“Tell Mike it was only business”

Abe Vigoda (February 24, 1921 – January 26, 2016)abe vigoda as tessio in the godfatherActor Abe Vigoda was fifty years old when he was cast as Salvatore Tessio, a crime family capo, in The Godfather (1972). In that film, Vigoda’s long face and mournful eyes appeared to conceal a world of thoughts and feelings that were rarely so much as hinted at, which seemed nearly impossible to read.

We believed Tessio’s long years of faithful, unprotesting service to the first Don. But we also – like Tom Hagen in the movie – received without surprise the revelation it was Vigoda’s character who had betrayed the new Don, Michael. We weren’t surprised because in the moment of revelation, we remembered Vigoda’s growing weariness in the part and knew it derived from the feeling of not being given his due. Yes, it was the smart move, as the character Tom Hagen said. And “it was only business,” as Tessio himself told Tom. But Vigoda’s weary expression and stooped shoulders gave us the deeper truth: Tessio had simply grown too tired not to be brave.

Abe Vigoda’s life as an actor had a similar beginning to the man he portrayed in his first widely noticed role. He had spent decades acting in New York theater and doing bit parts in TV and film, managing somehow to support his wife and child. But the part in The Godfather suddenly made him – in middle age – a recognizable name and all but seven of his 94 film credits were still to come. Vigoda was probably best known – in later work – for his role in the popular TV series Barney Miller and its spinoff series Fish. The other thing that long face and those mournful eyes had concealed was a wonderful sense of humor, put on full display in Vigoda’s comedic TV work.

The son of a tailor, Abe Vigoda grew up working class in Brooklyn. News of his death have been greatly exaggerated – and erroneously reported – since as far back as 1982, when CNN mistakenly referred to him as the “late” Abe Vigoda. While there is no reason to believe this most recent report is a hoax,  one can always hope. Vigoda is 94 years young.

That Time Aretha Sat Down to the Piano

Aretha Franklin records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama  – January 24, 1967

No, not that time.  Yes, it was great to see Aretha perform at the most recent Kennedy Center Honors and to watch Barack and Michelle bop along. Those two have earned a fun night out if anyone in America ever has, the shit they’ve had to put up with these past nearly eight years. Although – in terms of the show itself – I could have done without all the cutaways to Carole King waving her arms and acting amazed, just amazed!

(Amazed at what, Carole, that Aretha’s still alive, still bringing it? I mean, she hasn’t been in exile in a faraway land, she didn’t just get released from stir. But I’m being petty. And I shouldn’t blame Carole. I should blame the cameraman, who I’m guessing was on loan from CBS Sports, where he’d covered archery and darts. Or the producers, who think they have to “build a narrative” for everything, so all the folks at home know what they’re watching and how they should feel about it. Will we ever again just have basic coverage of an event, of the thing itself, so we can just, like, watch it? Instead of watching people in the crowd wave their arms? And act amazed.)

No, the time Aretha sat down to the piano that I’m talking about was nearly 40 years ago, in 1967, when Aretha finally got free of Columbia and was able to sign with Atlantic Records instead. Columbia Records then was run by Mitch Miller – of insipid “Sing Along with Mitch” fame – but, at Atlantic, her producer would be Jerry Wexler. Among other things, Wexler had coined the marketing term “rhythm & blues” to replace the execrable “race music,” which had ghettoized black American composers and performers since the beginning of radio play. So there was at least a chance Aretha’s new equally-white producer would be more in tune with her than Sing-Along-with-Freaking-Mitch.

What Wexler suggested to Aretha was a session at FAME Studios in tiny Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  The recording studio – with its tremendous roster of backing musicians – had scored rhythm & blues hits for local artists such as Arthur Alexander,  Jimmy Hughes, and the Tams, but it was Wexler (and the Atlantic artists he brought in) who would help it reach the next level. If you haven’t seen the wonderful documentary about FAME Studios called Muscle Shoals (2013), treat yourself. Not the least of its many pleasures are the present-day interviews with Aretha Franklin.

muscleshoals1000v2When Aretha arrived at Muscle Shoals, what Jerry Wexler suggested she do was sit down to the piano and play. Where Columbia had cut off her gospel roots and tried to mold and popify Aretha into someone she wasn’t, Atlantic was interested in hearing what Aretha herself wanted to be. By Aretha’s own account, the music poured out of her.  They settled at the session on “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” as her first recording in Muscle Shoals. Sadly or understandably (depending on who’s doing the telling), it would also be her last.

