Saturday, October 3, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Lost in Good Intentions" (on Kurt Weill's and Maxwell Anderson's Lost in the Stars)

lost in good intentions

by Douglas Messerli

Alfred Hayes (libretto, based on the play and lyrics of Maxwell Anderson), Kurt Weill (music), Daniel Mann (director) Lost in the Stars / 1972

At a certain point in high school—I don’t remember the year—anyone who read books (and in my class I believe there were very few us) was asked to read Alan Paton’s 1948 novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. I did, probably feeling very righteous for doing so, as I did in performing James Weldon Johnson’s “Go Down Death” and, a year later Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar” the following year at the Iowa State Speech contents; I won blue ribbons on both occasions.

    I probably even cried after reading Cry, the Beloved Country, although I don’t believe we had a single black family in our town of Marion, Iowa, just somewhat enlightened teachers. Yet, strangely, I don’t remember anything today about Paton’s book, even after seeking out the opera based on it Lost in the Stars by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson (1949), filmed as the eighth and last part of the American Film Theater’s series, with Daniel Mann directing and a revised libretto by Alfred Hayes.

     Nearly every critic agreed that the film was a disaster, and I was certainly not impressed with it, set as it was on-site in Johannesburg, South Africa and elsewhere, in a small Zulu tribal village and a Johannesburg shantytown all in bleached out colors common in badly-lit early 70s films, this from 1972. 

     You can’t really blame the wonderful singers and actors Brock Peters as the film’s hero Reverend Stephen Kumalo, Melba Moore as Irina, the pregnant shantytown lover of Kumalo’s son Absalom, Clifton Davis as Absalom, and Raymond St. Jacques as Kumalo’s city-savvy brother, John. As The New York Times critic Vincent Canby correctly described some of the problems:

“From the way that Daniel Mann has directed this film version, it seems to be a work completely dependent upon the conventions of the stage. In the theater we accept illiterate characters who sing Broadway-type lyrics and we pretend that the lyrics are poetry. We also accept startling narrative coincidences because, after all, the stage is so small that the most unlikely people might well bump into one another—and often do when dancing. Mr. Mann has apparently had no idea how to create an equivalent reality in a film that appears to have been shot mostly on exterior locations meant to simulate those in South Africa, where the story is set. One result is a kind of aimlessness that pervades the film. The camera doesn't seem to know quite what to do when a character bursts into song over a real washtub in a real backyard. It seems almost embarrassed, as you might be if the person next to you in the subway suddenly launched into a full-throttle ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’”

     When the film appeared on DVD, Time Out New York dismissed it as “a series of well-meaning clichés,” Film Threat argued that this was not the classic gone missing that one had hoped for.

     Almost all critics lay the blame on Daniel Mann’s shoulders, and there is a great deal of reason to do so. Mann, acclaimed by some as a major Hollywood director, was the kind of 1950s and 60s craftsmen who generally put rather overwrought if well-constructed soap-operaish dramas such as William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, Peter Shaffer’s Five Finger Exercise, and John Patrick’s The Teahouse of the August Moon on film. All were significant dramatic hits of the day which are now recognized by most younger playwrights as the kind of theatrical warhorses they have long struggled to topple, mostly with success. These dramas all creak with their well-meaning intentions about speaking out about the hell of unloved matrimony, adultery, alcoholism, and the inability of US Americans to comprehend cultural differences, just the kinds of concerns which might attract Mann to this musical and, in turn, convince producers that he might be the perfect match for the subject.

     The new librettist, Alfred Hayes, moreover, was of the same ilk, most noted as an uncredited writer for The Bicycle Thief, one of the most sentimental of all neo-realist Italian dramas, and screenwriter for Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men in which Arthur Kennedy and Robert Mitchum duke it out over Susan Hayward. The critics of the Weill musical were particularly dismissive of his decision to delete the final reconciliation between Reverend Kumalo and the South African white bigot James Jarvis.

    Actually, I believe Hayes was correct in making that cut. In 1948 such an unexpected intersection of black and white division might have been seen as redemptive set against the bleak picture of the racial divide Paton presented, but by 1972 when Apartheid had settled into become part of the very fabric of that country’s political and social reality (it would ultimately last for 50 years), any attempt for the father of the son who unintentionally killed the bigot’s son might only seem as condescending if it were at all to be believable. Even in the movie, the remnants of such a reconciliation, when Jarvis argues for Kumalo to remain the pastor to his church smacks of an attempt to keep his black neighbors’ minds on the spiritual instead of seeking out political solutions for their plight. In short Jarvis fights for the status quo when Kumalo, in rejecting his pastoral role is also proudly, if painfully, breaking with all that has come before the hanging of his Absalom.

     The real problems with this work, I would argue, go back to Paton’s own writing and, more particularly, with Maxwell Anderson and Weill’s adaptation.

