Monday, May 28, 2012
slightly sourby Douglas Messerli
James Goldman (book), Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) Follies / Los Angeles, Ahmanson Theatre, the production I saw was on May 26, 2012
Let me begin by unequivocally asserting that Stephen Sondheim is the greatest of living American musical theater composers and lyricists. In dozens of musical comedies and dramas, Sondheim has given us a long string of memorable songs, and notable lyrics in works such as West Side Story and Gypsy before he even got a chance to demonstrate his musical talents.
Let me also admit that after seeing the splendid revival of Sondheim's Follies yesterday at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre, I was sorely tempted to postpone writing about the experience. I was afraid, however, if I didn't immediately take on the task that I'd find myself in the same situation as I am with his Merrily We Roll Along, a production of which I saw in 2010 and have as yet failed to express my thoughts! I know the reasons for my reluctance; they are similar to those that I expressed about Sondheim's Company of 2007 (see My Year 2007). But I find it almost mean-spirited that I can't simply let well enough alone, that I can't just soak myself in all those memorably lyrical and witty songs of desire and pluck—which in Follies amounts almost to a cornucopia of treasures: "Beautiful Girls," "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," "Broadway Baby," "In Buddy's Eyes," "Who's That Woman?" "I'm Still Here," "Could I Leave You?" "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues," "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," and "Live, Laugh, Love"—go home and report, "What a great show." And yes, this loving and caring revival was a great show, some of its praises which I'll sing shortly.
But—that terrible three letter word—let me just repeat: I have problems with Sondheim's vision. After seeing ten works for which he has written lyrics, music or both, and after having heard recordings of several others, I have to conclude that Sondheim has one of the darkest visions of humankind of any Broadway composer. In work after work, he and his librettists focus on individuals living in unhappy marriages who cheat, lie, and delude themselves, beings who hate the world, murder, and even consume their fellow beings—drunks, vagrants, and evil-minded conmen and deviously manipulative women. In a Sondheim musical hope and happiness are as rare as a full eclipse played out against the Northern Lights.
Now I certainly do realize that all these subjects are far more interesting as themes help to generate larger issues than do the everyday joys and pleasures of life. For a writer who has titled one book of poetry Dark, has written a fiction about the kidnapping of children and possible pedophilia, and whose plays, although comic, often include arguing couples and dysfunctional families, my observation may sound somewhat insincere. But even in my very darkest of works there is always some sort of reaffirmation or possibility of real hope. Although my companion and I, who have been in a mostly monogamous relationship now for 42 years, may argue daily, neither of us, we concur, has ever thought of leaving one another for more than a few hours at a time. I have nothing against the darkest of visions, but mightn't that dreary scowl be relaxed just once?
I also know, having now read both of Sondheim's volumes of lyrics, with "attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes," that, although I often disagree with him, the composer is quite brilliant and thoroughly knowledgeable about his art, able to cite the songs of his predecessors, pointing to their successes and failures. Sondheim himself claims Hammerstein as his mentor, and I take him at his word. But as dark as are certain passages in Carousel, Oklahoma! (see My Year 2003 for a discussion of those darker themes), South Pacific, and even The King and I—I will pass on making any comments about his saccharine, sugar-coated Sound of Music—Hammerstein's lyrics and librettos are joyful celebrations, for the most part, of love and life.
Follies, like so many of Sondheim's works, is a kind of haunted castle of lost loves, dreams, aspirations, and hopes, a testament to a world of deluded people who are desperate to find love and meaning in a world that has failed them. Indeed, as Sondheim tells it, his librettist and he first intended this musical to be about a reunion in which, with its central characters plastered with equal parts of nostalgia and alcohol, have motives to kill each other, and he and Goldman originally set out to write a kind of murder mystery set at a party for aged performers. While they eventually dropped that notion—thank God—the sparsely told plot that remains is still about the four central character's torturous marriages, their desires for their dreams of the past, and the gradual stripping away of their delusions ending, at least in the revival version, with the still angry but dependent Phyllis and her husband Ben leaving without much hope of true reconciliation, followed by the newly rejected Sally and her disappointed husband Buddy hoping to just get some rest before they begin the next day of their lives.