Something happened at that recording session – something besides the obvious thing of an incomparable artist finding her true voice – and its mostly agreed-upon lineaments include a) a horn player getting fresh with Franklin; b) her husband at the time insisting that the horn player be fired; c) the horn player being fired but that proving insufficient redress for the husband, who insists Aretha leave Muscle Shoals; and d) Aretha leaving.

I’m good with that version. Or any other version that someone cares to put forth. It’s all water under the bridge at this faint remove and, besides, FAME had done its work – or rather Aretha had been able to do her work there – and the greatest period in one of the finest careers in American music history was underway. The single recorded at Muscle Shoals became the title song of Aretha Franklin’s first album at Atlantic. And that album, among its other great songs, included covers of Otis Redding’s “Respect” – Aretha’s first monster hit – and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Chew on that last a moment.  The newly confident Aretha not only took on Otis Redding and made one of his signature songs her own – but also recorded a thrilling, hurt-you-down-to-the-bone version of Sam Cooke’s last and most personal song. Which song, by the way, just happens to be one of the greatest American protest songs ever written.

Chew on that and … so long as the cameras aren’t rolling … go ahead and wave your arms.

aretha on tour uk

Arthur Miller’s Fall from Grace

On January 23 – in 1964 – Arthur Miller’s After the Fall Opens on Broadway

I don’t require artists to be good people in order to admire their works – any more than I need inventors to be nice before I’ll utilize their inventions. If I found out tomorrow that Thomas Alva Edison was the biggest asshole who ever lived, I wouldn’t go back to reading by candlelight and never listen to another LP or watch another film.

That having been said, the ideal state of knowledge regarding the life of a great writer, actor, painter, etc., is total ignorance. Which is the approximate state of our knowledge about William Shakespeare, minus a few drinks he reportedly had with Ben Jonson and that “second-best bed” he left to his wife. But it’s human to want to know stuff about the lives of people whose work we admire and all too human for us to feel a twinge or two of disappointment (even anger) if those lives don’t quite measure up. Guess what? They rarely do. And, for even the most stalwart among us, curiosity can kill the cat.

marilyn-monroe-arthur-miller3I am not blissfully ignorant of playwright Arthur Miller’s life. Or of Marilyn Monroe’s. Or of their life together as a married couple, possibly the most famous pairing in American history of marvelous movie star Beauty with bespectacled intellectual Beast. I know a bunch of stuff about both of them – and their marriage – and while, as I’ve said, I’m usually pretty good at divorcing work from creator, Miller’s 1964 play, After the Fall, is an exception. I find it hard to disentangle the play from the lives depicted – not to mention their depictor – the play still pisses me off. And I don’t think that’s entirely my fault.

After the Fall portrays a successful Jewish lawyer named Quentin (bearing a remarkable resemblance to a successful Jewish playwright named Arthur) looking back on his life and loves and feeling guilty. One of his wives is named Maggie, a sexy secretary at Quentin’s law firm – gimme a break! – who is depicted as a drunken, pill-popping, self-hating slut who kills herself and who (to Miller’s surprise, he said, at the time) most people took to be Marilyn Monroe. Arthur Miller’s friend, Jackie Kennedy (pre-Onassis) – who was all about loyalty and not talking trash about the ones you’ve loved – saw the play and never spoke to Miller again. Fifty years on, it still feels self-serving, exploitative, more than a little smarmy.

It’s possible that After the Fall wouldn’t bother me so much if Miller had waited longer to write it, but the ink on their divorce was only dry a year, Marilyn’s ashes barely cold. Maybe if Miller had called the play something besides After the Fall … Eve made me do it, God, I swear, and she was the ultimate shiksha Eve to boot! … it would help. I think I might be less bothered, too, if he’d left his play merely personal … without the shadow of the concentration-camp guard tower in the background and the strained attempt to raise his own middle-aged, rather ordinary sins to the level of Mankind’s Fall from Grace.

