Thursday, August 25, 2016

"Broadway Memories" - A Dynamical Force Of Nature"

I never saw The Music Man on Broadway.  When it opened in 1957, I was only twelve years old.  (Put away the abacus; I’m seventy-one.  “Yikes!  We’re reading an old guy!”  Sorry.  There is nothing I can do about it.)

Composer-lyricist Meredith Willson tinkered with this pet project for more than eight years.  The man had legitimate “street cred”, as a longtime musical arranger and as a flute and piccolo player for both John Philip Sousa’s band and Toscanini’s New York Philharmonic. 

That’s a remarkable spectrum.  From Marching Band brass buttons to white tie and tails.  And woe, if he forgot which performance was that night!

“Willson, you are a total embarrassment!”

Though Meredith Willson wrote three other musicals, none of them came close to the enormous success of The Music Man (The original Broadway production ran for 1375 performances.) 

I saw Willson’s second biggest hit, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (532 performances) starring Tammy Grimes and it was extremely enjoyable.  I only mention that parenthetical tidbit because my original idea for this series – offering memorable moments from shows I personally attended – is coming apart at the seams.  More on that later, when I run up the white flag and surrender completely.

I found no excerpts from the original stage play.  As a second choice, I offer a memorable highlight from the movie version.  I have little enthusiasm for movie renditions of Broadway musicals.  (They inevitably feel lifeless.)  But this scene comes the closest I’ve ever seen to exploding to life, despite the celluloidal intervention. 

(Interesting Footnote:  The studio wanted Frank Sinatra to play Professor Harold Hill in the movie, but Willson insisted on the less luminous Robert Preston, who’d played the “Professor” on Broadway.)

Oh, to have seen original stage version, playing directly in front of me.

No cuts.

Not “Take twos.”

If this filmed offering is good. 

Imagine how rousingly spectacular that would have been.

From the 1962 version of The Music Man, here’s Robert Preston

Warning the townsfolk of River City

About “Trouble.”



Wednesday, August 24, 2016

"Broadway Memories - A Stah Is Born"

Another “soundie.”

But one well worth listening to.

I first read about her in Life magazine.

A multi-page spread.

A dazzling newcomer taking the Broadway theater by storm.

Nineteen years old.

Singing two songs that nightly bring down the house.

Not a great show.

A minor musical,

With a pulsating, Semitic beat.

“BUMP bah BUMP bah-BUMP-bump

BUMP bah BUMP bah-BUMP-bump…”

But then there’s that girl. 

In a star-making debut.

I saw that show when I was seventeen.

The featured performance:

As advertised and more so.

The range.

The clarity.

The attack.

It was like nothing I had ever experienced before.

Or since.

Listen and you’ll see.

Or at least hear.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Presenting…

No need.

You'll recognize the voice.





Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Broadway Memories - A Towering Presence"

This one is easy.

Zero Mostel, to whom I was introduced – not personally but as an audience member – bowling me over two years earlier starring in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, played “Tevya the Dairy Man” in Fiddler on the Roof, a twinkle-toed fat man with a devilish intention.

I have mentioned elsewhere the “Final Bow” that brought tears to my entranced and appreciative eyes.  And now… I am mentioning it again.

During the end-of-the-show “Curtain Call”, the “Circle of the Community”, dancing arm-in-arm to the or”chestral reprise of “Tradition” parts like the Red Sea, and out of its center, gyrating in ecstatic Hassidic fashion, steps Zero Mostel, advancing for his culminating acknowledgement towards an audience suddenly on its feet and cheering themselves hoarse. 

One night I was, memorably, a part of that.

The following video – because I couldn’t find and they possibly never recorded the show live, was made seven years after Fiddler opened, Zero performing his trademark “If I Were A Rich Man” on the 1971 Tony Awards.

He’s a little older, a little slower, so what you are getting here is, like, “seventy-five percent.”  But if you watch ever so carefully, you will detect those magical flashes and flourishes…

That made this the most unforgettable performance I eve saw in a musical.





Monday, August 22, 2016

"Broadway Memoreis (An Audial Remembrance)"

I am away, leaving Broadway musical gems for your appreciation.  I hope you enjoy them.

