04 November 2015

Heggie’s ‘Great Scott’ at The Dallas Opera

Great DiDonat’:
Joyce in Dallas.
This and all photos by Karen Almond,
Courtesy of The Dallas Opera.

For the past few years, opera fans have been accorded privileged glimpses of the world backstage: rehearsals, clowning, and camaraderie among colleagues who, no matter how otherworldly their talents may seem, are just folks like us. Pictures, blog entries, and videos go viral on the Internet, and even the Met got into the act this season, with a clip of its Anna Bolena stars merrily shimmying away at their music stands during a rehearsal. This is all to the good, stimulating interest in new productions, connecting with fans, and perhaps making opera seem a bit more accessible to those who aren’t fans already.

One of the primary purveyors of this kind of veil-lifting has been Joyce DiDonato, who is in every way at the center of Jake Heggie’s new opera, Great Scott, which had its world premiere at The Dallas Opera on October 30. (I saw the second performance, November 1.) In Terrence McNally’s libretto, Act I is given over entirely to a rehearsal, during which scenes Joyce wears precisely the sorts of clothes she wears in real life, says precisely the sorts of things she says, and behaves pretty much as she does.

Her character, Arden Scott, has come back to her hometown for a gala benefit — as Joyce has done with the Kansas City Symphony — and there’s a question of singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl — as Joyce did at the World Series last year. Down to earth even when she’s all business, Arden interrupts an elaborate coloratura passage to exclaim, “This shit is hard!”

Life is a rehearsal.
The company, in Act I.

But home isn’t home to Arden any more (“She belongs to the world now,” observes one character, echoing something that I’ve been saying about Joyce for a while now), and after making music with her friends, Arden goes back to a hotel room “to fall asleep watching CNN”; Joyce has addressed loneliness on the road in this video blog. Arden is championing the work of an obscure bel canto composer, as Joyce very often does; and a living composer has written a new opera just for her, as Jake has done now.

What Arden — and Joyce — and Jake — do is indeed hard, and it can be wonderfully entertaining to watch and to listen to. When opera is at its best, though, what we take away from a performance has less to do with personality, and more to do with a particular artistic vision. It’s here that Great Scott falls short of the mark.

Don’t it make your brown eyes blue?
J-DiD and ARC-en-Ciel.

Make no mistake: Jake’s score is consistently ingratiating and often quite ingenious, and if you ever doubted that this man loves opera, doubt no longer. Here he pays homage to the operas of earlier times, with such treats as a nimble Rossinian septet (“Until the night”), a Rosenkavalier-style finale (augmented by a fourth voice and a skateboard), and page after page of Bellini and Donizetti pastiche that sounds more bel canto than the real thing. Above all, he’s written terrific roles for singers he clearly and justifiably loves. But the opera as a whole would prove more effective than it does, if only McNally’s libretto were more focused. I can’t say with certainty which of several themes is meant to be paramount, and none of those themes is fully developed despite ample opportunity within a meandering second act.

In the opera-within-an-opera, Arden plays a character who sacrifices herself: is this opera, Great Scott, supposed to be about the sacrifices a singer makes for her art? Is that why Arden stands alone like the Marschallin at the end? Or is Great Scott about the tension between classical and contemporary repertories — represented by the bel canto masterpiece and by the (unheard) new work? Is it about the tension between high and popular cultures — since the opera gala and the Super Bowl are playing out simultaneously in Act II? Is it about the vitality of American opera (not coincidentally the name of Arden’s hometown troupe)? Or about American opera’s capacity to embrace all music — to let our stages reflect the melting pot that is our nation?

Or are we supposed to take away a message about the relevance of the arts? After all, the new opera discussed here is Medea Refracted through the lens of “that mother who drowned her children in a car,” a subject from the headlines and one that makes Arden nervous. Meanwhile, one principal character complains that opera is less relevant than the music of Lady Gaga. And presumably for many people, there aren’t a lot of operas that hold more allure than a major sporting competition, the Super Bowl chief among them. (In Dallas, where I used to get beat up because I liked opera and didn’t like football, that contrast was especially meaningful.)

Bazzetti’s “Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei” takes the stage.
Amor (Manuel Palazzo) hovers over Mayes, DiDonato, Pérez, and Rosel.

