13 August 2014

Lauren Bacall


When people say (and they do) that New York is like a mistress, I know what they mean. The city is smart and beautiful and sophisticated. We love New York, but it demands a great deal from us in return, and it doesn’t always love us back. To my mind, then, New York looks a lot like Lauren Bacall.

The truth is that I might not have lived here if not for her. When I was still in college, my parents came to town, and we went to see Woman of the Year. My mother was transported by the show, and especially Bacall’s hilarious duet with Marilyn Cooper, “The Grass Is Always Greener.” Mom concluded that New York must be all right if it could put on a show like that. When I declared my intention to move here, she didn’t object.

A few years later, I went to pick up Amanda Green at her parents’ apartment. I got off the elevator, rang the buzzer — and Lauren Bacall answered. There’s no way to prepare for something like that, but eventually I composed myself, told her about my mother and Woman of the Year, and thanked her. “Isn’t it nice to know that you can have an affect on people like that?” Bacall said.

“You’re lucky she was nice to you,” Amanda said to me as we left the building. “She just spent half an hour yelling at me.”

Yes, Bacall was gorgeous, and she could be one of the most caring, loyal friends anybody (including Amanda’s parents) could want, but she was also tough — and if she had qualms about making demands or being outright rude, they didn’t stop her. In contrast to Robin Williams, about whom it seems virtually everybody has a heartwarming story to tell, plenty of people have stories about Bacall’s imperious temperament. And they’re true. Backstage at Woman of the Year, they called her “The Beast,” I was told by a friend who worked on the show.

The odd thing is how little that mattered, at least if you weren’t on the receiving end of the gesture in question. Lauren Bacall was a star. She was not like other people. She was not like other stars. She might love you. She might not. You were lucky in any case — you’d get to tell the story afterward.

And so, since this morning, New York has been a little less itself.


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24 July 2014

Fort Worth’s ‘Hamlet’ Opera Discriminates Against Danes, Activists Say


Stereotyping Danes is the last socially acceptable form of bigotry in America today, protesters say.

FORT WORTH -- Like the Shakespeare play that preceded it, Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet, a five-act opera in French from 1868, discriminates against Danes, leading Danish Rights activists charge, warning Fort Worth Opera of trouble ahead when the company presents the work as part of its 2015 festival.

“For centuries, the Hamlet myth has presented the world with an inaccurate and unfair picture of the Danes,” Danish spokesman Aaron Sørensen said. “If this opera were about any other ethnic minority, would Fort Worth program it? I think not. Anti-Danish slurs and bigotry may have been acceptable in our grandparents’ time, but not any more.”

Sørensen, who has not seen the production because Thomas’ Hamlet will not have its regional premiere until May 2, 2015, describes the opera in terms of “outrageous stereotypes and slander. For example, not all Danes are obsessed with their mothers,” Sørensen continued. “Very, very few of us go around talking to skulls or randomly stabbing people in the arras. And some of us are not at all melancholy; we’re actually rather fun to be with. Granted, not many of us, but it’s unfair to smear us all with the same Havarti.”


Sørensen: “Something is rotten in — oh, you know the rest.”

Danish Rights activists are particularly concerned that leading roles will be performed by performers who are not Danish. This is in keeping with longstanding tradition that includes such acclaimed speaking actors as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Richard Burton, and Keanu Reeves, as well as such operatic Hamlets as Sherrill Milnes, Thomas Hampson, and Simon Keenlyside.

“All of these Hamlets were required to wear makeup intended to make them appear Danish,” Sørensen said. “It’s time to put a stop to the practice of Slightly Paler Face theater.”


“Not even remotely Danish” Wes Mason,
slated to star as Fort Worth’s Hamlet.

Fort Worth Opera general director Darren K. Woods responded in a brief statement: “While we welcome the opportunity to engage in a dialogue and to listen to the Danish concerns, we at Fort Worth Opera uphold the principles of non-discriminatory casting. In our long history, we have presented such noteworthy performers as the Eastern European–American soprano Beverly Sills as a Scottish madwoman, the Irish–American soprano Mary Dunleavy as a consumptive French seamstress, and — oh, to hell with it, I just can’t.”

Casting Danes in leading or supporting roles would be a good start to cooling tempers and smoothing relations, Sørensen said. However, the Danish Rights activists are willing for a Scots–German to take the supporting role of Claudius’ German-speaking Major-domo, or Haushofmeister, a groundbreaking new feature of Fort Worth’s upcoming production, sure to please audiences and critics alike.


