Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tim Burton: Batman Returns (1992)

Batman was indisputably one of the biggest box office smashes of the 1980's and director Tim Burton was given the lion's share of the credit (and rightly so.) When the inevitable sequel was produced the director was awarded a level of control and trust that is rare within the mainstream studio system. Burton could pretty much do whatever he wanted. The result: a truly bizarre and unique Burton blockbuster (emphasis on the Burton) that pushed the boundaries of the genre even as it failed within them. Batman Returns was a box office hit to be sure, but on a much smaller scale than the original. Perhaps audiences were turned off by the films glum tone or it's overly fussy and complicated plot. Unrelentingly psychological, Batman Returns is totally flaccid as an action movie; the director seemingly having little patience for the elaborate and repetitive choreography that such sequences require. Instead the film functions as a study in the mental instability of it's main character; a better title would have been Batman: Deconstructed.

Dualities are everywhere. Metaphors of masks abound. Gotham city itself is turned into a theater of Freudian psychodrama. When I first saw the movie I was put-off by the abundance of villains in the piece- there are no less than three. I felt my focus being pulled in too many directions. What I now realize is that these three figures represent different aspects of Batman's psyche; his fight with them is actually his internal struggle with his own demons. Indeed we can see these characters as the classic Freudian modalities of Id, Ego and Superego.

For the Id we have the Penguin, Oswald Cobblepot (played by a snarling, barking Danny DeVito, channeling Burgess Meredith by way of Cujo). A brutal monster, lacking impulse control as much as he does dental hygiene, the Penguin is Batman's primary foe in Batman Returns, but even more importantly he is Wayne's inner darkness distilled and given a fetid, abhorrent form. The importance of animal imagery is pronounced: the Penguin is not human-he knows he is a monster..."I am an animal. Cold-Blooded!" As the penguin says to Batman "You're just jealous because I'm a real freak and you have to wear a mask." Biographically however, the Penguin is Bruce Wayne's dark doppelganger. Born into privileged homes, both were "abandoned" by their parents at a young age-an event that defines each mans identity. At a press conference where he visits the grave of his parents, the villain declares them forgiven as Bruce Wayne looks on. But, their absolution is a publicity stunt. Bruce Wayne too has not forgiven his parents for leaving him; he represses his anger toward them by punishing the criminals who took them from him allowing his parents to stay innocent (which of course they were, but this about irrational emotion here), a fetish of their memory is what remains. But Wayne's Id, it's desire to confront the feelings of resentment, get an outlet with the Penguin. There is a caveat. Cobblepot can only exist fully as a vile, uncontrollable monster, literally dwelling beneath Gotham, just as Wayne's monstrous animal id hides in the recesses of his mind, or least in his Batcave. When the feelings rise up to the surface and show themselves, pandemonium ensues.

Wayne's Ego is the corrupt billionaire industrialist Max Shreck, played to smarmy perfection by Christopher Walken in a fright wig. This is the public face of Wayne: rich, charming and successful. The interesting thing about the addition of this character is that, along with completing the Freudian trifecta, for the only time in the Batman movies is Wayne's guilt regarding his wealth even alluded to, however elliptically. Though he wears no mask, Shreck is as duplicitous a character as Wayne-legitimate business man by day and corrupt robber baron by night. Though with Shreck the duality is almost totally submerged- his villainy a natural extension of his profession. As Michael Atkinson points out in his Village Voice review of "Batman Begins," the Batman movies have always ignored any possible connection between the squalor and crime in Gotham city and Wayne's profession as a ludicrously wealthy business man. Though this level of social commentary is not realized in Batman Returns (or any Tim Burton movie), it is at least alluded to with Shreck. (Also alluded to is the cinema of German expressionism where the lead in Nosferatu was played by none other than one Max Shreck. And the Penguin is pure Caligari. But this is all neither here nor there.)

Finally we have a truly fascinating character played by Michelle Pfeiffer (in her best screen performance): Catwoman. Burton's only true successful female character (until Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd) and his only foray into matters sexual, Catwoman is pure Super-ego. As Lacanian film theorist and philosopher Slovaj Zizek has often noted, the super-ego is not a moral agency. It is consuming voice that constantly and relentlessly bellows irrational demands on it's agent. Perhaps most interesting is Zizek's assertion that the Super-ego is connected deeply with the Id, the two aspects of the psyche being delicately reflective of each other. Norman Bates taking the corpse of his mother from the Super-ego attic to the Id basment is Zizek's example of a potent cinematic representation of this connection. In Batman Returns we can find another. Like the Penguin, but unlike Shreck, the Catwoman, like the Penguin (and like Batman for that matter) is an animal image.

Extremely articulate, undeniably witty and unabashedly sexual, the Catwoman is the Super-ego run amok, having totally discarded all pretense of social normality. Her first big battle with Batman occurs, appropriately, on a rooftop, just as the Super-ego sits at the highest level of subjectivity. Catwoman is also the nexus of Wayne's central neurotic predicament for she, unlike the Penguin or Shreck, is constantly fighting with her dual nature, the madness of her psychology displayed in the films most memorable scene where Selina destroys her pink-hued apartment and transforms into Catwoman. When she kills Shreck in the films dark final scene she finalizes the death of her and Wayne's Ego, preferring instead to remain the animal that she has become. And though the Penguin dies in this same moment, he is thematically returned to the subconscious, hidden in the sewers of Wayne's mind. Batman's attempts at reconciling his psychic traumas have been unsuccessful and even destructive. There seems little hope that Wayne will ever move beyond his schizophrenic predicament. Though he has once again saved Gotham, this, the real central conflict of the film, is not a setup for, as the Catwoman says, "A Happy Ending."

With Catwoman Burton also dabbles in sexual politics. Selina Kyle is a highly gendered character when we first meet her. Passive, pathetic, soft-spoken and sexually inert. "Hi Honey I'm home..oh that's right I'm not married" is her lament upon every return to her feminine apartment. Her lack of a "man" troubles her and at the same time defines her. Catwoman is a Betty Friedan nightmare, a dangerous castrating creature of menace powered by rocket fuel estrogen. With her S&M get-up of shiny pleather and her sybaritic line deliveries that practically echo Mae West-this Catwoman is more vagina than pussy.

As one can imagine, Bruce Wayne gets lost in the shuffle. The whole movie being a
representation of his psyche, Wayne is even more of a cipher here than he was in the first film. The few moments of character development allowed the talented Mr. Keaton are in relation to his budding romance with Selina Kyle, a duality again mirrored by Batman's more overtly sexual and violent meetings with Catwoman. The slight humor Wayne displayed in the first Batman is blunted even as the movies tone verges farther toward the whimsical.

Though Batman Returns is a far less comic film than it's often witty predecessor, it's mise en scene has a far more macabre frivolity. Returns is, in every way, more Burton's films than Batman was and his signature touches threaten to overtake the whole movie, for better or for worse. After Anton Furst committed suicide during pre-production Burton turned to his Scissorhands collaborator Bo Welch for production design. If Furst made Gotham into a mysterious expressionistic cesspool, Welch turns the city into a Transylvanian carnival. Color is everywhere, pronounced all the more by the surrounding darkness. Equally abundant is white snow. Setting the story at Christmastime has to be a sick joke of some sort; it adds nothing to the plot.
Burton's always been more Gorey than gory and in Returns his penchant for curlicue trimmings kills the sense of dark menace and urban blight that epitomized Furst's Gotham. It's no wonder that Batman battles a gang of demented circus clowns; who else to populate Burton's circus of Hell? With all the clowns running around in the white blankets of snow the mood can get deciedly Cirque Du Soleil. Also ratcheting up the sideshow aura is Danny Elfman's score which, although featuring some of his best work (Selina's transformation again is a highlight), is nevertheless oppressively heavy on the creepy-yet-innocent choir of "ooh's and laah's" that Elfman finds so fetching. In Burton, always afraid to have a moment on screen without oppressive musical accompaniment does nothing to reign him in. The original Batman hinted that Elfman could become the new John Williams, with Returns he negates any such ambition; he is simply so wrapped up in his own sound that that is all he, and the audience of a Tim Burton movie, can hear.