Such empty relationships, as we know, certainly do exist. Possibly these unhappy folk can all begin again, and they might even revitalize their relationships—although given the dark songs they have just sung about not getting what they want, losing their minds, and the desire to live life "in arrears," it seems highly unlikely. This same ending faces the characters of numerous Sondheim musicals, most notably in Company and Merrily We Roll Along; while others end in far worse ways: murder, assignation, fiery death, and even cannibalism. One might almost say that in Sondheim's world both characters and audiences are eternally lost in the woods with the knowledge that the wolf is following right behind.
So despite the medley of lovely and witty melodies with which the composer has threaded his works, they are still quite deadly delicacies, laced with heavy doubt and open cynicism.
Having said all that, we must also admit that nearly all of Sondheim's unhappy figures are survivors. They've had their ups (although we rarely see them) as well as their downs, as Sondheim's Carlotta (Elaine Paige) sings:
Good times and bum times,
I've seen them all and, my dear,
I'm still here.
Or as Hattie expresses her pluck:
I'm just a Broadway baby,
Walking off my tired feet,
Pounding forty-second Street
To be in a show.
After hearing Elaine Stritch's rhythmic rendition of this song, with the perfect timing the lines—
My tiny flat
There's just my cat,
A bed and a chair.—
for a few seconds I was uneasy with Jayne Houdyshell's more lusty and less-nuanced version; but, in the end, her zest of life nearly brought down the house.
Sondheim also ameliorates his dark themes somewhat through the clownish behavior of his characters, revealing their own realization of their failures, as in Buddy's (Danny Burstein's) manic "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" and the haunting "Live, Laugh, Love" song by Ron Raines as Ben Stone, a song of escapism which turns, as in Cabaret, into an echo chamber-like house of horrors.
Sondheim's figures, moreover, often reveal joys that they do not even recognize, or, as he suggests, express deep feelings that they themselves do not recognize as pleasures. This is particularly true in both of Sally Plummer's (Victoria Clark's) powerful ballads, "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind." In the former, she expresses to her friends why she should be happy with her husband without comprehending, so it seems, that she actually might be happy for those very reasons:
Life is slow, but it seems exciting
'Cause Buddy's there.
In Buddy's eyes,
I'm young, I'm beautiful.
In Buddy's arms.
On Buddy's shoulder,
I won't get older.
And similarly, in "In Losing My Mind," Sondheim himself points to her use of the word "to" instead of "and" revealing her deepest problems are of her own making:
I dim the lights
And think about you,
Spend sleepless nights
To think about you.
Clark sang these with a full-bodied voice that certainly did justice to the song, but after hearing Barbara Cook and Bernadette Peters sing those same lines, it is perhaps impossible to accept anything below their perfection.
Could I bury my rage
With a boy half your age
In the grass?
Bet your ass.
But I've done that already—
Or didn't you know, love?
Maxwell sang this with such clear diction that all the song's bitter humor shone luminously, like the crystal which her character daily counts.
For Sondheim, apparently, these stories of survival, self-revelatory slips of the tongue, patter pieces, and comic diatribes are all we have in a world where everything is seen through a glass darkly. Perhaps it's as ridiculous to ask such a dark-thinker to show us the sun, as asking Ingmar Bergman—whose film Sondheim adapted in another recent revival, A Little Night Music—to show us a way out of deep despair. But then, to my way of thinking, that is precisely what Bergman does, whereas Sondheim entertains us grandly, but just as we begin to have fun, puts out the light. And there is, finally, nowhere to go but back home again, with the slightly sour after taste of too much gin in our mouths.
