Friday, June 24, 2016

"A Glimmer Of Gratefully Retrieved Sunshine"

There’s this problem, which has become particularly challenging in recent days. 

Writers do not live in a vacuum.  Which is a good thing.  Because if they did, what exactly would they write about?

“How ‘bout this vacuum!

That wouldn’t be easy.  How many things can you say about a vacuum?  After exhausting the “Novelty Factor”, of what continuing interest are the chronicles of a person living in a vacuum to the majority of the populace who aren’t?

A RESPECTED CRITIC:  “Acknowledging the imaginative writing style, the limited subject matter inevitably wears out its welcome.”

I believe I have beaten that one to death, don’t you?

Moving on…

And this is what matters.

Since writers are not living in a vacuum, they are, as is everyone, affected by the circumstances that surround them.  I have no idea about serious writers.  Maybe an environment of tragedy and travail is precisely what invigorates their juices.

SERIOUS WRITER:  “The world is going to hell in a hand basket.  I must write!    

But when it comes to non-serious writers – even non-serious writers with sometimes serious aspirations – the response to negative stimuli is the opposite of invigorating.

NON-SERIOUS WRITER:  “The world’s going to hell in a hand basket.  I’m going to lie down.”

That’s exactly how I’ve been feeling lately, the “Events of the Day” draining my enthusiasm, sending me foot-dragging to the computer.  (And doing less than my stellarest work.)

In a single recent weekend:

A megalomaniac (with a passionate following) running for president.  A mass murdering in Orlando.  And as if the “Trash Bin of Terribleness” were not filled to overflowing…

“Hold on!  There’s one more.”

 An alligator carries off a two year-old baby.

All that craziness swirling around you, and then it’s…

Okay now,

“Be funny.”

I’ll be honest with you.

I am experiencing some difficulty.

“The ‘Poor Me’ Paragraph”:

You begin with age-related energy depletion, augmented by the increasing challenge of “How many stories can you write?”  Toss on the increasingly burdening brick of “Troubling Times” and the normally exhilarating process of writing is suddenly a knee-buckling extravaganza.

… is what I’m talking about.

How do I handle it?

There is this salvaging technique.

With the indispensible assistance of my unconscious, some forgotten recollection floats to mind, guaranteed to make myself laugh. 

(Leading to my consequently passing that laugh along, should you possibly be similarly chagrined.)

A current example:

Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

An ancient black-and-white TV show – for kids, but not entirely – featuring “Kukla”, a male hand-puppet, boasting a bulbous nose and a solitary “kiss curl”, Fran Allison, their female human companion, and “Ollie”, a puppet crocodile with a “stand alone” front tooth, the puppets voiced by the off-screen genius of Burr Tillstrom.

In this restorative recollection, Fran sings a duet with Kukla as Ollie bops contentedly along.  As the song reaches its crescendo, Kukla turns encouragingly to Ollie and says,

“Come on, Ollie.  Sing along.”
A BEAT OF SILENCE.

Then Ollie turns to the camera, projecting an unmistakable look that says,

What?

Explanation (possibly unnecessary):  A puppeteer, even a masterful one, cannot sing in two voices at the same time, triggering Ollie’s quizzical reaction.

That magical memory got me to my writing desk this morning.

Events continuing as they are…


I’m going to need another one tomorrow.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

"Three "Fiddlers'"

Fiddler On the Roof is one of my favorite musicals.  I have seen it three times, every production identifiably unique.  Here now are my “Three Fiddlers.”

“Fiddler” Number One:

Broadway – 1964.

Fiddler On the Roof was a revelation to me when I saw its original production.  As with most out-of-town aficionados of Broadway musicals, I was introduced to Fiddler via its original cast record album. 

And I did not care for it. 

The songs were individually undistinguished.  This disappointed me because Fiddler’s composer/lyricist team of Bock and Harnick had previously written Fiorello!, the first musical I ever saw on Broadway, and I loved it.  (They have a minor character in Fiorello! named Mrs. Pomerantz.  Although it is possible they changed the name when I was not in the audience, replacing it with somebody else’s who was.) 

Unlike musicals I greatly admired, like My Fair Lady and West Side Story, the Fiddler On the Roof melodies lacked individualized impact.  It was only when I attended the live production that I realized they were supposed to.

Fiddler On the Roof was the most totally integrated musical I had ever experienced, the story, the show’s songs and its dances blending seamlessly, delivering a colorful collage of imaginative wonderfulness, evoking the ethnic cohesiveness and imminent danger in the fictional turn-of-the-(20th)century Russian village of Anatevka.  Hearing the songs in their appropriate contexts washed away the inherent difficulty I had found missing in the album.  They embedded impeccably into the production.

