Well, I finally found out what all the excitement was about. We actually had a plan to see this in London, but then travel kinda took a back seat to the pandemic. Honestly, I wasn't too sad that we missed it ... I didn't have high expectations, by which I mainly mean no matter how good it was, I doubted I would like it.
I take it back. Hamilton was much better than I expected. One problem is that most Broadway "rock" musicals are far more Broadway than they are Rock, and I thought Hamilton would be the same for rap. But in this case, it felt right. It took me awhile to get used to the rhythms of rapping dialogue, and in the end, I'm not sure this was "authentic" rap or hip hop, anymore than Hair was "authentic" rock. But for whatever reason, I ceased caring somewhere along the way. I can't say I remember any of the songs, although if I spent some time with the soundtrack, that problem would probably solve itself.
It was fun recognizing a few members of the cast, especially Oakland's own Daveed Diggs. I admit I didn't realize Aaron Burr was played by Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke from One Night in Miami), but he was good, too. But ultimately, it's Lin-Manuel Miranda who astonishes. He wrote the music, lyrics, and script for Hamilton, while playing the title role. The play won a Pulitzer Prize and 11 Tonys. Hell, the cast recording spent ten weeks atop the rap charts.
What we watched was a filmed version of the stage play, with the original cast. It was straightforward ... there was no attempt to "open up" the play, it was just a document of an actual performance. Miranda and director Thomas Kail had a few tricks up their sleeves ... they shot three different performances and edited them seamlessly into one. But this was a play as much as it was a film.
I never thought I'd say it, but Hamilton was a highlight of the year.
Quite a mix of things over the last few days, so I'm stuffing them all into one post.
Julius Caesar. We've enjoyed watching our friend Arthur over the years in various plays, but since he moved down south (more jobs!) we only get to see him when he gets a spot on a TV series. So it was fun to watch a production of Julius Caesar by the Evergreen Theatre Collective, which was shown live on Facebook, with Arthur as Marc Antony. The production was quite inventive in using the quarantine effectively, with the cast showing up on the mosaic screen we've all gotten used to in the Zoom-meets-COVID era. Caesar was cut to fit a running time of about 90 minutes, but continuity was always clear. Arthur kicked ass on Antony's famous orations ... as I said, he is the first person I know who played a role previously done by Brando. Caesar was played by an African-American woman, which gave a different spin, more because it was a woman than because she was black. We knew we would like seeing our friend, but the entire production was quite good. [edited to add YouTube video of performance]
Ivan the Terrible, Part II (Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1958). I had watched Part I ten years ago (Ivan the Terrible, Part I), which is to say, I didn't remember much of what happened in that earlier film. I read up a bit and then jumped into Part II. Eisenstein had planned a Part III, but it never happened. He finished Part II in 1946, but the Party didn't like it and it wasn't released. Eisenstein died in 1950, Stalin in 1953, and the film was finally released in 1958. Part II is magnificent to look at, and Prokofiev's score was great, but for me, everything was static. Eisenstein loved his close-ups and his montage, but in this case, I was unimpressed. #228 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
One section of the film is in color, and this dance vibrates with movement. (When you click on the video, you'll be asked to watch on YouTube.)
Creature Feature: The Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman, 1960). Has there ever been a more apt example of sublime-to-ridiculous? From Shakespeare and Eisenstein to Roger Corman. This is the original quickie that later spawned the musical. The making of the film has become legendary over time, and who knows what is true and what is exaggeration? The budget was $30,000, give or take a few grand. They shot it in 2 1/2 days, give or take a day. Corman saved money by making full use of Charles B. Griffith, who wrote the screenplay ... Griffith also appeared on screen in two different roles, did the voice for Audrey Jr., and managed to get his grandmother, his father, and other relatives in the picture. Jack Nicholson has a brief role as a pain-loving dental patient. Is it any good? For as cheap as it was to make, sure, it was good. It has become a cult classic, certainly worth a view if you've never seen it and have 72 minutes to spare. But I wouldn't go overboard.