Los Angeles, May 27, 2012
Friday, May 11, 2012
medea’s last danceby Douglas Messerli
Tennessee Williams In Masks Outrageous and Austere / New York City, Culture Project / the performance I saw as a matinee production on Sunday, May 6, 2012
On Sunday, May 6, I attended, with Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee, the premiere of Tennessee Williams’ last play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere—uncompleted at the time of his death—at Bleecker Street’s Culture Project. Despite rather dismissive reviews—David Finkel in The Huffington Post, for example, describing it as a “turgid” and “ludicrous” cauldron of
"picked-over Williams obsessions” and Ben Brantley of the New York Times summarizing it as
inhabiting a “tepid, in-between realm”
that permits neither “audacious sincerity” or the permission to “go ahead and
laugh,” I found the play and production utterly fascinating and far less
problematic than almost all the reviewers had determined. Williams himself,
while still working on the text (which he continued to do up until is 1983
death), described it as “important,” “extremely funny,” and “bizarre as hell.”
It is, in my estimation, all three of those assessments—but then, one might
describe almost any Williams’ play in the same way.
True, with the exception of Knight and Alison Fraser’s absurdly comic Mrs. Gorse-Bracken (channeling a slightly hysteric version of Bernadette Peters) most of the young actors of the cast have not yet mastered the sort of anti-naturalistic unmelodramatically-driven voices so necessary to properly perform Williams’ lines (a problem as well for the language-driven playwrights such as Mac Wellman, Len Jenkin, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Foreman and numerous other contemporary playwrights). But then, except for Babe and Gorse-Bracken none of them truly matter, their characters serving merely as examples of sexual variations upon which Babe and, occasionally, her spiritual opposite, Gorse-Bracken, serve as commentators.
Despite many critic’s assertions that In Masks Outrageous and Austere was simply a restatement of all of Williams’ previous themes, I’d argue that in this play that, even if Williams has returned to all of the themes of his previous plays, he took them much further, almost laying all his cards on the table so to speak, in the process, creating a far more straight-forward and, yes, honest, statement of his sexual obsessions than he previously had. And for the first time in memory, Williams seems to reference various literary antecedents, including Jean Genet and Harold Pinter—not so much enfolding them into his structure as referencing them, as Bernstein describes it, in flashes.
There’s no question that behind every Williams male and many of his females is a homosexual, lesbian, or “perverse”—by the general societal standards—sexual being! It is hard to think of the few “normal” individuals (although no such word is truly possible in Williams’ canon, since it is those who believe themselves “normal” who are the most abnormal beings): Stella, perhaps, the gentleman visitor of The Glass Menagerie, maybe. After that, it gets difficult. Even the Big Daddy’s and Big Momma’s of Williams’ world have suffered incomparable torments in their sexual relationships. But in most of Williams’ works, up until his final short and longer plays, these figures were kept somewhat in the shadows, their true sexual identities exposed, certainly, but just so ever slightly blurred that they could escape the deficient attentions of many middle class Americans and even the harsh lights of Hollywood movies. Most viewers certainly comprehended that in the motion picture version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for example, Brick’s real problem was his homosexual attraction to his high school football companion Skipper; but people like my parents and their friends, had they even ventured out to that film (they were not adventurers) might have easily believed Burl Ives' assertion that his son’s problem was immaturity, an inability to grow up and out of his idealized friendship with his former “buddy.” They might even have convinced themselves that Blanche was a subject of small-town gossip and was just terribly misunderstood.
