Nov 3, 2021

Wayback Wednesday: A Look Back at 'Twilight'


It's hardly an exaggeration to say that
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 was a formative work for meindeed, one of a series of groundbreaking works that Gordon Davidson's Mark Taper Forum staged in its prime, and which I was lucky to be on hand for (this roster also included Angels in AmericaThe Kentucky Cycle, and various works by Culture Clash, among others). As I am currently writing a piece about a new Twilight revival at the Signature Theatre in New York City, it's an apt time to look back on my review of the original production.

Catcher in the Riots

Anna Deavere Smith's illuminating 'Twilight'

Los Angeles Downtown News, June 21, 1993

by Rob Kendt

Arbritators and mediators, in labor terms, are very different things. An arbritrator makes legally binding decisions in an impasse; a mediator gets people to talk in hopes of compromise but without the promise, or the threat, of a final solution.

In Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, playing at the Mark Taper Forum through July 18, Anna Deavere Smith proves herself an accomplished mediator—and, as with many labor disputes, one who’s been called in from out of town. At the Taper’s commission, this self-styled docudramatist/performance artist from San Francisco has spent the last year talking to srores of Angelenos about the riots, the police, Rodney King and their city’s fragile order. In Twilight, the resulting two-hour theater piece, Smith renders a couple dozen of these interviews verbatim—the theatrical equivalent of a live feed.

The verdict? First, not guiity on one count: the charge, levelled by a number of local artists last year, that Smith is a cultural interloper, an outsider with no business limning “our town”—at least not before L.A.-based performers had a chance.

The grumblers might have grounds if her show had turned out a fiasco. It did not; in fact, it is much better than could be expected. For in presenting the unique, startling compendium of voices, mannerisms, and details that make up Twilight, Smith gives us an L.A. portrait as loving as it is challenging.

And the power of its questing intelligence may have as much to do with the rigidly interlocking objectivity of her approach as with her actual physical objectivity, her looking in on a city she had known only passingly at best.

Prickly Mood

There is one woman on the stage, but she stands on the shoulders not just of her many interview subjects (see sidebar), but of the Taper's supportive staff, crew, director Emily Mann, and a rainbow coalition of dramaturgs—Elizabeth Alexander, Oskar Eustis, Dorinne Kondo and Hector Tobar. Sound like too many cooks?

Remarkably, it's not. Smith enacts characters as wide-ranging as ex-gang members, Korean shop owners, a Westside talent agent and a pair of jurors (one from the Simi Valley trial and one from the recent federal trial), with little more than a table, some chairs, a cabinet, a few coats and hats, some assorted small props. There is also the effective, if ascetic, lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes, and Lucia Hwong's prickly transitional music cues, used as throat-clearing mood breaks by sound designer Jon Gottleib.

And, early on, Smith leaves the stage to let 15 TV screens play a portentous riot montage by Jon Stolzberg, with Hwong's overstated music wilting the lily. This hectoring video cut-up turns out to be the evening's sole misstep.

Fugue Buzz

The rest showcases Smith's uncanny knack for suggestive impersonation, a matter of cadence, gesture, and attitude calibrated to a scintilla. And as the chorus of disparate voices grows, a kind of astringent, non-tonal harmony emerges.

In the most mundanely laudable sense, Smith has created a dialogue among people who may never speak or even meet, including the audience. But Twilight's form and impact more resembles music than theater: It's a fugue of discrete experiences, seen from different angles, all gathered and reproduced with such clarity that we come out practically humming its buzz; we're full of stories told by people we feel we know better.

Could a local artist have done the same? Hard to say. Does Taper director Gordon Davidson spend too much time hunting in New York (where he saw Smith's Crown Heights piece, Fires in the Mirror, last year, and quickly snapped her up for Twilight)? Perhaps.

But this doesn't take away from Smith's achievement. Twilight makes a rare and stunning case not so much for "respecting diversity" as for allowing social complexity to retain its complexity, for preserving its surreal, horrible humor and poetry. This is the stuff of art, and Angelenos should welcome it as a gift of the Magior at least, as the work of a skilled mediator. Federal arbitration, as we've seen, is a last resort.

Twilight will play through July 18 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av. "Pay What You Can" performances are offered July 3-4. Call (213) 972-0700.


Oct 28, 2021

Throwback Thursday: The Music of 'Hot l Baltimore'


At American Theatre I've often (though not often enough) had the pleasure of assigning and publishing pieces by my brilliant friend and colleague Isaac Butler. But there was a time when he assigned and edited me, for his blog Parabasis; once he asked me contribute my thoughts on Kenneth Lonergan and This Is Our Youth for a package of pieces he called "The Adolescence Issue," and another time he had me write about Lanford Wilson's Hot l Baltimore for a package of stories about that underrated American playwright. I've only seen the play onstage once, in a lovely if small-scaled production at Burbank's Little Victory Theatre back in 1996; if I reviewed it then (I think I did), I don't think I have the clipping. This tribute to the play will have to do. This is the post as it appeared on Sept. 30, 2011.   

Editor's Note: Rob Weinert-Kendt, who is an absolute badass when it comes to theatre and music, has brought his keen eye and keener pen to Lanford Wilson's The Hot l Baltimore, discussing how musicality works within a play where there is no actual music.

No one sings a note in Lanford Wilson’s sprawling yet nimble 1973 ensemble piece The Hot l Baltimore. So why does the play’s character list suggest vocal ranges for nearly half of the dozen characters, from night clerk Bill Lewis (“Baritone”) to prostitute April Green (in possession of a “mellow alto laugh”), and at least make a point of mentioning the vocal quality of all the rest (“thin-voiced” Mrs. Bellotti, Mr. Morse’s “high, cracking voice”)? It’s a clear sign upfront that Hot L Baltimore was constructed as a piece of music as much as a play—that Wilson heard it chorally. And indeed, the overlapping dialogue that was a signature of Wilson’s first major full-length, Balm in Gilead, is in evidence here, but is here more assuredly orchestrated, less jagged and cacophonous, with clear leading lines and supporting accompaniment.