This is the National Theatre Live production, which is a straightforward filmed version of the play in its final run. It's a hybrid, offered solely because Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and her creation, Fleabag, have become iconic. (To avoid confusion for those who are unfamiliar with it, "Fleabag" refers to both the play/show and to the main character.) Fleabag was originally a one-woman stage show. Waller-Bridge converted it into a TV series of 12 episodes over two seasons, winning acclaim and lots of awards. She has a lot on her plate, and had moved on from Fleabag, but she completed the circle by returning to the stage for a brief run of the one-woman show. This was filmed and shown on movie theater screens ... like I said, it's a hybrid, part play, part movie.
Fleabag doesn't necessarily benefit from being stuffed into a genre, so I should just let it go and not worry if it's a Film Fatale or even if it's a film at all. It's Fleabag, most closely attached to the first season of the TV series, which was an expansion of the original play.
I don't have much to add to my earlier reactions to Fleabag the series. About the most distinctive aspect of the series, I wrote, "Fleabag makes frequent use of breaking the fourth wall. It works wonderfully, in part because Waller-Bridge has such an expressive face that she conveys multitudes even when she doesn't say anything. We become her partners in crime, so to speak, connecting to the character in much deeper ways than is usual for a 'comedy'." Seeing the stage play (via movie theater ... OK, I'll quit), I see why Waller-Bridge might have opted for breaking the fourth wall, for on the stage, Fleabag speaks directly to the audience pretty much non-stop. Waller-Bridge turns that direct speech into confidential connections that aren't non-stop but usually surprising, even when you expect them. The intimacy of the series is lessened a bit in the play with its constant narration. But Fleabag is out in the open in the play ... there's nowhere to hide.
It's all bare bones. I list two directors above, but I'm not sure even that is accurate. Vicky Jones directed the play, Tony Grech-Smith did the camera for the broadcast. I'll cheat, call this a movie, point us in the direction of Jones, and call this a Film Fatale.
Should have thought to include this in the TT post:
The captions are a little blurry, so:
Upper left, "The withered old prole tells her story."
Upper right, "Julia flirts while Winston reads."
Middle left, "Winston and Julia are caught together."
Middle right, "Big Brother's 'Exiles'."
And in the group photo at the bottom, which is of the acting group from my senior year, you can see a few friends of the blog. That's Robin Smith in the front, second from right. In the back row, sitting next to each other (#5-6 from the left) are the future Dub Debrie, and Tina Sellars who was then Gooch. On Tina's left is Lynette Shaw, later a pioneer in legalizing marijuana and once the Libertarian candidate for Lt. Governor of California. I feel like this is not the full picture ... for one thing, I'm not in it.
Also, here's a picture of me getting made up for my role in 1984:
A few other mementos I can get to easily ... all from high school, there are no pictures as far as I know of me in junior-high plays. From Inherit the Wind ... that's me as the William Jennings Bryan character.
This is from My Three Angels, which was made into the movie We're No Angels on two occasions, 1955 when Aldo Ray played my character, and 1989, which I haven't seen but I think maybe Sean Penn played my part. In the picture, that's me in the middle.
[Edited to add this photo from Arsenic and Old Lace ... I played the Boris Karloff character, and am in the back, behind the guy who is in ropes.]
Once again, a cut-and-paste from an old post (comment, actually) where I described my final stage performance as an actor. I took drama from 7th through 12th grade. My first play was The Wizard of Oz ... I was 11 years old, and played The Scarecrow. Don't remember much about it, but I think I was already establishing myself as the guy who knew not only my own lines, but everyone else's. And in 7th grade, knowing your lines is all that can be asked of you. My last play was 1984, where I played the "hero", Winston Smith. It ran for three nights, the last of which was 49 years ago today, February 14, 1970. Here is what I wrote back in 2007:
The last play I was in was 1984, where I played Winston Smith. It was done in the round, so there were no blind spots where we could trick the audience, plus they were very close to us. Near the end, as I'm being tortured/reprogrammed, I say the wrong thing and I get smacked in the head for my mistake. During rehearsal, the guy would be standing in front of me, I'd see the fist coming, and I could time my flinch. I guess I was flinching too soon or something, because the director decided to have the guy be standing behind me when he smacked me, so the audience would think I didn't see it coming. We had some cue to let me know when it was coming, but it didn't matter ... my flinches were even more poorly timed because I was scared. So finally I told the guy I was willing to take one for the team ... and for the actual performances, he'd walk behind me, I'd say the wrong thing, he's smack me one ... and I wouldn't move an inch, because I preferred getting clubbed than flinching like a wussy in front of an audience.
