's flaws and strengths. I just dug up the relevant graf in Meryle Secrest's biography, Sondheim: A Life, and will excerpt it here in its entirety. No, Sondheim doesn't use the word "archetype," but the gist isn't far off (emphasis mine):
What the critics didn't realize—and they rarely realize anything—is that the show isn't very good. By which I mean, in terms of individual ingredients it has a lot of very severe flaws: overwriting, purpleness in the writing and in the songs, and because the characters are necessarily one-dimensional. They're not people. What lasts in the theatre are characters, and there are no characters in West Side, nor can there be. It's the shortest book on record, with the possible exception of Follies, in terms of how much gets accomplished with how little dialogue. It's more about techniques, not about people, and Arthur [Laurents] recognized the problem right away and instead of writing people he wrote one-dimensional characters for a melodrama, which is what it is. More happens in terms of plot of the show than in almost any other musical...and with less dialogue, which is how smart Arthur is and how he recognized that's the form it must take.
He talks elsewhere of preferring the show's dance music to its songs, which he calls "very up-and-down indeed." I have to say I've always found the show wildly overrated, as influential as it is, mainly because I think Laurents' book was born dated, but I wouldn't take away a single song (or dance tune) from its miraculous score. Sondheim may love Porgy and Bess more than he does West Side Story, but I think a similar save-the-transcendent-score-from-the-creaky-book critique/rethink may apply.

Aug 15, 2011

Link See

Monday morning links with your coffee.

Aug 12, 2011

Stephen Sondheim, Superfan

Here's the thing: Patrick Healy's feature about Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks' new musical adaptation of Porgy and Bess was a big fat target; I myself read it with very mixed feelings about what they're doing with the material, not because I doubt the artistic integrity of their efforts (a judgment which properly waits to witness the results) but because they spoke about the project in such self-parodically process-y terms—"fleshing out" the characters and giving them back stories (spare us the back stories, please!), getting audiences to "care" about and "invest" in the story. That kind of talk always sounds silly and indulgent, regardless of the quality of the work produced.

And for those who believe that Porgy and Bess is already a great and complete work of art, the efforts of this new company to "improve" the original surely seemed like arrogant sacrilege. They certainly did to Stephen Sondheim, for whom Porgy and Bess is the high-water mark of American musical theater, period. His furious letter to the Times is a classic and utterly characteristic jeremiad against sloppy revisionist thinking. I particularly relished this stinging bit of sarcasm:
[Audra] McDonald goes on to say, “The opera has the makings of a great love story … that I think we’re bringing to life.” Wow, who’d have thought there was a love story hiding in Porgy and Bess that just needed a group of visionaries to bring it out?
The meat of his objection, and his counter-perspective, is here:
[Ms. Paulus] fails to recognize that Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin’ Life and the rest are archetypes and intended to be larger than life and that filling in “realistic” details is likely to reduce them to line drawings.
Sondheim has made this sort of distinction before, and about a show whose lyrics he's famous for: West Side Story. I can't call the precise quote to hand (I thought it was in Finishing the Hat, which I have with me here at work, but it must be in the Secrest bio, which I have at home*), but he has essentially said that for him Tony and Maria et al are not characters but archetypes, which puts the merits of that show closer to the realm of opera (or dance-theater, which is West Side Story's central strength). What's odd about Sondheim making this point is that his own best work as a songwriter/dramatist is all about character and complexity, not archetype, as he told me earlier this year:
A lot of the shows I've been connected with have been very character-driven. The characters created by the book writers I've worked with have all kinds of subtleties, and they come across better, I think, when the camera is close in on them...They are closer to characters in straight plays than other musicals.
So an artist appreciates a kind of work he himself doesn't do; nothing new there. Indeed, there has always been a kind of disarming humility and wistfulness about the way he valorizes Porgy and Bess, as if it's a miracle he can only approach as a fan and never aspire to as a writer—an attitude that's all the more striking because he (justifiably) has it about very few other canonical works or artists.

But is Porgy and Bess an irreproachable masterpiece? I've only seen it once, maybe 20 years ago, in a version of the famous Houston Grand Opera revival, and I was sufficiently awed if not quite bowled over by it. I've spent some time with the score and I like most of it, love some of its famous numbers and cherish some less celebrated bits ("Clara, Clara," "I Ain't Got No Shame"). But is it as good as Tosca or Le Nozze de Figaro, let alone Sweeney Todd? I'm not sure.

