Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Thoughts on 2024, Trump and the Fate of Democracy

On Jan. 6, 2021, if you told me that we'd be where we are today, I wouldn't have believed you. Well, maybe I would since our current political mess derives from the gullibility and blindness of a big swatch of the American voting public. About 30 percent still believes Trump's huge lies about the 2020 presidential election being rigged against him and that he did absolutely nothing wrong, legally, ethically, or morally in its aftermath. 

But here we are with the very real possibility that the Cheeto Julius Caesar could return to office in 2024. It's not impossible. Biden's age, voter indifference and whatever the shiny object of the moment will be next November could combine to propel Trumpy back into the White House. Hopefully that won't happen, but it's not out of the question.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show: Part 42: Paley Center Visits 4 & 5

In the waning days of summer, I was able to make two brief visits to the Paley Center here in NYC in order to catch up on their archival collection of Carol's two series subsequent to the end of her long-running variety show. They had all four episodes of Carol Burnett and Company (1979) and some eps of Carol and Company (1990-1).

Carol Burnett and Company
Aug. 18, 1979: Cheryl Ladd

Carol with Cheryl Ladd on Carol Burnett and
Company (1979)
The first of Carol's four summer shows begins with her farewell speech for the last show of the 1967-78 CBS series. She talks about moving on from variety and how change is growth. Cut to Carol in 1979: "So I changed my mind." She explains the plan of this new ABC series is to do four shows for the summer and hopefully do it every August like summer camp. (Unfortunately, ABC opted out after one year and CBS decided to go with the Tim Conway Show instead.) This series is like an extension of the original with much of the same personnel (Carol's husband Joe Hamilton producing, Tim and Vicki, Peter Matz as music director, and many of the same chorus dancers. Craig Richard Nelson and Kenneth Mars sub for Harvey. The writing staff was reduced and joined by Ann Elder, formerly of Laugh-In and Emmy winner for her contributions to Lily Tomlin's specials.)

The first sketch is a reunion of Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins dealing with the energy crisis. Tim as Tudball mocks a poster of President Jimmy Carter for forcing him to cut back on electricity. Carol as Mrs. Wiggins almost gets herself fired for slow shorthand, general incompetence and asking for the afternoon off. (When asked why she wants to skip work, Wiggins answers, "I'm out of gas and I'm odd," referring to the national plan that drivers should get gas on odd or even days.) But she catches Tudball running an illegal fan and blackmails him into letting her keep her job. 

Friday, August 25, 2023

B'way Update: Noise Adds Thurs. Matinees, etc.

A Beautiful Noise with Will Swenson and cast
will now play four matinees per week.
A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond bio-musical at the Broadhurst, has been flagging at the box office and will now play four matinees a week instead of three. Beginning Sept. 6, in addition to Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, the company will perform on Thursday afternoons, eliminating Wednesday evenings. Noise opened Dec. 4, 2022 and received no Tony nominations....Once Upon a One More Time, the Britney Spears fairy-tale musical, has posted a closing notice of Sept. 3 at the Marquis Theater. The show opened on June 22 and will have played 42 previews and 81 performances. Plans are underway for national and international tours....The Encores series of concert performances of revived musicals at New York City Center will go to two weeks of performances instead of a weekend's worth. Encores' 2024 season will consist of a new staging of Once Upon a Mattress with Sutton Foster directed by Encores' artistic director Lear de Bessonet (Jan. 24--Feb. 3); Jelly's Last Jam (Feb. 21-March 3); and Titanic (June 12-23).... Josh Groban returned to Sweeney Todd at the Lunt-Fontanne on Aug. 24 after testing negative for COVID-19. His co-star Annaleigh Ashford, also recovering from COVID-19, is scheduled to return after Aug. 25 while her standby Jeanna de Waal continues as Mrs. Lovett.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

B'way Update: Outsiders Musical, Vineyard Season

Cast members of The Outsiders
at La Jolla Playhouse
Credit: Rich Soublet II
A new musical based on The Outsiders,  S.E. Hinton's young-adult
 novel about rival teen gangs in 1967 Oklahoma, will be opening on Broadway this spring after a world premiere production at the La Jolla Playhouse in Feb.-March of this year. Oscar winner Angelina Jolie will be among the lead producers. Previews begin March 16 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater prior to an April 11 opening. Danya Taymor (Pass Over) directs. 

The Outsiders is regarded as a classic in young-adult literature and has been named by BBC News as one of the 100 most influential novels and was voted one of 100 Best Loved Novels in PBS' Great American Read. Francis Ford Coppola directed the 1983 film version which made stars out of Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, and Diane Lane. There was also a short-lived TV series in 1990.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Book Review: We Are What We Pretend to Be

(Borrowed from the Jackson Heights Library, along with God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian) Published in 2012, Vonnegut passed away in 2007. An early unpublished short story, Basic Training, and an unfinished novel, called If God Were Alive Today, along with a foreward by the author's daughter Nanette. Both are emblematic of their periods in Vonnegut's writing life. The earlier story is elegantly and soundly written, but a little to neatly tied up at the end. An teen aspiring pianist is sent to live with an authoritarian uncle on the latter's rural farm after his cosmopolitan parents are killed in an auto accident. Hard life lessons are learned, hearts are broken, metaphorical horses and cars play a big part. The young Vonnegut displays an expert craftsmanship in structuring the story. The ending is too tidy with everyone getting their just deserts which seldom occurs outside of fiction.