All that having been said, I wish I’d seen the original Broadway production of After the Fall. Wish I’d been old enough to both appreciate it and be pissed off by it. The play was directed by Elia Kazan, another one whose life could color his work for me if I let it. It starred Jason Robards, Jr. (I miss him) as Quentin and Kazan’s future wife, Barbara Loden, as Maggie. Loden had been luminous three years before in Kazan’s movie Splendor in the Grass (1961) and she went on to write, direct, and star in Wanda (1970), one of the first great American films of the Seventies. See Wanda if you can.

Felliniesque

Federico Fellini (January 20, 1920 – October 31, 1993)

Felliniesque
/fəˈliːnɪˌɛsk/
adjective
1. referring to or reminiscent of the films of Federico Fellini.

By any measure, Italian maestro Federico Fellini was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. There was never anyone like Fellini before him – or any films like his films – and I’m not holding my breath for another Fellini to come along anytime soon. The best that Fellini’s meager successors have ever managed is “Felliniesque.”

Federico Fellini, of course, is not the only film director to have his name turned into an adjective – Wellesian and Godardian come to mind – but none of the other names-turned-adjectives seem as evocative of the movies they describe. Nor is their secondary meaning (“reminiscent of”) so clearly an insult, roughly translating as  “failing to live up to the original.”

amarcord2

Movies described as Felliniesque – featuring, perhaps, a self-absorbed and self-reflective male hero in a world of Amazonian women with cartoonish boobs, random circus clowns, unexplained bursts of surrealism, and a scene toward the end on a beach – not only fall short of Fellini’s scenically but they fail altogether to capture his visual poetry.

fellini-bus-scene-8.5.pngI like some of Fellini’s movies better than others of Fellini’s movies, but criticism of them seems almost beside the point. Especially now that their orchestrator is long dead and gone to that great Criterion Collection in the sky. Fellini’s movies created a world that is recognizably our world but also other somehow, existing alongside as a kind of running poetic commentary on our world, on our experience of living in it, and of our occasional attempts (generally unsuccessful) to fashion that living into art. Not to mention that virtually any complaint against Fellini we might care to lodge has already been registered by one of his surrogate characters (usually played, sublimely, by Marcello Mastroianni).  The best example is Guido Anselmi in 81/2 (1963), who confesses: “I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.”

I’m grateful that Federico Fellini went on saying nothing for another 30 years and I’m surprised at how often I find myself returning to his later films (such as Fellini’s Roma, Amarcord, Ginger and Fred) and wishing there were more.

Fellini-Directing

The Pig from Port Arthur

Janis Joplin (January 19, 1943 – 10/4/1970)

joplin-janis-top shotAs a young teen, Janis Joplin was called “pig” because she was overweight, “pizza face” because of her acne, “freak” because she dressed different and liked the arts. It also didn’t help – in the 1950s in a place like Port Arthur, Texas – that Joplin refused to hate or hold herself apart from black people and counted some of them as friends. What is condemned in current social media as hazing and bullying would have been a good day for Janis in high school. And, in college, the frat-boy types voted her “Ugliest Man on Campus.”

Whatever all that cost Janis Joplin, she wasn’t saying, she wouldn’t give her youthful tormentors the satisfaction. She’d talk tough in interviews and act like it didn’t count. But we knew it did. We’d heard Janis sing.

And Janis Joplin wasn’t one of those ugly ducklings who became a swan. She stayed an ugly duckling in the world’s eyes and became a star. Dared us not to love her just the way she was. The way she’d always been, all the way back to Port Arthur. The way she would always be – her every gesture seemed to say – and “Fuck you, man, if you think I’m gonna change.”

Then Janis would sing.

When Janis Joplin sang, everything else went away. Her problems and your problems. Black and white. The world with its cruelty, its pat judgments of ugly duckling and swan.

And fuck you if you think it didn’t.