    Writing in the late 1940s and 1950s, Paton was one of a generation who felt that by transforming the larger problems of historical racial and other social divisiveness into the specific, and contextualizing those issues into the framework of biblical and highly literary conceits they could bring everyone to comprehend the basic issues. It was noble and idealistic viewpoint which one cannot help but admire. But the problem was not that people, particularly South African whites—just like US whites who continued to adhere to racist views—couldn’t perceive the horrors and chaos they had wrought on people of color, but just as most rightist believers are still convinced, that it was necessary and justified in order to protect the society as they imagined it should be: white, patriarchal, class-structured, and conservatively religious, and that anything and anyone that got in the way of those values simply had to be destroyed at any cost.

     The synecdoche that Paton and used to speak for his concerns had little effect on those who could care less about the specific in their demand of their general ideology of hate. And all the semi-religious and literary trimmings that came about with titles such as Paton’s and numerous other such lesser high-minded writers, while attractive to the bourgeois, only further alienated the convinced bigots who had no use for flowery language in the first place.

     It was the time of dozens of such aspirational as well as just romantic conceits. I need only call up my memory of the Book-of-the-Month Club titles my mother had collected on her reading shelf during those years:  From Here to Eternity; The Silver Chalice; East of Eden; The High and the Mighty; Time and Time Again; Not as a Stranger; The View from Pompey’s Head; Never Victorious, Never Defeated; The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit; By Love Possessed; Atlas Shrugged; The Ugly American; Too Late the Phalarope (another of Paton’s fictions)—and dozens of others. The important film directors from that same period, Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk used similar titles such Rebel without a Cause, Inherit the Wind, Imitation of Life, All that Heaven Allows, and Magnificent Obsession to attract their readers to their deconstructions of the similar social and political problems.

      These were just the kind of sentiments to which Maxwell Anderson, who wrote some very excellent plays and film adaptations before turning to historical dramas and verse dramas—one of his most noted of which was Winterset concerning the Sacco-Vanzetti trials—was attracted to. In his libretto of Cry, the Beloved Country, indeed Anderson takes this kind of over-heated language from Paton, pairing it with long verse-like lines while occasionally making a kind of jarring use of simple end-rhymes, the result of which stultifies natural lyric intentions Weill might have had.

     While agreeing with me about the unsuccessful images and philosophical vision of this work, Canby still praises Weill’s music:

“The music almost compensates for the foolishness of the images, the lyrics, the drama and the point-of-view, which, in spite of the ending, recalls the "ain't-black-folks-noble?" philosophy evident in so much well-meaning theater of 40 to 50 years ago.”

    But I think even Weill is just not at home in the long choral-like antiphons demanded by Anderson’s clotted lyrics that make up most of the work. His compositions work better, given his long-time ironist stance and his jazz-infused dissonance that fleetingly appears in the long dance number at the bar before the attempted robbery and in Irina’s song “Trouble Man.” Of course, there is a kind of splendor to the major song of the musical, “Lost in the Stars,” but it only reminds me of the operatic possibilities which might have saved this finally fragmented work based on the very best of intentions.

Los Angeles, October 3, 2020

Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance and World Cinema Review (October 2020).

Douglas Messerli | "Where and When" (on Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On")


where or when

 Don Wingate (director) Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On / 2019

 It seems to me that I always loved the singer/comedian—and her talents don’t end there—Kaye Ballard, but that can’t, obviously, be true since the only role that I actually heard her perform (I must admit dozens and dozens of times) was in the 1961 Robert Merrill and Michael Steward musical Carnival in which she played The Incomparable Rosalie. I was only 14 at the time, and would not visit New York City until at least 8 year later; yet I fell in love with her—as well, I should add, with Anna Maria Alberghetti (who I did meet one evening years later), Jerry Orbach, James Mitchell, Pierre Olaf and the rest of that august cast—through her drunken rending of the love/hate relationship she had, apparently off stage as well, with the James Mitchell character, “Humming,” (she was brilliant at singing songs that represent a slightly tipsy chanteuse such as in her famous Rodgers and Hart rendering of “Where or When”) although I now prefer her performance in Carnival of “It Was Always You.”

   After reading a biography of lyricist John Latouche and while working on a piece on “My Favorite Broadway Songs,” I much later discovered her “Lazy Afternoon” from The Golden Apples, which easily made “My Favorite’s” cut.

     But I must have seen her as well on TV’s The Ed Sullivan Show, The Mel Torme Show or The Perry Como Show; and, of course, I saw her, without knowing it, in The Ritz, in which even the handsome Treat Williams couldn’t make me divert my gaze from her.

     When last year an e-mail message suggested I might watch the Don Wingate special streaming-live production of Kaye Ballad: The Show Goes On, I immediately signed up and waited patiently until 7:00 only to be told that I could not enter the platform such I was viewing it through with two connections—the same problem Criterion had for a few weeks before they fixed it, despite the fact that my Wifi connection was my only entry onto the site.

     I was highly disappointed, but knew that it would eventually show up somewhere else, which it did this past week when I watched it with great delight on the Los Angeles Laemmle Movie Theater streaming service.