But the musical quality of Hot l is more than a simple effect or device; it’s not only a matter of sound. It’s embedded into the structure of the play; its three acts follow, with uncanny, almost impersonal discipline, a classical three-part sonata form, which is the bones of all the great classical symphonies: theme, development, capitulation. The first act introduces the characters and their concerns in turn, as Bill, the hotel’s night clerk, places a rhythmic series of 7 a.m. wakeup calls, while Girl—a 19-year-old call girl who’s tried on the names Billy Jean, Lilac Lavender, and Martha without letting any of them stick—lingers behind the desk as a not entirely unwelcome annoyance. We quickly learn not only that this shabby, faded hotel is something of a losers’ last resort but that it’s destined for demolition. Apart from the residents—a trio of prostitutes, two retirees, an antsy young hustler and her slow little brother—the place sees only business visitors (johns, a cab driver, a pizza delivery man) and a sad pair of family relations interceding on behalf of former tenants.

It’s the usual outsiders’ gallery, in other words, the sort Wilson was famous for humanizing right up to the edge of romanticizing them. He gives Girl and Millie, a kindly but distracted retired waitress, a kind of yin/yang dialogue about the passing of time (Millie’s resigned to it, the Girl can’t abide it), and this constitutes much of the thematic development in Act Two, which otherwise involves the efforts of a young college refugee, Paul, to find his grandfather’s last known address, and the posturings of Jamie and Jackie, more-pathetic-than-scary hustlers trying to subsist on natural foods and the occasional larceny. Along the way, Wilson’s characters draw the obvious links between the decay of the hotel and of its residents' desperation with the crumbling state of the American polity. “If my clientele represents a cross-section of American manhood, the country’s in trouble,” says the wisecracking whore April, in a typical one-liner.

But what’s striking about these, and a number of other tart social observations, is that they’re mostly delivered offhand, effectively absorbed into the naturalistic ebb and flow of hotel lobby traffic—into the forward motion of the larger piece. And while Girl is the sort of heart-on-her-sleeve naif given to passionately youthful, painfully sincere pronouncements (“I want to see a major miracle in my lifetime!”), she gets no bravura, time-bending soliloquy, of the sort Darlene gets in Balm in Gilead.

In fact, nobody in Hot l gets speeches like that. Not only is there no big having-it-all-out, here’s-where-I-draw-the-line monologue; there’s no big showdown, either. The closest the play has to a climax is the champagne toast offered by Suzy, the svelte whore who constitutes zaftig April’s nemesis, as she departs in a cab for greener pastures and she and April spar to the point of mild tears one last time.

Throughout, the longest speeches are given to Girl, whose commentary provides something of a tissue for the play; she has a curiously moving—and yes, musical—moment in which she rattles off the names of a series of American cities, from Amarillo to Utica. And Millie has a series of reveries about her family in Act Two—slightly harrowing recollections of her family’s vanishing wealth that crack the play’s patina of nostalgia. Obviously decay and dissolution weren’t invented by the 1970s, any more than peace and love were by the ’60s.

And though all of the residents appear in all three acts, which span 17 hours of this mostly uneventful Memorial Day, Bill—the laconic night clerk who is in many ways the audience’s stand-in, the relatively sane lens through which we’re meant to view the action, and who seems in his own passive way to be quietly smitten with Girl—is entirely absent for the long second act. This isn’t just true to his situation—he’s the night clerk, after all, and the second act is set in the afternoon—it’s also a key signal that Wilson has made the individual voices in his play subordinate to the larger form and themes. This will not be primarily the story of Bill pining for Girl, or of the two having some kind of centrally meaningful exchange, at least not any more than anyone else has a meaningful exchange in this not-quite-a-home, not-quite-an-impersonal-business limbo (indeed, in the geography of Lanford Wilson’s America, Hot l sits uneasily, purgatorially between the cruel, low-life diner of Balm in Gilead and the fractured household of Fifth of July). Throughout the second act, collegiate Paul effectively stands in for Bill as a male object for Girl’s enthusiasm. But then Paul, too, recedes in Act Three, even as Girl takes on his grandfather search as her personal crusade; he’s not really all that interested anymore, either in Girl or in his grandfather.

Bill is there for this final act, though, as the long day ends, and themes that have been sounded before repeat themselves, only differently, as the Act Two development that has come between them—again, not story “development” per se, as plot strands will be left tangled in a heap like so many extension cords in a hotel closet, but thematic development—has shaded and recast them. Bill’s inchoate longing is one that resurfaces: There’s a devastating stage direction, seemingly out of nowhere, as Girl traipses upstairs after Suzy’s champagne farewell. It reads simply, “Bill looks off after her, aching.” It’s a note that Bill can’t play with his baritone, but it’s that note of sweet, unarticulated pain that sounds most strongly throughout this beautiful, haunted play.

Oct 27, 2021

That's Sahl, Folks

The passing of humorist Mort Sahl has occasioned no better piece than Jason Zinoman's in the Times. You should go read that now. For a chaser, you might check out this Interview-style dialogue I hosted between Sahl and Jimmy Tingle nearly a quarter century ago. I remember Sahl as being a fairly surly, even unpleasant guy, but there are some gems in here (alongside his egregious sexism and obligatory Clinton-bashing).