The original Fiddler On the Roof starred Zero Mostel, an inimitable “Force of Nature”, whose natural instincts got the most out of the show’s “book”, written by Joseph Stein, a respected alumnus of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, arguably the greatest comedy/variety television series of all time. 

“Funny” wrote it.  “Funny” understood what they were going for.  And “funny” played the comedic “moments” to the hilt.  That’s “Funny Cubed”, spelling a hilarious evening (or matinee) in the theater.

I could say more, but I’ll move on.

No, wait.

The “Final Bow”, when the dancing “Circle of the Community” opened up, revealing Zero Mostel, gyrating toward the audience in ecstatic “If I Were A Rich Man” exuberance, elicited roars of approval, and, for a few of us, tears of exultation and delight.

Goose bumps.  And I can still feel them.

“Fiddler” Number Two:

Michigan City, Indiana - Mid-1990‘s

The “Canterbury Players” were doing Fiddler On the Roof, and our family, visiting in the summer, dutifully attended, along with a handful of local members of the theatergoing community, the less-than-“sold out” audience – tops – thirteen people, outnumbering the cast, but just by a little.

Comparing the two “Fiddler” experiences:

You can’t.

Small town productions must be forgivingly evaluated.  (Although a Michigan City presentation of The Pirates of Penzance was as rewarding as any show I had seen anywhere.)  This production’s list of cast members included – according to the program – an optometrist, a schoolteacher and the assistant manager at the Michigan City Denny’s.

And they acted their hearts out.

I am a sucker for people putting on shows because they love to, not because there’s a William Morris agent sitting in the audience.  This “Canterbury Players” production would be no steppingstone to glory.  It was a limited run in a beloved musical and then back to reality, testing for nearsightedness and ushering customers to their tables. 

They knew that and they didn’t care.  Tonight, they were in show business.

Complete with the inevitable “glitches”.

One of Fiddler’s recognized highlights is the exhilarating “Bottle Dance”, in which, during a Jewish wedding celebration, the male villagers of Anatevka – at least the more coordinated ones – place empty liquor bottles on tops of their ceremonial black hats, the participants lock arms, executing a sequence of synchronized movements, the bottles remaining unbelievably on their heads.       

In Michigan City…. they did it their way.

To avoid the inevitable “accidents” certain to plague non-professionals, the bottles were glued to the tops of the dancers’ hats.  The hats themselves were kept in place with the help of visible rubber bands fastened tightly under their chins.

And then they danced.

Unfortunately as they proceeded, the bottles slid progressively towards the sides of their heads, winding up hovering above their ears, at a forty-five degree angle to the floor.  The bottles should by rights have fallen off.  But the glue and the rubber bands kept them incongruously in place.

We bit hard on our lower lips, applauding appreciatively at the finish.

They were trying so incredibly hard.  And being only Jews in the audience, they appeared desperate for our approval.

“‘L’ki-yim!’  Was that right?”

“Perfect!”

What else could we tell them?  This “Fiddler” was all they had.

“Fiddler” Number Three:

Broadway – June 3, 2016.  

A longstanding criticism of Fiddler On the Roof is that it is an essentially lightweight confection, its smattering of “significance” providing the obligatory “weight.”

I don’t agree.

At the center of Fiddler On the Roof is a reverberating question: 

“How much can you compromise your deeply held beliefs before it’s ridiculous and there’s nothing?” 

This question is so universal Fiddler On the Roof has played to enormous success in dozens of countries, including Japan, hardly a hotbed of Jewish… I mean, do they have any there at all? 

Every culture experiences longstanding traditions threatened by “modernizing change.”  With that conundrical issue at its core, Fiddler On the Roof is determinedly more than sitcomical fluff.

To combat this shadowing criticism and bury its maligned “Borscht Belt” ancestry, the current production of Fiddler opts for a conceptual ambiance that’s intended to be “darker” and “more consistent with reality.”

At the steep cost of the majority of the “funny”.     

The Michigan City version was funnier.  (Ba-dump-bump!  Without any apologies.  I shouldn’t even have used brackets.)

The acting was polished and professional, the choreography injecting an entrancing mystical quality.  The show’s jokes, however, now embedded in the agony of Jewish oppression provide emotional resonance but quieter laughs.  

The Result:  A Fiddler On the Roof dramedy.  With an emphasis on the “dra.”