     So I discovered I was not the only one who had developed a crush on this woman just because of her immense talent and openness. It seems that everyone—except Phil Silvers who treated her badly and cut most her songs from her first full Broadway show, Top Bananas—was her “very best friend.” Marlon Brando, Carol Channing, Eve Arden, Julie Andrews, Mimi Hines, Spike Jones (with whose crazed orchestra she first performed), Ethel Merman, Desi Arnez, Jerry Lewis (“I must have been the only American who truly adored him”) Judy Garland, Andy Warhol, Betty Davis, Alice Ghostley, Doris Day, Steven Allen, Woody Allen, Donna McKechnie, Liliane Montevecchi, Jerry Stiller, Ann Margaret…the list goes on. Many of these and others she also helped in their careers, since she often premiered the songs they later made famous, including “Fly Me to the Moon,” “My Man,” and “Cabaret” long before they tickled the vocal chords of Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Barbra Streisand, and Liza Minelli.

      In fact, Ballard was, in part, responsible for the hiring of Carol Burnett (after she turned down a stint on The Gary Moore Show), Streisand, Joy Behar and numerous others. She was a true “Broadway Baby” a number which she sang on a revival of Follies, yet she was so much more.

      Singing for years in the most noted nightclubs in New York, including The Bon Soir, The Blue Angel, El Morocco, and elsewhere in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, she would draw in the crowds and celebrities like Garland, Merman, Davis, Betty Hutton, and others just to watch her sing brilliant imitations of their own renowned performances.

      After watching the tabulations of Wingate’s celebration of her life, it appears that except in her later years, Ballard was never without a gig, either in a nightclub, a theatrical revue (the old name for loosely bound musical entertainments), a Broadway show, a television series, or a film. Even the shows that closed out of town, such as the musical rendition of Molly Goldberg’s serial radio show The Goldbergs, Molly and noted composer Marc Blitzstein’s Reuben, Rueben were awarded deserved kudos by critics. She even famously played the flute.

    When one of the celebratory guests of The Show Goes On asks why, after she had become so incredibly famous hadn’t Ballard risen the very top of many legends with whom she was friends. He argues that it was, in part, the era in which she lived which demanded pigeon-holing performers. “The trouble was that Kaye Ballard was just too versatile,” he concludes.

     It was certainly not a problem for her various audiences or even for me, who fell in love with her in a Marion, Iowa living room.

     This marvelous performer died, at the age of 93, on January 21st, 2019.


Los Angeles, August 3, 2020

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2020).


Saturday, September 12, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "When the Piano Won't Speak" (on David Lang's face so pale)

when the piano won’t speak
by Douglas Messerli

David Lang face so pale, a work of six pianos / presented by Piano Spheres on YouTube, September 8, 2020

A few days ago I had the opportunity to finally see my first musical concert since February 2020, which must have represented the last performance this year in Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall.
    The new performance, a live, on-line, rendition of David Lang’s piece for six pianos, face so pale, featured Vicki Ray. Susan Svrček, Sarah Gibson, Mark Robson, Thomas Kotcheff, and Gloria Chen, each presumably playing their own pianos from their own homes.
    Based, in the broadest sense, on a work by the mid-15th century composer Guillaume Dufay—a chanson and mass, as Lang describes it, which he drastically slowed down—the work consists primarily of the six pianists toggling back and forth between two keys as they gradually, in different directions, move up and down the keyboard for the work’s 8:45 minutes.
    The result is not as structurally confined or repetitious as one first might think. With six pianists, each moving along the spectrum of the serial double-note composition, the communal sound they achieve is a bit like quiet glass bells pulsating from a distant point in space—which might have something to do with the fact that the piece, first released in a recording by Piano Circus in 1993, was later performed with Brad Meyer on six vibraphones by the UKPG.

   In the piano sextet I saw, however, there is also a slightly less ethereal quality to the acoustics. Lang reminds us that although the piano is generally thought of as being an instrument of highly emotional expression, that it is, nonetheless, a kind of percussion instrument which depends upon a hammer hitting a string from which the sound vibrates. Accordingly, he argues, there is a tension always on the piano between the ethereal and something that is fraught or even tortured.

      When Gloria Cheng, interviewing him, expressed some of the difficulties of bringing six pianists together in a zoom-like concert playing in their own spaces on instruments which each have a slightly different totality, she concluded that, at times, the piano wouldn’t “speak.”

      Lang smiled as if to say that was precisely what he meant by the tortured quality of his sextet.
      This became apparent even in the YouTube concert, when one by one, the pianists dropped away, leaving finally only one, Vicki Ray, quietly playing out the quick shifts of one note to the other. By the time she quietly came to the composition’s end, the music appeared to be more in the mind that in the air, as if the piano had silenced itself to be replace by a closure of echo rather than the actual vibration of strings.
     It seems to me that the tension this work hints at between the open flow of music and its always potential absence is a near perfect metaphor for our current time in which those of us who care about our survival during the seemingly endless pandemic must live in somewhat closed-off worlds, in semi-isolation. Yet, we can and do speak to one another, even if we are in terror that suddenly our voices might no longer be heard.