The second piece shows Vonnegut's progression into the dark satire for which he become renowned in the late 1960s and '70s with Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. The central character is Gil Berman, a stand-up comic like Lenny Bruce and Vonnegut himself who dispenses uncomfortable truths in the form of wisecracks. This fragment is funny and details the comic's encounter with a deranged fan at a performance in Northhampton, Mass. We also are treated to Gil's visits to mental hospitals. A transcript of a session with a female pscyhiatrit reads like a Marx Brother routine. 

The two stories together show Vonnegut's progression from easy satisfying fiction to dangerous cynical commentary. It made me think of the main character in Bluebeard, the artist who gives up realistic portraiture for abstract expression. When his furious wife asks why can't be just paint pretty pictures everyone can understand and relate to (and therefore make more money) instead of the weird challenging, unprofitable material he's been churning out, he replies, "Because that's too easy." It was too easy for Vonnegut to make simple stories. The harder stuff was what he wanted to write.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Book Review: God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

(Taken out of the Jackson Heights library) From Jane Austen to Kurt Vonnegut is quite a leap. After watching a documentary on Vonnegut's life on Hulu, I found this slim volume at my local library. Many years ago I started reading Vonnegut (probably in high school, maybe junior high, I can't remember). I have completed all of the novels, but not the shorter, later essays and uncollected stories. I even met him once at a film critics' awards ceremony where I told him how much I enjoyed Galapagos, his most recent book at the time. He was very nice. This is a collection of short pieces (many only one page) imagining Vonnegut as a reporter from the after-life for public radio station WNYC. The titular real-life doctor who famously specialized in assisted suicide sends the author to the other side where he interviews dead people and then returns to life. Very brief, funny, full of Vonnegut's trademark sharp, cynical wit.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice

(Read on my I-phone on the Libby app, digital edition borrowed from the NYPL) Another one of the 100 books the BBC says I should read before I die and this is the first time I have read a Jane Austen novel. I had seen several film and TV adaptations of Austen's original so it was fascinating to compare them to the original. As I suspected, Lady Catherine does not barge into the Bennett household in the middle of the night as she did in the 2005 version. (She arrives in the afternoon in the book.) Neither does she make up with Darcy right away and overcome her objections to his engagement to Elizabeth as she does in the 1940 MGM Hollywood version. The original is also much harsher on Elizabeth's parents. In the various film adaptations, they are well-meaning but bungling. Austen portrays them as dangerously naive, foolish and empty-headed. Worst of all, their marriage is one of misalliance.

Austen's classic is just as much about manners, protocol, and finance as it is about romance, offering a snapshot of upper-middle class British life in the early 19th century. The tension between Elizabeth and Darcy is palpable and you do feel great relief when they finally get together. The characterizations and dialogue are rich, especially of Darcy and Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennett and the flighty daughter Lydia. 

Friday, August 11, 2023

Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show: Part 41: All 3 Mattresses

Once Upon a Mattress
is the satirical fairy-tale musical that put Carol on the map. The show with music by Mary Rodgers (Richard's daughter), lyrics by Marshall Barer and book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Barer began life as a one-act at the Tamiment summer camp and then expanded for a full-length show opening Off-Broadway in 1959, directed by the legendary George Abbott. It later transferred to Broadway, playing several different theaters, racking up a total of 470 performances. In a daring bit of casting, African-American actress Jane White brilliantly played the wicked queen and repeated her performance in two of the TV versions. A popular choice for high school and community theater, I worked backstage on a production at the Barn Playhouse in Jeffersonville, PA, pushing the mile-high mattresses on and offstage. A 1996 Broadway revival starred Sarah Jessica Parker and an Off-Broadway one in 2015 starred Jackie Hoffman and Jon Epperson (aka Lypsinka). Sutton Foster is scheduled to headline an Encores! presentation Jan. 24-28, 2024. There were three different TV versions, the first two headlined by Carol in her original role of Princess Winnifred the Woebegone. The role cemented Carol's early persona as a boisterous, belting comedienne, not conventionally attractive and always man-hungry.

Friday, August 4, 2023

Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show: Part 40: The Specials

Before, during and after her variety series, Carol headlined a series of specials available as bonus features on DVD collections or on YouTube.

Carol + 2
March 22, 1966: Lucille Ball, Zero Mostel
(Released on DVD on Carol +2: The Original Queens of Comedy, and as a Special Bonus Feature on The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes Box Set)
Lucy and Carol in the
Chutzpah musical number
in Carol + 2
This is sort of a pilot that CBS ran to see if Carol could carry a hour-long variety show but they insisted she have two top-tier guest stars to guarantee big ratings. Lucy was under contract to CBS to do at least a few specials in addition to her regular series The Lucy Show. Mostel had starred on Broadway and won Tonys for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof, and the film of Forum was out this year. 