An Actor Prepares

Constantin Stanislavski (January 17, 1863 – August 7, 1938)

stanislavski lower depthsStanislavski didn’t just talk the talk – or write it in the series of books (beginning with An Actor Prepares) that serve as the foundation for acting training – he trod the boards himself as an accomplished and gifted stage actor. So much for those who can’t, teach. Stanislavski could and did.

At age 14, he began appearing in plays put on by his rich artsy family. He got his first training at home and his family was one of the wealthiest in Russia. So much, too, for having to “struggle” for your art. A little money can provide an artist with a good start and comes in handy later on … when the rent is past due, for instance, and you’re still in rehearsal.

And young Constantin does not appear to have suffered much, although he did need to conceal his true ambitions from his aristocratic relatives. They enjoyed their amateur theatricals, but would have been appalled by the idea of Stanislavski becoming a professional actor. He hid this fact from them until 1896, the year before when – at age 34 – he cofounded the Moscow Art Theatre with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.

MAT_original_company_1899_width_630pxLife became more difficult after the 1917 Russian Revolution, when most of Stanislavski’s money and assets were seized by the new Soviet Union and he was exhorted to put on “socialist realist” dramas. Stanislavski declined, continuing to produce and direct plays only to his liking until very near the end of his life  (when he finally succumbed to Stalinist pressure). And he wrote the books. Which are still read.

But acting was Stanislavski’s first love. And it is acting – his – that I celebrate today.

P.S. You might have seen this post before … on January 5th to be exact … which is Stanislavski’s birthday on the old Julian calendar, the dating system that Russia used when Constantin was born. I pulled it to repost it on his birth date according to the Gregorian calendar, which we use and which Russia switched to eventually after it became the Soviet Union. Do you think Stanislavski was pissed when he lost those 12 days? I mean, how do you “prepare” for that?

David Bowie Is

His body short-circuited. His body of work lives on. David Bowie is. I love his music, his changing personae, most of all his lyrics. You become a lyricist by reading, immersing yourself in words. Below is a recent list Bowie compiled of his favorite books and some photos of him reading.

David Bowie’s Favorite 100 Books

  • The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby, 2008
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, 2007
  • The Coast of Utopia (trilogy), Tom Stoppard, 2007
  • Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945, Jon Savage, 2007
  • Fingersmith, Sarah Waters, 2002
  • The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens, 2001
  • Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler, 1997
  • A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1890-1924, Orlando Figes, 1997
  • The Insult, Rupert Thomson, 1996
  • Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon, 1995
  • The Bird Artist, Howard Norman, 1994
  • Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard, 1993
  • Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, Arthur C. Danto, 1992
  • Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Camille Paglia, 1990
  • David Bomberg, Richard Cork, 1988
  • Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Peter Guralnick, 1986
  • The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin, 1986
  • Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd, 1985
  • Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, Gerri Hirshey, 1984
  • Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter, 1984
  • Money, Martin Amis, 1984
  • White Noise, Don DeLillo, 1984
  • Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes, 1984
  • The Life and Times of Little Richard, Charles White, 1984
  • A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn, 1980
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, 1980
  • Interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester, 1980
  • Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler, 1980
  • Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess, 1980
  • Raw (a ‘graphix magazine’) 1980-91
  • Viz (magazine) 1979 –
  • The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels, 1979
  • Metropolitan Life, Fran Lebowitz, 1978
  • In Between the Sheets, Ian McEwan, 1978
  • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, ed. Malcolm Cowley, 1977
  • The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes, 1976
  • Tales of Beatnik Glory, Ed Saunders, 1975
  • Mystery Train, Greil Marcus, 1975
  • Selected Poems, Frank O’Hara, 1974
  • Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, Otto Friedrich, 1972
  • In Bluebeard’s Castle : Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture, George Steiner, 1971
  • Octobriana and the Russian Underground, Peter Sadecky, 1971
  • The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, Charlie Gillete, 1970
  • The Quest For Christa T, Christa Wolf, 1968
  • Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, Nik Cohn, 1968
  • The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967
  • Journey into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg, 1967
  • Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr. , 1966
  • In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1965
  • City of Night, John Rechy, 1965
  • Herzog, Saul Bellow, 1964
  • Puckoon, Spike Milligan, 1963
  • The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford, 1963
  • The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, Yukio Mishima, 1963
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1963
  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, 1962
  • Inside the Whale and Other Essays, George Orwell, 1962
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961
  • Private Eye (magazine) 1961 –
  • On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, Douglas Harding, 1961
  • Silence: Lectures and Writing, John Cage, 1961
  • Strange People, Frank Edwards, 1961
  • The Divided Self, R. D. Laing, 1960
  • All The Emperor’s Horses, David Kidd,1960
  • Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse, 1959
  • The Leopard, Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, 1958
  • On The Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957
  • The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard, 1957
  • Room at the Top, John Braine, 1957
  • A Grave for a Dolphin, Alberto Denti di Pirajno, 1956
  • The Outsider, Colin Wilson, 1956
  • Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1948
  • The Street, Ann Petry, 1946
  • Black Boy, Richard Wright, 1945
  • The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker, 1944
  • The Outsider, Albert Camus, 1942
  • The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West, 1939
  • The Beano, (comic) 1938 –
  • The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell, 1937
  • Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Christopher Isherwood, 1935
  • English Journey, J.B. Priestley, 1934
  • Infants of the Spring, Wallace Thurman, 1932
  • The Bridge, Hart Crane, 1930
  • Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh, 1930
  • As I lay Dying, William Faulkner, 1930
  • The 42nd Parallel, John Dos Passos, 1930
  • Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin, 1929
  • Passing, Nella Larsen, 1929
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence, 1928
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
  • The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot, 1922
  • BLAST, ed. Wyndham Lewis, 1914-15
  • McTeague, Frank Norris, 1899
  • Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual, Eliphas Lévi, 1896
  • Les Chants de Maldoror, Lautréamont, 1869
  • Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, 1856
  • Zanoni, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1842
  • Inferno, from the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, about 1308-1321
  • The Iliad, Homer, about 800 BC