BACK STAGE WEST

April 09, 1998

Humorists' Dialogue: Jimmy Tingle & Mort Sahl

Reporting by Rob Kendt

As we near the end of the American century, we have no shortage of comedians. But how many true humorists do we have? Humoristscomic philosophers who typically work in longer forms than three-minute sets, comedy sketches, or cobbled-together "books" of well-worn materialdo indeed seem on the wane in our attention-deficit-disordered media culture.

Mort Sahl has weathered many generations of political and cultural change, first hopping onto the stage of the hungry i nightclub in San Francisco in 1954 between the folk acts to skewer the politics of his time. He always carried the day's paper under his arm, and there was always an offhandedly heavyweight intellect behind his material, which shied neither from the vagaries of pop culture nor the nitty-gritty of U.S. foreign policy. After years working in both politics and in the movie business, Sahl took some fresh 1996 election-year musings to stages in San Francisco, L.A., and New York in Mort Sahl's America.

Carrying the torch of intelligent political comedy is Boston-born comic Jimmy Tingle, whose part-autobiographical, part-topical one-man show Uncommon Sense plays at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood through Apr. 19. The show has also played at the Hasty Pudding Theatre in Cambridge and Off-Broadway; Tingle appears regularly on National Public Radio's Heat and on Jim Hightower's nationally syndicated radio show Chat and Chew.

Tingle and Sahl got together recently at the Sonora Cafe to discuss the state the art and the state of the union.

Mort Sahl: Jokes come out of point of view. And the reason there's nothing residual to a lot of the guys you see work is that they don't have any point of view. They'll say, The audience isn't interested in politics or social issues. Maybe. But there used to be shared values with the audience. There was a time in this country when you were part of the majority rather than a bunch of fractionated minorities. Not just political values; it was shared values of romance and justice. You could go to a movie, and the movies were about dreams, not nightmares. I mean, today, what would you say"I had a great time at this movie because I've always wanted to be an outlaw and go across the country robbing 7-11 stores"? (I'm sure this restaurant is full of filmmakers who are making small, passionate, personal films.)

Jimmy Tingle: And the point of view has changed. It seems that a lot of the jokes are less about the big picture and more about the everyday foibles of people, rather than the shortcomings of the political debate; it seems that the issues have taken a back seat, really, to the characters of the people. And that can only go so far.

Mort: That's part of the feminization of America; the men have been feminized.

Jimmy: I'm not feminized, Mort! Actually, though, I am a feminist.

Mort: But remember that the guys practicing that observational comedy have never been in the Army; they've never lived with a woman. They're observers--of what? Based on what? They've never been to a university, usually. You've got to go through some privation, besides what your parents do to you.

In the old days, when Sid Caesar and those kind of people were on, 10 writers would get in a room and try to focus where the joke is. Most of the comedians you see today would have started there, as writers, and they would learn the craft. Today, in a rock 'n' roll world, you're a star before you're a performer. You come and you go before you find out why you were there.

Pout and Scowl

Jimmy: In our neighborhood, the Kennedys were gods. My mother grew up on Jack's campaigns. And there was something there. It was the Democratic Party of the 1960s, and there was a lot of idealism at the time. A lot of that has gone. The Democratic Party has become more of a corporate party. They have to get on television, so they have to raise billions of dollars; it doesn't matter sometimes where it comes from.

Mort: It's the left wing of the Republican Party. I mean, you're talking about Camelot, but what they've got up there is Dogpatch. Kennedy had a pretty good sense of humor, by the way. Have you ever heard a joke from Bill Clinton? Reagan had a very ready sense of humor. It wasn't subtle, but it was available. Clinton pouts and scowls, bites his lip and cries a lot. I've never heard a joke from him. Or Gore, for that matter.

Jimmy: He needs a writer, Mort.

Mort: Why hasn't he recruited anybody? He's got Carville and those guysattack dogsbut nobody with any sense of social ridicule. Kennedy had a very intellectual sense of humor. He was actually an intellectual, if the truth were known. Now, of course, his honor is attacked with great regularity. It would be nice if some of the surviving family would defend his honor; that would be refreshing, instead of having a yard sale.

Party's Over

Mort: If I were doing a show tonight, I would say that Reagan could arouse passion in people, make them wanna march. Clinton doesn't arouse any passion in anyone, including Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey. I mean, the audience could decide whether they would want to laugh, 'cause they might want to defend hisI hesitate to use the word honor. If you wanted to get really tough, you could say: I admire the president, because any guy who could get a girl from Brentwood to do all these wonderful things for him deserves to be president, maybe even have a third term. But you can't do anything on the Republicans, 'cause there aren't any. There's no party. They're remarkably silent.

Jimmy: They're letting the press do the work. They don't have to say anything. They're starting to, a little bit. Quayle was on the other day talking about moral character. He's going to run for president in the year 2000. That would be good for us.

Mort: I don't know.

Jimmy: I mean for usnot us, the people, but you and I, doing political humor.

Mort: Oh, yes.

Go After Everybody

Jimmy: Mort, I've always wanted to ask you: What do you think the chances are of doing an overtly political show on television? Can you even do real politics on television, never mind comedy?

Mort: Well, when I started, it was totally illogical, and that was my advantage. A handicap always becomes a virtue if you're the only one who can do it. I think if we went on CNN on Friday night, and we said, "This was the week," and four of us chopped it up with our own points of view, it would go through the roof. The guys you'd propose it to, they'd tell you it can't be done, because it isn't being done. What is being done? Instead of satire, you have bitchery; instead of news, you have gossip; instead of exposure of political hypocrisy, you have jealousy. Those are the values that are traded. And that's what I mean by feminization. You need a really subversive program that would go after everybody.

Jimmy: But do think it's possible to get a show like that on the air?

Mort: I think there'd be great resistance, but I think it would stay on 20 years once you've got it on.

Jimmy: I think Politically Incorrect does a service, because it's a discussion, and I think it's entertaining, but I don't think it's subversive.