These questions had begun to trouble me fairly early in the opera, and more so as the afternoon went on, to the point where I found myself wondering whether the finale of the opera-within-the-opera might not turn out to be the finale of Great Scott. (Plot spoiler: it isn’t.) Nevertheless, my concerns didn’t diminish my enjoyment of a substantial number of pleasures.

First of these is the performance itself, expertly conducted by one of Jake’s most prominent exponents, Patrick Summers, for whom no style poses a challenge; and inhabited by singers whom I know quite well, onstage and off. Granted, I’ve only met baritone Nathan Gunn a couple of times, and fleetingly, but I’ve heard him many times. I’d never heard of tenor Rodell Rosel, though on this occasion he provided vocal clarity and a winning stage presence, game for the libretto’s (mostly easy) jokes at his character’s expense. All of these artists are good company, and Jake has tailored their roles to their measure.

Royals: DiDonato & von Stade.

Take the example of mezzo Frederica von Stade, the first champion of Jake’s music and one of the greatest treasures American opera has yielded. Jake knows her voice so well that, even at this (presumably!) late stage of her career, every note lies comfortably within its sweetest spot. She’s always been a radiant performer, she still is, and Jake wants us to know that. Her character, Winnie Flato, is at once Arden’s mentor and former piano teacher, a former singer, the general director of the hometown opera company, and the wife of the owner of the Super Bowl-bound football team. That’s quite a lot of responsibility for one person, no matter that she’s fictional.

As universally beloved in Opera World as Winnie is in her troupe, Flicka is a role model for today’s top American mezzos, Joyce included. So when Flicka and Joyce share an extended scene in Act I, the effect is poignant for reasons that have more to do with each woman’s stature, past and present, than with the roles they’re playing. And if you feel about these singers as I do (and chances are, you do), then what they’re actually singing is almost beside the point. Will this same scene prove equally moving when other singers — maybe even people I haven’t heard a thousand times — take these roles? If the libretto were stronger, I’d have fewer doubts. The music they sing is lovely and surely will be gratifying to other voices. I’ll have to hear them, though, before I can judge just how heavily this opera depends on this cast.

Pokerface? Paparazzi, Pappataci?
Burdette and Costanzo discuss Gaga.

A contrasting example, perhaps the only one, is that of Roane, the stage manager, sung here by the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. If ARC-en-Ciel weren’t already a star (with an awesome fan name), I’d describe this as a star-making role, arguably this opera’s second lead, a showcase for his formidable singing, acting, and, yes, his dancing. Roane is loved in the abstract — he’s the sweet guy who keeps things running — but, he observes, no one takes time to get to know him. He’s not like the others in this company, and that’s an excellent reason to write his role for countertenor; instantly, we start getting to know him, and we like him more as a result. Yet while ARC-en-C. performs the role brilliantly and looks irresistibly crushworthy while doing so, I can in honesty imagine other countertenors bringing their best to a part that allows so much rewarding characterization and audience sympathy, without ever a mention of “la vendetta del padre” or “la spada del nemico.”

McNally would have served the opera better by upending our expectations more often. Arden’s old flame is given little to do, none of it surprising, and little time to do it — but he’s baritone Nathan Gunn, so you’re glad to see him. The seconda donna here is Tatyana Bakst, a caricature of the ruthlessly ambitious soprano, sung spectacularly by Ailyn Pérez in a crowd-pleasing, Slobbovian-accented performance. Yet how much more interesting this character would have been if she weren’t so obviously and comically cutthroat! What if Tatyana were like — just an example here — the young Joyce DiDonato, a perfectly nice woman for whom destiny has bigger and unstoppable plans? Or what if Tatyana were more like Eve Harrington, whose wiles remain concealed until she goes in for the kill?

Show-stopper: Pérez sings the National Anthem.
Bets are now being taken that this will become an audition piece for sopranos everywhere.

The company’s baritone and tenor are here used primarily for comic relief, both roles played with a blessedly light touch. As the baritone, the mighty Michael Mayes spoofs the Barihunk phenomenon in his shirtless scenes, proving at one point that he can sing superbly while looking away from the conductor and flexing his back muscles. Both he and Rosel excel in the faux bel canto passages, and this was fun for me, because it’s a style of music I haven’t heard Mayes sing. (He has sung — and been transformed by — the lead in the first Heggie–McNally opera, Dead Man Walking.)

