03 October 2015

Lost Empires, the Sequel: The Life of Sue Mengers

As perhaps the world’s preeminent scholar in the work of author Brian Kellow, I long since congratulated myself for identifying the recurring theme in his work: “the pains Brian has taken to document worlds that no longer exist. …Brian is playing at Proust’s game. He doesn’t mourn the past but recaptures it by recording its details, and there’s something joyful at times in the process.”* Thus far he’s tackled outsize personalities and distinctive talents for whom the performing arts mattered: the singer Eileen Farrell, the Bennett family of actors, Broadway’s Ethel Merman, and The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael.

Brian’s latest book, Can I Go Now? The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood‘s First Superagent, didn’t seem at first to fit that pattern. Sure, I thought, the performing arts mattered to her, but mostly so that she could get a commission when one of her clients made a movie. Sure, she was an outsize personality — enough so to warrant fictionalized portrayals onscreen from Dyan Cannon, Shelley Winters, and Loretta Swit. But where did Mengers really stand within the gallery Brian has painted so far?

As I read, I understood — with increasing certainty — why Mengers mattered to Brian. She’s another representative of his Lost Empires, all right.

First, the personality. I’d heard about Mengers, but nothing could have prepared me to see her wit and audacity laid out this way. Particularly once her career is launched, there is virtually no page among the 284 in this book that does not contain two anecdotes and three zingers — or more. (If you’ve got friends who love gossipy Hollywood yarns, just sprinkle your conversation with quotations from the book, and they’ll fall at your feet.) We see instantly that Mengers was a colossal pain in the neck to almost everybody. At the same time we see that her humor, her charm, and her sheer outrageousness helped her to storm past all obstacles, including those she herself had posed.

A German–Jewish refugee and wannabe actress, Mengers rose from the secretarial pool to the highest echelons in her business. Brusque, often vulgar, she did everything people aren’t supposed to do when they want to succeed: hectoring, chainsmoking marijuana, forgoing underwear and making sure everyone knew it. Yet at the peak of her powers, she knew when she’d gone too far, and she’d come back with a quotably funny remark or with the sudden appearance of “Baby Sue,” her alter ego, the naïve little girl anyone could love. (Anyone except her mother, that is.) She knew when to sweet-talk, when persuasion was better than pushiness.

As Brian makes clear, Mengers possessed all the qualities to make her a wheeler-dealer of legend, but she backed these up with hard work. By day, it seems she was incessantly on the phone or in meetings, and by night she threw phenomenal parties and dinners. She was always on the go, and yet she devoted countless hours to reading screenplays. Always on the lookout for the next big project, she applied her astute, but not infallible, critical judgments. Her clients included some of the biggest names of her era, including Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Ryan O’Neal, and Peter Bogdanovich — and it was no coincidence that they made some of the most important films of her era, too. Brian talked to a staggering number of these folks, and every one has something memorable to say to him.

Mengers with one of her younger clients, Tatum O’Neal.
It’s fun to see how many figures from my book turn up in Brian’s.

Hardly had that era begun when Hollywood began to change. One of the changes originated with Mengers herself: for her superstars, the superagent commanded super-salaries. By our standards, the dollar amounts may not look like much, but they were far more than Hollywood actors received before Mengers came on the scene. Making a movie became an ever-more expensive undertaking.

The other changes, however, had little to do with Mengers. Even while her clients were making movies for grownups, establishing what we now perceive as a Golden Age, they were also crashing and burning, often due to substance abuse. Other filmmakers began to make blockbusters. For all their merit and craft, Jaws and Star Wars, and those that followed, required less thought from audiences than did, say, Chinatown, and thus blockbusters promised greater appeal worldwide.

A new mentality began to take over Hollywood. More and more, the studio executives were “Harvard MBAs,” who knew little (and arguably cared less) about movies. For Mengers, movies were a passion. For the new generation, movies were just another business, albeit a highly lucrative one. There was no place among them for Mengers, and long before her death in 2011, she was left behind.

In today’s Hollywood of comic books and reboots and mega-blockbusters, it’s almost impossible to imagine a filmmaker rivaling any of the classics of the 1970s. The originality and the infrastructure — and the will — simply aren’t there.

In her highly original way, Mengers laid the foundations of the infrastructure of her own Golden Age, and heaven knows she had an abundance of will. She is, in short, the very sort of person you’d expect to intrigue Brian — if you knew enough about her to begin with. Thanks to Brian, we can all understand better now the topography of another Lost Empire.

Standard Operational Bullshit:
Loretta Swit plays a character based on Mengers
in Blake Edwards’ satire of Hollywood, S.O.B.

*NOTE: I quote myself, of course. Because who else said it better?

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25 September 2015

Writing the ‘Stonewall’ Screenplay

A scene from the film.