There's another elephant in the room with Porgy. Sondheim, probably unintentionally, nearly alludes to it. Dismayed at one of the production's choices re: Porgy's disability, he writes:
Ms. Parks (or Ms. Paulus) has taken away Porgy’s goat cart in favor of a cane. So now he can demand, “Bring my cane!” Perhaps someone will bring him a straw hat too, so he can buck-and-wing his way to New York.
Number 1, ouch; there's no wrath like that of the scorned superfan. Number 2, I'm sure Sondheim only intends a vaudeville reference with "buck-and-wing," but it evokes the not entirely discredited critique of Porgy and Bess's racial content. After all, another way to spell "archetype," particularly when it's invoked by white writers portraying people of color, is "stereotype." For myself, I think Dubose Heyward and George Gershwin come as close as any white folks in their era possibly could to being above reproach on this issue, particularly in the show's signature songs. I like the way Parks put it recently in American Theatre:
Paulus and Parks are facing Porgy's thorny problem of racial stereotyping head-on. Parks talks about the script's flirtations with minstrelsy as a "shortcoming of understanding." As she puts it, "I see what the writers were doing. This was born of love for black people. We're not going to indict them, we're just going to keep working on it."
Even Paulus' own quotes in the same piece (by Chris Wallenberg) are more reverent and mollifying than the ones she gave Pat Healy:
"Every choice I'm making with this production is to strip away any distancing gauze and make it feel immediate and visceral," she continues. "What's great about a show like Porgy and Bess is that it's all there—the incredible drama, incredible people, incredible emotions. But you can remove that distancing lens and make it immediate, which doesn't mean that you have to update it or make it modern."
Bottom line, all this fuss won't just be good for P&B's box-office in the fall. As my colleague Jason Zinoman put it on Facebook:
What I love about [Sondheim's letter] is just how much the guy gives a shit. About the work. Even if he's wrong, even if he's narrow-minded or conservative or unfair, this is a kind of passion that is all too rare in the theater world. This is the kind of theater rant I can get behind because there's not a trace of careerism or petty gossip or personal bullshit. It's just he has a strong opinion about Porgy and Bess and that really matters more than hurting someone's feelings or being impolite...Now if Diane Paulus also believes as strongly, she can double down, make a persuasive case for her vision of P and B and prove him wrong. I am looking forward to seeing it more than ever.
Ditto.

*I located the quote and posted about it here.

Aug 10, 2011

Parton Trumps Harburg


I don't think the woman can do no wrong, but anyone who wrote both "Jolene" and "Down From Dover" is doing something right, and heartily worth a tip of the margarita at El Chavo. But a fun piece in the Los Angeles Times about links between Shakespeare and country music gives us yet another reason to revere Dolly Parton. Check out this stanza from her 1993 single "Romeo":
Hey Romeo where art thou
Get out here on the floor
I want to dance you darlin’
‘Til you forget wherefore
Did you catch that? Dolly actually used the "wherefore" correctly (and cleverly). That arguably beats even the great wordsmith Yip Harburg, who once had a tin man sing, "Picture me/A balcony/Above a voice sings low" and then look around as an offscreen voice chirped, "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" I guess the case isn't open-and-shut, but it sure sounds like Harburg is tossing off the line the way it's most often misunderstood (as a question about location). Score one for the Great Smoky Mountain gal.

Aug 9, 2011

The Dropped Sandwich


The only Sondheim shows I haven't seen are Saturday Night, Anyone Can Whistle, and Follies, and only the last is a canonical work. I have a reasonable excuse in that Follies is pretty infrequently produced, in large part because, as Sondheim puts it in Finishing the Hat, the show is a "bit crippled by its size, ambition, and mysteriousness." So, though I've heard mixed things about the new revival en route to Broadway from the Kennedy Center, I'm still looking forward to it.

My preview piece in this week's Time Out has more, including an explanation of the above headline.

Above: Sondheim in 1970

Aug 8, 2011

Just For Fun


Solo artist at work (a millennial, to boot).

Aug 5, 2011

Friday Links

From around the Webs:

Aug 4, 2011

"Posturing Wind and Rubbish"

Years ago, on my first trip to London, I happened to meet the Guardian's eminence grise Michael Billington (is there any living theater critic who's been at it as long as he? Feingold?). We had drinks and I found him unfailingly cordial. In years since, though, he's come to represent for some of my fellow bloggers the quintessence of British snobbery. This recent piece, a low blow, struck me the same way, and prompted Isaac Butler to write memorably, "If Michael Billington didn't exist, Americans would have to invent him so that they could continue to complain about British snobbery towards the U.S. Simply put, Billington's a bigot." I'm sure someone more enterprising than myself could dig through the archives of his reviews to find counter-examples that prove he doesn't hate all things American, but this one about we Yanks couldn't handle the genius of Enron wouldn't be on that list.

A recent piece finds Billington reporting on a visit to the Stratford and Shaw festivals in Canada after a quarter century absence, and pronouncing the lively arts in that Commonwealth nation at last worthy. Over at Jason Zinoman's always lively Facebook page, a link to the piece led to a freewheeling discussion of Shaw, O'Neill, and August Wilson (about whom one unidentified playwright reportedly said "his plays are parking lots for monologues"). But the pearl of the FB exchange came courtesy of Time Out's David Cote, who took the Shaw-loving theme as a pretext to dig up this classic 1977 screed from John Osborne, in response to Billington's naming Shaw "the greatest British dramatist since Shakespeare":
Having recently seen Saint Joan in London and Caesar and Cleopatra in Sydney, it is clearer to me than ever that Shaw is the most fraudulent, inept writer of Victorian melodramas ever to gull a timid critic or fool a dull public.

He writes like a Pakistani who had learned English when he was twelve years old in order to become a chartered accountant.
That's ugly stuff, but the send-off is priceless:
By the time I was 25 I had been in (admittedly bad, but no matter) productions of: Arms and the Man, Candida, You Never Can Tell, Devil's Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra, Saint Joan, Major Barbara and, perhaps worst of all, Chekhov-for-philistines, Heartbreak House.

Try learning them, Mr Billington; they are posturing wind and rubbish. In fact, just the sort of play you would expect a critic to write. The difference is simply: he did it.
For the record, I love Heartbreak House and Pygmalion and Saint Joan, and find Misalliance underrated. But the drama of a writer lashing a critic? Sometimes that's the best show of all.

UPDATE: On the other hand, this exchange between Zach Braff's TV-producer friend and New York critic Scott Brown over the latter's slam of All New People made me cringe for all concerned.