Mort: Politically Incorrect? I heard that guy defend the Vietnamese War, Maher. He says, "If you gotta draw a line in the sand and stop Communism, I'm for it." Do you know anybody that liked the Vietnamese War? General Westmoreland and Bill Maher. And then, to buttress his opinions, you have his guests: "Here she is, she plays the blacksmith on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," and she plugs the show and says that Eskimos should be anchormen. I bet if you watch Politically Incorrect tonight, they'll be talking about Clinton's sex life. True?

Jimmy: But Mort, they're responding to what's in the headlines, to the media. I gotta say, when I watch Politically Incorrect, I think they're doing a service, in the sense that it's as good as the news isit's a reflection of the news.

Mort: That's a terrible indictment, Jimmy.

Jimmy: I wonder if it's even possible to do a show that attacks or satirizes corporate America when they're required to finance the show.

Mort: The bigger outfits are terribly secure. It's the guys in between who worry. The big guys are often scholarly and cultured, and they'll laugh.

Jimmy: They're not threatened.

Mort: Exactly. But there's also a factor of self-censorship. Most kids wanna sell in; it's not a matter of selling out anymore.

Jimmy: Well, it's tough to make people angry at you, to take a risk. It's tough to do material that you know isn't going to go anywhere, that isn't going to get a laugh, but it's coming from a point of view that you believe in. But at least you feel good about what you're doing.

Mort: If the audience knows you're right, and they sense that they didn't stand up at the opportune moment, they feel they're being chastised. So you go from being a comedian who's giving them escape to being a nun who's hitting 'em in the knuckles. But if that's what it's gonna take...You have to tell the truth and keep it funny. That's all you have to do. That's a lot, though.

Oct 24, 2021

The Review Files: The Richness of 'Caroline'

 Ravishing and Ravaging

Kenna Ramsey, Tracy Nicole Chapman and Marva Hicks personify a radio in Caroline, or Change. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

I was fortunate last night to catch the new Broadway revival of Caroline, or Change, which hit me all over again with a compressed version of my previous history with it—in short, that on my first viewing it felt like too much, a hothouse flower, but on second viewing I could see it clearly as the sui generis masterpiece it is. Some great works demand such a revisit to be fully embraced; that they can stand up to a second or third look is just one measure of their greatness. I may have more to say about the new Caroline production, which could not possibly be better, but for now I want to share my review of the 2004 production that came to the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A. with most of the original cast. Almost everything I say here I would stand by and is true of the new production—including that the show still feels like something genuinely new, even almost two decades later.

Ravishing and Ravaging
Kushner's 'Caroline' Entertains, Despite the Heavy Themes

by Rob Kendt

Los Angeles Downtown News, Nov. 22, 2004

Musical theater's fuel is big, world-stopping emotion: the joy of new love, the pang of fresh heartbreak, the resilient hope of the cockeyed optimist.

Anger is a less common shade in the Broadway palette; you'll see the momentary fit of pique ("I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair") or paranoia ("Getting Married Today"), a sneer ("Officer Krupke") or a soul-wrench (Carousel's "Soliloquy"). For sheer existential rage, the kind of savage breast-beating not even music can calm, only Sweeney Todd and Ragtime's Coalhouse Walker Jr. come close, and neither reach the point of murderous extremity until fate kicks them to the curb.

In the ravishing, and ravaging, new musical Caroline, or Change, at the Ahmanson Theatre, black maid Caroline Thibodeaux (the incomparable Tonya Pinkins) starts the show mad, seething in a sweltering Louisiana basement circa 1963. She never gets over it. Instead, like the washing machine she dutifully loads, Caroline goes through spin cycles of wrath and irritation. She only comes clean at the show's heartrending climax, a "Rose's Turn"-style soliloquy in which she pleads with God not to let her anger make her evil. This is new—a reimagining of the musical not in terms of form, which playwright Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori play with freely and dexterously, but in terms of what a musical can contain, how much weight it can bear.

In telling the autobiographical story of a young Jewish boy, Noah Gellman (Sy Adamowsky, who alternates with Ben Platt), who learns a complicated lesson in class, race and economic oppression from Caroline, his family's bitter domestic, Kushner manages an astonishing feat of heartfelt hindsight. He sets the ebullient, transgressive wonder of childhood curiosity on a collision course with some hard-edged adult realities and doesn't flinch from the inevitable crash, or try to tidy up the wreckage.

The show's final hopeful notes are tenuous indeed: Noah is too young to understand what his confrontation with Caroline might mean, but we leave knowing that some kind of understanding (or at least a great musical) is in his future, just as we know that Caroline's three children, particularly the proud Emmie (Anika Noni Rose), can only hold their heads high because they've rejected their mother's corrosive defeatism.

As terrible as a load-bearing musical may sound—isn't that what opera's for?—the great news about Caroline, or Change is that it's a full-service entertainment. Tesori's restless, accomplished score is an able partner in the storytelling and characterization: Caroline has her own strange, gripping blues idiom, which she plays off a gallery of glittering personifications of her washer (Capathia Jenkins), dryer (Chuck Cooper) and radio (the shimmering girl group of Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, and Kenna Ramsey). Her kids (Rose, Leon G. Thomas III and Corwin Tuggles) sing infectious schoolyard-rhyme pop that's a cousin to Noah's tuneful, openhearted parlando. Noah's distant father (David Costabile) sings in plaintive tones that echo his clarinet playing, while his tetchy stepmom (Veanne Cox) has a steely, sunny tone belied by her music's awkward dissonance.

There's also a priceless, hora-infused Chanukah scene with Noah's grandparents (Larry Keith, Alice Playten, Reathel Bean) that encapsulates mid-century Jewish Americana with the sort of wicked but warm-hearted humor only an insider could pull off.