I recall hearing the asserted belief that audiences were unwilling to watch black-and-white movies on television, leading to colorization, and the banning of black-and-white classics from the airwaves.

I am attacking a similar prejudice today.

I am appropriating a visual medium,

And am offering...

A record.

"You mean there's nothing to look at?"

That's right.  You just listen.  Can you handle it?

"I guess so."

The following song comes from Fiorello!, incidentally, the first show I ever saw personally on Broadway.  (And they had a character named "Mrs. Pomerantz" in the cast.  Can you believe it?)

Fiorello! is the musical biography of Fiorello H. La Guardia, the legendary Mayor of New York.  At one point in the story, La Guardia runs for Congress as the Republican candidate, bashing the corrupt "Tammany Hall", which has a controlling stranglehold local Republican party.

Triggering the post-mortem commiseration, in which depressed political power brokers lament the inexplicable reality that...

"The Bum Won."

"The Bum Won" is a rare example of satirical lyric-writing in a Broadway musical.  I draw one line in particular to your attention.  The line goes:

"People can do what they want to but I got a feeling it ain't democratic."

That line is why I am featuring the entire song today.

So you can hear it.

Though is nothing visual for you to look at.  You going to be okay with that?

"Will you be doing it again?"

 I might.

"Then we may as well get used to it."

That's the spirit!

Ladies and gentlemen,

"The Bum Won."

(They're going to make you watch it on YouTube.  Do it.  It's worth it.)


Friday, August 19, 2016

"Broadway Memories"

Okay.

We are on our way to our log cabin in Indiana.  If you happen to be driving down Chickadee Trail. don't be a stranger.  It's a tiny little place, so if you come in, we may have to go out.  But don't worry.  We can converse through the screen door.  (Which is what we did once when two Jehovah's Witnesses dropped by.  Not we went out and they came in, but we conversed through the screen door.  Spoiler Alert:  We're still Jewish.)

Last time we took off, I left you a handful of my favorite movie scores.  This time, I offer some memorable moments from Broadway musicals, although this one's a little messier, because the requisite video is only sporadically available.  Filming during an ongoing  performance is strictly prohibited,  Besides, with shows running during the 50's and sixties, it was hard to "Youtube" before YouTube was invented.

Still, I wanted to assemble some iconic performances, as well as showcasing "show songs" that left an indelible impression on this writer.

My first offering stars Gwen Verdon.  When I saw her in Sweet Charity, this lady personality and showwomanship ignited up the theater.   As well as my riveted eyes, and my toe-tapping heart.  I know.  But it was.

When I walked into the theater, I recall passing this... like you know they have for recording sessions - a gigantic "sound board."

It was my first time I heard amplified music on Broadway.  You know how, because I am old and cranky, I complain that everything was better before.  Well, this time, it was different.

My first electronic music experience on Broadway?

The sound blew me away.

As did - and it's what I love about live theater - sitting in the same room, experiencing greatness.

I saw this in person.

Close your eyes and imagine you were there too.  Wait.  If you closed your eyes, you won't be able to see it.

Okay.

Imagine with your eyes open... when Gwen Verdon stopped the show with "If They Could Hear Me Now."


Thursday, August 18, 2016

"A Family Outing"

"What was your favorite part of the movie?” four and-a-half year-old Milo was asked, as we exited the theater after seeing The Secret Life of Pets.  The boy’s answer was instantaneous:

“I liked when the bunny pooped.”

(In a moment of terror, a frightened bunny character expels a flurry of pellets that peppering the ground like metallic B-B’s.)

What can I tell you?  They like what they like.

Before I start in on The Secret Life of Pets, allow me to first pay tribute to Mother Rachel, who has raised two exemplary children – four-and-a-half and almost two-and-a-half – so successfully that they can sit through an entire feature film politely and attentively which I don’t know about you but I could not have accomplished at either age had I been taken to a movie theater to try which I wasn’t. 

(Still, twelve twenty-five for a two year-old’s movie ticket?  Children should be charged on the basis of how much they understand.)