Such white-washing, brain-washing slips of imagination are quite impossible, however, in this last Williams work. There is Babe, full-face to the audience, announcing one by one the sexual peccadilloes of nearly every figure in the cast: from her gay—and in this Williams play, it is “gay,” not “homosexual” behavior that is the proper description of the character’s acts—husband Billy’s (Robert Beitzel) abandonment of her bed for his ship-board dalliances with his Harvard-bred “secretary,” Jerry (Sam Underwood) to her own lesbian past (which she characterizes, humorously, in the old-fashioned expression of “acts of Bilitis”). She, a pure sensualist, determined to “gratify everything in me as the luna moth dies at dusk,” announces to us that, as the wealthiest woman in the world, she has purchased her current love-interest to fulfill her needs. But he has failed her, just as her endless cocktails of vodka and champagne have failed her, her dying father has failed her, her nerves have failed her, and, now, even her guardians, the nefarious Gideons—a security force made of up of internally-loving gay boys hired by the Kudzu-Clem corporation watching over her wealth—have seemingly failed her. She, in short, is the perfect exemplar of Mick Jagger’s and Keith Richard’s lyrical wail: “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” So too does she announce, in case the audience has turned a blind eye, that her neighbor Mrs. Gorse-Bracken, living in an invisible nearby house, is obviously engaged in a incestuous relationship with her forever-masturbating son, Playboy; that her maid, Peg Foyle (Pamela Shaw) is a slut; and determines that Peg’s current boyfriend, Joey (Christopher Halladay)—whom Peg has met in a local church—is a stud worthy of her attention. Babe, in short, is the Chorus to Williams’ ridiculous Greek-like tragedy, where the masks fall from the character’s faces as quickly as they might attempt to attach them. Despite its lugubrious title, there are, in fact no “outrageous masks” possible given Babe’s revelatory announcements.
As a comedic-romantic Williams has always secretly equated love with suffocation, desire with greed, the sexual act itself with self-immolation; and in this play, all these tropes become quite visibly apparent. Pumped up on drugs, perhaps satiated beyond his capability to accept any further love, Williams created in Babe a startling rendition of Medea’s dance of death, a song of vengeance for all those who so disappointed this man’s, and every man’s like him, insatiable desires. For Williams’ last lover, the play’s director David Schweizer, the recreation of this text can only have been a painfully poignant reconstruction, one I, at least, felt honored to have experienced.
Los Angeles, May 10, 2012
Thursday, May 10, 2012
wasted on youthby Douglas Messerli
Rick Elice (based on a fiction by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) Peter and the Starcatcher / New York City,
On May 6, 2011 I attended Mabou Mine’s Peter and Wendy at New York City’s Victory Theatre, a delightful rendition of Barrie’s Peter Pan story performed by actors and puppets. Quite by accident—although I now believe such “accidents” are “intentional coincidences”—almost one year to the date I attended, last evening, Rick Elice’s amazingly theatrical prequel to Barrie’s tale, Peter and the Starcatcher. Although I’m reluctant to compare it with the far less entertaining Wicked’s relationship to The Wizard of Oz, it stands in a similar position to the original.
This is a work, moreover, so different from most of Broadway’s current theater offerings in that it thoroughly depends on its ensemble cast, as the actors transform themselves from sailors into pirates, mermen, and a strange band of Mollusk Island natives whose leader has suffered indignities as a servant in the home of a wealthy English family.
All of this play’s figures perform delightfully, as one by one they get their individual turns to strut their stuff; but the clear “star” of this zany concoction is the dyslexic, spoonerism-spouting, “nancy-boy” pirate, Black Stache (Christian Borle)—an earlier manifestation of Peter Pan’s crocodile hating, Captain Hook—who discovers in the “boy” (who later changes his name to Peter and finally is awarded his last name, Pan) his perfect nemesis, a kind of kindred yin to his yearning yang. Even more delicious, when Stache prances forward to put his tongue upon the
plank, is Smee (Kevin Del Aguila), close behind, to correct those
incomprehensible twists of tortured syntax.
Almost as enticing is the crowd-pleasing frivolity of Molly’s sexually assertive nanny, Mrs. Brumbrake (Arnie Burton) and Fighting Prawn (Teddy Bergmann) who cling to one another, pushing and prodding from every possible position.
In contrast to these figures’ shenanigans, Molly and the orphan boys, Peter, Alf, and the ever-starving Ted are not nearly so much fun—although they might be forgiven when we consider that by comparison with their orphan torments, Dickens’ Oliver Twist might be said to have lived a life of luxury. They are, moreover, doomed to live in eternal adolescence as outsiders, perpetual kidnappers of generations of temporary girl-moms. No wonder Peter, as he often announces, hates adults. Might he not simply be taken home to be petted and loved?