Olivier as Hamlet. “He’s fondling a human skull!” Sørensen protested. “I mean, seriously, who does that? Apart from my uncle Torsten, I mean.”


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23 July 2014

Warner Bros. to Reboot ‘Gilmore Girls’


Life is short. Shoot fast.

LOS ANGELES -- Ending years of will-they-won’t-they speculation, Warner Bros. today announced that, yes, there will be a Gilmore Girls movie — but this ain’t gonna be your mother’s Gilmore Girls.

“We believe that audiences are ready for a new generation of Gilmore Girls,” director J.J. Abrams said at a press conference this morning. “It’s time to pull back the curtain and reveal the origins of Lorelai and Rory, the backstory that brought them to Stars Hollow — but following an alternative timeline that will allow us to keep the characters fresh and exciting.

“Obviously, we’re hoping for a franchise here,” Abrams added. “I can see this thing going into seven blockbuster sequels, at least.”


Scarlett Johansson as Lorelai Gilmore.

Running from 2000–07, the television series Gilmore Girls depicted a fast-talking single mother and her bookish daughter, along with their relatives, boyfriends, and neighbors. It starred Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel.

Gilmore: Origins will focus on patriarch Richard Gilmore’s mysterious past as a CIA operative: when the state of Connecticut is threatened by an alien race of gigantic killer robots, he’s called back into action, training the townsfolk for a battle that could mean the end not only of Stars Hollow but of civilization as we know it.

“What really drew people to the show wasn’t the subtly nuanced relationships, the quirky comedy, or the ups and downs of Lorelai’s love life,” Abrams said, admitting that he wasn’t a fan of the original show. “Ultimately, it was all about the robots.”

Series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino could not be reached for comment after security guards escorted her out of the press conference. Casting has been announced for all the film’s major roles, and production is expected to begin in September. Details follow below.


Kristen Stewart as Rory Gilmore.


Mark Wahlberg as Luke Danes.
Laid-back Luke leaps into action when his long-lost daughter, April, is among the first to be killed by robots.


Sandra Bullock as knife-wielding Sookie St. James.
She can stand The Heat — but she’s getting out of the kitchen.


Emma Stone as Lane Kim.
Lovable Lane just doesn’t understand her super-strict Korean mother.
“We’re thinking probably Sandra Oh as Mrs. Kim,” Abrams said, “because there are no other Asian actresses in Hollywood. Oh, maybe Lucy Liu. Or Margaret Cho. Or John Cho. John could do this.”


Gwyneth Paltrow as pushy know-it-all Paris Geller.


Johnny Depp as Michel Gerard.
“He’s a lot more French than Yanic Truesdale!” Abrams explained.


Zac Efron as Dean Forester.
Even in an alternate timeline, Dean needs good hair.


Justin Bieber as misunderstood bad boy Jess Mariano.


Robert Downey, Jr., as mysterious multimillionaire
Logan Huntzberger.


Joseph Gordon-Levitt as well-meaning Christopher Hayden.
Christopher is shocked to learn that his first wife, Sherry, is actually a killer robot from space.


James Franco as eccentric Jason “Digger” Stiles.


Keira Knightley as Miss Patty.
“Remind me to tell you about Tito Puente,” Knightley told reporters, “as soon as I find out who Tito Puente is.”


Zachary Quinto as Taylor Doose.
“We’re hoping to reveal more about Taylor’s private life,”
Abrams said.


Cameron Diaz as Babette.
When the robots go for her cats, Babette goes for her gat, and you can bet there’ll be axle grease coming out of their ying-yangs.


Asia Argento as Gypsy.
Because not even Gypsy can put those robots back together again, once Stars Hollow is finished with them.
“We wanted someone exotic,” Abrams said, “and I can’t understand what the hell she’s saying anyway.”


Dwayne Johnson as Jackson Belleville.
In the film, he'll be a specialist in weapons, not vegetables.


Channing Tatum as intrepid, resourceful Kirk Gleason.


Meryl Streep as Emily Gilmore.
“There is simply no actress better suited to this role,” Abrams said. “Besides, Sharon Stone was unavailable.”


Special Appearance by Edward Herrmann as Richard.