Director Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall opens today in movie theaters, having attracted controversy and threats of boycotting as soon as the trailer was released, depicting a clean-cut, all-American white kid at the center of a historic rebellion. While there were some white guys on hand (notably my friend Tree), lesbians and drag queens of color played the principal roles that night — they weren’t just background for a generic, “straight-acting,” white protagonist. By way of defense, Emmerich has explained that he needed to give straight audiences a character with whom they could identify, and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz insists that this movie was never intended to be the only or final word on the subject.

Indeed, as the studio attempted to generate the broadest possible appeal, the Stonewall script went through lots of words, a few drafts, and possibly a few writers, before the cameras started rolling. I’ve obtained copies, and I’m pleased to share them with you now.

Roland — Great news that you’ve started working on your picture for us. This “rebellion” seems like a great way to feature the kinds of explosions and action sequences you’re so good at. Concerned however that there’s no love interest for your main character. Focus groups indicate that “buddy pictures” are currently trending down. Could the hero’s friend be recast as a woman? Nice rom-com potential there.


Interior: The Smith home in the town of Anywhere, in the state of Heartland. JOHN and MARY SMITH, a happily married heterosexual couple, are eating breakfast in their sunny American kitchen. JOHN looks up from his newspaper.

JOHN: Gee, honey, it says here that there’s been some trouble in New York City with the … “homosexuals.”

MARY: What are … “homosexuals”?

JOHN: I think it’s got something to do with milk.

MARY: No, that’s “homogenized.”

JOHN: Maybe the milk went bad? Anyway, there have been riots the past few nights.

MARY: I’m so glad that could never happen here!

JOHN: Amen to that! Say … the kids are at school now, aren’t they?

MARY: Why, yes, they are.

JOHN: What would you say to some healthy married intercourse between a husband and wife?

MARY (laughing): It depends whose husband and wife you have in mind!

CUT TO: Interior, Smith bedroom. JOHN and MARY make love.

Roland — Focus groups respond very positively to your main characters, but there seems to be a lot of confusion about the events you’re trying to portray. Maybe another draft that brings the Smiths closer to the action? And where are the explosions?


Exterior. Christopher Street, Greenwich Village, New York City. Nighttime. JOHN and MARY SMITH are walking along the sidewalk.

JOHN: Gee, honey, there seems to be something going on up ahead.

MARY: What do you mean?

JOHN: Up there, on the next block. A fight of some kind.

MARY: That’s quite a lot of people! Are those the “homosexuals” I’ve heard about?

JOHN: I don’t know — I've never seen one!

MARY: Should we call the police?

JOHN: No, the police are already in the thick of it.

MARY: It looks awful. Maybe we should go home another way.

JOHN: Yes, I’d hate to be delayed — I want to get you home so that we can have some healthy married intercourse between a husband and a wife!

MARY (laughing): It depends whose husband and wife you have in mind!

CUT TO: Interior, Smith bedroom. JOHN and MARY make love.

CUT TO: An alien spaceship blows up the Stonewall bar.

Roland — Focus groups indicate that straight married couples are still confused about the rebellion, but they continue to identify strongly with your main characters. However, we polled those who are uncomfortable with homosexuals, and they say they wouldn’t see the movie at all, no matter how we handle it. Maybe we can afford to be a little more frank in the next draft?


Exterior. Christopher Street, Greenwich Village, New York City. Nighttime. FRANK SMITH is walking along the sidewalk.

FRANK (to himself): Gee, there seems to be something going on up ahead. Up there, on the next block. A fight of some kind. Looks as if those may even be homosexuals — and there’s nothing wrong with that. The police are already in the thick of it. Maybe I should go home another way. I’d hate to be delayed — I want to get home so that I can have some healthy married intercourse with my wife!

CUT TO: Interior, Smith bedroom. FRANK and MARY make love.

CUT TO: An alien spaceship blows up the Stonewall bar.

Roland — This is terrific — we’re almost there! The alien explosion really works, too. Want to discuss changing the title, though. Focus groups indicate that audiences in fly-over country expect a Civil War picture. What about calling the bar T.G.I. Friday’s? Nice product-placement opportunity there. Let’s give this one more try!

Read more!

20 September 2015

Unauthorized! One Year On

Welcome to the theater!
You ghoul, you’ll love it so.

Having recently celebrated its first anniversary, the Unauthorized! troupe will unveil a new production — its fifth — on Monday night. A Bad Dream on Elm Avenue is, like its predecessors, a musical parody of a popular movie, and like The Hungry Hungry Games, it’s a musical parody of a popular movie I’ve never seen before.

This is exciting: I’m making discoveries the way I discovered Mildred Pierce on The Carol Burnett Show and The Godfather in the pages of MAD Magazine. (As a consequence, I can never watch either of those movies without laughing my head off. This is socially awkward, but I regret nothing.) While I’m sure that prior exposure to The Hunger Whatsits might have made The Hungry Hungry Games even funnier, I’m equally sure that Natalie Sullivan is a lot funnier onstage than Jennifer Whosits is in the movie. She reduced me to helpless fits of giggling within seconds.