Obviously, Batman Returns is an interesting movie--much more so than almost anyone gives it credit for, including myself until I started thinking about it. Playing as it does on complicated psychological and sexual issues, a box office fallout was inevitable. It's important to remeber that though that, out of the shoadow of the previous iteration, Batman Returns was still amazingly successful. Perhaps the name brand recognition was still hot enough to secure an impressive release, or perhaps the films themes were subtextual enough to not sink the whole thing under the weight of it's own metaphoric import (see: The Hulk, dir. Ang Lee). Whatever the reason, the movie made a lot of money but it's comparative failure to the earlier Batman I can't help but to believe came about by it's somewhat serious engagement with the issues that I have noted in this review. The result was one of the more disappointing entries in the now tirelessly burgeoning genre of Superhero film, but one of the greatest (though flawed) entries in Burton's oeuvre. It's without question a film worth watching again.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sondheim: Follies (1971)

It could never happen again. It should have never happened at the time. The unbelievably extravagant, exceedingly expensive and ridiculously ambitious 1971 musical Follies was a musical perhaps doomed to failure.  Shockingly downbeat, Follies marked the end of a Broadway that sparkled with glamour and fantasy, ushering in a new area of cynicism and modernity. It was another experiement in creating a whole new kind of musical. Follies began in the mind of Stephen Sondheim as a murder mystery called "The Girls Upstairs." After much reworking, and with Hal Prince's guiding hand, the show transformed into a massive eulogy for youth, hope and old "42nd Street" showbiz.  Inspired by a startling photograph of Gloria Swanson amid the wreckage of an abandoned, dilapidated theatre, Follies is set at the first, and last, reunion party for Weissman's Follies (a transparent Ziegfield stand-in) before the old theatre gets torn down. As one character barbs, "Just what this city needs, another parking lot."  Specifically focusing on two middle-aged former Follies girls and their stage-door Johnny husbands, (Sally and Buddy, Phyllis and Ben, respectively) we are invited to luxuriate in the destructive dynamics and long stewing resentments of two collapsing marriages. Old romances are rekindled (and discarded); hopes for the future are shown futile.  Through the metaphors of show-biz, these domestic dramas are elevated into the more universal crisis of age and loss.  A true concept musical, the action plays on a dream stage where the ghosts of the past literally share space with the harsh realities of the present.  

There are two kinds of music in Follies. Most transparent are the pastiche; songs written deliberately in the manner of the tin pan alley tunesmiths of the 20's and 30's.  The other songs are uniquely Sondheim-esque and contemporary.   All are brilliant. In Follies Sondheim was able to display his complete mastery of theatre music, tossing off Irving Berlin and George Gershwin homages that often outdid their real inspirations.  Better yet, Sondheim's lyrics in these pastiche numbers worked on two levels: they are fully believable as period pieces and they also subtly comment on the action, providing discomfiting irony to each musical moment.  No where is this more obvious than in the Act-one showstopper "Who's that Woman."  As the aging chorus girls sing a cheery bouncy dance number, the lyrics cut to the quick. "Who's that woman?/That cheery, weary woman/Who's dressing for yet one more spree?/Each day I see her pass/In my looking-glass--/Lord, Lord, Lord, that woman is me! "  As they dance with their old selves, the ladies "mirror" image becomes all the more poignant-their feeble attempt at dancing more pathetic.   Even the grand opening, a parody of Irving Berlin's Follies classic "A Pretty Girl" called "Beautiful Girls" has a more than subtle hint of the pathetic and grotesque to it,-as all the old, wrinkled, heavy and frail former Follies girls parade down the staircase one last time, nostalgia quickly transforms to sadness and disgust.

Eventually the regrets and recriminations of the the four main characters comes to a head, boiling over and transforming the stage into a new and one-of-a-kind show; a full-fledged Follies of psychological dysfunction and released repression.   As each of the main characters has their moment in the spotlight the futility of the entire endeavor becomes more and more obvious. Eventually invoking a nervous collapse from Ben, the stage becomes awash in a cacophony of noise-all the characters bellowing while the orchestra thrashes in a nonsenical din.  Leaving the party with the spouses they came with, the characters may leave wiser for the wear-but happiness remains nonetheless an elusive dream.

A massive cast, an incredible orchestra, costumes opulent beyond any seen since--Follies was one of the most expensive shows Broadway had ever seen.  All this to service a show that, as described above, leaves it's audience less than joyful.  The critics that disliked the show focused on Williams Goldman's book which they saw as petty.  Why would anyone want to spend an evening with these four sad pathetic people who spend a whole show complaining and bitching with each other about events long since passed? The point is not without insight but what those critics missed is the more universal and powerful thematic ideas facilitated by this plot. No, the characters don't really change or grow, but that is, of course, the point.  Sondheim and Price simply weren't interested in playing by the rules. The shows most insightful review was written by a Harvard student, a precocious young fellow named Frank Rich.  He had already written his place in the history of criticism with a line that epitomized Follies raison d'etre: "There is no getting around the fact, that a large part of the chilling fascination of `Follies' is that its creators are in essence presenting their own funeral."

Follies did not recoup it's invest despite a run of 522 performances on Broadway.  A National tour also fizzled early.  Ever since, the show has achieved a legendary status, not only for the brilliance of it's score but for the perfection and unattainable opulence of the original production.  Chronicled in the book "Everything Was Possible" by Ted Chapin, the history of Follies is mythic among theatre aficionados and for good reason.  But this has not stopped people from attempting to remount the show and make it a viable entertainment once again.  A star-studded 1985 concert with Mandy Patinkin, Barbara Cook, George Hearn and Lee Remick cemented Follies status as one of the most brilliant scores in Broadway history.  The 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse Production dared to ask if a fully mounted revival could succeed. The answer seemed to be a resounding "yes!"  Critic swooned. When an slimmed down revival appeared on Broadway in 2001, the results were underwhelming.  Once again Follies proved a classic problem play, unrelentingly interesting but stubbornly unproducable.  The recent critical and commercial success of another concert staging, this time at City Center Encores, stirred up discussions of yet another possible try for Broadway gold-but so far no official word has confirmed the chatter.  

And probably for the best.  Follies will never be a commercial success; it's subject matter too bleak, it's financial demands too great.  In a concert staging, pressures are lessened and the imagination takes hold, closing the gaps that a real production would have to fill.   For those who saw it, memories of the original persist.  For those who didn't, like Bobofag, the idea of a fully realized Follies is probably better than the real thing.  Follies remains a frustrating, sad, dark and numbingly brilliant musical, all the more enticing for it's many flaws.  It's unrealistic demands of production and it's taxing emotional experience for the audience make Follies better imagined than real.  Like a young child staring at his beautifully wrapped Christmas gift, the toy itself can never quite live up to the anticipation.  


The infamous concert where she collapsed. Get better Liza, we love you!!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bad Marketing Ideas

Believe it or not, only one of these is a fake. Can you guess which? I'll give you a hint, it's not the one that bought advertising time during Project Runway (raise of eyebrow).

Monday, December 10, 2007

Kant '08

Bobofag proudly admits that he was once a nerdy philosophy minor in college. His thinking still occasionally drifts toward the metaphysic and epistemic. So he did laugh most heartily when he saw this attack ad on youtube. Good Kantian that he is, Bobfag does not endorse it's contents:

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Bobofag loves Frank Gehry.