Riccardo Hernandez's simple, shape-shifting set and the often stark lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer have the right rough magic for the musical's free, unbounded mix of the real and the dreamlike. Not everything in director George C. Wolfe's production works so well: While I liked the conceit of the personified appliances, and a haunting, death-like city bus played by Cooper, the introduction of a motherly, benedictory moon (Aisha de Haas) feels a misstep into generic symbolism. Additionally, a few of Kushner's otherwise mostly deft lyrics veer into forced-rhyme doggerel.

But there are few such bum notes in this bittersweet Caroline. Steered by the unblinking Pinkins, this is a rare Broadway vehicle indeed: a musical with genuine tragic dimensions and a catchy heartbeat.

Caroline, or Change plays through Dec. 26 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or taperahmanson.com.

Oct 6, 2021

Lonergan, Off Again

Major Matt Mason.

In July of 2012, my friend and fellow blogger Isaac Butler asked me write a piece about Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth
for an "Adolescence Issue" of his blog Parabasis. One sticking point: I'd never seen it, though not for lack of trying. I discovered in my research for the piece that despite the splash it made Off-Broadway in 1998, it had been remarkably scarce on U.S. stages. (In addition to reading the script, I was able to catch an audio recording of the original cast doing the play.) I spun Youth's relative onstage scarcity, not to mention a lack of new work from its writer, into a whole thesis about Lonergan having "gone silent"—a take I was happy to see quickly demolished by the the release of the full cut of his contested film Margaret, the long-overdue Broadway bow of This Is Our Youth in 2014, the triumph of his 2016 film Manchester by the Sea, and the devastatingly great 2018 Broadway run of The Waverly Gallery.

That immediately dated take aside, I think the rest of my piece, placing This Is Our Youth in the context of both when it was written and when it was set, holds up and is worth having out in the world (now that Isaac's blog is password-protected). I've republished it below, with Isaac's blessing, including his intro. This hit the World Wide Web on Aug. 2, 2012.

Whether or not we've got the longest adolescence in the history of the world, we sure do keep returning to narratives about it all the time. Whether or not this is a good thing is a debate I'm all for having, but for the purposes of this issue, I suppose I'm a little more interested in what we say with these narratives. We have two pieces on that very subject. The first, from Rob Weinert-Kendt, focuses on Kenneth Lonergan's "This Is Our Youth," one of my favorite plays. —Isaac Butler 

What does it say about my generation that its putative voice—the playwright who once seemed like he might be the John Osborne, the Arthur Miller, possibly the Lanford Wilson of Generation X—has all but gone silent? True, few artists worth a damn would ever claim the mantle of generational spokesman, and dramatists—generally a high-minded and thin-skinned lot, at once self-doubting and self-important—probably least of all. But even in his heyday around the turn of the millennium, Kenneth Lonergan seemed singularly uninterested in speaking for anyone, and since then, with just two Off-Broadway plays since 2001, in speaking much at all (it was reassuring, if painful, to read that he's been partly waylaid in the interim by an Herculean struggle to get a single film completed).

Of course, in this obstinacy to be cornered or to wear a label, even that of “working playwright,” Lonergan may be the quintessential Gen-Xer: unpinnable, unmarketable, hushed into reflexive passivity by the solipsism and apparent hypocrisy of the Boomers who came before. It's a shame, though, because his signature works—the film You Can Count On Me, the plays Lobby Hero and This Is Our Youth—in fact did speak, in their halting, layered, ironic, exquisitely observed way, of and for a generation marked by lowered expectations, thoroughgoing mistrust balanced by a private and often blurry idealism, and inconspicuous consumption. My people.

I lived on the West Coast until 2005, where I narrowly missed a chance to stumble upon Lonergan in his creative infancy: In 1993, a one-act called Betrayed by Everyone was first staged at the tiny Met Theater in Hollywood, starring a young up-and-comer from the local theater scene named Mark Ruffalo. It wasn’t until 1996, when an expanded version of that one-act, now with the portentous title This Is Our Youth and still starring Ruffalo, garnered rave reviews at New York’s INTAR Theatre, that Lonergan’s name came into my consciousness. I took a rooting interest in it based on Ruffalo's participation; by then he was something of an L.A. theater star, having memorably starred in plays by local hero Justin Tanner; I was happy to hear that his performance as Warren Straub, a troubled but lovable pothead teen, in Lonergan’s play was earning him comparisons to a young Marlon Brando. As for the play, it was reportedly little short of an annunciation: Here, those who’d seen it either said or implied, might be the next Great American Play, or at the very least the next Great American Playwright.

It was brought back again in 1998 by Second Stage with the same cast, but I never ended up seeing it—because, in fact, productions of this Great American Play have been startlingly thin on the ground, particularly compared to Lonergan’s widely performed 2001 play Lobby Hero, which I managed to see twice in just a few years in Southern California (and which my colleague Jason Zinoman has called not only the better play but the best American play of the 2000s). This Is Our Youth has had three runs at regional LORT houses: at Steppenwolf in 1999, at Philadelphia Theater Company in 2001, and at St. Louis Rep in 2005; and there has been no shortage of small-theater regional productions over the years (Frisco in 2002, Chicago in 2005 and 2011, Seattle in 2008). But to date, to my knowledge This Is Our Youth has never been professionally staged in Los Angeles, even by a 99-seat theater, as even Tracy Letts' Bug and Killer Joe have been (Youth was recently audio-recorded in Santa Monica with the original cast by L.A. TheatreWorks, which is how I eventually at last heard it). Its only commercial revivals thus far have been a starry West End run in 2002 and another similarly starry one early this year in Australia. That’s right—the play purported to define a generation has played in freaking Sydney, Australia, with American film stars in it—but hasn't yet been revived in New York or even staged in L.A. What’s wrong with this picture?