Thankfully, we only did three performances.
Not sure what video I can use to liven things up for this post. How about this one?
I had to ask myself, when choosing category tags for this post, what exactly is Springsteen on Broadway? I threw my hands in the air and tried to be inclusive (Bruce Springsteen, Film, Music, Television, and Theater, although I could have also included Books). I should specifically note that I am not referring to the actual show Bruce performed in a theater on Broadway, a show that ran for more than a year. Nor am I referring specifically to the newly-released soundtrack of the show. I'm talking about the version that turned up on Netflix a few hours after the final show in the run had concluded. I mention all of this because there is plenty to say about how well the theater show translates to Netflix, but I'm here to talk about it as a video I watched, as a Bruce fan of close to 45 years. Nonetheless, from this point, when I say "The Show" I mean all of its variants, even though I personally am talking about the Netflix edition.
Springsteen on Broadway is an interesting amalgam of things long-time Bruce fans have enjoyed for a long time. For instance, Bruce does a lot of talking in this show ... there's 16 songs, but it runs for 2 1/2 hours, which is actually kind of short for a Bruce concert but when he plays for 3+ hours, he'll usually work in 30 or so songs. The soundtrack album demonstrates how it works ... it has 30 tracks, which include the songs and their introductions. "The Promised Land (Introduction)" lasts 11:34 ... "The Promised Land" itself lasts 4:01. Still, there is a familiar feel to it all for hard-core fans, who have been listening to Bruce tell his tales in concert since forever. (There is a website, "Storyteller", that offers 1,237 stories Bruce has told on stage, from a show in Union, New Jersey in May of 1971 to a June 2018 show from the Broadway run.) The music in the show is stripped down, just Bruce and his guitar, with an occasional piano or harmonica, and Patti Scialfa for two songs. This is also something we've seen before, most notably in his tours in support of The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust. Finally, if you've read his memoir, Born to Run, you have heard many of these stories specifically, since the show is based on that book.
Thus, despite the newness of the presentation (as the title says, Springsteen ON BROADWAY), ultimately there isn't a lot new here. And that's appropriate. For while Bruce was once famously called The Future of Rock and Roll, he has always been an artist who brings together the familiar shared moments from our past into the fired-up present. A show built around the story of Bruce's life and career necessarily looks at the past, as he has always done. But it also reevaluates that past in the context of the present, which he has also always done.
Something did strike me as odd, though. When he hit the scene, Bruce Springsteen was a refreshing departure from the emerging singer-songwriter genre of "I've seen fire and I've seen rain" navel gazing. He wrote about the boardwalk, Greasy Lake, Sandy and Rosie, Thunder Road and Jungleland. He created a world out of memorable characters and settings, and sure, he grew up on the Jersey Shore and you could imagine he was talking about himself in those songs, but the songs weren't about him, they were about the world he created. Jungleland was never a real place, after all. This tendency was so marked that it took him 8 albums before he finally recorded something that felt "personal" in the ways of singer-songwriters (Tunnel of Love). However, in Springsteen on Broadway, through his narrative introductions, Bruce ties his songs to his biography in a way that was only suggested at the time those songs reached an audience. The song selection forces this upon us. The first four songs are among the ones that most obviously connect to his biography ... not myth-making classics like "Rosalita" or "Jungleland", but "Growin' Up," "My Hometown," "My Father's House," and "The Wish," his paean to his mom and the Japanese guitar she got him for Xmas. After this setup, "Thunder Road," which follows, becomes less myth-making and more biography. Bruce constructs a singer-songwriter out of his work.