Stay Hungry: Natalie Sullivan & Jay Malsky.

Like its predecessors, Bad Dream has been assembled, start to finish, script to score to casting to rehearsal to tech, in little more than a month. To pursue this approach is — let’s face it — a stunt, a gimmick, an extra thing to talk about when you’re trying to get people interested in the show. But there’s no denying that the result is remarkably good musical theater, again and again. And as subsequent performances have demonstrated, the shows hold up beautifully on repeat viewings, long after the initial excitement of the premiere has worn off.

Rehearsing Bad Dream: Kathleen Armenti, Kevin MacLean, Julie Feltman, Nikita Burdein.

The first anniversary is a good time to take stock, and to announce that my initial good impressions have been confirmed and reinforced in repeated viewings of all four shows so far. That ’80s Time-Travel Movie, frequently revived, is as smartly constructed as (and probably runs more smoothly than) any DeLorean. Steel Petunias veers farther away from its source material, yet in a thoroughly logical direction. We’re in the Bible Belt South, so why wouldn’t Satan enter into the conversation? That he enters as a 15-foot-tall puppet seems entirely sensible, too — and more fun. Ghostblasters is, by the creators’ own admission, still a work in progress, yet they have the luxury of testing the show before live audiences, and it’s afforded many pleasures along the way, making me eager to see what we wind up with. Hungry Hungry Games had me howling, even when I had no way to know what would happen next.

Still Hungry: Malsky with Adrian Sexton.
Adrian doesn’t ordinarily dress like this: it has something to do with the movie. Jay more often dresses like Elaine Stritch (and wonderfully well, I hasten to add).

Writer–director Christopher Barnes and composer Ryan Mercy draw from a wonderfully talented ensemble of actors, almost all of whom have a background in improv — which proves handy when someone forgets a line or a bit of stage business goes awry. (Miraculously, producer–production manager Christine Liz Pynn manages to improvise right along with the cast from her perch in the control booth.) Those of us who have seen the shows several times cherish memories of Clairee’s stroke, of a high-heeled shoe launched like a missile into the audience during a dance number, of the recalcitrant curtains in Marty McFly’s bedroom. Looking at the hyper-mechanized, over-drilled, personality-free performances in so many Broadway musicals nowadays, I’m even more grateful to Unauthorized! for providing me with frequent doses of that great rarity in New York, live theater.

Mercy has a gift for composing songs that stick with me long after the show has ended — another striking contrast with most Broadway musicals I see. Steel Petunias is a veritable hit factory, with numbers like “Six Southern Women,” “Drink Your Juice, Shelby,” “Grandpa,” “Mama’s Sayin’s,” “This Kind of Thing” (a ready-made C&W classic), “Hit Ouiser,” and “Come and Sit By Me” making especially lasting impressions. Somehow there’s room, too, in Petunias for the pure emotion of “Young and Love” and the raw power of “Tell My Heart.” I can sing ’em all right now, though you don’t want me to, least of all when this show has fielded so many good singers. Now I’ve got a whole crop of new divas to admire, too: there are some tremendous voices in all of these casts.

A Hell of a show: Emily Essig, Adrian Sexton, Dana Shulman, Taylor Ortega, Emily Mathwich, Julie Feltman, with a tall friend.

Barnes’ scripts incorporate lines and plot points from the source movies so artfully that I seldom notice what he’s done until after I’ve left the theater. His stagecraft and ingenuity extend beyond that Satan (dramatico-satirically apt and visually fun) to solutions to theatrical challenges most of us wouldn’t even identify, much less tackle.

In Ghostblasters, for example, Barnes not only brings a three-dimensional Slimer to the stage, he also reveals the character motivations of the lovable green ghost. In the source movie, of course, Slimer was a creation of trick photography, and nobody stopped to ponder why he did what he did. Beginning with Ghostblasters, Julia Darden has also helped to create puppets for the Unauthorized! shows, so that puppetry and magic tricks (one of Barnes’ specialties) have become staples of all of these productions.

What’s my motivation?

That’s one reason I’m looking forward to Bad Dream. The source movie has entered the cultural consciousness to such a degree that, yes, even I am aware of certain ingredients in the story — and I’m excited to see how Unauthorized! brings them to the stage. The only certainty is that I’ll be surprised by the inventiveness. And when I finally do see the movie, I’ll probably laugh my head off.

One other certainty has been building steadily for the past year: I’m witnessing the start of something big and wonderful, the coming together of so many wonderfully creative young talents. Without question, these people are going places. I can say I saw ’em when — and so can you, if you join me in the audience.