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21 July 2014

Loving Elaine Stritch


As a performer, as a person, Elaine Stritch held back nothing — or at least it seemed that way to those of us who watched her. Her insecurities, her stories, her opinions, her mistakes and catastrophes, her forgotten lyrics and foolish choices, her struggles with alcohol and age, the creases in her face and the limits of her vocal range: everything was right up front, along with her talent. People loved her for that.

I missed out on many of Stritch’s most famous theatrical performances, though I caught a few; happily, she left us with plenty of documentation on film and television to return to, to cling to, now that she’s gone. Still, no matter where she was working — even when she was working in London, for mercy’s sake — she was always a creature of Broadway. When she announced her retirement and left New York, not so long ago, we were aghast. The question was not so much how she would survive without New York, but how New York would survive without her. How would we define ourselves, if we were not Elaine Stritch’s chosen people?

She died on my birthday, and before I went to dinner with friends, I had just enough time to dash off a quick sketch — nothing as elaborate as the idea I’d come up with. But I knew that if I didn’t put it on paper (and the Internet), then with my luck, somebody else would. In three minutes and the time it took to scan, I posted the finished product on Facebook.

And then it began to take off: I have no idea how many people have seen it, “liked” it, “shared” it. When I checked the Facebook page for the (excellent) documentary, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, more than 400 people had shared the drawing; as of this writing, nearly 1,000 people have liked it, on that page alone. I’m told that it’s made its way to Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince.

This has everything to do with Elaine Stritch and nothing to do with me — and yet it’s mine. A very curious sensation, really, to see it travel so far beyond my reach. A very odd kind of publication, for someone who’s sometimes despaired of ever seeing his work in print. I’m glad I had the presence of mind to sign the picture; I wish I’d taken more time with the damned thing. Hell, I wish I’d submitted it to The New Yorker. But I think that Elaine Stritch herself might approve of what I did and the way I did it. I put it out there, for the world to see, just the way she did.



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‘The King and I’ in Paris


Curtain call: In foreground, Susan Graham, James Holmes, and Lambert Wilson.

For several years now, Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet has made a specialty of presenting classics of Broadway musical theater. It’s a daring venture, since the French have virtually no direct experience of a thoroughly American style of performance, apart from what they’ve seen in the movies: by now several shows have seen their French premieres at the Châtelet, years after they bowed in New York, and the producers hope to return the favor, with their own adaptation of An American in Paris, opening in November with hopes of a transfer. I’ve seen only one other Broadway show at the theater, Bernstein’s Candide, which — being an operetta based on Voltaire’s novella — at least fell a little closer to the French sensibility. But I missed out on such gems as West Side Story (a monster hit), On the Town, and La Mélodie du Bonheur (a.k.a. The Sound of Music).

The Châtelet’s production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I sparked irresistible interest, however, and warranted a trip to Paris: they cast Susan Graham as Anna Leonowens. Susan performed musical comedy in high school and college, but since then she’s specialized in opera, limiting her Broadway rep to Gershwin concerts and the occasional encore number. One knew ahead of time that she’d excel in “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Shall We Dance?” But how would she fare in the less lyrical “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” — to say nothing of all that dialogue and the dancing? Even Susan wasn’t sure, when we spoke during an interview for GBOpera.it, last winter.


“Getting to Know You.”

And what, in the very theater where I first saw Susan in Les Troyens, would the French make of something that, despite its Siamese setting and its Welsh heroine, is fundamentally American — with the potential to be as corny as Kansas in August? Would they tinker with it (as they did with Candide)? Would they embrace it?

Under James Holmes’ vital baton and in Lee Blakeley’s tasteful, straightforward production, Le Roi et Moi emerged in all its charm and its occasional bursts of glory earned. If the show’s finale, the death of the King, tends to sentimentality, so be it: all around me, I could hear people — French people — sniffling and crying.* At every level of the production, one sensed a basic respect for the piece itself, and that’s as it should be.


Illustration by WVM.

Blakeley proved more faithful to Rodgers & Hammerstein than he did to Offenbach in his production of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein at Santa Fe last season, and if he felt the need to update, bowdlerize, or apologize for this play’s East–West and male–female conflicts from their oh-so postwar-American roots, you saw no trace of it. Every word and gesture was rooted in character and plot, and in dialogue scenes he elicited fine performances from a cast that included several non-native English speakers and more than one opera singer.