Even so, he turns this construction on its head, partly by admitting all of his work is a construction. As he says in the show's opening, "I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged just a little bit with fraud. So am I." And later, talking about an early cross-country road trip where he had to admit he had never driven before: "I don't have a clue as to how to drive. By that I mean, the man who very shortly would write 'Racing in the Street' (pause ... he's got great timing) ... that's how good I am." He made it all up.
And that's magic, the kind you won't find from singer-songwriters. Somehow, he took his personal experiences and created inclusive worlds that reached beyond his own self, making room for all of us to join him on the ride.
If you've read his memoir, you'll notice what is left out of the show. There is nothing about his years of therapy and depression. But the show coheres as a whole.
I don't know that any of the song performances here are definitive. If I want to hear "Thunder Road" again, I'll look elsewhere. In some ways, the stories are the best part, and I imagine those won't have the staying power of the songs, so I don't anticipate pulling out the audio version every two weeks. (The one possible keeper is "Brilliant Disguise", a classic song about love gone wrong and the deceit we use to try to keep it alive ... written for his "divorce" album, it takes on new meaning with Patti along for harmonies.) That's not quite right, though ... the stories combined with the songs are the best part, and stories+songs is what you get for 2 1/2 hours, which is more than all right.
I was reminded of 1980, when we saw him five times in a week. Every night, "Jungleland" would come near the end of the show, and every night, I'd rush down to the front of the stage and watch Bruce bellow out those last notes. And I'd wonder how he did it, how could he care so much each and every night? Because we all know Bruce Springsteen is "authentic". But after five nights with "Jungleland", I finally realized he was acting. And that was OK, too. You'll see this in Springsteen on Broadway, where he works with a script, telling the same exact stories the same exact way for more than a year, and you don't see the seams, because you are too caught up in the performance. That's how good he is.
The formatting is ugly, I know, but it was easy to do. In high school (1968 or 1969), we offered up the late-30s play The Man Who Came to Dinner. I found an old script lying around, and saw that we had replaced outdated names with more current ones. What follows is a list of the changes. First comes the change, then the original ... thus, we replaced “H.G. Wells” with “Lord Snowden”. The idea is that the audience of the time would recognize the replacements more than the originals, although I don’t know that Lord Snowden was better known to us than Wells. I’ve highlighted a few I find especially interesting. It’s also interesting that if a high school put on this play now, nearly 50 years after we did it, they’d have to replace the same things, and it’s likely not a single one of our changes would make sense.
Lord Snowden for H.G. Wells
Earl Warren for Felix Frankfurter
Melvin Belli for Samuel J. Liebowitz
Rosemary’s Baby for The Hound of the Baskervilles
CBS for Columbia Broadcasting
Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Truman Capote, Dr. DuBakley (?), and The Beatles on Telestar for Katherine Cornell, Schiaparelli, the Lunts, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Haile Selassie on short wave.
Ravi Shankar for Mahatma Ghandi
Pablo Casals for Arturo Toscanini
Stevens, Tibaldi, Merrill, and Tucker for Tibbett, Rethberg, Martinelli, and Flagstad.
Julie Harris for Ethel Barrymore
Desi Arnaz for Goldwyn
Sheila Graham for Louella Parsons
Kim Novak for Ginger Rogers
Arthur Godfrey for Oscar Wilde
Bishop Pike for Elsie Dinsmore
Sophia Loren for Lillian Russell
Shah of Iran for Khedive of Egypt
Jacques Cousteau for William Beebe
John Steinbeck, Ed Sullivan, Walter Cronkite, Lena Horne, and Werner von Braun for William Lyon Phelps, Billy Rose, Ethel Waters, and Somerset Maugham (I don’t get this one)
John Glenn for Admiral Richard E. Byrd
Walter Reuther for John L. Lewis
Jim Backus for Walt Disney
Charles de Gaulle for Anthony Eden
Twiggy for Beatrice Lillie
Barbara Stanwick, Fred Astaire, and Gypsy Rose Lee for Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert, and Aldous Huxley
Yesterday, we saw our friend Arthur Keng in Kimber Lee’s Tokyo Fish Story, a TheatreWorks production playing in Palo Alto until April 3.