Really, the best and most knowing backstage humor is contained in choreographer John de los Santos’ little ballet sequence, which Arden rehearses perfunctorily; I can’t tell whether Rosa Dolorosa’s lack of a stage director is intended to be funny, or intended at all. (Surely this opera’s real stage director, Jack O’Brien, noticed the omission.) But an opportunity for comedy was lost in the person of bass Kevin Burdette, one of the funniest men I’ve seen onstage. He plays the dual role of the opera’s conductor and its long-dead composer, allowing him plenty of stentorian outpourings but no chance to unleash his comedic skills. He fields his assignments flawlessly, yet this is a case where I wish the role had been tailored more closely to the performer.

Burdette, as that obscure bel canto composer, rightly observes that Golden Age composers often wrote for specific singers. “They were singing new music, and they were afraid, too,” Bazzetti says, citing the example of Giuditta Pasta. The catch is that, while Donizetti wrote Anna Bolena and Bellini wrote Sonnambula and Norma for Pasta, nobody ever wrote an opera entitled A Week in the Life of Giuditta Pasta for her. Sure, elements of her personality may have crept into the score alongside passages that showed off her voice to its best advantage — but it was always possible to separate the singer from the role.

“Until the Night”: La mia testa fa bum-bum.
Burdette, Rosel, Costanzo, DiDonato, Mayes, Pérez, von Stade.

So maybe it’s useful to point out a few ways in which Arden Scott does not resemble Joyce DiDonato. Joyce is too young for the part, for starters: so far as I can tell, her career hasn’t yet reached its precise peak, much less the downward slope that Arden hasn’t quite brought herself to contemplate. If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed since I first heard Joyce, it’s the certainty that she’s still got wonders up her sleeve, and that she’s only begun to dazzle us.

But perhaps this is an opera Joyce can carry forward with her, and it’s easy to see why she would want to. Arden certainly shares many of Joyce’s concerns, particularly her desire “to matter” — because it’s never been her ambition to sing prettily and go home. “I want to transform one life the way you transformed mine,” Arden tells Winnie, and that’s what Joyce has set out to do with every performance, every master class, every Facebook post, and every blog entry. It’s always about something and always aimed at somebody, whether it’s a fan or a young singer starting out, or anybody who has never heard a piece of music that she finds meaningful. “When I sing, I let the whole world know who I am,” Arden says. Bingo.

The music Jake has given her shows off his mastery of her sweet spots, her lyrical lines, her bel canto technique, a rainbow of her vocal colors, and an abundance of her warmth and humor. “This shit is hard,” but Joyce just keeps on singing, seemingly tireless. She’s onstage for most of three and a half hours, as aria follows scena follows another scena and an ensemble, with one mini-mad scene in Act I and a full-fledged bel canto mad scene in Act II, followed swiftly by that ghostly visitation. (Gena Rowlands in Opening Night had a firmer grip on reality than poor Arden does at times.)

After all the madness, it was the audience’s turn to go nuts, and rightly so. Together Joyce and Jake had given us a spectrum, a gamut, an Evening of Joyce, more Joyce than any other opera I’ve heard her sing, and what’s more, it seemed like (and nearly was) the Real Joyce, no matter what name her character takes. “She belongs to the world now,” and Great Scott shares her with us all, pretty much as we want her to be.

And yet “Art endures; voices do not,” McNally’s libretto insists. This first hearing of Great Scott did give us plenty of voices, voices at their admirable best. If Great Scott is to endure, there’s some tinkering yet to do, something that will put it within the reach of other voices. The words are the chief problem here. What we have right now is an entertainment. What we need is art — that matters. I can testify that every person involved in this opera has given us that before, and I’m certain they can give it to us again.

NOTE: After the performance, I told Jake I’m beginning to feel that he’s my alter-ego, writing for singers we both prize the music that I would write, if I possessed his gifts. And on an even more personal level, it was remarkable to find Jake and all these singers in the company where I first discovered opera. Who would have thought, when I started, that I’d wind up backstage, hugging so many people?

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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