For tickets to Monday’s show, click here. And for tickets to Tuesday’s show, click here.

Where it all began: Pat Swearingen (Doc Brown) & Matt Rogers (Marty) with Rory Scholl, Jane Kehoe, Aubrey Kyburz, Adrian Sexton.

Read more!

19 September 2015

Anonymous Donor Earns Top Naming Rights in Metropolitan Opera Fundraising Campaign

General manager Peter Gelb this morning announced that, just hours after his announcement that naming rights were up for grabs in exchange for substantial donations, the new campaign has succeeded already. The top bid came from an anonymous donor, who affixed a Post-It Note to a check for an undisclosed amount, with the message: “Just call it the fucking Metropolitan Opera House, for Christ’s sake.”

Also this morning, Gelb told reporters that the Anonymous Opera Company will begin its season on Monday evening, with a gala performance of Viagra’s Otello, starring AT&T Antonenko and Sonya UnitedAirlines, in a new production by Bass Schlumberger, conducted by Yannick Nestlé-SmoothieKing.

“Truly, this, the Season of the Air Wick FreshMatic Ultra Automatic Spray Refill, promises to be one of the most memorable seasons in the Anonymous Opera’s distinguished history,” Gelb said.

Jell-O LuckyCharms (seen here with Diana DailyNews
in Verizon’s Wrigley-etto), also stars.

Before the performance, patrons are encouraged to dine at the KFC Yum! Restaurant on the Prudential–Walgreen’s Grand Tier, and to visit the Vagisil Gift Shop. The Papa John’s John, by the back wall in the Allstate “You’re in Good Hands” Men’s Room on the CitiBank Family Circle level, can be reached from lower levels by taking the Bain Capital Elevators or the Red Bull Stairs.

Patrons may also use the water fountains, all of which are still named in honor of the late Italian bass Ezio Pinza, due to a clerical oversight.

For tickets and more information, visit the Anonymous Opera Company’s Purina website, or drop by the Depend Adult Undergarment Ticket Office at the Fucking Metropolitan Opera House, for Christ’s Sake.

Read more!

18 September 2015

Ahab Lives! And Other Tales

Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman has elicited strong reactions on all sides. Even my own reaction is strong. I’m overwhelmed with bewilderment. Do I really want to read this book by a beloved author — published in questionable circumstances — radically upending the way a couple of generations have viewed the principal characters of her other novel — and what’s going to happen to all those people who named their sons and daughters Atticus and Scout? I’m still trying to make up my mind.

But while I do so, it’s important to remember that Harper Lee isn’t the only author to publish a novel that affords the reader a controversial alternative perspective into an acclaimed early work. Let us consider a few excerpts from these notable but seldom-read books.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Jordan Baker, 1935.

I told her again that I loved her and wanted to marry her. Now she turned her face toward mine and whispered, “Oh, poor, foolish Nick! You know you have no money — and how can I marry you when I know that you’ll never love anyone but Jay Gatsby? Daisy and I talk about it often. That’s why she could never run off with him. As soon as she saw all those shirts of his — what straight man has so many shirts? She’s always understood how you two felt about each other. And frankly I’m a little suspicious about your friendship with Meyer Wolfsheim, too.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Sensibility, 1819.

“Mrs. Darcy, we have been wed but some three months, and yet I find more cause for distress than for happiness,” Mr. Darcy said. “Dinner is between five and fifteen minutes late, seventy-five percent of the time. The silver is not polished after every meal, my socks have gone weeks without darning, and I see on every floor a waxy yellow buildup that is most disagreeable.”

Elizabeth bowed her head. “Yes, Darcy, but the servants — ”

“Silence, woman! I will not have you blame others for your own idleness and sloth! Go to your room, and do not come down again until you are ready to apologise.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Mid-Term Exam, 2010.

“Snape,” said Dumbledore, “you’re fired. And take that ass Gilderoy Lockhart with you when you go.”

George Eliot, Middlemarch Heights: A Study of Rural Life in a Luxury Housing Development, 1879.

Dorothea rushed to Casaubon’s side. She was much shocked by the change in his appearance, his sallow cheeks flushed, his cold eyes feverish.

“Thank God you have come!” he cried. “I feared I would not live to speak the words I must say to you now!”

“Calm yourself, my husband,” Dorothea replied. “I am here, and would listen to whatever you wish to tell me.”

“I have behaved most shamefully to you, Dorothea,” Casaubon said. “When I think how you have shown me every kindness, even as you refrained from pointing out the utter idiocy of my unfinished masterwork, The Key to All Mythologies. And when I compare you to the wives of other men — that awful Rosamond Vincy, for example, and the way she walks all over poor Dr. Lydgate — I tremble to think of the judgment that awaits me in Heaven!”

“Hush, hush — ” Dorothea began.