Jean-Marc Puissant’s sets evoked the grandeur that we (and the French) remember from Hollywood’s King and I, yet with simple, almost abstract means; Sue Blane’s costumes included sumptuous gowns for Susan, sleek silks for the Siamese, and oddly sci-fi armor for the King’s female bodyguards. Peggy Hickey (a Tony nominee, also of Santa Fe’s Grande-Duchesse) provided elegantly understated choreography, then pulled out the stops for a recreation of Jerome Robbins’ “Small House of Uncle Thomas” — and, of course, a delightful “Shall We Dance?”

Lambert Wilson played the King. Not merely a thoroughly bilingual singing actor, he’s a true rarity, a Frenchman who loves Broadway with a fan’s passion and a scholar’s seriousness. (He’s even recorded an album of show tunes.) A veteran of the Châtelet’s Candide and A Little Night Music, he’s prevailed in more challenging songs than anything Rodgers throws at the King: more remarkably, he got through the entire play without ever once making me think about Yul Brynner, making the role very much his own.


Praise to Buddha: Susan and Lambert.

As Tuptim, Je Ni Kim offered charming presence and a lovely soprano voice, opposite the vividly sung Lun Tha of Damian Thantrey (of whose performance not much else could be discerned, because Rick Fisher’s otherwise gorgeous lighting design took “We Kiss in a Shadow” a little too literally). The esteemed Scottish mezzo Lisa Milne, whose work I’ve admired on recordings, nimbly traced the development of Lady Thiang from meekest subordinate to subtlest power behind the throne, culminating in a stirring “Something Wonderful.”

And then there was Susan. She knows exactly what to do with this material, and “Shall I Tell You” turned out to be a high point of the entire show, as she crawled around the floor — in pantalettes — while raging through her chest voice, something she’s seldom called on to use in opera. “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Getting to Know You” came out as “bright and breezy” as they’re intended to be, but when “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Shall We Dance?” presented her with opportunities to soar, she seized but didn’t overdo them. The first Anna, after all, was Gertrude Lawrence, not an opera singer.


Perhaps because I worked with an opera singer on another Broadway show, Susan’s skill in dialogue scenes impressed me very favorably: not only landing every laugh line squarely, she used her voice as adeptly as she does in song, bringing out nuance through color, letting us hear all those feelings that the teddibly proper Anna cannot express outright. After all, The King and I endures as something more than a collection of hit songs because it is at heart a love story — in which the principals never speak of or act on their love.

Anna and the King dance their love, however, and Susan moved gracefully (all those Merry Widows add up!) as her hoopskirts swirled and swept about her. This was no slumming opera singer, but an American bringing her native culture to another country, with expertise and affection. The French have showered Susan with honors and awards for her dedication to their culture: the Americans might consider giving her a medal of some sort, too.


I’ve never before taken a picture in a theater, but this was historic. The glowing orb near the center is Susan, in a skirt wider
than she is tall.

*NOTE: I attended the performance on June 17. I’d forgotten — probably repressed the memory — that there’s a reprise of “I Whistle a Happy Tune” during the King’s death scene. Yikes, how mawkish. And yet somehow it worked. It all did. They were smart fellows, Rodgers & Hammerstein.


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20 July 2014

Ed Dixon’s ‘Georgie’


George Rose (upper right) with the cast of the film
of Pirates of Penzance: Angela Lansbury, Linda Ronstadt,
Rex Smith, and Kevin Kline.

Ed Dixon was 20 when he first met George Rose. He’d never met anybody quite like him. Probably nobody has. An acclaimed character actor, a born raconteur, and an authentic eccentric, George captivated Ed from the start, and their friendship lasted a quarter-century. But George died in 1988, and, because he worked primarily in theater, many people never knew his consummate artistry — and nobody knew him the way Ed did. Now Ed has created a remarkable tribute to his friend, a one-man play entitled Georgie. I attended a private reading on Saturday, and I’m eager to see the play produced.

We discover George gradually, as Ed did. The young actor watches the older actor onstage, marvels at his talent — and soon falls under the spell of his conversation, as George regaled Ed with brilliant theatrical anecdotes that were like catnip to a kid from Oklahoma. With stories (and impressions) of the most distinguished actors of his time — with all of whom he’d worked — George provided Ed with a direct connection to the great theatrical traditions of the 20th century.