The hour begins with weird, mechanical music (it sounds like a 1960s idea of a computer spinning its tapes) and an announcer introducing the three principals as the camera zooms in on giant caricatures of each. Carol enters and lavishly praises her two guests. Like a bull or rhinoceros in a china shop, Zero breaks up the pleasantries by saying these self-congratulatory intros are ridiculous (Zero played a man who turns into a rhino in Ionesco's play). What if plumbers behaved the same way ("Oh, Irving what a lovely wrench. Is that a new plunger?") He suggests they shut up and get to work.

The first sketch features Carol and Zero as a bickering couple celebrating their tenth anniversary who rediscover their passion for each other when it seems they've never been legally married. The two master comics milk the physical and facial gestures for all they're worth. Zero's face changes from a blank stare to a devilish leer as he realizes his wife is now a single girl and the audience applauds. Carol is equally exaggerated in her horny reactions to Zero's offstage singing of love songs as she dons a revealing negligee. After the sketch, Carol sings in her character, "You're My Reason" written by MItzi Welch to a sleeping Zero. 

In "Goodbye Baby," Lucille and Carol are sisters quarreling over Carol's baby. Lucy urgently needs to catch a bus, but Carol strongly insists she not leave until the infant says goodbye. Zero then recreates his performance as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof with "If I Were a Rich Man." After a commercial break (you can see the commercials on YouTube), there's a brief sketch with Zero as a psychiatrist listening to Carol describe her brother who thinks he's a frog. Carol scratches her nose and Zero writes it down as a nervous tic. The central joke is Carol then spending the rest of the scene desperately trying not to scratch her nose, turning pratfalls and falling off the couch. Carol next sings a slow ballad version of "Wait Til the Sun Shines, Nelly." The set-up is she's a wardrobe mistress named Nelly in one of Hugh Hefner's Bunny Clubs, warbling of her thwarted attempts at romance with Zero as the club's bartender. Bunny clubs were exploitative nightclubs with women in skimpy outfits and rabbits ears serving drinks to sloshed tired businessmen.

The hour concludes with Carol and Lucy as cleaning ladies pretending to be show-biz big shots as they dust, mop and collect half-finished cigarettes at the William Morris Agency. When Carol doubts her illusions, Lucy peps her up with the specialty number "Chutzpah" by Ken Welch which sounds a lot like "Hey, Look Me Over" from Lucy's Broadway show Wildcat. The choreography is energetic and the two look like they're having fun. Before the end, Carol pitches sponsor American Motors' safety record. We get a second of Carol saying good night to the studio audience and asking them to watch the show when it's on the air to up the ratings.

The DVD Original Queens of Comedy also includes the 1972 version of Carol in Once Upon a Mattress, the 1959 musical fairy tale which made her a star on and Off-Broadway. I'll cover that show along with the other two televised versions in a later blog post.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

B'way Update: Notebook Musical

Maryann Plunkett, Joy Woods, and
Jordan Tyson in the Chicago production
of The Notebook.
Credit: Liz Lauren 
The 2023-24 Broadway season is shaping up. Yesterday, we learned of the Spamalot revival transferring to the St. James and now comes word that a musical version of The Notebook, Nicholas Spark's best-selling novel which became a beloved 2005 film starring Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner and Gena Rowlands, is slated for the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater. Previews are scheduled to begin Feb. 6, 2024 with an opening of March 14. The show had a critically-acclaimed run at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the fall of 2022. 

The score is by multi-platinum singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson with a book by Bekah Brunstetter (NBC's This Is Us). Michael Greif (Rent, Dear Evan Hansen) and Schele Williams (Aida, The Wiz) direct. The storyline follows the 50-year romance of Noah and Allie told in flashback as Noah reads from the titular notebook to an elderly Allie who is suffering from dementia. In Brunstetter's book, the story begins in the 1960s rather than the 1940s. Noah and Allie are played by three different sets of actors who embody them at different ages. Casting will be announced at a later date.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

B'way Update: Spamalot Gallops to the St. James; Readings and Regional

Alex Brightman, James Monroe Iglehart,
Matthew Saldivar and the cast of Spamalot 
at the Kennedy Center. (Credit: Jeremy Daniel)
The Knights Who Say Ni, The Killer Rabbit, King Arthur and Patsy and all the other medieval maniacs are galloping back to Broadway. The Kennedy Center production of Monty Python's Spamalot will arrive at the St. James Theater with previews starting Oct. 31 and opening Nov. 16. Josh Rhodes (Bright Star, Cinderella) will repeat his direction and choreography from the Kennedy Center production. 

Based on the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Spamalot opened on Broadway in 2005 and ran for 1,575 performances, winning three Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical for Mike Nichols, Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Sara Ramirez. Eric Idle adapted the screenplay which he co-wrote with other members of the Python troupe, as well as writing the lyrics and co-writing the music with John Du Prez.