Evidently not, particularly after he has bathed in the star-leaden waters that offer him whatever he might desire to become. And although he never really flies in this production he does occasionally soar with the rest of his friends. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, he remains an innocent, who like most innocents and far too many children are capable, competent, and serious-minded, while the adults around them all ridiculously blunder through their lives. One can only mutter at the end of this splendiferous caprice: “What a waste of youth!”
As I stood to leave the young girl in front turned to announce, as if to confirm her own seriousness of intent: “I read the book”; while her equally sure-footed brother asserted: “I liked it, did you?”
Aboard United jet 1688 returning from New York to Los Angeles, May 7, 2012
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Douglas Messerli "Dinosaurs: Whatever Happened to Willy Loman? and The Compromise (on Miller's Death of a Salesman and Vidal's The Best Man)
whatever happened to willy loman?by Douglas Messerli
Arthur Miller Death of a Salesman / New York, Ethel Barrymore Theater, the production I saw was the evening performance of May 4, 2012
Today I have traveled to New York to spend a few minutes as a publisher with my sales representatives, among the very last of that dinosaur species. Within just a few years, as we know in our bones, all personal sales people will have disappeared, to be replaced with the computer and other as yet unimagined devices. Willy Loman must seem to most younger viewers—very few of whom made up the audience of the Friday evening performance of Miller’s play—as unrecognizable as a typewriter, an obsolete thing of a forgotten past, while the Stanley Kowalskis of the world, outrageously larger-than-life second generation immigrant Koreans, Armenians, Haitians, Mexicans, Russians, Indians, Pakistanis and others—sexually dynamic men and women temporarily locked into poverty—still exist in our cultures by the millions. One might simply summarize the differences between these two mid-20th century US playwrights by saying that while Miller focused on the aspirations of a man seeking a petit-bourgeois existence, Williams—as always, embracing the wretchedly comic outsiders—put all his chips on a man of sweat who preferred to bathe in the sappy fizz of a beer while facing brutal reality.
I suppose would I had been asked to sit down to dinner with either, I’d have chosen Willy—which I almost felt I was doing in attending this production—who, after all, was a courser version of my own father. But would I have been asked to go to bed with either, I’d have jumped into the sack with Stanley, just like Stella, in the blink of an eye—even if Marlon Brando weren’t playing the role that night. And as far as I'm concerned, that is the important difference between Miller's and William's visions of their relationship to their audiences.
*Some of these sentiments, particularly regarding the disappearance of the middle class in relationship with Miller's play where addressed in a New York Times op-ed page essay by Lee Siegel on May 3, 2012, two days before I wrote this essay. However, I did not have the opportunity to read Siegel's piece until after I completed my essay, when, after sharing my sentiments with Susan Bee, she pointed the similarities out to me.
the compromiseby Douglas Messerli
Gore Vidal The Best Man / New York, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, the performance I saw was a matinee on May 5, 2012
The Best Man is a play of political demands, subterfuge, lies, blackmail, and, most importantly, compromise—although the hero of Vidal’s witty political parable, William Russell (John Larroquette), refuses compromise with his arch-enemy, Joe Cantwell (Eric McCormack) or with his own conscience, and in that respect both Cantwell and the out-going President Arthur Hockstader (James Earl Jones) are correct in insisting that Russell is not a political beast!
The compromise that Russell makes is a rare one for any political contender, sacrificing his own career and his political battle for power for moral victory and, possibly, a reaffirmation of his relationship with his wife.
In this star-studded revival of Gore Vidal’s 1960 comic-drama Candice Bergan, Kerry Butler, Angela Lansbury, and Jefferson Mays together with Larroquette, McCormack and Jones, act up a storm, somewhat cloaking the fact that, for all its noise and hoopla (the sound of booming applause of convention goers and cackling reporters being broadcast through the theater’s sound system even during intermissions) the play is really a series of drawing-room comedic skits of wit and bluff.