I don’t have an answer; over the years I’ve chalked up the relative scarcity of This Is Our Youth to something perverse or retiring in Lonergan himself—an advanced case of congenital Gen-X diffidence. That’s almost certainly unfair; the vagaries of theater production, particularly newish-play revivals, are surely more punishing and capricious than I can imagine. So I send hopeful vibes in the direction of Second Stage, which has lately become a home for just this kind of recent-landmark revival (Howard Korder's Boys' Life in 2008, Paula Vogel's How I Learned To Drive last year, next season Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years), and toward the Signature Theatre, where Lonergan recently staged his latest lark, Medieval Play, which would make a promising site for a Youth revival, as it was last year for another landmark ’90s work, Angels in America.

In fact, reading This Is Our Youth again recently, I was struck by its only similarity to Angels: They're both Clinton-era plays about the Reagan-Bush ’80s, and that quality of recent hindsight is a defining (you might uncharitably say limiting) element of both. Of course, that’s where any similarities with Angels end, and not just in terms of scale—This Is Our Youth is a three-character, single-set, essentially-real-time two-acter, while Angels is—well, Angels. Lonergan’s play is also the clear progenitor of a divergent strain in American playwriting; while Kushner's thematic and formal ambition could be seen as clearing the path for the likes of Sarah Ruhl, Rajiv Joseph and Katori Hall, Lonergan's fine-grained neo-naturalism has clear heirs in Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, and Stephen Belber.

And if Kushner's prescient epic presaged both the right-wing retrenchment of the Bush II years and the velvet revolution in gay rights (and, it might even be argued, helped set the table for our culture's current Mormon moment), Lonergan's aimless-stoner portraiture seemingly had no such culture-wide reverberations. But it is no less a reflection of its ambivalent age; possibly moreso, because by keeping his scope narrow and his focus intense, Lonergan captures more of the texture of life as it was lived in the hangover-morning-in-America of the early '80s—1982, to be precise, the year Gay Mens’ Health Crisis was founded to address a troubling new “gay cancer” and Nancy Reagan started telling kids to “just say no” to drugs.

Indeed, it was a time when the Reagan “revolution” was making headlines but had barely begun to sink in. This accounts for some of This Is Our Youth's patina of innocence; these young folks have barely an inkling what's ahead for them, both personally and culturally. But apart from the play's stray references to the nation’s new president, most of them hostile or incredulous, there’s writing on the wall of This Is Our Youth if you know where to look: For one thing, the Upper West Side where Dennis Ziegler and Warren Straub strut like slacker princes, toking and fretting in the limbo between high school and the next indeterminate step, had in the early ’80s only fairly recently been gentrified, in the first wave of what would become the Giuliani/Bloomberg turnaround—which would in turn become an emblem of the way ascendant conservative ideas about wealth, property, and class seemed to trump (yes, I use the term advisedly) old party lines.

After all, Clinton Democrats—even the reluctant, Nation-reading lefties who thought he was a bit of redneck and would have preferred to vote for his wife—proved to be among the city’s most fervent gentrifiers, and many fit the profile of This Is Our Youth’s offstage parents. As Jessica Goldman, the brittle, argumentative 19-year-old who’s clearly into Dennis but settles, not entirely unhappily, for Warren, describes them, “kids from the Sixties who were so righteous about changing the face of civilization, and then the minute they got older they were all like, ‘Actually, you know what? Maybe I’ll just be a lawyer.’ ” The yuppie sellout was a popular trope at the time, and it had a lot of truth in it. But not only does Warren, with preternatural old-soul circumspection, seem skeptical that people change as much as Jessica imagines they do; Lonergan is also subtly sympathetic to those offstage parents, not least because he implicates us into feeling parentally protective toward the play’s confused teen trio.

The play’s final big speech, for example, puts the struggles of Warren’s dad—a self-made lingerie manufacturer whose wealth hasn’t been enough to shield him from tragedy and loneliness, any more than the $15,000 in cash Warren has casually lifted from him could do—into sobering perspective. And a stage direction just after that speech, “Warren looks at [Dennis] as if from a very great distance,” offers a key to the play’s sneaky wisdom about the passage of time, about the ways nostalgia can take root in the present tense, a stubborn bloom in the sidewalk cracks of our lives. Ruffalo famously argued with Lonergan about casting him and Josh Hamilton, both of whom were pushing 30, in the roles of 19-year-old Warren and 21-year-old Dennis, pointing out—quite rightly, it turned out—that with the benefit of hindsight they could interpret post-adolescence better than actors who were actually going through it.

That "great distance" stage direction is one clue why slightly older actors make such a good fit for the play, and why it's ultimately much more than a proto-Apatovian stoner sitcom. This Is Our Youth beautifully, I’d even say definitively, captures the terribly self-conscious purgatory between adolescence and adulthood, the point when young people start to wax preemptively wistful about their youth—both in recalling their already idealized past, and also, more poignantly, in speculating how they will recall the often ugly and seemingly pointless blur of their transitional present. Warren’s satchel full of vintage toys and records, ultimately sold off in a pinch, is only the most obvious loss-of-innocence symbol, and Dennis has a striking early speech in which he portrays himself as less a simple drug dealer than as the put-upon peddler of his peers’ future warm memories.

But the awakening from childhood to adulthood, with its own bounty of terrors and disappointments, is also embedded in the play’s arc; by the end, high-strung alpha-male Dennis, shell-shocked by a close encounter with senseless death, has gone from treating his clumsy, wayward friend Warren as a punching bag to all but supplicating for a return to Warren's good graces. This, for Dennis, is growth, while for Warren, who has clearly attained some quiet glimmer of insight within the play's not-quite-24-hour time span, growth is marked by that sympathetic speech about his abusive dad and that distant, almost contented look with which he closes the play.