Sez Me: Street Scene is a Great American Opera

On this date – January 9 – in 1947, the opera Street Scene opened at the Adelphi Theater on Broadway and ran for 148 performances.

street scene 1947

The show was composed by German-born Kurt Weill, who considered Street Scene his finest score and it is certainly his most operatic. The beautiful lyrics are by poet and playwright Langston Hughes. The book is by Elmer Rice from his play of the same name, which chronicles the lives and loves of the mostly immigrant residents of a brownstone in early 20th-century New York over the course of two blazing-hot summer days.

The original production of Street Scene was a popular and critical success, but high running costs resulted in its early closure. Street Scene has never been revived on Broadway, but it has made its way into the repertoires of opera companies around the world.

Saint Joan – Great Source Material

Joan of Arc (January 6, 1412 – 30 May 1431)

An illiterate French peasant girl devoted to Catholicism, Joan of Arc was 16 years old when she got out of an arranged marriage to a dude she didn’t like, split for a nearby town (where she convinced the locals she was “the virgin who would save France” of folk myth), and got an audience with King Charles where she persuaded him that she spoke to archangels and they answered her back. She went to war against England in men’s clothes and bobbed hair, led French troops to victories in the endless crock of shit known as the Hundred Years War, fell into enemy hands and was tried on trumped-up charges including everything from heresy to cross-dressing to stealing a horse. Joan was 19 when the Brits burned her at the stake.

Sain Joan_Preminger_Seberg

Joan of Arc – nicknamed the Maid of Orleans – is France’s national creation story. She is promoted by many as a feminist symbol … or at least a better role model than Paris Hilton. In 1920, she was awarded saint status by the Catholic Church. Joan has also – with the exception of Jesus – inspired more works of art than anyone in Western history, providing the basis for a raft of novels, poems, plays, films, TV shows, operas, oratorios, pop songs, tapestries, paintings and sculptures. Not to mention screensavers, t-shirts and coffee mugs.