Even better, those stories were hilarious, and as Ed recreates them, he delivers impressions not only of George but also of Olivier, Gielgud, and Hepburn (to name only a few). At times one gets the agreeable sensation that one is witnessing hybrids, Ed’s own mimicry merging somehow with George’s. It’s easy to understand the power of George’s charm. We’re drawn in, just as Ed was.


Ed Dixon

In time, their relationship evolved: Ed pursued his career in theater (and opera), becoming a character actor who would go on to play all of George’s best-known roles. In George’s eyes, Ed grew to be less and less an acolyte, more a peer. George even sought out Ed for voice lessons, and Ed had the gratifying experience of hearing George use some of his jokes in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

But George was a complex fellow, and perhaps the first suggestion of his strangeness came when Ed visited his apartment, encountering for the first time the mountain lions that George kept as pets. George was an animal activist before anybody used the term; he rescued all sorts of exotic creatures and (somehow) brought them to live with him in the city. George feasted with panthers — and in the Wildean sense, too. Though he was openly homosexual, George never made a pass at Ed (a damned cute guy), because in truth Ed was too old for him. George had a penchant for very young boys, a fact he concealed until 1988.

George had built a vacation home in the Dominican Republic, adopted a 12-year-old, and frequented a brothel where other boys could be had. As soon as he got to the town of Sosúa, Ed realized what was going on. “It’s the culture,” George explained, but Ed bolted. Days later, George was beaten and murdered by his adopted son and his relatives. In Ed’s telling, George’s death is a tragedy, Aristotelian to its core — yet even an actor like George Rose could derive no satisfaction from that.

It’s taken years for Ed to “see George clearly,” as he puts it, but it takes him just one evening before we see George clearly, too: a great talent, a true friend, whose memory should be neither shunned nor prettified because of his flaws or his fate — but embraced whole. As I watched Georgie, I saw beyond the play, to my own friendships, and I hoped that I will leave behind people like Ed who care enough to remember me so well.


George Rose in Drood.


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18 July 2014

An Open Letter to Young Singers


Dear Young Singers,

Lately, a lot of other singers — some of them even younger than you — have been writing open letters. They tell you about what a career in opera is really like. They tell you about what to expect — and what not to expect — as you make your way in opera, which is either a.) dying; or b.) not dying, depending on which letter you’re reading.

But there is one thing you will not read in these open letters. It is perhaps the most significant truth you will ever learn about your future as an opera singer. It is the thing nobody else has the guts to tell you.

It is simply this: no matter how hard you work, I will never be an opera singer.

It’s true. You can study for years, develop flawless vocal technique, impeccable dramatic skills, and the body of an Abercrombie model; you can master five or six languages and a messa di voce that makes strong men weep. But nothing you do will ever change this fundamental fact: I will never be an opera singer.

You’ve made sacrifices in your career, and you’ll make more before you’re through. You’ll be separated from home and loved ones for weeks at a time. You’ll miss birthdays and school plays. You’ll miss weddings — possibly including your own, because there is no schedule more demanding than the one you have embraced. You will have to ask patience and forgiveness more often than anyone should have to.

You can ask, yes. But you know what no one will ever ask? They won’t ask me to sing. This is the cold reality. No one has ever asked me to sing. They’re not going to start now.

But your sacrifices don’t stop there. While friends are out partying, you’ll stay in — “to protect your instrument.” You’ll suffer through endless auditions without any chance of getting hired, because nobody told you they’d already heard “O! quante volte” three times this afternoon before you got there.

None of this matters. Because I am not going to sing.

No matter how hard you work, no matter how many low-paying engagements you accept, just for the exposure, no matter how many prizes you win or ovations you earn, you are never going to look across the stage and see me singing back at you. I can’t do what you do. Nobody — not even I — wants me to try.

Do you dream of hearing me in the greatest roles in the repertoire? You yearn to hear me as Cavaradossi? As Siegfried? As Azucena? I’m here to tell you: it’s never going to happen. You make all the right artistic and professional choices, you can be guided by your inner voice — but you will never hear mine.*

I know that some of you will protest, others will deny it. “What is opera,” you will ask, “if Bill Madison can’t sing? What is the point, even?”

But this is the truth. And it’s about time you learned to accept it.

Sincerely,

Bill

*NOTE: Except maybe in a speaking role. That could happen. But my acclaimed Don Giovanni? No.


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