The Secret Life of Pets… well, first of all, the movie was not made for me, and second of all, I am averse to assessing a creative endeavor as being “good” or “bad” – that is definitionally subjective, and besides, people work hard on this stuff.  Let me just say that from a storytelling standpoint – for which I claim professional expertise – The Secret Life of Pets is…

Feh.

(A dismissive Yiddishism, implying… well, let’s just say that it “means” as pejorative sounds.)

It’s like they had this workable idea for a movie – “What do pets do when their owners are away”? – and they ran with it.  By which I do not men they skillfully expanded the original premise. 

It’s like a gun went off and all the characters began running. 

From one unrelated “set-piece” to another.  “Animal Control’s” chasing them and they’re running.  They’re down in the sewers and they’re running.  They’re trapped in a sausage factory and they’re running. 

It’s like a Michelle Obama picture: 

“Let’s Move!

“Emotional underpinnings?”

C-

There are fleeting allusions to “bro”-mantic friendship, teamwork and caninical affection.  But these glanced-upon qualities play “twelfth fiddle” to, I don’t know… just running.   

Of course, none of this actually matters.  You know the saying “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people”?  Well, nobody ever went broke opening an animated feature when school is out.  Desperate parents will take their children to anything.

And fall asleep the minute the lights go out.

(I myself may have dozed off longer than I thought I did, missing substantial chunks of the narrative flow, although it is possible the “narrative flow” in this film was nonexistent.  In preparation for this writing, I read the Wikipedia synopsis of The Secret Life of Pets and there was no narrative flow in that either.)

Do not mistakenly believe I am a “phobe” of modern animated features.  I was enchanted by Finding Nemo, especially the Ellen DeGeneres contribution.  (Unfortunately, they took the kids to see the sequel without me.  I could go alone, I suppose (Dr. M having no interest.)  But it’s tricky for a man of my years attending an animated feature by himself.  It’s like hanging around a kids’ playground.)

Of course – and you knew this was coming – my preferred animated features are from way back.  Before I was born, even.  My all-time favorite:  Dumbo (1941.)

Totally hand-drawn.  Emotionally grounded.  Psychologically illuminating.  How often in life have I enlisted the metaphor, “Dumbo’s feather”?  (An ancillary device allowing you to accomplish monumental feats you can actually accomplish without it, which is the lesson you eventually come to learn.)

Throw in mother-and-son inter-twining their trunks through cruelly separating jailhouse bars and a jazzily memorable, “I seen a peanut stand, I heard a rubber band, I seen a needle that winked its eye, But I be done seen about ev’rything, When I see an elephant fly...” and you have a movie whose identifiable storyline and classic pictorial execution have stayed with me since childhood.

What will kids remember about The Secret Life of Pets?

“I liked when the bunny pooped.”

And what did I like?

One of the jokes animated feature writers insert to keep themselves interested and keep the adult members of the audience from wishing for cyanide popcorn.

Trying to mobilize the neighborhood dogs to help rescue her jeopardized boyfriend, a Pomeranian (a possible canine relation) reminds the recalcitrant pooches:

“When you got ‘fixed’, who taught you how to sit comfortably?”

I liked that one.

Yielding a common denominator for Milo and me concerning The Secret Life of Pets:


We both remember one joke.



 Pappy and two year-old Jack.  (Who remembered no jokes)  Photograph by Rachel Braude.



Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"Prove It!"

We used to say that as kids.  Somebody blurts some preposterous assertion – like they can hold fifty pieces of Double Bubble in the mouth at the same time – and another kid immediately goes,

Prove it!” 

The demand for proof is not exclusively a kid’s thing, although it less often involves gum.

When I was in Third Grade at the Toronto Hebrew Day School, we studied Moses delivering of the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel in Bible class.  Most memorably – at least to Yours Truly – we were told that when the commandments were being announced, suddenly, everyone present who was deaf and blind – you did not have to be both; it was apparently an and/or situation – those people could now miraculously see and/or hear.

I immediately scoffed.  It is not a pretty sight, a nine year-old hooting derisively out of their nose.  Nor at that particular venue, was it an acceptable sight.  I recall receiving a threatening glare from “Mar” (Mister)… whatever “Mar” it was who happened to be teaching Third Grade Bible class.  When it came to contrarial students, all the “Mars” were equally vindictive.  