Los Angeles, September 12, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (September 2020).

Friday, August 21, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Another Country" (on Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's The Line)

another country
by Douglas Messerli

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (authors) The Line / presented on-line from July 8-September 1, 2020; the performance I saw was on August 20, 2020.

In one of the best offerings by a contemporary theater company is this bleak year, The Public Theater is currently offering free on-line viewing of Jessica Blank’s and Erik Jensen’s play The Line from July through August 4th, evidently extended, since I saw this moving response of 7 voices who each served on the front-lines of New York City’s COVID-19 crisis on August 20, 2020.
     The words these “talking heads” speak are their own, and do not represent composites so the credits read. But the fictional names represent nurses, doctors, and others who devoted months of their lives, while endangering their own health in order to deal with the growing terror of disease surrounding them and their patients, most of whom, they all assert were workers, primarily essential employees who kept grocery stores open, stood as guards for apartment buildings and businesses, helped to deliver the mail, and served in a hundred other jobs that kept those who had the financial abilities to quarantine themselves and work from home.
      Their impassioned reports of the progress of the disease from a mere item of news that developed into the unspeakable pandemic which left hospitals without beds, ventilators, and even oxygen; that forced doctors to work 16-17 hour shifts in which they were required to make life-and-death decisions by choosing which patients might or could not receive their aid; demanded that ambulance drivers and paramedic workers make 3,000 and by the end of the epidemic up to 7,000 runs a day, while rejecting those who they recognized could not survive on the trip to the hospital; and required nurses wearing ineffectual masks to watch over those in their care without any visitations from family or friends, can only bring tears to the eyes of anyone with a shred of empathy.

     Two of those from which we hear, Sharon (Lorraine Toussaint) a manager at a senior residential facility and Vikram (Arjun Gupta), a doctor, come down with the disease themselves and, despite their own difficulties in getting proper treatment—particularly in Sharon’s case—survived.
      Perhaps Vikram expresses the situation best as Jacquinn Sinclair summarizes that figure’s comments in her review in The ARTery:

As Vikram rides the subway, he notices that
most people on the train during the shelter-
in-place order are black and brown people
heading to or from work. After recovering
from the coronavirus, Vikram puts in some
time at a hospital in the Bronx. On his way
there he passes public housing developments
and he knows these are the people who will
fill the hospital.

      As another of the group later laments: I cannot get the vision out of my head of all the empty apartments of those hundreds who died. Who could even retrieve what they left behind.
     Many of them, such as the first-year intern Jennifer (Alison Pill), are angry. Having observed in the public hospital in which she worked he dying patients lying in beds crammed into both sides of the hallways, and after being forced to jerry-rig and paste with masking tape machines that might help the sick to breathe after running out of ventilators, and, perhaps most importantly, being unable, given her rank, to even question the decisions of doctors and other supervisors working with her, she is justifiably angry. She felt suddenly, she recalls, as if she were living in “another country.”
      In one particular case, an elder patient kept attempting to pull off the mask pumping needed oxygen into his system, an act that meant a sudden loss in his pulse and his inability to breathe. Trying to explain to him that if he wanted to live he would have to put up with the burning sensations the oxygen masks produced, she finally taped the mask into place, while still checking on him hourly, only to discover, upon returning to work the next morning that someone had removed the patient in the night into a room, as she puts it, where “there were no direct eyes on him.” A technician has discovered him alone, without a pulse. “I worked so hard to keep him alive,” she moans, her eyes awash in tears.
      Oscar (John Ortiz), a former actor turned Emergency Medical Technician, sees his own beloved Brooklyn-born uncle die in a hospital with less resources that the one in which he works.
      When she is finally able to return to the nursing home in which she works, the black nurse Sharon finds that most of her favorite elders whom she had long almost stridently worked to protect and to demonstrate her love for are now “gone,” dead. When a grief counselor shows up, weeks after the worst of the events which the nurses under her supervision had to endure, she agrees to suggest they should attend, but refuses herself to be there. Furious for the fact that only after those working with her, not to mention the patients under their care, have been left alone to suffer without proper tools and distancing precautions, Sharon berates the belated one-day visit provided by the care-home directors who, she hints, are now also attempting to alter reports and emails to the facilitie’s advantage.
       Ed (Jamey Sheridan), a 26-year veteran paramedic, is also fed up, in this case by being described as a hero, just like the firefighters were after 9/11. If we’re suddenly heroes, he argues, what were we before this disease, as we struggled our best to save patients from numerous other diseases every day. And what about those who man the desks that allow the patients entry, the janitors who clean up the surgery rooms and hospital halls, the cooks and servers who bring the nurses, doctors, and patients food, and the dozens of others who work hard every day to help New Yorkers to keep attending to their everyday lives. This is not about heroes, but about a long line of individuals, he concludes, who miraculously help everyone along their daily paths. If he has belief in the city, it is because of “the line” made up of giving and caring individuals who help to make everything going smoothly, even when everything seems to project despair. If these are not precisely the character Ed’s words, they stand for his uplifting summation of why, even in disaster, things eventually are resolved.
       Asked to demonstrate more openly, after the crisis, his love of New York, Vikram explains that New York is wonderful, but it is also uncaring, lonely, and off-putting to many people. It is the combination of these facets and the diversity of who have these reactions that makes him love the city.
       In the end, these citizens “on the line” together express some of the most powerfully positive sentiments in our terrifying and cynical-invoking times.
       Check out The Line as quickly as you can (they stop streaming on September 1) to discover a theater-piece that is worth watching many times over.