I made my first pilgrimage to the Walt Disney Concert Hall last night, and it provided me as close to religious sensations as a secular gayboy can hope for. I was in no secret way obsessed with Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim museum ever since I first saw pictures of it in the 90's. Whether one viewed it as the climax and pinnacle of the 20th Century's Architectural Narrative or the Beginning of the 21st's (for surely it was one of those two) The Guggenheim was, by any measure, breathtaking. Though I have not had the good fortune to see Bilbao's great new tourist attraction, I had been chomping at the bit to go inside Gehry's Concert Hall in downtown LA, a building that was planned before the Guggenheim and resembles the structure in style and material. At least on the outside. Before last night I knew I loved the Concert Hall's exterior: an elegant and disorienting scrap of tangled silver metal which looks entirely different from any particular vantage point. More enlightening however than playing peek-a-boo Rashomon with the outside is stepping into the Hall itself. My fears that the Concert Hall was just "Guggenheim-lite" were totally unfounded.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall may be the best place in the world to listen to orchestral music, period. (I say "orchestral" because referring to the entirety of symphonic music as "classical" does a disservice to both the music and the listener. The Classical period is a specific time in music history sandwiched between the Baroque and the Romantic. Smothering centuries of musical history with the fusty title of "Classical" can only serve to further keep the fine arts in the realm of the pretentious bourgeoisies, divorced from the life of the proles below. No doubt some would have it that way, but only because their enjoyment of "classical music" is predicated by the sense of superiority they receive by listening to it. I'll have none of it. I will not partake in pushing, though nomenclature alone, average people away from enjoying amazing works of art. The ticket prices do a good enough job of keeping the riff-raff out, no? But I digress...) If Bilbao is anyone near as effective a place to see works of art as The Disney Concert Hall is a place to hear great works of music it would have to be a gallery in competition with the Louvre and MOMA.

The first thing that strikes you about the room is it's warmth; light, smooth wood is everywhere and the fabric pattern on the seats is floral and decorative-tres Californian too. The orchestra is seated in what feels like the rooms center, with audience all around. In actuality it's probably about a fourth closer to the "back" wall with more audience facing the conductors back than his face-as it should be. The ceiling is devoid of sharp angles, the whole space above you curves and undulates-it looks like it's morphing. The effect is perfect and conceptual too; after all, what is music but waves? Behind the orchestra is a massive organ with pipes that spit out in gold. This is surrounded by large jumbled wood planks which, I couldn't help but notice, resemble oversize French Fries. For me, the only other piece of architecture that has this same burst of beauty and composition is the stained glass window behind the altar of St. Peter's in Rome. Whether or not these decorative elements were chosen for acoustic purposes I know not. I do know that the sound of the orchestra in this room was unparalleled in my experience. While the expression that "one could hear a pin drop" is a cliche, Gehry's masterwork gives it meaning. (Sadly, along with the subtleties of Schumann, every cough from the preponderantly geriatric crowd is equally amplified.) The program I saw last night had four works by Wagner, Beethoven, Dvorak and Strauss, respectively. The first and last were my favorite, (Strauss' way with a waltz is unique in emotional depth) but all sounded impeccable.

Most concert halls have the power to make an everyman feel like an aristocrat but Gehry's work here makes the aristocrat feel like an everyman. Such is the egalitarian and unpretentious (though hardly unambitious) design of the Disney Concert Hall. It is a sort of Stoddard Temple brought to life and updated for the 21st century. A secular cathedral built to exalt not the God's but the genius of man; with it's own congregation (subscribers) and tithing system (box office) the analogy is apt. Such is the success of this building that I'll take Frank Gehry over Notre Dame any day.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Big Mac...

Yes, today is the day of Atonement. No, it's not cause for a trip to the synagogue. Its the day the film version of Ian McEwan's much lauded novel hits the mega-plexes. Though it's still all the buzz for Oscar recognition, the reviews have been decidedly mixed, especially among the top tier critics. No matter, I'll probably pay my ten bucks anyway, even if the film is a pretentious, Merchant-Ivory poseur, war-time anglo-orgy. "Pourquoi?" you ask. My new favorite blimey boy toy James McAvoy is the star. Though I have only seen him in one movie (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe) I think he's the cutest pin-up from across the pond since Paul Bettany shacked up with Russell Crowe. Somewhere Hugh Dancy is cursing the fates and looking for his stolen career. It's McAvoy's moment now. (Is it wrong I still find him sexiest as a goat?)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Tim Burton: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Though Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd are probably better films, Edward Scissorhands is Tim Burton's defining masterpiece as cinema auteur. Crystallizing and distilling the directors thematic preoccupations, Scissorhands is a remarkable achievment of artistic purity and personal expression.

The persona of Edward himself is Burton's cinematic avatar par excellence. With his wily main of black hair, emotional isolation and unique talents, Edward is a none-too subtle representation of Burton himself, or at least Burton as a child. The story is a fairy tale in unambiguous terms, with an eldery woman recounting the story to her young granddaughter the way one might Hansel and Gretel or the Ugly Duckling. Most of Burton's stories have been fairy tales of one kind or another but here his commitment to the narrative structure is total. As such, the world created for the movie is fully fantastical, though refracted from reality in clever and effective ways. The ludicrously colorful suburb that serves as the films location is nothing less than a fantasized (infantalized?) version of the Burbank neighborhood that Burton grew up in, though it is as unreal in design and detail as anything in Middle Earth. (Burton however asks us to embrace the fantasy as fantasy while Peter Jackson wants us to embrace it as real.) The Gothic castle where Edward is discovered, hilariously located just down the block, is a warehouse of Burton-ana, the whimsically macabre inner mind of pre-adolescent Burton, literally constructed in the middle of middle class domesticity. It anachronisity is, of course, comically massive, a reflection of Burton's depth of feeling about his own off-beat sensibility.

The plot of the movie is well known and so I won't go into much here except to say that Edward, the unfinished creation of an old, reclusive, inventor (Vincent Price in his last screen role) is discovered alone in his castle by a friendly Avon lady (a wonderful Dianne Wiest) who, seeing a helpless and lonely child, takes him in. As he becomes the town novelty, Edward attempts to fit into suburban life-he even falls in love with Weist's teenage daughter Kim (Winona Ryder)and she with him. Tides turn and Edward becomes manipulated by local hooligans, one of which is Kim's bully boyfriend Jim. Tensions escalate and finally Edward is driven back to his castle where, defending his love, his murders Jim and with him any chance to return to the world below.

The film marked the first collaboration between Depp and Burton and there is little question that in Depp Burton had found his muse. His performance is a beautiful and minimalist character study notable for it's voluminous expressiveness and almost total lack of dialogue. But performances in Scissorhands are all the service of the film's fully conceived production design by Bo Welch where fairy tale whimsy meets a toothless but effective form of social satire. The music by Danny Elfman is the composers supreme achievement, light and mysterious with innocent yet eerie choral passages (performed by what sounds like the Vienna Boys Choir)it is no coincidence that the Edward Scissorhands became a popular ballet by Matthew Bourne. So complete and successful is Elfman's score here that future endeavors would become an exercise in diminishing returns with the composer sounding either tonally monotonous (Batman Returns) or simply unmemorable (Sleepy Hollow, Big Fish). This of course is not helped by Burton's usual overuse of scoring for easy and oppressive emotional manipulation. In Scissorhands though, the music serves an invaluable ingredient to a meticulously crafted mise en scene.

Edward Scissorhands is a total externalization of Burton's internal emotional state, exemplified by the manifestation of scissors for hands. Edward's difference-his dangerous appendages-is also the thing that gives him his talents. Of course, so it goes with Burton, who has taken the macabre sensibility that isolated him as a child and turned it into a wildly successful film career. Perhaps Scisccorhands is an exorcising of Burton's fear that his difference would be his undoing;he locks Edward away for all time, alone in his castle, expunging the person he might have become. Edward ultimately couldn't survive amongst the mortals below, Burton figured out how. Almost uniquely innocent for a major motion picture not geared to children, Edward Scissorhands, for all it's personal quirks, is a story that a great many related to- we all feel a little bit of Edward inside. And that peice of us that has scissors for hands is a thing of beauty. As Edward sculpts a massive piece of ice, Kim lovingly dances in the impromptu snowflakes; Burton has given us one of the loveliest moments in American cinema.