As Dennis and Warren share a last joint before the final curtain, it serves as a rite to mark the passing of a worn-out childhood bond and the negotiation of different, necessarily more conditional terms of friendship. The world they face is the one we now know all too well, for better or worse. The rest is memory.

Aug 24, 2021

'Harmony': Pop Musik, 1935 Edition

 


In 2014, L.A.'s Center Theatre Group hosted a run of the Barry Manilow/Bruce Sussman musical 
Harmony, a historical musical about the Comedian Harmonists, a real-life musical group from 1930s Germany who managed to entertain millions despite the encroaching Nazi shadow. With the recent announcement of the musical's New York debut, it seemed as good as any to reprint my feature on the musical, which CTG commissioned from me for the program.

Comedian Harmonists: Low Comedy in High Art

by Rob Weinert-Kendt

German popular music of the 1920s and '30s wasn't all marches and schottisches (a slow polka). There was also a good deal of American-influenced music on the airwaves and in the dancehalls—so much so, in fact, that the world's first courses in jazz theory and performance were taught not in New Orleans or Harlem but in Frankfurt, Germany. It was there, in 1928, at the venerable Hoch Conservatory that a young Hungarian composer, Matyas Seiber. began teaching a “Jazz-Klasse." American pop hadn't just come via records and sheet music either, but in the flesh: Josephine Baker had played Berlin in 1925, and Paul Whiteman made a splash there a year later. In turn, Germany spawned its own bandleaders, including Eric Borchard and Stefan Weintraub, leader of The Syncopators. Dance-band sounds and harmonies soon found their way into the music of modernist composers like Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill, and by the end of the decade, records by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were German radio staples. American-style pop and jazz, not to mention modernist music, had social implications as well as entertainment value: They may not even have known it at the time. but its practitioners and advocates were on the front lines of a culture war that would have real casualties within a decade. On one side were those, like the Hoch Conservatory's director, Bernhard Sekles, who defended his school's popular music courses by saying, "An infusion of 'Negro' blood can do no harm." On the other were critics, either openly allied with or at least sympathetic to the Nazi party's racist theories, who saw jazz and pop as part of a "plague" of “Negro noise.” Of course, popular music was also suspect to these reactionary critics because so many of Germany's bandleaders, popular singers and nightclub owners happened to be Jewish. In the ensuing Nazi campaign against "decadent" art and artists, pop music was a particularly expedient scapegoat, since by silencing it—as the Nazis officially did in 1935, after a two-year campaign of pressure and propaganda—they could also effectively silence some of Germany's most popular Jewish public figures. Among these were members of the vocal sextet the Comedian Harmonists. The band was formed in 1927 by Harry Frommerman, an unemployed actor who'd heard some records by the American vocal quintet The Revelers and figured he could put together a German group along the same lines. Frommerman placed an ad in the Berlin Lokal-Anzeiger and was soon joined by a former rabbi from Poland, Roman Cykowski; a Bulgarian singing waiter, Ari Leshnikoff; an operatic bass, Robert Biberti; a young medical student, Erich Collin; and a skilled pianist, Erwin Bootz. But this eclectic group did more than sing close-harmony versions of American jazz standards, German folk songs and novelty numbers. What put them over the top, says Bruce Sussman, is that the Harmonists also included deft musical and physical comedy in their act—hence the qualifier "Comedian." Sussman, who wrote the book and lyrics for Harmony, a new musical about the Harmonists, with Barry Manilow writing the music, turned himself into an expert on the band after seeing Eberhard Fechner's 1977 documentary. "The piece de resistance of their act was the overture to The Barber of Seville," says Sussman, who like Manilow traveled to Germany to do research. "The lights were turned out, and you'd hear The Barber of Seville, and it sounded like a chamber orchestra playing. The lights would slowly come up, and it was six guys replicating all those instruments." If that sounds a bit like the kind of concert-hall antics later practiced by the likes of Victor Borge and PDQ Bach, that's not far off, Sussman says. "These were guys who found low comedy in high art. Their virtuosity was extraordinary; it was also hilarious."  For his part, Manilow makes a headier comparison. "They were the Beatles of Germany," says Manilow. "Every time I play Germany, I get into a limo and I say to the driver, 'Do you know Comedian Harmonists?' It doesn't matter whether the guy is young or old, they all know them. These men are still the Beatles of Germany." While in Berlin, Manilow scooped up not only all the Harmonists records he could find, "I went into a Tower Records store there, and there was an entire wall of their CDs." There was also a collection of "Shlagerparades" ("hit parade" collections) from each year of the 1920s and '30s. “That was where I began—I studied the pop music of Germany during the time they were huge,” says Manilow. How was it? "It was fantastic. Song after song after song was interesting and emotional and filled with interesting orchestrations. And the singers—they had their hearts on their sleeves, or they were funny." Not all of it was such unalloyed fun. Amid the jazz and semi-classical and novelty tunes were plenty of marches, including a Bolshevik ditty that inspired an idealistic song in Harmony. Less inspirational but no less memorable: “I actually found a Nazi marching band song," says Manilow. "It was creepy to listen to, but I can tell you, it was brilliant. That's what's so disgusting: They were brilliant and they were monsters at the same time." Though Harmony is decidedly not a Holocaust musical—its narrative ends in 1935—its dramatic grist is indeed the Nazi-led war against multicultural modernity. The pop music ban of 1935 didn't just effectively disband the Harmonists; a reconstituted, Gentile-only version of the group, with the unwieldy, state-mandated name Meistersextett, found nearly their entire old repertoire off-limits. "When the new group tried to do their show and follow guidelines that said they couldn't do songs composed by Jews, with lyrics by Jews, arranged by Jews, or published by Jews," says Manilow, "the only song they had left was 'I Have a Cactus on My Windowsill.'" Indeed, for all their occasionally pointed comedy, the Harmonists were popular entertainers, not protest singers. But their very existence was enough to offend the Third Reich. Says Sussman, "This group represented the very diversity that the German nation at this point was saying was toxic. Not only were there Jews and Gentiles in the group; there was a Bulgarian, an Italian, a Pole, they were from all strata of class. The definition of harmony, the non-musical definition, from the Greek, is diverse elements brought together in a unified synthesis. They were the embodiment of that." When the Nazis later shut down the pop music courses at Frankfurt's Hoch Conservatory in 1933, they didn't just end a brave effort to keep German musicians’ chops current with the sounds of the day. They also nipped in the bud Seiber's ambitious plans for the school's next course of study: vocal jazz. The Comedian Harmonists could have led a master class.