Los Angeles, August 21, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (August 2020).

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "The Time Is Not Now" (on Hannibal Buress' comedy performance Miami Nights)

the time is not now
by Douglas Messerli

Hannibal Buress (performer), Kristian Mercado (director) Miami Nights / I watched this taped performance on YouTube on August 6, 2020

Stand-up comedian, comic writer, and actor Hannibal Buress’ 2019 performance before a live audience, Miami Nights, is now being broadcast free on YouTube, in part because of the Covid-19 epidemic. It’s a gift that everyone should take the opportunity to see before it disappears.
     The very variety of Buress’ previous works on The Eric Andre Show, his briefer appearances on the talk shows of Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and others, as well as his own comedy shows and albums (Hannibal Buress Live from Chicago and Animal Furnace)  and a brief stint at writing for Saturday Night Live, has brought him a great deal of attention, but as he jokes, not enough to gain him universal celebrity. When people seem to recognize him, he generally responds, “I get that all the time,” and merrily walks his way down the streets without the adulation which he feels might hinder his life.
      Soon after, he quips that twice a year he is asked to host a game show, answering in a god-like voice with a projection-screen fire raging behind him: THE PROPHECY WILL BE FULFILLED, BUT THE TIME IS NOT NOW. Indeed, Buress’ new work is about doing things at “the right time” in a world in which he and others can simply survive.
       He admits to the audience that he has stopped drinking (“I want to choose the way I die,” he insists.) Preferably he would like to die from a rare disease that bares his own name “like Lou Gehrig Disease,” he jokes.
       His asthma, and the lack of his friends’ appreciation for the seriousness of the problem is the subject of another short series of amusements.
       As for the time to die, just like hosting another game show, a year in which thousands are dying from the pandemic and George Floyd and others have been killed by police is not the right time to go, he warily suggests, leading into the two major skits of the evening.
       The first involves his arrival in Nashville, where the moment he enters a taxicab, the driver tells him that he can’t play his instrument in the cab. Having said nothing about playing an instrument or even carrying a case in which he might be hiding one, the comedian is a bit confused.
      Without further ado, the driver reports that he had a passenger who played Kanye West the other day and kept singing his song “Nigger man, Nigger man, Nigger man.”
     Buress was quite astounded; “yes, Kanye sometimes uses the first syllable “Nig” throughout his work, but has lots of words in between and doesn’t lay into the final r the way you did just now”; “I was thinking maybe I missed something on his first album College Dropout?”  
    He looks it up on his cell-phone. No such title appears, he reports to the cabbie. As the conversation continues, Buress begins to wonder is this a new form of racism. Do a group of cabdrivers meet monthly to ponder how they might enter into bigoted conversation without seeming to be explicitly stating their racist sentiments?
     Soon after he begins an even longer retelling of his now famous arrest in Miami for disorderly conduct and drunken behavior. The comedian admits that he, having no food and water to accompany them, had far too many drinks: “How many drinks did I have? I don’t know. How many albums does Snoop Dogg have? (His audience laughs.) You don’t know either, you only know it’s more than 10 and less than 30.”
       Realizing, however, that he was in bad shape, Buress left the bar and in front of a large mansion which was evidently hosting a Basel Miami art party asks a cop if he will call him an Uber, since the comedian has lost his cellphone, offering the pay him an extra $20.
       The policeman, presuming he was one of the party guests, orders him off the street, the logic of which makes utterly no sense to our drunken friend. To “get it together” he retreats to another bar with the cop behind him, now insisting that Buress has to leave the bar because of his condition.
        Clearly that leaves the performer in a difficult position in which he is seemingly trapped in a no-man’s land where he is not permitted inside nor outside, a kind of catch-22 situation from which there can be no escape.
       Given the recent events surrounding Floyd’s meaningless death and the several others killed similarly by police that have been brought to light through the “Black Lives Matter” protests, however, Buress’ situation is even more troubling. As Alexandra Schwartz writes in The New Yorker:

…Mortality is also on his mind. ….”I want
 my own way of dying.” he says. It’s a joke
about ego, but the unspoken subtext—about
the precise way in which a Black man in America
does not want to die—hangs in the air, to be
picked up in the story that the act has been
building toward….