The basic plot is fairly standard ... an older Sushi Master confronts the increasing influence of the modern world, while his not-so-young son tries to take what he has learned from his father and meet that world head-on. I don’t know that Lee is too concerned with the plot, which exists as something on which to hang the play’s themes of pride, family, and change. Those themes are also fairly standard, though, so the way the story is presented makes or breaks the play.
Happily, the production, directed by Kirsten Brandt, is continually unique and captivating. Wilson Chin is listed as Scenic Designer, so I’ll send my props his way. Virtually everything on the stage moves, and not in the usual way where people come out and rearrange furniture during blackouts. No, the largest structures are on wheels, and often seem to be pulled by unseen hands. The set is fairly simple at any one time, but it changes so rapidly, the effect is of many, many sets. The play takes place in a sushi restaurant, and most of what we see is the preparation areas of the kitchen. But occasionally, the sushi bar from the actual restaurant slides into view, giving us another room with little obvious movement. All of this is highlighted by movable walls, frames really, that come down from the ceiling and then are pulled up again, depending on the specific needs of a scene. Once again, this innovative use of space creates interesting illusions that allow the audience to fall into the spirit of the play. (Special mention needs to go to the fascinating way we see the Master biking to work ... he pedals a bike which is high in the air on a moving platform, coasting above and behind the other actors.)
Of course, we were there for the acting, specifically Arthur. We had a treat in store, for there are only five actors, but more than five parts. So Arthur played six different roles, which made for six times the fun for Robin and I. The various costumes helped differentiate those characters, but Arthur managed to quick-change not only his outfits but his presentation ... we were never confused. One of his six characters is a complete klutz who gets a job working in the kitchen, leading to several funny moments featuring pans and vegetables and everything else ending up on the floor. I’m guessing it’s quite rewarding to bring an audience to laughter thanks to your own inspired fumbling.
I can see Tokyo Fish Story as a film, maybe something for HBO or one of the streaming services. All of the actors, especially Francis Jue in the lead, would benefit from a judicious use of close-ups and medium shots to draw the viewer in. On the other hand, the live component was vital ... it’s not that the play is incomplete. It would be nice, though, if it got a wider audience at some point.
It’s really very fun to see someone you know in various plays ... not to mention the occasions when he turns up on TV, which has happened a couple of times. Looking forward to the next time he graces the Bay Area with his presence.
Last night, we attended the Berkeley Rep production of Macbeth. There are basically two things that get us to the theater: famous actors, and our friend Arthur, whose plays we try to attend whenever possible. The famous people this time were Frances McDormand and Conleth Hill (the latter, who lacks name recognition, is always described as “Varys from Game of Thrones”).
It was my first time seeing Macbeth on stage, so my comparison was to film versions, which is a bit unfair. I watched Polanski's Macbeth last week, and so was always thinking about the blood and gore that he placed on the screen, but which here was off-stage.
Whatever disadvantages created by the restrictions of a theater production next to a film version, this production was impressive. The set design provided a bigger scale that you might imagine, and while the use of photos and videos was hit or miss, it added a distinctive touch.
My wife and I are the worst star-chasers ... we attend every play at Berkeley Rep with famous actors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, Mandy Patinkin, Anna Devere Smith). In this case, we came because of McDormand and Hill, but Hill was so unlike Varys that it was easy to see him as just an actor, and McDormand has done so many different roles that it was also easy to see Lady Macbeth as just another of those roles (she also doubled as one of the witches). Which is to say, the stardom got us in the door, but the skill of the actors is what drew us into the play.
The acting overall was a bit inconsistent, but not enough to be a problem. I've always thought Shakespeare turns Lady Macbeth insane too quickly, but McDormand played her "damned spot" scene brilliantly. It was one of the only times a well-known piece was highlighted ... at other times, it almost seemed like a conscious decision had been made to swallow famous speeches into the norm, which if true is interesting but admittedly off-setting.
Among the actors was James Carpenter, a highly-regarded local favorite ... I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve seen him before, but if not, we’ve seen him three times now, as he played Duncan, the porter, and Lady Macbeth’s doctor. Each was distinct ... it didn’t feel like stunt casting, or even an inexpensive production saving a few bucks.