Jun 15, 2021

From the Review Files: Laurents Gets His Revenge on 'West Side Story'

Karen Olivo and cast of the 2009 revival. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Is West Side Story really all that? I've always been much more smitten with the score than with any other aspect of the show (let alone the overrated film, sorry not sorry). Last year I had occasion to review Ivo van Hove's controversial new staging for America magazine, but I still recall the show's previous Broadway revival, a very mixed affair which I reviewed for The Sondheim Review in 2009. I excerpted the review in a previous post; below is the review in its entirety. For the record, the show ran from March 2009 to January 2011.

The librettist’s job may be the most thankless in musical theater: On hand to supply the crucial architecture of story and to spackle the edifice with patches of dialogue, they are otherwise forced to stand aside as the structure they’ve built gets filled in with the songs and dances that give the musical theater its raison d’etre. Adding insult to injury, reviews tend to notice the libretto only when it is found wanting, while credit for a show’s success usually goes to the choreographer/director, the composer, or the star.

If ever a libretto stood in shadow, it was Arthur Laurents’ stark gang-war update of Romeo and Juliet for the century-splitting 1957 musical West Side Story. The idea, after all, had originated with Jerome Robbins, and arguably reached its true fruition in Leonard Bernstein’s vibrant, sense-rattling score—not only its series of deathless songs, with lyrics by a young, crafty Stephen Sondheim, but the sinuous, brawling dance variations with which Robbins definitively dramatized the story’s sex and violence.

Laurents is now having a revenge of sorts, and it is indeed a dish served cold. The new West Side Story he’s directed on Broadway whirs and struts, and occasionally retains its power to startle. The dances, restaged vigorously by Joey McKneely and executed with style and sweat to spare by a tireless company, are nearly worth the price of admission; they remain the show’s enduring treasure, and make us long for a string of dance shows worthy of the town’s best hoofers. But unlike last year’s Broadway revival of Gypsy, in which Laurents’ salutary focus on the book only burnished its glow of perfection, this new West Side Story suffers noticeably from a relentless foregrounding of the show’s weakest link. There’s a good reason this book stayed in the shadows, after all.

Sondheim’s famous discomfort with his sophisticated lyrics for “I Feel Pretty”—a problem addressed if not solved in the new production by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s deft Spanish translation—cuts to the heart of West Side Story’s story problems. Would Maria, an “uneducated Puerto Rican girl,” really sing such tricky internal rhymes in English, Sondheim memorably posited? “She would not have been out of place in Noël Coward’s living room,” he quipped. Fair enough, but once you pick at that loose thread, the whole cloth starts to unravel: What gritty lower-class teen, Puerto Rican or otherwise, would sing a note or dance a step of West Side Story?

Once Laurents goes there—makes concessions to “realism” by having the Sharks speak and sing partly in Spanish, by making the Jets superficially dirtier and shaggier than before (they don’t even wash up for the dance), and by adding an extra jolt or two of violence—we have no choice but to go there with him. And that’s when we start to wonder: Why do the Sharks get idiomatic Español while the Jets remain saddled with “frabbajabba” and “spit hits the fan”? Why this slab of Spanish in one scene, and that swathe of English in another? For a form as marvelously artificial as musical theater, it’s death for an audience to start to think this way.

In the world of opera or ballet—forms with which West Side Story has marked affinities, and in which it could stand with some of the greats—we might not mind the thin characterizations, the precipitous emotional leaps, even the half-baked social criticism. By this measure, Laurents’ book is no worse than, say, the libretto of La boheme. But if Laurents really wants us to fix our attention on his script—“trip to the moon,” “loving is enough,” and all—then he can’t blame us for noticing that what may have shocked audiences in 1957 seems quaint now, and that in grafting Shakespeare’s plot to a mid-century urban setting he replaced the Bard’s language with sub-Odetsian hokum and added little in the bargain.

We should be able to get past this, of course, and maybe a visionary director without such a clear axe to grind—Bartlett Sher, while we’re wishing—could have taken us there. Indeed, for whole scenes at a time, we can see past Laurents’ buttonholing to the better production that might be built around Karen Olivo’s long-limbed, tempestuous Anita, or Curtis Holbrook’s volatile skinhead Action, or even Josefina Scaglione’s doll-pretty Maria, though she’s under-directed here and hopelessly dampened by Matt Cavenaugh’s arch, milquetoast Tony. Indeed, much of the dance at the gym and “Cool,” and all of Olivo’s “America,” could be lifted whole into that dream West Side Story.

So might a fair amount of Miranda’s Spanish dialogue and, in particular, his lyrics. Though they stick out somewhat sorely in Laurents’ conception, “Siento Hermosa” (“I Feel Pretty”) and “Hombre Asi” (“A Boy Like That”) deserve a long life beyond this production. So, most definitely, does West Side Story.