His solution is to return to where he discovers the cop once more, speaking directly into the man’s body camera: “Hey, what’s up, it’s me, Hannibal Buress. This cop’s stupid as fuck.”
      Buress, himself, admits it was probably not the best thing to say—despite it being absolutely legal—to a clearly riled-up man in blue. And the drunken performer recalls using even choicer language to describe and agitate the man who arrested him when they later reach the police station where the coper takes him, all of which might have been prevented if the cop might have simply taken the action of calling an Uber. Yet, putting his name directly into the body cam was probably the best way to put the incident on the record, possibly also preventing the now nervous law enforcer from taking a more private action.

Buress’ case (with the help of a lawyer named Bieber) was thrown out along with a fine and the requirement to attend a day’s session about the evils of inebriation, during which, despite his best attempts, Buress was recognized by fellow attendees.   
      The cop, it turns out, was one of those who police chiefs mistakenly, in an act of ablution of their kind, describe as “a bad apple.” One of the many headlines from Miami newspapers describes the potential violence that the comedian might have faced that night:

Miami Cop Who Arrested Hannibal Buress
Caught Choking Man After Fireball Binge

      For those of you who might not know what a Fireball Binge is, I’ll provide a definition: Fireball is a cinnamon flavored whisky manufactured by the Sazerac Company of New Orleans. The company itself describes the 33% alcohol liquid: “If you haven't tried it yet, just imagine what it feels like to stand face-to-face with a fire-breathing dragon who just ate a whisky barrel full of spicy cinnamon. Live it, love it, shoot it – what happens next is up to you.”
     My Webster’s New World Dictionary identifies the word “binge” as “a drunken celebration or spree.”

Los Angeles, August 9, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (August 2020).   

Monday, July 20, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "To Stop Breathing" (on Lanie Robertson's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill)

to stop breathing

by Douglas Messerli


Lanie Robertson (writer), Lonny Price (director) Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill / 2016 (TV movie)


Talk about coincidences, which visit me on a regular basis, on July 17, 2020 I had a hankering to finally watch Audra McDonald’s performance of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, a one woman show with great contributions by Billie Holiday’s pianist and conductor, Jimmy Powers (Shelton Becton), Clayton Craddock on drums, and George Farmer on bass. That show, after rattling through dozens of small regional theaters, had its Broadway premiere in 1986 at the Circle in the Square, transformed by director Lonny Price and set designer James Noone by slightly lifting one end of the stage to allow a select few theater patrons to be seen seated while discretely drinking at small tables as they witness the devastating fictional performance only about three months away for Holiday’s death.


     I had so long postponed watching the work for some of the very same reasons that the theater critic of the Los Angeles Times, Charles McNulty observed: “I must confess that I had my qualms. When one recalls Holiday’s sublimely ruined sound at the end of her career, the period in which Lanie Robertson’s concert drama is set, one doesn’t think of McDonald’s soaring, Juilliard-burnished soprano, a gold medal voice still in its athletic prime.”

      What I had entirely forgotten was that “The Day Lady Died,” one of my favorite Frank O’Hara poems whose last three stanzas read—

                                                        I go on to the bank

and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)

doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life

and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine

for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do

think of Hesoid, trans. Richmond Lattimore or

Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres

of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine

after practically going to sleep with quandariness


and for Mike I just stroll in the PARK LANE

Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and

then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue

and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theater and

casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton

of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it


and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of

leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT

while she whispered a song along the keyboard

to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breating


—happened to occur on July 17, 1959.

      I needn't at all have to be skeptical about McDonald’s performance. Not only does she appear to get most of Holiday’s eccentric lyrical phrasing right, her often drop of the final syllables and the intense alternation of alto and soprano vibrato, but she quite stunningly portrays Holiday in the  last days of her life in which the great singer was not only alcoholic—which makes for some highly dramatic dips and near falls, particularly when she attempts to take the few steps down into the audience space—but very much still under the influence of heroin, the marks of which she has attempted to cover over by wearing long white half-gloves that perfectly match what critic Marilyn Stasio described as “a while column gown.”


      McDonald also fragmentarily tells some of her life story through the use of what singers generally describe as banter between numbers—even though, in this case, the talkative interludes slowly begin to outnumber the music. Holiday first explains her distaste of even being in Philadelphia, where Emerson’s exists, relating one of her favorite quips: “I used to tell everybody when I die I don’t care if I go to Heaven or Hell long’s it ain’t in Philly.” Later, she reveals the reason: it was in the city of “brotherly love” that a judge sent her away to prison for processing drugs, possibly smuggled into her suitcase by her then lover the trumpeter Joe Guy, who introduced her to heroin. Her jail sentence resulted in her losing the all-important New York license to play in cabarets and clubs, which she explains is why she is now at Emerson’s.