“No, I must — I shall — I tell you that I shall spend whatever time remains to me atoning for my sins toward you,” Casaubon gasped. “I have emended my testament to that effect. Everything shall go to you, without condition. And if it should please you to marry Will Ladislaw, then from Heaven I shall smile upon you both, and wish you every happiness.”

Bram Stoker, The Many Lives of Count Dracula, 1903.

Through the open window, Mina saw a ghastly silhouette against the full moon. She screamed. “It is he! It is — Dracula!”

The Count paused, then murmured, “I have come — ”

“Yes, yes!” Mina cried. “To bite my neck! To drink my blood! To make me thine — forever!”

“Er, no,” said the Count. “I’m flattered, really, but I couldn’t possibly. Actually, I have come to ask for a tax-deductible, charitable donation to the Carfax Orphanage.”

“Foul demon!” Mina shrieked. “An orphanage full of innocent virgins whom thou shalt corrupt! Little children to walk among the undead — oh, woe!”

“Good grief,” Dracula replied. “What kind of monster do you take me for, anyway?”

Harper Lee, Go Reap a Profit, Man, 2017.

“I see you now for what you are, Atticus,” Jean Louise said through clenched teeth. “I thought you were a man of principle and honor, a man committed to justice for others. But now I know you are a racist, without even the courage to admit your bigotry.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Jean Louise,” Atticus said thoughtfully. “I know that Jem and your mother would be sorry, too. But I can’t stand here all day talking about it. I’ve got to go and kill a mockingbird now.”

That damned bird has been keeping me up all night.

Read more!

17 September 2015

Video & Recap: Madeline at the Metropolitan Room

Most of the cast. From left: Betancourt, Larsen, Harada, Leritz, Feltman, Hall, WVM, Shapiro, Burke, Copeland, Willison. Not pictured: Rice, Cohen, Ross, Cubeta.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

I’m told that I looked like a little kid playing with shiny new toys during every number of our tribute show, “Gone Too Soon: The Music of Madeline Kahn,” at New York’s Metropolitan Room on Saturday afternoon. You can’t really see that in the video that I’m posting here — the light was pretty dim where I sat — but you can certainly see why I was so happy. One talented performer after another came out and dazzled us on the Met Room stage.

Some of these people I’ve know for years — others I’d just met. I knew that all of them were first-rate. Yet even my absolute confidence in them didn’t quite prepare me for just how wonderful they were.

In a note to me after the show, Ann Harada reflected on the “gallantry” and “vulnerability” of performers — and observed that “It was also glaringly apparent that Madeline attracted ridiculously difficult material.” But these people are pros. You can see for yourself, by watching the video here.

Ann Harada. Photo by Maryann Lopinto.
To see the complete video, click here.

The show was born on a cold spring night, when Peter Napolitano, Janice Hall, and Adam B. Shapiro and I sat in the theater at Urban Stages. Peter was brainstorming, coming up with ideas to help me promote Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life. “Have you thought about doing a cabaret show?” Peter asked.

No, I had not. Bear in mind that, in that little quartet, I’m the only one who doesn’t have a MAC Award, that honor bestowed on the best of New York’s cabaret scene. (Peter has three.) But in that instant, our show took on a life of its own.

Much to my satisfaction, we wound up at the Met Room, where I’ve enjoyed several shows (including those of Peter, Janice, and Adam). All of us like the room — it has good karma, I think. Producer Joseph Macchia was looking to fill a slot in his “Gone Too Soon” series, so in we walked. Within a few days, we were lining up performers and coming up with material.

Adam, keeping a grippe on my book.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

Fittingly, the show started off with Adam, who’s been with the show since its inception. (His enthusiasm actually helped persuade me that this thing could work!) He paid tribute to the performance that first gave Madeline the idea that she might go into show business. Adam is such an irrepressibly joyful performer, and I’m fully convinced that he can do anything.

Actor–choreographer–producer Lawrence Leritz was next, charming us all with a little number from Kiss Me, Kate, in which Madeline made her New York stage debut fifty years ago. For Saturday’s show, as for our presentation at the Drama Book Shop in June, Lawrence proved himself stalwart, holding my hand through every storm. Little wonder I call him Megastar.

Lawrence: Make that Mr. Megastar.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

Janice had been preparing “Das Chicago Song” for a long time — she was ready to sing it at my book party in May, but somehow that didn’t happen. In a way, I was glad that she waited until now to sing it. With the song’s composer, Madeline’s dear friend Michael Cohen, on piano, the number was a revelation to us all. And the combination of Michael, Madeline, Kurt Weill, and Janice is tailor-made for me. If I didn’t have a copy of my narration in hand, I’d have been speechless.