A brief list of Joan’s Greatest Hits would include Henry VI, Part I (1590, where good Englishman, William Shakespeare, makes her the villain); the painting Joan of Arc at Prayer by Peter Paul Rubens (1620); Voltaire’s savage epic poem The Maid of Oranges (1756) and its sympathetic answer from Friedrich Schiller in The Maid of Orleans (1801); the two operas based on the Schiller play by Verdi in 1845 and Tchaikovsky in 1878;  Mark Twain’s neglected, uncharacteristically earnest novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896); Joan as Chicago labor leader in Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1930); the Leonard Cohen single “Joan of Arc” from Songs of Love and Hate (1970); and the two-part Joan the Maiden (1994) by French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette.

Distorted-Sets-in-THE-PASSION-OF-JOAN-OF-ARCI am one of the five people who like Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957), primarily because of the lovely natural portrayal of Joan by Jean Seberg (in her 1st movie) who was panned at the time but whose performance in retrospect seems almost the film’s only good one. The 1923 George Bernard Shaw play – upon which the Preminger movie was based – is the best stage presentation of Joan’s trial (drawing on actual transcripts) and one of Shaw’s finest works.  Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc is an artistic experience with few equals. Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s performance is so compelling that not only do you believe Joan heard voices, you start hearing them yourself … and it’s a silent film.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention former Go Go Jane Weidlin as Joan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and the boys’ friendly greeting, “Welcome aboard, Miss Arc.” And the theme song from the Seventies TV series Maude, which has a line that sums it all up: “Joan of Arc with the Lord to guide her/she was a sister who really cooked.”

A Wedding to Remember

On this date in 1950, A Member of the Wedding opened on Broadway

Ethel_Waters_Julie_Harris_Brandon_DeWilde_Member_of_the_Wedding_Broadway

Carson McCullers adapted the play The Member of the Wedding from her novel of the same name about Frankie Addams, a lonely 12-year-old tomboy who becomes obsessed with her older brother’s upcoming wedding. The Broadway production was directed by Harold Clurman and starred Julie Harris as Frankie, second-grader Brandon DeWilde (“Shane! Come back, Shane!”) as her cousin John Henry, and the magnificent Ethel Waters as the family housekeeper Bereneice.

The show premiered 65 years ago today and ran at the Empire Theater for 501 performances

Movie director Fred Zinnemann wisely used the Broadway cast for his 1952 film of play. Julie Harris was 25 when she starred as Frankie onstage and 27 in the movie, but she somehow pulls it off.

The top picture is a cast photo from the 1950 stage production; the one below, a backstage shot of Harris smoking a cigarette and Waters with Carson McCullers on opening night.

backstage memeber

A Family Christmas Play

Sam Shepard’s True West opens in NYC – December 23, 1980

true-w2

“I can’t stay here. This is worse than being homeless.”

The perfect play for the holidays … especially if you’re reuniting with family  … Sam Shepard’s savage comic drama about sibling warfare (and a few other things) opened at The Public Theater with Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones as estranged brothers Lee and Austin. Earlier in the year, True West had had its world premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, where Shepard was writer-in-residence.

Varese’s “Organized Sound”

Edgard Varese (December 22, 1883 – November 6, 1965)

varese against black

Avant-garde French composer Edgard Varese left behind only about three hours of finished music … approximately five seconds of which could be considered melody … but they might well be the most influential three hours in music history, inspiring everything and everyone from electronic music and jazz fusion to Babbitt, Cage, Frank Zappa, and John Zorn.

Varese immigrated to the United States in 1915  – two years after the Paris debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – and took up with other French expatriate avant-garde figures such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. It was Varese’s intent as a maker of music to “let in all sounds, sounds which up to now—and even today—have been called noises.”

He achieved this goal in a series of unique, surprisingly popular compositions beginning with Amériques for large orchestra in 1921 and concluding with Poème électronique for electronic tape in 1958. He eschewed the term “music” for his work, preferring “organized sound.”

The record label Varese Sarabande, which was formed in 1978 and is now dedicated to film scores and cast albums, was named after him.

Remembering Beckett’s Muse

Billie Honor Whitelaw (6 June 1932 – 21 December 2014)

Billie Whitelaw Samuel Beckett

It has been exactly a year since English actress, Billie Whitelaw, died and if she ever gave a bad performance in her 82 years – on stage, screen, small screen –  I haven’t seen it. She was completely real in everything she did.