         Of course, at no time in her life did Holiday reveal, particularly as banter between songs, so much detail about her painful life. As Stasio writes:


“Robertson’s script is unrealistically stuffed with just about every known biographical detail about her unhappy life. The mother (“the Duchess”) who got her chubby little girl her first housecleaning job in a whorehouse. The humiliations she endured traveling on club dates through the segregated deep south. The rotten bad luck of falling in love with a no-good man who got her hooked on heroin and set her up to take the fall on a drug charge. All that, plus the appalling injustice of losing her cabaret card and being banned from performing in New York.”

     By the time near the end of her performance, so drunken that she has descended to the bar to pour herself her own fresh drink, we are hardly surprised when Holiday somewhat offhandedly describes that as a young girl she was raped. The story that proceeds of her performance of the classic “Strange Fruit,” describes her travels with Artie Shaw through the South in which she was forced to eat in the kitchen and could only enter and exit through it. Having to urinate badly, she attempts to find out where “the colored bathrooms” are, but before she can uncover that secret, she is confronted by a highly bigoted waitress who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that there are no colored bathrooms in this establishment, and that Holiday is most definitely not wanted in this restricted world. Tired of the abuse, Holiday squats and pisses all over the legs and feet of her merciless foe.

     Thank heaven, between these extremely dramatic revelations, McDonald still has the opportunity to sing some of Holiday’s greatest numbers, including the bawdy “Pig Foot (and a Bottle of Beer)” and “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” “When a Woman Loves a Man,” and—after a break to get a heroin fix—the song she wrote for the Duchess, a somewhat bitter cry after she had been rejected a loan from her mother, “God Bless the Child.” But it is perhaps the song that is most atypical of her general oeuvre, “Strange Fruit,” that literally takes one’s breath away.

      What’s truly fascinating about this work is, given the renewed protests of “Black Lives Matter,” Holiday’s comments and life in general summarize so many of the current concerns of blacks. Except for numerous sexual innuendos, however, this work does not attempt to confront the singer's bisexuality. 

      This Lady Day, filmed at McDonald’s performance at Café Brazil in New Orleans in 2016, reveals the great singer as quite literally falling apart, yet still able in wise-cracking memories able to make even the sourest patrons giggle and through her singing force everyone to “stop breathing.”


Los Angeles, July 20, 2020

Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (July 2020).


Monday, July 13, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Some Questions to Ibsen about His Ghosts" (on Ibsen's Ghosts)

some questions to ibsen about his ghosts
by Douglas Messerli

Henrik Ibsen Ghosts / the production I saw was a BBC television production in its Theater Night Series, originally broadcast on June 14, 1987

I must presume that nearly everyone who has and is currently reading my USTheater, Opera, and Performance website and the many volumes of my annually produced My Year will know something about, and may even have possibly read Ibsen’s 1881 drama, which had its premier in, of all places, Chicago, Illinois in 1882, performed by a traveling Danish theater company, made up of mostly amateur performers for an US Scandinavian-speaking audience.
     This play, if you recall, is not a work about tragic figures who are punished for their refusal to live up to the society’s moral values, but are brought down, quite ironically, by their refusal to break the strict values of the late 19th century provincial world in which they live.

     In particular, the seemingly saintly Mrs. Alving (quite brilliantly acted in this BBC production by Judi Dench), after long enduring her husband’s “degeneration”—which consists, evidently, of wine and women, including bedding the house maid Johanna—she rushes into the arms of her local pastor, Manders (Michael Gambon), for advice and, so it seems from her later confidences, perhaps even for love.

      Insisting that she return home to help her husband defeat his devils—a common dictum even today among hypocritical spiritual advisors who order women to remain in the bondage of abusive relationships. Given the intelligence and fortitude Mrs. Alving naturally possesses, she returns, sending her young son, at a far too early age, to Paris to study art, she taking over her disinterested husband’s financial affairs which, upon his death, has made her a wealthy woman. Now, years later, she is able to build an orphanage in his name, partly a tribute to her guilty conscience and, at the same time, an attempt to close all debts, emotionally and morally, she may feel she still owed her entrapped husband—particularly after she has come to realize that as entangled as she was in a relationship of deceit, so was Captain Alving ensnared by close-minded values of those around him, including herself.
      Into this hothouse of sorrow and guilt, her son Oswald (Kenneth Branagh), after having some success in his artistic career, returns to the isolated, always darkened but immaculately kept house, presumably to help celebrate the new orphanage, but actually because he is having difficulty in seeing which has sent him to a doctor who, as close as Ibsen himself is able to speak the truth, is diagnosed as having a “softening of the brain”—or, in modern parlance, the young man is suffering from inherited syphilis and will soon become blind.