Woody Supports the Writers Strike.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sondheim: Company (1969)

If there is one moment in Stephen Sondheim’s career that catapulted the writer from being a talented young tunesmith to the once and future king of the American musical it was in year 1969 and the shows title was Company. Nominated for more Tony Awards than any show in Tony history (a record it held until “The Producers” cleaned house in 2001) Company ushered in a new level of sophistication on Broadway; never before had a musical been so utterly modern and willing to buck convention. And never before had the distinct musical vocabulary of modern life merged with classic Broadway so effectively. The show also marked the first collaboration between Sondheim and the director Hal Prince, though Prince had produced many of his previous shows. The partnership went on to become one of the greatest artistic collaborations of the 20th Century. It all began with Company. Though somewhat mired in the sexual politics of it’s time, the show still speaks to audiences in the 21st Century, the brilliance of it’s music and lyrics untainted by time. The Tony-winning revival of the show in 2006 is proof positive of that.

Told in an “emotional narrative” that eschews traditional temporal linearity, Company was and is a textbook example of what some call “concept-musicals.” Any musical play that attempts to tell it’s story in a manner inconsistent with the Rodgers and Hammerstein mold could fit under this label though this description hardly does them justice. At their best, concept musicals arrive at the intersection of music, book and lyrics through an overarching dramatic idea (concept) that allows audiences to expand their expectations of what a musical is. A concept musical dares to reorganize the very DNA of musical theatre. Many, if not most, of Sondheim’s shows are conceptual in this way, perhaps none is so self-evidently so as Company. The music here is used as a counterpoint to bookwriter George Furth's self-contained comic scenes (which provided the genesis for the musical in the first place.) Characters rarely sing to each to each other and the “plot,” what there is of one, is not advanced by the songs in customary fashion. But unlike Forum, where the songs could be excised with little effect to the plot and comedy, Company is hollow and dramatically inert without it’s score.

Focusing on the romantic exploits (and non-exploits) of the perennially single “Bobby,” Company is an investigation into the topsy-turvy world of contemporary marriage and all its glorious ambiguity. Bobby’s journey is one of self-discovery- the subjective experience of opening oneself up to love (and pain) is actualized onstage. Alternating between scenes of Bobby socializing with his married friends (One is lonely/ Two is dreary/ Three is Company, /Safe and Cheery.) and romancing three single women, the dramatic core of Company is Bobby’s quest in deciding whether or not a married life is worth the emotional sacrifices that come part and parcel with the tux rental and wedding vows. The show is relentlessly honest (and funny) in its dissection of this antediluvian institution. All of it played against a nuanced and vibrant representation of New York City circa 1969. Each character has a musical moment which expresses their perspective on married life, from the resigned complaint of the married men who are “Sorry/Grateful,” about their lot, to a bride suffering a mental breakdown as she prepares to walk down the aisle. The musicalization of these moments vibrate with energy and wit. The lyrics are almost unmatched in the annals of American Musical Theatre. About what makes marriages work: "It’s not talk of God and the decade ahead/ that allow you to get through the worst. /It’s “I do” and “you don’t” and “nobobdy said/ that” and “Who Brought the subject up first?”/ It’s no surprise that the New York City public arts project called “Poetry in Motion” put the text to “Another Hundred People,” in it’s subway cars, right next to W.H. Auden and William Butler Yeats. The lyrics are that good. “Another Hundred People” is a reaction to living in the crowded metropolis where anonymity is all but guaranteed; everyone is disconnected in a "city of strangers." Unlike most songs about the Big Apple it dares to have a complicated and even melancholy perspective, though the song is, in its own way, a joyous celebration of the city it laments.

In it's denouement Bobby decides that, despite the inevitable disappointments and compromises that come with marriage, without commitment and love there is simply no other way for “Being Alive.” Climaxing with this number, some have accused Sondheim of copping-out; looking at marriage and relationships soberly and without mawkishness only to retreat to sentiment and sexual conservatism. Not naive to these sentiments, Sondheim himself wanted to end the show with a song in which Bobby decides that to be married is to live “happily ever after…in hell.” It was at the insistence of director/producer Hal Prince to end the show more unambiguously positive that Sondheim wrote his climatic aria. For my part, I think “Being Alive” is the perfect conclusion; a finale that denied the character this breakthrough- that would be the cop-out. Negativity is often conflated with profundity in artistic endeavor, especially by intellectuals and critics. "Being Alive" has been easily dismissed as simple commercial compromise or worse. Those who find the song a sentimental and unworthy finale haven’t paid close enough attention to the terse and fiery lyrics Mr. Sondheim gives Bobby to sing: "Somebody need me too much/Somebody know me too well./Somebody pull up short, and put me through hell,/ and give me support/ for Being Alive." Sondheim does not deny what he has told us for the last two acts, rather he embraces the negativity and ambiguity he has so delicately cultivated and put them to use in a number of raw emotional release.

Company was the show that crystallized Sondheim’s artistic persona, for better and for worse. Sophisticated, intellectual, cold, urban, ironic, unsentimental, pretentious, self-indulgent, highbrow, complicated-the characterization still hangs over Mr. Sondheim’s head and it was Company that put it there. In many ways it is all those things (though I wouldn't use the term self-indulgent) but more than a series of reductive adjectives Company is an experiment in the structure of musical theatre and it’s ability to relate to modern life. Though I sometimes think Company might be my favorite Sondheim score (a mantle place that is constantly shifting) it is not the composers best show by any stretch. The character of Bobby remains too much of a cipher throughout and his relationship to the other characters can range from perplexing to contrived. It is, in many ways, a better cast recording than show. But, whatever its faults, Company remains one of the most important and brilliant shows of the second half of the 20th Century; a “cabaret of urban Neurosis” (to use Ben Brantley’s phrase) than camouflages its bitter taste with a chaser of musical genius and a dessert real emotional vulnerability. As John Lahr wrote in his New Yorker review of the recent revival, “Company expressed not America’s big heart but its numbed one; it brought the musical up to the minute….Sondheim’s revolution was one not just of style but of soul.” I’ll drink to that.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Review: Enchanted - Once upon a 2007!