Consider “Tevya’s” curtain call bow:
No emerging triumphantly from the “circle.”

No jubilant cheers from the audience.

No appreciative tears.

Delivering a skilled but unspectacular “Tevya” (played by Danny Burstein), less a dominating superstar than a simmering potato in a communitarian stew.

A Humble Warning:  When you add “depth”, keep an eye on what you’re giving up.

Oh well.

I once saw an iconic performance.

And watched bottles riding sidesaddle on the “Bottle Dancers’” heads.


That’s enough, isn’t it?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"Our 'Bright Star' Evolution"

Okay.

So I am queued up in the theater at intermission, hoping the line will move fast enough for me to get to the bathroom before they “flicker” the lights and I have to return to my seat unrelieved, and all around me in line – and later in the bathroom itself – there is identifiable chatter – and remember we are in the theater of a Broadway musical – not about some “open audition” or a great place to buy leg warmers – but about the recent firing of the Baylor University football coach. 

Truth be told, of the dozen or more men waiting to use the bathroom, I was the only theatergoer in line unaware of the recent firing of the Baylor University football coach.  Or, for that matter, where Baylor University is. 

(I looked it up.  It’s in Waco, Texas.)

I don’t mean to appear prejudiced – especially if it turns out I am – but in my mind, I do not readily associate hardcore Southern male football enthusiasts with Broadway musicals.  I recall similar conversations emanating from the Men’s Room of Funny Girl or Hello, Dolly.  Bright Star was demonstrably an exception.  

That’s when it hit me.

This musical was for them.

Unfortunately, it was not for us. 

Or so we believed. 

(Note:  Forget immediately that I said that, or it will spoil the surprise ending.  I should probably leave it out.  Unless you have already forgotten what I’m talking about.  Oh, you have?  Good.  Then I don’t have to.)

I need to be careful here.  I am critiquing a musical whose target audience is “Not me.”  It’s like attending a Christian religious service and everyone’s exiting the church feeling spiritually uplifted and the best I can contribute is, “That reverend sure seemed to know what he was talking about.” 

It’s a definite difficulty.  How do you accurately adjudicate a show intended, in this case, for rabid southern university football fans?

By Broadway musical standards – and I may be flattering myself believing I have any – Bright Star’s first act had been less than encouraging.  I mean, the cast was capable enough.  The lead actress (Carmen Cusack), was, in fact, an unqualified delight.  I would happily see her again.  In something I cared about.

The show‘s country inflected melodies (by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell) were tunefully appropriate but… it’s not like you forgot them after you listened to them; I forgot them while I was listening to them. 

And the storyline, which heated up in Act Two…

Bright Star
is constructed with two interwoven narratives, the more dramatic one involving young lovers, an unwanted pregnancy, a forced adoption that ended instead with the inseminator’s father, in a misguided act of paternal protectiveness, tossing the illegitimate infant off of a train into a river, culminating with a surprise revelation and dual weddings.

What can I tell you?

This is what I can tell you.

When the show ended, with the audience around me rising in rapturous ovation, I discovered – swear to God – that there were wet tears rolling uncontrollably down my cheeks.

I was genuinely incredulous.  Somehow, in its inherent purity, simplicity and unadorned humanity…

Bright Star had sneaked surreptitiously up my arm, penetrating my cold and callused heart.

I felt incredibly embarrassed.  I could not believe it.  Had this cornpone confection actually melted my emotions?  When exactly did that happen? 

Reluctantly, I turned to Dr. M – a notorious hokum hater – to accept my medicine for succumbing to this shameless sentimentality and – swear to God once again –

Dr. M was blubbering as well.

“We’re so sappy!” she sobbed, a mixture of tearfulness and surprise.

Who would ever have thunk it?

The show intended for them turned out also to be for us.

Later that evening, I imagined running into Steve Martin, who I am peripherally acquainted with, offering the capsulizing reaction that came spontaneously to mind:

“You made two Jewish people cry.”

I was concerned he might be confused by my compliment.  But that’s the beauty of imagining stuff.

No actual risk whatsoever.

I am happy we saw Bright Star.

Although, wise as I am, I cannot for the life of me explain why it got to me.

I mean, what’s next?  Debating the justification of the firing of the Baylor University football coach?


I don’t even know his name!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

"Two Shows We Saw In New York And A Third One I Shall Talk About Tomorrow (So What Is It Doing In This Title?)"


You go to New York, you see some shows. 