      All of this is complicated by Manders’ visit to the Alving manse to deliver a speech for the opening of the orphanage, a time when Mrs. Alving also choses to reveal to him that her husband was the father of the beautiful young woman now working as her housemaid (Natasha Richardson), not the often drunken and truly hypocritical Engstrand, who by cozying up to the pastor has hoped to get his “daughter” to return to town with him, where he plans to open a “home for wandering sailors” with perhaps a little grant for his new enterprise as well.
      As if things were not bad enough, Oswald appears to have taken a romantic liking to Regina, who unknown to either of them, are half sister and brother.
      Now that I’ve refreshed your memories a bit, I have two major questions to ask, both of which, have troubled me since I fist read this play in Norway as a 16-year-old.
     Although I here seemingly address these questions to the reader, they might also be send to be indirectly asked of the playwright himself.
       Let me begin first with the problem of Engstrand (Freddie Jones), who is also the first character of this dark drama to express his chicanery. The savvy Regina immediately sees through his proposals to create a home for sailors, particularly when he insists that she come “home” to help him run it. The “home” clearly is to be a whorehouse, and the feisty woman whom Mrs. Alving has helped to educate wants nothing at all to do with it. Besides, it is clear that she has her eyes on the young son of the Alving family, who has previously promised to take her back with him to Paris. In secret she has even learned French. Indeed, Regina is quite openly embarrassed by her “father,” and several times insists he leave her and the house immediately.
     Engstrand, while later pretending a newfound religiosity, invites Manders to lead the nightly prayers, a ceremony he claims he has instigated for the betterment of his fellow carpenters.
     Even a 16-year-old boy could see through his plot. As the candles are lit for the prayers, flames are ignited by the fresh sawdust of the construction, and the would-be orphanage quickly burns to the ground. Engstrand, certainly the firebug behind the orphanage’s destruction, can now freely, if somewhat subtly, bribe Manders into making sure that he receives some of Mrs. Alving’s remaining funds for his sailor’s home project.
     Given Regina’s immediate recognition of her father’s intentions and Mrs. Alving’s knowledge that he is only the titular father of her husband’s child, how can Manders or anyone else—including Regina, when she finally learns of her true parentage, determines to become a prostitute in the tradition of her mother by returning to town with Engstrand—want anything to do with this scoundrel? Why has Mrs. Alving, knowing what she does, even hire him, evidently paying him well, to work on construction of the orphanage?
     And, of course, Engstrand’s multiple deceptions—at one point even convincing Manders that in marrying Johanna, while ignoring the money she had been bequeathed by Mrs. Alving, married her simply out of love and caring for a girl in her predicament.
     Hardly does Manders enter the Alving house, when he appears scandalized that Mrs. Alving is reading contemporary fiction, seriously warning her against their effects, although he has admittedly read none of them.
     A short while later he convinces the benefactress that if she were to buy insurance to cover the new orphanage she (and more particularly he) might be subject to local talk about the necessity to insure something that stood for a godly belief in the betterment of the society around them, both town and country.
     Later, he is outraged by the fact that Oswald has not only regularly dined with his artist friends, many of whom are unmarried and fathers of children, but that  Oswald speaks out so strongly for the natural morality of his friends as opposed to church teachings.
     When we finally learn of his long-ago advice to Mrs. Alving and his refusals to accept her desperate love for him, we can only ask what on earth was behind Fru Alving’s attraction to this hypocritically babbling idiot in the first place. Even she, when Mandeers becomes convinced of Engstrand’s defense of his marrying the Alving’s housemaid, calls him a “baby.”
     Why she has even allowed him—given her own self-revelations and her growing investigation of the narrow culture in which she lives—into her house, let alone into her financial affairs with the orphanage is almost inexplicable. Throughout much of Elija Moshinsky’s brilliant production, Dench is forced to sit in silent observation of this fool who seems more out of a comic opera or a play by Molière than the great Norwegian character drawn from Ibsen’s prolific pen.
     In the end, I feel the Manders figure is almost a statement of Ibsen’s failure in this play. If the events of Ghosts with its series of recurring patterns that apparently cannot be contained by its characters suggests a truly contemporary tragedy, its stock figures such as Engstrand and Manders to not feel appropriate to a work that so dutifully explores the intelligent and inquisitive performances of actors such as Dench, Branagh, and Richardson.

     My only justification for Ibsen’s introduction of such fools is that, despite even the revelations of Mrs. Alving and the hard-hearted realism of Regina—we eventually learn that Oswald wanted her to remain close to him so that, when the time came when he would lose his sight, predicting that she would have grown tired of having to deal with such an invalid, Regina might willingly and mercifully have injected him with the morphine he brought back to Norway with him—it becomes apparent that the two would-be seers, each in their own way, are also quite blind.
     It is only Oswald, unable now to see even the sun along the horizon of daybreak, who can truly see that for all their failures he now must die. His cry of “the sun, the sun” might almost be read as emanating from a kind of new Christ, crying out “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they did.”
     The even the indecisive Mrs. Alving, syringe in hand, must now, like a kind of errant Mary, kill her immaculately-birthed* child.

*I use this phrase because in Ibsen’s play, Mrs. Alving, who would have certainly passed on her son’s syphilis, seems to be free of all its symptoms.

Los Angeles, July 13, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (July 2020).