Enchanted is an idea so obviously perfect for Disney that it is a wonder it took the studio as long as it did to come up with it. Uprooting the stock characters of classic Disney cartoons and tossing them into 21st Century Manhattan, Enchanted celebrates the classic films of Walt Disney, all the while recognizing that in this age of irony, those stories may no longer speak to the general audience in the way they once did. The film opens with an image of a storybook (natch!); a voice-over narration supplied by the dulcet Julie Andrews (double natch!) sets the scene for a story not unlike the myriad Grimm’s adaptations that Disney so specialized in during the 30’s and 40’s. We are introduced to our cartoon cast: a princess, a prince, a wicked witch, her stooge and a forest of adorable, chatty woodland creatures. After a brief scuffle with an ogre, our lovers sing a sweeping ballad, riding off into the sunset like Nelson Eddie and Jeanette MacDonald. Nuptial plans are interrupted when the wicked queen pushes Giselle down a magic well. The princess winds up in the sewers of New York City, presented in the flesh and blood body of Amy Adams. One by one the cast of characters comes through the portal (manhole), reeking havoc on Manhattan. The main plot involves Giselle’s relationship to a jaded New York Lawyer and single dad (Partick Dempsey) who discovers a helpless Giselle outlandishly barking for shelter at a tacky castle shaped casino billboard advertisement. Giselle is all the things he has rejected. After his wife abandoned him he no longer believes in “Happily Ever After” or "true love." About to propose to a JAP-y and business minded girlfriend (Idina Menzel, again playing the serious heavy to “Glinda the good”) he has resigned himself to a sensible and reasonable life that aspires to no fairy tale dreaming.
The fish-out-water in New York City scenario has been used ad naseum in movies ranging from Splash to Elf to Home Alone 2. What elevates Enchanted above this fray is it’s playful interaction with the audience's collective memories. Also a notch above is Amy Adams' shockingly good performance. What could have been a gratingly one-note portrayal is, in Adams' capable hands, a delightful exploration of sincerity and optimism. She even sings well; a skill best displayed in a delightful musical number sung amidst a bubbling, dancing central park, perhaps the location on earth most like a fairy tale anyway. (The memorable new songs are by Disney stalwarts Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.) Patrick Dempsey is sweet in his role as real-life (though reluctant) Prince Charming while James Marsden plays the classic cartoon equivalent, once again (following Hairspray) allowing Marsden a focused comedic turn after years of playing unsmiling stiffs.
The mythology of Disney has been deconstructed and lampooned before, primarily in the remarkably popular and deeply shallow Shrek films. Enchanted does not aspire to mock old Disney cartoons, condescendingly exposing all of their na├»ve conceits the way Shrek does. What the filmmakers here attempt is comic release predicated by our cynical contemporary reaction to the fairy tales that we so clung to in our collective childhoods. Since we know that we should no longer enjoy these pre-feminist, (pre-sexual, really) unrelentingly earnest stories, as Enchanted serenades us(figuratively and literally) into it’s spell we feel both pleasure and shame; the latter emanating from a recognition of how jaded we have become, anticipating ourselves incapable of the simple joys that these movies once brought us.
Despite all it’s warm hearted ambition the movie doesn’t quite have the courage of it’s convictions. In the end, Enchanted wants to have it both ways. Can fairy tales come true? Is Giselle’s wide-eyed optimism to be admired? Should we expect a fairy tale life? Or, is the complex and painful struggle of existing in the real world ultimately the more rewarding existence? The movie posits that both are true and concludes with a neat, happy ending that provides neither cause for contemplation nor thematic (as opposed to narrative) resolution. Ultimately, Enchanted is a children’s movie with a children’s moral. An conclusion that actually owned up to the complexities of adult life would undermine the frothy entertainment that Disney no doubt is striving for. Similar ideas were dealt with powerfully, and unsettlingly, in Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful 1988 musical Into The Woods, a fairy tale where heroic characters commit adultery, betray one another and even die-all after "happily ever after." Enchanted is a smash hit, and deservedly so, but the price it pays for success is the chance it had to become a lasting, meaningful work of art.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Gypsy, back to Broadway.

After her smash success at City Center Encores the brassy and inimitable Patti LuPone is headed to Broadway in the role everyone says she was born to play, Mama Rose in Gypsy. It's a risky move. The last revival on Broadway starring a cast against type Bernadette Peters was hardly a smash and despite being a Broadway star LuPone's name is far less marketable for the tourist hoi polloi. Buoyed no doubt by mostly rave reviews for it's star, save a notable exception by the Times' Ben Brantley, Gypsy will grace the Great White for it's fifth incarnation the fourth of which premiered within this decade. Having seen both LuPone and Peters (but none of the other Broadway Mamas) I can assertively say that Peters gave the more memorable interpretation. LuPone sang the role with more gusto and panache then anyone since the Merm herself (in fact, LuPone's Broadway outing necessitates a new cast album-the first must-have recording since the original) but her acting in the book scenes sometimes fell flat. I felt her deadpan Mrs. Lovett, a delicious creation for that shows aesthetic, was bleeding over into her Mama. Peters wasn't wholly satisfying as Mama either, perhaps pushing the character too far into vulnerability. At times Peters appeared adrift in her songs, flailing her arms with unfocused emotion and straining for notes. But, the specificity and originality of Bernadette eventually won me over, the performances flaws being an unchangeable extension of the vary aspects of the performance that I enjoyed. There was some Schadenfreude in the theatre community towards Bernadette for missing many performances (especially early on) and for getting the part over Patti LuPone in the first place. This climaxed in the shocking win of Marisa Janet Winokour for the Tony prompting Bernadette to, rumor has it, walk out of the ceremony before it was finished. With Patti, it's all love all the time. Well, Gypsy is more than it's star and the production staged this past summer definitely needs some sprucing up before it can play the Great White Way. The sets, staging and costumes of the City Center production were redolent of summer stock and although it featured two amazing supporting actors as Lousia and Herbie (Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines respectively) other cast members did not fair as well. Worst of all was director, and bitchy queen for the ages (I think he's a musical theatre legend but, let's be honest here!), Arthur Laurents' unceremonious comments about Sam Mendes' direction of the Bernadette revival. These were particularly egregious since, from a directorial point of view, Mendes' production was far superior and polished. While Gypsy was never the kind of show prone to conceptual re-imagining (like Cabaret was), Mendes nevertheless cleaned up and made fresh this old warhorse for the 21st century. His touches were subtle but exceedingly missed this past summer. Still, I hope the show does well (it's perhaps the greatest musical ever) and garners LuPone her second Tony, which given her reception the night I saw the show, should be no problem for the diva. As for me, I am just thrilled to buy the cast album. Here is some back to back pick your own favorite.


It's like Dreamworks dropped a Sweeney bomb. Everywhere I turn there is suddenly an ad or poster or billboard for the movie. At the movies last week in New York they has an elaborate massive cut out display of Depp holding a oversize mirror razor large enough to do your hair in it's reflection. And now, today, the internet is flooded with new info, most notably the movies elaborate, shiny new website. Dreamworks is either extremely confident or extremely scared. I have faith that the movie is going to be be a smash but I worry the mass media saturation is undermining, or will undermine, some of the shows serious themematic concerns. Of course, the work will speak for itself but I don't think people should anticipate Sweeney as being a mindless scary romp. It's not quite a popcorn movie. Underneath it's black humor and sweeping score is a very dark, nihilistic streak of anger. Here is some more to wet your whistle.

Review: Southland Tales - Riding a big glowing Zeppelin to Armageddon...