Janice: Don’t ask why.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

Soprano Rosa Betancourt has impressed me every time I’ve heard her — notably as Musetta in La Bohème, with Fort Worth Opera in 2013. I knew she could bring wit and personality to her number, all the while maintaining a glorious lyric line. She more than lived up to my expectations, and our music director, Jeff Cubeta, accompanied her beautifully. As Joyce Di Donato says so often, it’s always fun to see a non-opera audience respond to opera when it’s done well.

Rosa: The girl can’t help it.
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

For the next set, Jeff ceded the piano bench to the legendary Steve Ross, “The Crown Prince of Cabaret,” who joined our cast less than 48 hours before. For his friends Joan Copeland and Walter Willison, he played three numbers from the show they did with Madeline, Two by Two.

I can now say I’ve done a show with Steve Ross. Amazing.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

Joan turned 93 a few days before our Drama Book Shop event, and on that evening she had taken a friend and me aside to sing her big solo from Two by Two, word- and note-perfect, just for us. It was pure magic — and a real gift to be able to share that magic with more people on Saturday. Probably few actors will ever rival her distinguished career (with “roles too numerous to mention,” as she said in her program bio) — and not many actors will rival the joy she finds onstage.

One of the most remarkable people I’ve met.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

I’d heard Walter sing “I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You” before, and then as on Saturday it’s a stunning interpretation, imbued with tremendous feeling and glorious vocalism. Yeah, he didn’t get a Tony nomination for this show only because he stood up to Danny Kaye: he got it because he’s good.

Walter: I do not know a day I did not love to hear him sing this song.
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

Madeline’s Act I solo from Two by Two was cut during tryouts and had never (to our knowledge) been performed publicly in New York at any point in the ensuing 45 years. As conceived originally, she would have sung it to Joan. So Walter called Joan back to the stage and sang “Getting Married to a Person” (which he’d learned only at five o’clock that morning!). I treasure the way they interact — and now, more than seven years after I started writing the book, I can say I’ve heard Madeline’s lost song.

Walter & Joan: Like family, after all this time.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

Hanna Burke is a favorite and frequent participant in the “Gone Too Soon” series, as well as a devoted Madeline fan. Now that I’ve seen what she can do with one of the lady’s most famous numbers — evocative of Madeline and yet somehow her own — I can’t wait to hear more. She’s talking about a one-woman show of Madeline’s material, but she and I agree that it would be wiser not to use the title Madeline came up with when thinking about her own one-woman show: Kahn-cepts.

Hanna: Just happy to see her.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

My darling Ann Harada took the stage next with a number from At Long Last Love, an irresistible interpretation that took such care with the words that she even chose a dress to match the lyrics. Sometimes I wonder how such a huge voice can come out of such a tiny person, but Ann has tremendous control over her instrument. She rattled the rafters and caressed our ears, and she even threw in a little Lili von Shtupp for good measure.

Ann: Who knows how she does what she does?
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

The winner of this year’s MetroStar competition, Minda Larsen, gave us a number from She Loves Me, gorgeously combining sweetness and intelligence — not an easy thing. Because of some computer malfunctions, I had to assemble the program for the show several times — and just before the show started, we realized that I’d left out Minda. I felt terrible, and even worse when I heard her wonderful performance. A former finalist in the Lotte Lenya Competition with a limpid lyric soprano, she’s obviously my kind of people.

Minda: Sheer loveliness.
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

In a variety of roles in the Unauthorized! parody musical series, Julie Feltman has persuaded me that her voice can do almost anything. That’s precisely what’s required of the number she sang from On the Twentieth Century, which involves what the critic Walter Kerr described as “gutter coloratura,” ranging from basso growls to piercing shrieks, with plenty of ornaments. Julie is also a fearless comedian, and she tore into this song with abandon.

News Flash: Beautiful woman loses mind …

… sings coloratura.
Julie Feltman.
Photos Weatherford (above), Lopinto (below).

There’s a special satisfaction to seeing Sarah Rice, the original Johanna from Sweeney Todd — the first show I saw in New York. Her sly wit and radiant soprano are so well-suited to popular music from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, so I knew she’d excel in the Irving Berlin number she chose. You’ll see she’s wearing a cast on her arm — you’ll never guess how it got there. But it precluded her sharing another talent, playing the theremin. She’s learning the theme from Young Frankenstein, so maybe we’ll get the chance, some day soon.

Sarah: Source of surprises.
Screencap from video.

When I told friends what the penultimate number on the program would be, and who would be singing it, they nearly exploded. I understood why. For hardcore fans (and who among us is not?), this was an occasion nearly as significant as Patti LuPone taking on Gypsy. Ann and Adam joined Sarah onstage for one more example of Madeline’s “ridiculously difficult” repertoire, and I was ecstatic. Perfect characterizations by all — I get the feeling that Sarah has sung at more than a few weddings in her time — and three glorious voices.