I just did not buy it.  That’s a lot of people standing around Mount Sinai – the mountain, not the hospital – listening to Moses rattling off the newly minted Decalogue.  And they wanted me to take on faith that substantial chunks of humanity in that vast assemblage who couldn’t see and/or hear suddenly could? 

What if, as is likely, they were not into it, the deaf bored to tears because they had no idea what the guy was saying, the blind babbling incessantly, “Who’s talking?” 

I mean, imagine that what they claimed actually happened, the formerly afflicted suddenly… I mean, do you think they would just stand there, thinking quietly, “Oh, look at that.” 

They’d scream their heads off.  “I can see!!!”  “I can hear!!!”  I can do both, and before I could do neither!!!!!!”

Wouldn’t that be terribly disruptive?  The scattered blurtings of exultation, the multitudes around them shushing,

“Quiet!  He’s telling us what we can’t do!” 

Honoring the sanctity of the moment, and listening closely hoping the “Ten Shalt Not's" exclude some private personal pleasure.

“Good.  I can still eat with my hands.”

My point, before it becomes buried in naarishkeit  (puerile foolishness) is that there are elements the Bible that, for some people, young and old, have serious difficulty passing the ”Credulity Test.”

“Religion is like spinach,” I once pronounced as a thirteen year-old before I knew I liked spinach.  “It may be good for you, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.”  (What a pompous youngster I was.  Wildean aphorisms?  Are you kidding me?)

True Believers have no problem acceding to Biblical pronouncements.  The hard-to-believe stuff is accepted as “God’s will”, and if God’s behavior “passeth all understanding” it’s supposed to because we’re not God.

For them, it’s simple.  You say, “Prove it”? 

They say, “It’s in ‘The Book’.”

And then science comes along.

Handling issues in an entirely different manner, a way, they claim – via the “Scientific Method” – that has the potential to prove everything.

Science assaults Biblical infallibility – starting with “the sun revolving around the earth”, which was correct about the revolving part, they just got the thing backwards.  Religion was understandable annoyed with science.  It was making them look fallible.

The thing is, however…

I watch these shows on TV where some accredited scientist holding a rock says,

“This rock is seventy million years old.”

And I feel myself reacting the same way I reacted when I heard that the deaf could see and the blind could hear.  Sorry.  You can straighten that out, can’t you?

For some reason, for me at least, “doubting derision” resides exclusively in my nose.  I hear something that’s, like.. “Really?” and a blast of skepticism explodes reflexively out of my nasal passages.   

“Seventy million years old, huh?  Are you sure it’s not sixty-eight?”

As with religion, science too has its “ways”, though they are not quite as mysterious.  “Scientific validity” involves experimentation, calibration and, when there’s a massive breakthrough, celebration.  (Like dancing around with the Torah, but with lab animals.)


Sometimes, to my confusion and its buffeted credibility, science replaces an established fact with a newer one.  Like it’s an AOL upgrade. 

Nutritional “facts”, for example.  (Call it “Food Science.”  They probably do.)

Coffee. 

Egg yolks. 

Red wine.

Salt.

At one time:  “Terrible.”

Today:  “Not so fast.”

And tomorrow? 

Will, as Woody Allen proclaimed in Sleeper, will pastrami be somebody considered a health food?

Possibly not. 

But those guys on TV, whether “Food Scientists” or age-daters of rocks…

Science if designed to be self-correcting, but its current “certain” pronouncements now feel as questionable as “The sun revolves around the earth.”

Perhaps I am simply generically skeptical by nature.  Dubious that everything can be definitively proven, or, more importantly, needs to be.  Maybe, instead of devoting our lives trying to explain how everything works….

“PREACHINESS” ALERT!  ABORT!  ABORT!

Okay.

Eschewing gaseous bloviation, let’s go out instead with a song, which – “ Full Disclosure” – was the instigating impetus for the foregoing ramblings.

Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting,

Offering a third approach, perhaps...

Iris DeMent.


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