My first movie of the week was Richard Kelly's new massive pop fantasia "Southland Tales," a film famously jeered at Cannes but found a few defenders amongst some prominent American film critics, most notably my favorite critic of all, J. Hoberman in the Village Voice. The movie portends to be a dreamy, visually saturated, sinister vision of contemporary American anxiety and neurosis filtered through celebrity obsessed pop culture and infused by a political stance more than a little shade of pink. The year is 2008 in a fictional America still recoiling from 2001 a nuclear bomb attack in Texas. The country faces, with it's escalating wars in the middle east, a true oil crisis. It's essentially the America of today but with all it's features, from citizen surveillance to celebrity obsession, amplified. It all ends with a massive shining dirigible floating above the skies of all Los Angeles. Amongst it's variegated dramatis personae is Boxer Santaros, an amnesiac movie star with ties to the republican party and Krysta Now, an entrepreneurial porn star who hosts a View-like talk show with 3 other blonde babes. She also has a hit single, "Teen Horniess Is Not A Crime." A befuddled Sean William Scott plays both a LA cop and his kidnapped and drugged identical twin. The casting acts as a comment on the film itself, filled with "personalities" like The Rock and Justin Timberlake (as the Tales narrator, a wounded Iraq war veteran), the performers reflect the society Southland attempts to comment upon. Amplifying this, the entire plot of the movie is itself presented as a screenplay, written in the story by Boxer and Krysta. The problem is that, though undoubtedly richer upon later viewings, Southland Tales doesn't realize it's brilliant ambition. A modernist at heart, Kelly can't entirely release himself from the current zeitgeist of arch postmodernism. Tales is, at once, oppressively self-aware and not self-aware enough; that is to say, it is not reflexive to the point of acquiring disassociative meaning, as postmodern monarch Tarantino (a director who also uses casting for meta commentary) movies do nor as free from irony as the films of say, Kubrick and Altman, two pinnacles of modernism with ambitious social agendas. Southland Tales's tone, deliberately no doubt, shifts from hyper tele-visual bombardment to measured Lynch-ian menace but doing neither with enough skill to maintain an audiences interest. Given that the movie has a convoluted narrative with no discernible coherency, the images must alone sustain the momentum and, with a few exceptions, they do not. (A leering Justin Timberlake unsettlingly lypsynching a haunting and beautiful musical number is beyond reproach.) Even more disturbing is Kelly's own confused politics; the dissident political faction, straightforwardly named the "Neo-Marxists", is undoubtedly where Kelly's sympathies lie. They are meant to be contrasted with the Republican party and their ticket for the 2008 presidential election, wittily, if perplexingly, named Frost/Elliot. The democrats as a party are not even mentioned except the naming of Clinton/Lieberman as their ticket. Clearly, Kelly does not even perceive the democratic party as a worthy opposition to the corrupt and quasi-totalitarian GOP, embodied by a piquant Natasha Richardson, costumed as an evil sorceress from a Disney cartoon, gazing into her magic mirror, which in Kelly's universe is a wall of surveillance television screens. The Neo-Marxists characters however appear as a bunch of ineffectual buffoons, running a ludicrously low-budget operation from the pot-smoke stained walls of Venice Beach apartments. It's no coincedence it's members are almost all cast from the Saturday Night Live roster. The brilliant (and possibly megalomaniacal) scientist, played by a deliciously smarmy Wallace Shawn sporting the worlds worst comb-over, even announces half-way through the film that the Neo-Marxists no nothing about Marx. Given how little these would-be revolutionaries actually seem to stand for, one is inclined to agree. Is this Kelly's rejection of all political ideology, left or right? Is Southland Tales merely nihilistic pornography, luxuriating at the sight of the world blowing itself to smithereens. America as glorious shining Hindenburg? Perhaps. (It's shocking the French didn't like it, Baudrillard would swoon). A more likely scenario is that Kelly himself was just too over-extended with ideas to articulate a coherent political thought.
Tales deals with it's ideas both directly and abstractly and the two modes of expression threaten to cancel one another out. The film is not satire, it is rarely funny or morally acute enough to qualify, but neither is it allegorical enough to be viewed as the kind of avant-garde dreamscape that filmmakers like David Lynch create, in Tales, the viewer's subconscious is not under siege. Perhaps the movie could have been rewritten as a modern day Dr. Stangelove which was itself an apocalyptic vision of a near future (circa 1963). Both films introduce a technology created to save the world but ends up destroying it (the Doomsday machine in Strangelove and Liquid Karma in Tales) and both have over-the-top German scientists promising salvation but who are actually acting out of darker motivations. The comparisons stop there. Strangelove was bitingly funny and unrelentingly realistic, however preposterous it's characters behaved. It's moral compass was unwavering and clear, however bleak. Tales is a much less stable piece of art. If Kelly's goal, or one of his goals, was to revive socialist dreams (as some of his interviews suggest) his failure is acute. The movie has little to say at all about politics, economics or foreign policy. Given that Liquid Karma is the catalyst for the end of the world, Kelly could even be accused of discouraging the search for alternate energy sources. The one political point that the film is unequivocal about is it's denunciation of the Patriot Act and the resultant increase of government surveillance. The ease with which anyone, private citizen or government official, can record and observe their own life and the lives of others provides a major theme for the film; whether it be Boxer's filming of a faked double murder gone terribly wrong, to the wall of images watched by Natasha Richardson, everything in our lives is recorded and uploaded, waiting to be used against us by the powers that be.
As a technical filmmaker Kelly is not without prowess, his use of music, mise en scene and camera motion can be breathtaking, as it is when the characters have a haunting danse macabre aboard the dirigible at the films climax. As a writer however his discipline here is underdeveloped. Donnie Darko, his previous movie, showed a real affection for it's characters and, by extension, humanity-each performance was entirely realistic and sympathetic, even Patrick Swayze's pedophilic motivational speaker. The characters in Southland Tales are either obviously fictional and stock, like Wallace Shawn's campy German Baron, or are total blank non-entities, like Boxer Santaros, whose bulging muscles and bad-ass attitude stand in not for a person but a whole type of person. He is his own action figure and has about the same amount of personality. Such gambits can work but not when the symbology and metaphors are this muddled. The more ambitious the art the more disciplined and focused the artist needs to be, lest the art morph into what Tony Kushner calls "ambitions evil twin," pretension. Ironically, as I have written this review Southland Tales has grown on me somewhat (a total inversion of my usual habit for liking things less upon reflection) though my overall response still stands. I will see the film again to better analyze it's bloated and scattershot visual and ideological barrage. Until then, I can still say that, though Southland Tales is not a success, Richard Kelly remains a necessary and unique voice amongst directors his age for he actually has something he wants to say. So much. Too much, perhaps, for one movie.

"This is a really great city, ya know, really a knockout!"

I just got back from a delightful holiday week in New York City. The city air was brisk and streets filled with tourists and locals shopping with abandon. It never feels like the holiday season here in LA; palm trees and reindeer together look like an ecological disaster. And an all too plausible one at that. Seeing the seasonal window displays, hearing the Christmas carols in stores and coffee shops, breathing in the cool, late fall air-it was all very much needed for this recent LA transplant. Plus, being there only a week, I didn't have time to get sick of it all, as I often did each December. The last few months have been so busy with simply getting settled in my new city, I was long overdue for a jolt of culture and entertainment; while in the Big Apple I gorged. As I mentioned before, the Broadway strike eliminated a lot of options for theatregoing so I mainly decided to catch up on recent movies (though I couldn't go to New York without seeing at least one show!) So here are some thoughts about the movies and plays taken in last week. Up first: Southland Tales.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Bobofag wants his Broadway back!

In New York this week and I'm pissed off by the Boradway Stagehand strike! I am also equally shocked. I thought for sure that the strike would be settled before the lucrative holiday week. My devastation is a bit of a put-on; the only current Broadway selection that interests me is "August: Osage County." So far the season is lackluster and other shows that I want to see, like "The Ritz," are still playing. I just hope "Osage" runs through Tony time. As for this week, it looks like it's off-Broadway for me! That new play with Elizabeth Franz looks good.

Tim Burton: Batman (1989)

The question of whether or not Tim Burton's dark and whimsical vision could support a major popcorn studio picture with blockbuster aspirations was answered,and answered forcefully, with the smash hit "Batman." Never a comic book fan and with no history directing action sequences Burton was not an obvious choice to tackle the material. Yet, in retrospect the match seems perfectly obvious. It's important to remember that, apart from the comics, the last mainstream representation of Batman for the general population was the jokey, over-the-top 1960's television series starring Adam West.

With Burton's involvement the new Batman was inevitably of a entirely different stripe. His Batman was to be a dark noir fantasy that centered around a truly conflicted hero who almost compulsivley takes on his crime fighting persona. Many purist comic book fans had reservations about casting Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne, an understandable reservation given his history in comedic roles. The choice turned out to be inspired. Keaton gives Wayne real pathos as well as an edgy, unhinged quality that is deepened by his sly sense of humor. The traditional square jawed, humorless Bruce Wayne is no where in sight (audiences would have to wait for Val Kilmer for that). Keaton's Wayne is a man who finds his alter-ego as mysterious as does the general public. He still remains the best of the actors to tackle the role. Even more perfect is Jack Nicholson as the joker. As witty as he is vicious, Nicholson nails every moment. They even name his his character Jack! Indeed, so scene-stealing is he in the role that Nicholson threatens to take over the whole movie. He even gets top billing in the credit sequence. He also made $60 million dollars for the role thanks to good contract that guaranteed him a share in the profits, probably more than Keaton and Burton combined. Kim Basinger is serviceable in the role of Vicki Vale, though the role is little more than a classic damsel in distress. She still has ten times more personality than the non-characters passing as leading women in movies like this today. (Katie Holmes and Kate Bosworth I am talking to you!)
The look of Batman, with incredible production design by Anton Furst, is a neo-expressionist fantasy filtered through the lens of realism and grunge. Highly stylized yet palpably dirty, Gotham City on film never looked this perfect again. Danny Elfman's score is one the composers most robust and grand; yet undeniably his. Burton was able to take all of his favorite elements to serve mainstream, blockbuster purposes. Batman's outrageous success and the clear connection between Burton and box office cemented the director a long and very free career as a major Hollywood player. Each Batman film since has been something of a diminishing return artistically, with Joel Schumacher practically returning the series to it's kaleidoscopic 60's camp heyday and Christopher Nolan going too far the other direction, turning Batman into a generic, though well-made, action movie. Burton's own sequel will be discussed later on this blog, but it was only this first Batman that balanced whimsy with menace and humor with seriousness. It is the greatest film inspired by a classic comic book hero and one of the most enjoyable summer blockbusters ever made. While still limited by it's somewhat silly conceits (and a man fighting crime in a Batsuit against a sociopath clown is a little silly) Batman should be remembered as a total financial and artistic triumph. Below is my favorite scene in the movie which shows Keaton and Nicholson (and for that matter, Basinger) at their best.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Kevin Smith Vs. Tim Burton