That’s what you do in New York.  Otherwise, you’ll be walking around outside where the airborne debris irritates my eyes so much I am required to wear sunglasses, even at night.  (Braving the inevitable “Hollywood” remarks.)  I believe they do that on purpose, so you’ll appreciate the shows more.

“At least we’re inside.”

Before leaving L.A., we scanned the list of shows in the Sunday New York Times, and we selected these ones.  We excluded the season’s smash Hamilton because the available tickets were going for nine hundred dollars apiece.  The only show I’d pay nine hundred dollars to see is

EARL POMERANTZ ON BROADWAY

And even then, I’d complain about it.

“Nine hundred dollars for “Row ‘W’?”

The Humans had gotten excellent reviews – one reviewer called it “The finest new play of the Broadway season.” – so we decided to see that.

The first thing I noticed stepping into The Helen Hayes Theatre was it was excruciatingly freezing.

“Is there a hockey game?” I facetiously inquired.  To no response from the usherette.  She’s from New York.  Obvious comedy is unceremoniously dismissed.  (More on that later.  I’m afraid.)

As we sat down, I detected the cacophonous chatter that inevitably accompanies hit shows.  This pre-programmed enthusiasm is the kind that has audiences laughing at the scenery.  The show they were attending had been effusively reviewed and they were reacting accordingly… although the performance itself had not yet begun.

In a way, the audience was applauding itself for being there.

I am not a reviewer.  It takes specialized knowledge to review plays.  I am simply a reactor to what is placed in front of me.  Do not expect an astute evaluation on the appropriateness on the set design.  If it doesn’t fall down, it’s okay with me. 

The Humans (written by Stephen Karam) brings us a three-generational middle class Irish-American family and their personal travails.  For me, there were entirely too many of them.

Losing their job.  Facing cancer surgery and a colostomy bag.  Unceremoniously dumped by their same-sex girlfriend.

And that’s just one character!

The grandmother suffers dementia.  The Dad lost his job due to a “morals” infraction.  His wife has to weather the humiliation.  Their daughter – not the one with the multiple afflictions – struggles with career disappointment resulting from being a not very talented musician.  The other sister… See the “’Oy!’ List” above.

The only seemingly well-balanced character in the show is the mediocre composer’s live-in boyfriend, recently recovered from a nervous breakdown. 

Most plays have one precipitating difficulty.  This play has seven of them.

The ensemble cast, however, was excellent.  (Most noteworthily because nobody in the cast ever “broke character”, looked directly into the audience and asked, “Does anybody find this ‘over the top’”?)

The highly approving reviewer writes that The Humans could “qualify as deep-delving reportage, so clearly does it illuminate the current tremor-ridden landscape of contemporary America.”

No it doesn’t.

Nobody was fired due to corporate consolidation.  Nobody’s job has been outsourced.  Nobody’s been supplanted by a robot.  Nobody’s gone “Chapter 11”, lacking appropriate health care.  Nobody was blown up by a terrorist. 

“Tremor ridden landscape of contemporary America”?  Bushwah!  The family’s problems are either self-inflicted, or they’ve been terribly unlucky.


Feathered throughout this Jobian onslaught are numerous pointedly funny lines, like when the daughter complains to her intrusively compassionate mother, “You don’t have to text her {her gay sister} every time a lesbian kills herself.” – my primary source of hilarity was the egregious “piling on” of family afflictions.  I was actually counting them.   (See:  “Seven.”)

What came to mind was a college playwriting assignment:

“Give one family as many problems as you can imagine – give them a few more – and then tell us about it.”

The reviewer describes The Humans as “a blisteringly funny burstingly sad comedy-drama.”

I laughed at the comedy.

And I laughed at the drama.

Speaking of disappointing reactions, as we left the theater, Dr. M had to go back inside for something.  After being gone for a worrisome length of time, I decided to reenter the theater to look for her, passing the final vestiges of the exiting audience.  

Because I am me and I cannot help myself, I inquired of a departing theatergoer,

“Am I late?”

Her withering reaction was a typical New Yorker’s to a misguided out-of-towner:

“That may be hilarious in Podunk, but you’re in ‘The Big Apple’, Mister.  Don’t waste my time. ”

I had had a “flop” in the theater. 

Not even on stage. 

It was in the lobby.

As usual, I have talked too much and I am now out of time.  Revised Title:

“One Show We Saw In New York, And Another I Shall Talk About Tomorrow, And A Third One I Shall Discuss The Day After.”

I should probably hold off on the titles until I’m finished.

Postscript:  The Humans won this years's Tony Award for Best Play, so it's possible I missed something.