Frances McDormand was “better” than Francesca Annis in Polanski’s film, which is no knock on Annis or her performance. But, again, unfair as it might be, Polanski’s movie (which, as I wrote, was more “movie” than “Shakespeare play”) was still fresh in my mind, and since I am such a big fan of that movie, this stage version, which was indeed solid, didn’t quite displace my thoughts about the film.
Finally, I couldn’t help but reflect on the ways I’ve experienced Macbeth over the years. Polanski’s version came out about the time I became a film major, and given my lack of knowledge about Shakespeare, my sense of the play was a bit warped. (Another Macbeth I saw and loved was Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.) Twenty years later, I was an English graduate student taking a course taught by the noted Shakespeare scholar Janet Adelman. I was way out of my league ... the best I could offer in terms of my past connection to Shakespeare was to say I’d seen Forbidden Planet many times. Still, when I want to learn more about Macbeth, as often as not I turn to Adelman. Now, of course, I’m just an old fart with a blog.
One last anecdote, unconnected to Macbeth. One of the times we saw Arthur was in King Lear. The actor who played Lear did a good job ... his name was Jeffrey DeMunn, which meant nothing to us. Well, a few years later, we started seeing DeMunn once a week, for he had grabbed a regular part on The Walking Dead. Man, I hated his character, Dale ... not the actor, of course, although the better the actor, the more extreme our response might be. Anyway, Dale died near the end of Season Two, and I was very glad (it was actually one of the most emotional scenes ever in the show, which I might have missed because of my silly feelings about the Dale). The reason I bring it up here ties into my point above that we tend to see either plays with famous actors, or plays with Arthur Keng. It turned out King Lear combined both, but we didn’t know it at the time. In fact, we didn’t know it for a long time after that. It was only many years later, when Arthur pointed out that “Lear” and “Dale” were the same actor, that we understood the connection. DeMunn was so good in both roles, we never thought of them as the same guy.
We had the pleasure of attending a production of the Carly Mensch play Oblivion this weekend. It's a four-character family dramedy, where the first act is almost a sitcom but the end of Act One and most of Act Two supply the drama.
Two "cool" parents in their 40s struggle to connect with their teenage daughter. She is looking to organized religion to help explain her world, which drives her parents a bit nuts, particularly Mom (shades of The Americans). The performances are good, as is the play, although the somewhat happy ending was a disappointment after spending time with Nietzsche.
The main reason we were there was to see our friend Arthur Keng. We've been following his acting career for a long time, now ... there aren't many posts here with the "theater" tag, but they can be broken down into two categories: famous people come to Berkeley Rep, and Arthur. Since he went to SoCal, we don't get to see him as often, but he is guesting in Oblivion in Sacramento, so you know we had to be there. (It worked out perfectly ... I hope Arthur agrees ... after the matinee performance, we went over to Sara and Ray's house and went out for dinner, meaning Arthur got to meet the irrepressible Félix.)
Not only did we get a chance to see Arthur's latest role (he was quite good, with several monologues I'll get to in a second), bnt his character was a teenaged filmmaker who obsessed over ... Pauline Kael. Once in a while, he'd give one of those monologues, which amounted to him reciting letters he was writing to Pauline, thinking aloud and asking for her advice. A parallel is drawn between his connection to Kael and the daughter's attempt to communicate with God ... it's only a bit of a stretch to say both teens are up to the same thing. The daughter knows that Nietzsche said God was dead, and Arthur's character has a similarly deflating moment when he finds out Kael had died a long time ago.
The bios in the program draw our attention to Mensch's participation in Weeds, and I can see that, although as far as I can tell, she came on during the later, lesser seasons. Mostly, though, I mention the program because of something Robin noticed as we sat awaiting the start of the play.
She nudged me and pointed at Arthur's bio, which includes the following: "Arthur would like to dedicate this show to Steven, the biggest Kael fan around, and to Steven's amazing wife Robin. Their support has always, and will always, mean the world to him."
First time I wanted to cry before the play had even started.