Like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the revival of which I witnessed a night earlier, The Best Man encapsulates, moreover, a vision of a world that no longer exists: the whirl of backroom politics, where decisions for party nominations were played out in convention hotel suites, votes bought and sold through a series of brokerings based on individual reputations smeared with lies, rumor, scandal, and partial truths.
If, given today’s preordained presidential campaigns where all has been long-decided before the convention’s bland rhetorical flourishes and flag-waving remonstrations, we might feel superior to the nasty bloodbaths of earlier party gatherings, we might take note that, at least in Vidal’s fantasy, politics still mattered and the individual candidates, freed from appealing to the whole of the American populace, could at least imagine (even while recognizing the reality was something far different) that their personal values might matter.
Today elections are won more on “general” appeal—which one might describe as campaigns based on generalities and artful waffling as opposed to personal integrity and individual history. One need only note how current Republican candidate Romney attempts to cover over his own tracks regarding his Massachusetts support of health coverage and silence his family roots in Mexico—ancestors of his whom engaged in polygamy, or perceive Obama’s attempts to downplay his Indonesian childhood and diminish his real accomplishments on such issues as health care, currently unpopular with right-leaning independents and aspects of which may soon be overturned by the Supreme court.
It is true that in Vidal’s play both major candidates have something to hide: Russell, his nervous breakdown and its attending medical history, as well as the subsequent failure of his marriage; Cantwell, his possible involvement in his young military days with a homosexual roommate. But, in real terms, it hardly matters whether the latter was involved in sexual acts or in merely squealing on his roommate, for in the context of the play either demonstrates his moral hypocrisy and his commitment to “the ends justifying the means.” Russell’s bout with mental exhaustion, it is clear, has little to do with his career, including in his more recent performance as Secretary of State, and, in reality, may simply indicate his inability to accept simple solutions to complex issues. And both men, despite their real and implicated blackmail, still stake their claims on their political actions and personal values reflected in their public service. While Cantwell’s politics are ruthless, opportunistic, and play directly to the most ignorant elements of public perception, he is nevertheless a man of action, a true political beast who will clearly accomplish whatever he sets out to do. Despite Russell’s superior sense of ethics and his erudite comprehension of American and world history, he is, as his campaign advisor and the current President point out, a man who when faced with critical choices, wavers—or, to express it another way, is a man who stops to think before acting— a fatal flaw, evidently, for any leader.
While one might be tempted to compare Vidal’s rivals with today’s presidential candidates, accordingly, Obama is no Russell, despite his intelligent projection of moral issues, just as Romney is no Cantwell, despite his obviously expedient shifts to the far right in order to appeal
to those constituents. We
live today in a time where everything is far more prepackaged and,
consequently, morally blurred.
The politics of Vidal’s parable, represented by the enormous compromise of candidate Russell, are no longer possible in our society of political and social extremes. As in the Miller play, I suspect, very few members of the audience under sixty—none of whom I spotted at the Schoenfeld matinee I attended—might have difficultly comprehending a drama so centered on one man’s moral scruples. When did morality and politics ever share the same bed? today’s voters might scoff. While in 1960 Vidal might have pointed to John Kennedy (even if mistakenly), today we have “hot mic” statements from our President admitting to Russian President Medvedev that during the election he needs the “flexibility” of not saying what he eventually might. And anyone reading the daily papers perceives that even expediently political compromises rarely occur in the chambers of congress. The idea morality today often has little to do with a truly thought-out position. A man like Vidal’s Russell, sad to say, is either a political dinosaur or a literary fabrication at best. And a man of compromise, as Republic Senator Dick Lugar's defeat yesterday confirmed, is someone who cannot be reelected.
New York, Minetta Tavern, May 6, 2012; Los Angeles, May 8, 2012