Most Americans know Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Blaylock, the fierce nanny sent by Satan to watch over Damien in The Omen (1976), where it required no less a movie star than Gregory Peck to kill her off.  She acted in other U.S. features, but most of her movie work was done in England, where – in the Sixties and Seventies – she had large roles in several excellent films and was considered something of a star.

Billie Whitelaw made a memorable debut in The Sleeping Tiger (1954), starring Dirk Bogarde and directed by the blacklisted Joseph Losey under an assumed name. She shone as Chloe Hawkins in the terrific Brit noir Hell Is a City (1960); starred opposite Albert Finney in the wonderful Charlie Bubbles (1967) and again in Gumshoe (1971); did great work in worthwhile but not great movies such as Twisted Nerve (1969), John Boorman’s Leo the Last (1970), and Start the Revolution Without Me (also 1970); and had a nice turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s last great film, Frenzy (1972), which Hitchcock returned to England to direct.

These and Whitelaw’s other movie roles guaranteed her a respectful  obituary in The Times, but it is her stage work – in particular, her 25-year collaboration with Samuel Beckett – that earned her a place in history. Their work together began in 1964 with Play at the National Theatre and continued until Beckett’s death in 1989. He once called her “a perfect actress” and created roles for Whitelaw – and with her – in most of his later experimental plays, including Rockabye, Eh Joe, and Not I.  He also supervised a celebrated revival of Happy Days starring Whitelaw as Winnie.

billie as winnie
Here’s a link to a piece on Beckett and Whitelaw – from a year ago – that ran in the Independent: Whitelaw & Beckett.

Bob Hope: Immigrant

On this date in 1920, Bob Hope became a citizen of the United States

Reagans_with_Bob_Hope_1981

That’s right, folks, that most American of Americans – the Entertainer in Chief to our troops, 14-time host of the Academy Awards, and the darling of conservative politicians of previous generations – was an immigrant.

Born in England to working-class parents, Bob Hope and his family passed through Ellis Island in 1908 on their way to Cleveland, Ohio. The Hopes were poor … as a child, Bob busked in the streets for money … and it was hard to understand their English until they learned to speak  American.

BOB HOPE
FILE–Comedian Bob Hope entertains troops at Cu Chu, 20 miles northwest of Saigon, Vietnam, in a Dec. 1970 file photo. (AP Photo/file)

And, just in case you’re wondering, I’m glad we let Bob stay. For one thing, it’s the Christmas season and I love his version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Doris Day. I also admired Hope’s devotion to America’s soldiers, regardless of the merits of the wars they were fighting.

Here’s a couple more photographs of Bob with GIs and others. Post them to Cruz and Trump and company. Or attach them to the latest sure-to-fail version of the Dream Act.

Maybe we should call it the Hope Act?

The Music (Con) Man

Opens – on this date in 1957 – at the Majestic Theater.

music man play

The original production of Meredith Willson’s idiosyncratic musical, The Music Man – starring Robert Preston as “Professor” Harold Hill and the great Barbara Cook as Marian the Librarian – was an immediate hit on Broadway and ran for 1,375 performances. It was made into a decent film in 1962 with Preston reprising his role as Hill and Barbara Cook – as always happened to her – replaced by Shirley Jones. The Beatles had a hit record with their cover of the show’s modest love song, ‘Til There Was You (1963).

There is no other musical like The Music Man. No other show sounds like it (unless, of course, it’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown, also by Meredith Willson) and its ultra-American collection of ballads, marches, dances, and barbershop quartets had never been heard on a Broadway stage before and has, for the most part, defeated would-be imitators.

The Music Man is also that most American of musicals in its subject matter. The satire of small town American mores and provincialism (in wonderful patter-songs such as “Iowa Stubborn,” “Pickalittle,” and “Trouble”) is intended and right on target. But the main plot is rarely remarked upon.

The Music Man – arguably The Great American Musical – has as its hero a traveling con man, who bilks a town and its children by promising nonexistent services. But the amiable sociopath makes everyone “feel better” in the process, so the town lets him go free. He even gets the girl!

And, if that isn’t America, I don’t know what is.

music man film