Today is for Sarah — and Ann — and Adam.
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

We concluded with a singalong. Confession time: I don’t sing at all. So I slipped to the back while the rest of the cast sang out, and the audience joined in. It was a fun way to end the show, and a useful reminder that Madeline’s legacy is alive and well — if only we pick it up and run with it.

For me, the highlight of the afternoon that you can’t see in the video was the rapturous expression on Joan Copeland’s face, whenever anyone sang. She was in her element on Saturday, connecting with an audience as only she can, reuniting with old friends and making new ones. And she loved the music. That means a great deal to me.

Peter Napolitano, Joan Copeland, Steve Ross.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

And I owe it all to Peter Napolitano. He had a dream, he made it mine, and then he made it a reality. At times it was a hard slog to get there — more work and infinitely more stress than I’d anticipated. (At one point, I observed that I don’t have the temperament for this line of work. In the gentlest, kindest way possible, Peter replied, “No, you probably don’t.”) But through it all, I knew that with this lineup of talent, we would have a terrific show, and ultimately it really was worth it.

Now that it’s over, several of us have remarked that we can sense Madeline smiling. The show is just one more demonstration that the book — and Madeline herself — have taken me in directions I never could have imagined.

The author. Who'd a-thunk it?

If for some reason you have made it all the way to the bottom of this page without clicking on the link and watching the video, here it is again. Right HERE.

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04 September 2015

Interview: Tatiana Daubek & Gonzalo Ruiz on House of Time’s Upcoming Season

Quartet performance.

Twenty-five years ago, I interviewed the legendary Czech soprano Jarmila Novotná, and my essay about her led a few years ago to my meeting her granddaughter, violinist Tatiana Daubek. One happy consequence of that new association has been the opportunity to hear several concerts from House of Time, the chamber ensemble of which Tatiana is a founding member. The programs are consistently intriguing, presenting varied repertoire that combines rarities with more-familiar works in unfamiliar settings, played on period instruments. Oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz has unlocked most of these treasures from “libraries and listening,” as he puts it, and he often provides lively commentary from the stage.

Each concert I’ve attended has found me by turns beaming, meditating, chuckling, and (once) crying. Trust me: they’re terrific. Now House of Time is gearing up for its third season here in New York, and preparing to venture into 20th-century repertoire. With the first concert looming on September 18, I sat down with Tatiana and Gonzalo to look at the time ahead — and the time gone by.

Quartet rest.

House of Time got started, Tatiana and Gonzalo recall, when they were invited to play for a private party. Their hosts “didn’t want random musicians,” Tatiana says; “they thought it would be much better to have a name.” Casting about for inspiration, they landed on “Cronologgia,” a play on words (“cronologia,” or “chronology,” “chronos,” or “time,” and “loggia,” or “dwelling”).

This appealed to them at first, because it would permit the group to perform music of several different periods. “Why have a name like ‘So-and-So Baroque’ when you’re doing 19th-century repertoire?” Tatiana says. But ultimately the group decided that “Cronologgia” “sounds like a disease,” and they settled on the English translation. “We liked having a name that lent itself to any repertoire, any style of music that we want to play.”

“I don’t like to put limits on what we do, in terms of dates,” Gonzalo says. “The main focus in the rest of our musical life is the 18th century. But we have been branching out, into the 17th century, a lot into the 19th century. At our first concert this season, we have our first 20th-century piece, and we’re planning a substantial late-20th-century piece for next season. It really is about paying attention to the music in its chronological context, rather than just mixing and matching. Not that we don’t combine periods, but if we do it’s probably for a reason.”

In his research, Gonzalo comes up with little-known material, some of which he isn’t sure had ever been performed before House of Time got to it. This season, the group will also perform new arrangements of Handel’s Il Pastor Fido and Rameau’s Zaïs, custom-made for the ensemble’s players.

“It’s a very Baroque approach to use the instruments you have around,” Gonzalo says. “We in the post-Romantics tend to think of orchestration as an intrinsic part of the piece. That’s certainly true for a lot of 18th-century repertoire, but by and large what we call orchestration was part of the performance, rather than intrinsic to the music. I like to take a piece of music and make it work for the instruments that we have.”

Gonzalo Ruiz,
photographed by Tatiana Daubek.
(Yes, she’s a photographer, too.}

Those instruments are of the period in which the music was written. Over the centuries, instruments have changed as music has changed, Gonzalo explains, recalling that, while a 21st-century pianist can figure out how to play an 18th-century harpsichord, he didn’t know what to do with a Baroque oboe the first time he got his hands on one: the instrument had evolved so much.

“Really, when you start focusing on older music, you want to play the older instrument,” Gonzalo says. “It’s like the way Blue Grass fans prefer acoustic to electric guitar. There’s a relationship between the art and the tools. Using the right tools doesn’t guarantee you anything, but it is a good start. …Music vanishes as soon as you make it, so the process is the product, in a sense. We feel more comfortable using those tools.”