I am very ambivalent about Kevin Smith films. Clerks is certainly a classic but otherwise he has failed to impress me. Only in his first film did he find an aesthetic that perfectly complemented his verbose but superficially vacuous (not too mention profane) dialogue.  Nonetheless I found this exceedingly endearing lecture in which Smith relates a comic story involving himself, Tim Burton and Page Six!  Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sondheim: Anyone Can Whistle (1964)

What comes up, must come down. Sondheim's biggest flop was the 1964 musical, "Anyone Can Whistle." It served as the last new collaboration between book writer Arthur Laurents( of "Gypsy" fame) and Stephen Sondheim and the first collaboration between Sondheim and Angela Lansbury (making her, ironically inauspicious, stage musical debut).  An original story by Laurents focused on a financially depressed town and how it's corrupt mayor (Angela Lansbury) fakes a miracle-a rock that springs water- to attract tourists and rescue the town.  The show received terrible reviews in it's Philadelphia out-of-town try-out. Though somewhat revised for Broadway by Arthur Laurents the changes were not enough.  The show closed after nine performances.
   Despite it's total commercial failure, many of the songs have entered the popular Sondheim repertoire.  The emotional ambiguity that would help define him as a composer is first evident in "Whistle's" classic tunes. Though it was cut from the final production, "They're Won't Be Trumpets" has become an exciting cabaret and concert staple.  Of the songs in the show, "Everybody Says Don't" and, most of all, "Anyone Can Whistle" itself are pure classics.  The lyrics to the shows titular number are amongst the the most personal ever written by Sondheim. "What's hard come simple/What's natural comes hard./Maybe you could show me/how to let go/lower my guard/Learn to be free./Maybe if you Whistle/Whistle for me."  
    I, in fact, have never seen the show live and, along with many Sondheim fans I suspect, think of the show as the most mysterious entry in his oeuvre.  The musical received some redemption when it was revived for a Carnegie Hall concert in 1995 starring Bernadette Peters and Scott Bakula. Still, "Whistle" is almost never performed today and, at the time, threatened to label the composer/lyricist Sondheim a one-hit wonder. No one could have foreseen what was coming next.

Here is a random clip of Cleo Laine singing "Anyone Can Whistle." I recommend Bernadette Peters's definitive rendition in her Sondheim etc. Carnegie Hall concert; sadly it was no where to be found online.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bobofag goes to Little Fish

I made my way over to the Blank Theatre Company last week to catch the always wonderful Alice Ripley heading a cast of Broadway notables in a revival of Michael John LaChiusa's little known musical "Little Fish."  I missed the show in it's short run at the Second Stage theatre in New York, so I was more than happy to have been able to have caught it here, and with such a talented cast.   Sadly, despite the best efforts of the performers, the show that surrounds them is a bit of a shambles.  LaChiusa has always been a mixed bag for me but his "Wild Party" was, by any measure, one of the greatest new musicals of the last 20 years.  After watching that show, I am always willing to sample anything in his oeuvre. Always ambitious, irrepressibly erratic; Michael John LaChiusa fashioned the book, music and lyrics to "Little Fish" himself and the lack of collaborating influence is all too apparent.  'Little Fish" has been compared to Sondheim's landmark 1970 classic "Company" as both shows deal with a contemporary (for their time) New York that while buzzing and over-stimulating allows (causes?) a central character (Charlotte here, Bobby there) to suffer an urban variety of existential isolation and personal malaise. Both shows follow the long path to self-actualization and emotional release. But where "Company" was tightly, if creatively, constructed, "Little Fish" is as indecisive in tone as it's central character. The songs in "Company" brilliantly counterpointed the scenes, commenting on the action and characters with witty, arched lyrics that bristled with irony and venom.  "Little Fish" has a score that, while more integrated in the action, more often than not disappoints.  Emotional melodies are brushed upon but never realized and the songs blend in and out of one another. No doubt this is Mr. LaChiusa's intended effect, but, when the music and lyrics themselves are so uninspiring, such fluid musicality makes for auditory monotony. The score as a whole is mostly forgettable. Even Ripley's cathartic eleven o'clock number, a song where she finally breaks through the passivity she has long endured, leaves me cold. Intimations of "Being Alive" are none-too-subtle, but not only is the song itself a far less moving melody, as a dramatic denouement it feels far less earned. Though written in the present day, there is very little contemporary about the world these characters inhabit, save the central emotional catalyst of Charlotte quitting smoking (a new trend in New York to be sure!) Indeed, making "Little Fish" a period piece would be an easy task given that there isn't a cellphone, computer, ipod or blackberry in sight. This is New York in the 21st century?
Obviously The Blank is an amazingly ambitious company; producing challenging and exciting musicals with top-notch casts in a theatre space that would make most high school students balk.  Though a charming small house, producing musicals in such a tiny forum is a serious challenge to even the most gifted director. Sadly with "Little Fish" the director, Kirsten Sanderson, seems a bit out to sea. Designed as the inside of the YMCA pool (an important plot point in the show), the set nonetheless over-stresses a metaphor best left discerned by the viewer without the aid of such visual cues; especially when they are as visually static as this.  Scenery inspired by the city that gives the story it's grounding in reality would have been more fitting. Sanderson also fails to emphasize the thematic through-lines available to her; the relationship between Charlotte and her two best friends should be put front and center from the moment the curtain rises. Only at the end of the show did I realize how important these relationships were to the musicals over-arching raison d'aitre.  As staged and acted here, and given her total passivity and rather pathetic demeanor (not too mention a frumpy, unflattering costume) it's hard to imagine why Charlotte is friends with either of these two sharply dressed, supercilious, bourgeois clowns; one, a gorgeous Upper East Side type with a "Sex and the City" aura and the other, an affected young gay art critic with a habit for disastrous and abusive love affairs. Broadway's Chad Kimball ("Lennon," "Into the Woods") sings the latter role beautifully but remains a too cold and aloof presence; one suspects he might just be using the weak willed Charlotte for his own narcissistic psychological satisfaction.  Seeing that he sings Charlotte the titular number (a metaphor that, by the way, never quite takes off), a lovely ballad about friendship sung after a emotional confrontation between the two, this is probably not the effect LaChiusa had in mind for the character. No doubt in the original production the helplessly likable Jesse Tyler Ferguson tempered the characters hard-edge; here, depsite his sonorous voice and committment to his characterization, one never quite warms to Mr.Kimball; though one has to give him credit for trying. As for Alice Ripley, an actress best in (though underused for) more broadly comic roles (like her delicious Janet in "The Rocky Horror Show") the character always remains one step away from her grasp. Charlotte remains a cipher, albeit a beautifully sung one. Though Charlotte is ostensibly a writer for the New Yorker, she hardly seems or behaves like any sort of success.  Vocally there is little to complain about. Sounding and looking somewhat like a young Betty Buckley, Ripley's voice has never sounded more unique, something I hadn't realized about this singer before.  (Indeed news that this production of Little Fish is to be recorded must please LaChiusa fans everywhere; a better recording cast would be hard to put together.) Though she dominates every scene, sounds terrific and almost never leaves the stage, Ripley's natural charisma is nonetheless held at bay by the writing of this non-character.  Only Broadway stalwart Gregory Jbara, playing a drunken Lothario, fully realizes his character; in a hilarious highlight, Charlotte flashes back to an unfortunate night when her boss at a neighborhood newspaper made uproariously obvious sexual advances over a far more than two Maritni lunch.  The scene is the the shows most broadly comic but, in Jbara's honest performance, a real vulnerability and sadness is equally present amongst the drunken shenanigans. It's also a moment in which LaChiusa's intergration of book, music and score works to full effect.
  Ultimately why LaChiusa chose to write "Little Fish" is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps he wanted to pen a post-9/11 homage to the city he calls home, but if so, his New York is shockingly unrecognizable. Perhaps after writing a show full of pastiche like "The Wild Party" he wanted to try his hat at a contemporary mileu (reversing Sondheim's trajectory of "Company" and "Follies"). Perhaps he was commissioned by Second Stage. The only question of importance is whether it not the show plays like it needed to be written and on that account the answer is somewhat more definitive.  "Little Fish" is a frustrating show that, while moment-to-moment provides satisfying entertainment, in the end, adds up to little.  Only time will tell if the author has another "Wild Party" in him or more "Little Fishes." For the sake of the future of musical theatre, Mr. Lachiusa being one of it's most exciting trailblazers, let's hope for more of the former.

Tim Burton: Beetlejuice (1988)

After the commercial, if not critical, success of "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" Tim Burton's next choice of project was a ghoulish comedy that would, for the first time, introduce audiences to the menagerie of illustrative and macabre Burton-ania that has come to be his trademark.  The film, of course, is "Beetlejuice"; Burton's most successfully comic feature.  The movie seems so tied to Burton's sensibility that it's hard to imagine that it's witty screenplay was written by someone else. Two someones in fact: Michael McDowelll and Warren Skaaren.
Beetlejuice is the story about two ghosts (A game Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) who unsuccessfully attempt to haunt the interlopers living at their former house. Finding their efforts at Poltergeisting feeble, they call upon the services of the titular character, a professional "bio-exorcist" who also happens to be a wise-cracking jack-ass. While the story was a ghostly flight-of-fancy (and about as scary as Blithe Spirit) it was the eye-popping visuals and delicious production design that made the film a hit.  The casting of a utterly committed and fearless Michael Keaton also proved invaluable. He plays Beetlejuice as a hedonistic redneck car salesman of the hereafter; Randle McMurphy possessed by a demon.  The other supporting cast, particularly the hilarious Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones, do their part to keep the proceedings as light-hearted as a graveyard comedy can be.  But it was the one-of a kind imagery that cemented Tim Burton as a unique voice in cinema.  It's all here, for the first time in a motion picture: the Gorey-like Gothic lines, the turn-of-the-century carnival-esque aesthetic and sideshow bew-ha-ha, the fascination with miniatures and doll houses. And then there is the virtual parade of grostequerie: all misshapen faces and comically deformed features. It's a ghoulish gallery of nightmarish creatures that nevertheless delight more than they terrorize.   In the future Burton would use his visual calling cards to different effects, but in "Bettlejuice," laughter is the order of the day.  The sight of ludicrously pretentious and unpleasant modern sculptures (as only Burton could imagine them) attacking their maker is riff on Modern Art worthy of a New Yorker cartoon.
   "Beetlejuice" was my favorite film growing up as child.  Not only did I dress up as Beetlejuice for Halloween in 1988 (at the ripe old age of 6) but I had memorized most of Michael Keaton's dialogue as well. Most importantly, even at such a young age, I had recognized that the director of the movie was a special talent, one with a unique insight into my (and a lot of other people's) imagination. Some would describe "Beetlejuice" as a black comedy, but this is inaccurate. A true black comedy is one where the comedy is a venner on a subject matter which is actually very serious and bleak. A spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, as it were. Not so here. "Beetlejuice" is a coventional comedy plot that uses a macabre sensibility to breathe new life into a potentialy tired storyline.  As such, Beetlejuice is probably not a great film; it has little to say about anything other than it's own internal silliness.  Some satirical ribbing of bourgeois city slickers aside, the film is mostly a prolonged excuse for visual wit and wizardry.  Winona Ryder's character Lydia, however, hints at developments to come.  As a dark, moody, "strange and unusual," adolescent, Lydia is the only one with power to see the ghosts that populate her home.  She is this movie's stand-in for Burton, the outsider with a dark demeanor who nevertheless is gifted by her very alienation and otherness.  Though not plumbed for depth here, it is the first appearance of a motif which runs through all of Burton's best films and reaches it apotheosis in Edward Scissorhands.
The scene for the ages is a glorious comic dinner party in which the guests find themselves possessed by none other than voice of Harry Belafonte. Indeed the movie opens with a musical hint at the hilarity to come; though what "Day-O" was doing at the beginning of the film must have seemed utterly perplexing until this, now legendary, comic scene:

Some eye-candy for ya!

This is Bobo FAG after all. I decided this site needed some hot men destined for the pin-up in the locker of my mind. It's a motley crew. Can you name them all?

Sondheim: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

After already making his mark in musical theatre history with the lyrics to "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," 31 year old Stephen Sondheim was finally given the chance to write his music as well as lyrics. The show was the 1962 Broadway musical farce "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Based on the comedy of Roman dramatist Seneca, "Forum" is perhaps the funniest musical comedy in the pantheon of musical comedies. The wild farce, about a clownish slave (Pseudolus, originally played by Zero Mostel) who schemes to free himself by enabling his young master to marry the (already betrothed) virginal courtesan of his dreams, is an uproarious, door-slamming, tightly constructed potpourri of classical farce, catchy music and borscht belt humor. Unlike most of Sondheim's shows, the success of Forum is primarily attributable to it's book writers: Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (of M*A*S*H, the televison show, fame). Sondheim's music is, formally speaking, unessential to the plot of "Forum," as most of the songs allow for character development and comic flights of fancy, not story. Plot motion is left to the delicately constructed book. Still Sondheim's score is a total delight; the music is bouncy, romantic and unencumbered by pretension. His lyrics deepen the comedy of the goings-on and, in one brilliant instance, give the show it's comic highlight.
The lovers duet in Act I is a charming song called "Lovely" in which the virginal courtesan explains to her would-be suitor that her only asset is her beauty. Who cares that "isn't it a shame/ I can neither sew nor cook/nor read or write my name." Near the shows climax, through elaborate plot machinations, the slave Hysterium has been convinced by Pseudolus to don drag and stand in for the young virgin (don't ask!). Convinced he looks like a fool, Hysterium threatens to withdraw from the plot. To reassure him, Pseudolus serenades the nervous slave with his own reprise of "Lovely." Hysterium buys it hook, line and sinker; the number ends in a hilarious duet between both men intoning Hysterium's "loveliness." Here is Sondheim using a musical reprise to make a dramatic (in the structural sense) moment come alive. A new song would not have been nearly as effective in the moment, and, in retrospect, the original version was a mere set-up to the delicious punch line (almost an hour and a half later in the evening.) Though "Forum" is hardly the best example of Sondheim's musical legacy (the music is rarely sung outside the show) it nevertheless allowed a score by Sondheim to enter the musical theatre canon. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" has become one of the greatest gems in the history of musical comedy and premiered at the zenith of the genres golden age, near the same time as shows like "Hello, Dolly!", "Bye Bye Birdie", and "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
Forum won a slew of Tony's at the 1963 Awards including Best Book, Best Actor, and Best Musical. Unbelievably, Sondheim was not even nominated for his delightful score. To add insult to injury no winner that night, not even Sondheim's greatest artistic collaborator Hal Prince (the shows producer) mentioned Sondheim in their acceptance speeches. I am sure that's a wound that never quite heals.

The show has been successfully revived twice on Broadway, each time garnering a Tony for it's star (Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane respectively). It is consistently revived in stock and amateur theatre and was even filmed (somewhat unsuccessfully) by Richard Lester in the 60's. As a example of well-constructed, mid-century musical comedy "A Funny Thing Happend on the Way to the Forum" has few peers. Below is Zero Mostel hamming his way through the famous opening number "Comedy Tonight!"