Like Tatiana, Argentine-born Gonzalo has music in his genes. His father is a conductor, and while the family lived in Paris, he asked his own teacher, Nadia Boulanger, how to get little Gonzalo started in music. She declared that “C’est trop tard!” (It’s too late) for the boy, who hadn’t yet turned four. Smitten five years later with the sound of the oboe — confounding his father, who had hoped for the violin — little Gonzalo was taken to the conservatory, where he was told, “No, you’re too young, you’re too small, and the oboe class is full.”

Tears ensued, but alone the next day he rode his bicycle back to the conservatory to ask again, and his parents had to bring him home. When the oboe teacher heard this story, he contacted the Ruiz family and gave Gonzalo lessons on the sly, until the family moved to the U.S., and he pursued a more conventional education.

And then came the Baroque oboe. The more he learned, the more he realized that “I had a sound in my head that I wasn’t hearing in real life,” and that he found himself enjoying the sound of Baroque oboe-playing less than he enjoyed the sound of playing on other period instruments. “I’ve become more flexible in my tastes since then, but I started Baroque oboe-playing with a sense of mission: ‘There’s something to be done, and I may as well be the one to do it.’”

Today, he says, “There’s been a lot of progress and improvement in the Baroque oboe world, and I like to think that I’ve made my contribution to it.” His CV attests to that: he’s won accolades for performances with leading ensembles; he’s taught at Oberlin, the Longy School, and Juilliard, as well as many master classes; and his students now play with the best groups in the country. He’s got a Grammy nomination, and examples of his work are in the music collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The sound in Gonzalo’s head is now in the heads of a lot of other people.

Tatiana Daubek.

Tatiana started violin at the age of seven, “but I really found my calling and my teacher in high school.” She followed that teacher, Julia Bushkova, from the Interlochen Arts Academy to the University of North Texas, where she studied for another five years. Still, she says, “From the age of seven to fourteen, I also led a pretty normal kid life.” By the time she got to Interlochen, “I knew that music was very important to me, and I didn’t want to live without it in my life.”

Bushkova recommended that Tatiana study Baroque violin (“and that’s quite rare, coming from a Moscow Conservatory, traditional teacher,” Tatiana observes). The Baroque violin teacher at UNT was Cynthia Roberts, another important influence on her career. “Once I started playing some of the more obscure stuff, composers I hadn’t heard of and composers I had never played before, I thought, ‘Wow, this stuff is really good!’”

She obtained a graduate degree in “regular” violin from Boston University while continuing to study Baroque on the side, then got into Juilliard’s Baroque program, then just taking off. Her teacher there was Monica Huggett, the head of the new program, with whom Gonzalo has worked for 20 years. “She is a force of nature,” Tatiana says. “I feel like music radiates from her all the time. She just plays and doesn’t care what anyone thinks.”

Today House of Time also includes members Paul Dwyer (cello), Leon Schelhase (harpsichord), Avi Stein (harpsichord), and Beiliang Zhu (cello and viola da gamba), as well as “guest stars” for individual concerts. “The Venn diagram of our best friends and the best musicians we know has a huge overlap,” Gonzalo says. “So far, everybody that’s played in House of Time is somebody that we really like.”

He contrasts the group’s concerts with those in which instrumentalists are hired by a contractor, or orchestras “where your colleagues hopefully are friendly, but you didn’t have anything to do with it. We’re very picky about whom we invite to play with us.”

Working with people they know well makes performances more dynamic, it seems, as the players respond to one another. “I like the unpredictability, no matter how much you rehearse,” Gonzalo says. “As it’s going, you’re like following a thread, not an exact road map. There’s just too many things to react to.”

“And every person that’s onstage obviously will create a different road map each time,” Tatiana agrees.

Also unlike other chamber groups, which tour and play in other group’s concert series, Gonzalo says, “We are focused on building our own audience and putting on our own concerts here in New York.”

“We’re bumping up the level every year,” Tatiana says. “Every season we’re that much better prepared, we have that much more visibility, and our audience is still growing.” They’ve just released a (gorgeous) CD of works by François Couperin and Marin Marais, and they’re pleased, too, with the success of a recent Kickstarter campaign, which means that the upcoming season is nearly in the black already.

“In some ways, we still are kind of doing everything ourselves,” Tatiana says, and Gonzalo has learned that, “when I try to wear too many hats, I do something terribly wrong.” Tatiana’s lesson has been, “Don’t wait ‘til the last minute. …Things always take more time than you expect. But that’s sort of true everywhere.” Even in the House of Time.

To purchase tickets and more information on House of Time’s upcoming season, visit the ensemble’s website, here.

Tatiana appears in Joyce DiDonato’s music video for NPR, recorded at the historic Stonewall Inn — and I appear, too, seated just behind Tatiana. This photo was taken just after the wrap.

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